Not long now, maybe only days. Afterwards there would be a new star in the Bajoran sky. It would shine only for a second, a bright flicker, a glittering diamond to catch the eye of a chance observer. Then Terok Nor would be gone forever.
We might as well leave now. There's not much use in waiting for the inevitable, he thought, but chastised himself immediately. Come now, that's exactly the kind of thinking that has brought us to the brink. But had it? Really? If he ignored the official line of reasoning spouted by politicians and the military alike, things hadn't looked too promising from the very beginning. Now they were losing the war. Looking at a tactical map of the Quadrant showed a spreading cancer that encroached on the Alliance's sphere of power, and with the accelerating loss of territory came the inevitable loss of morale. He couldn't remember seeing so many bleak faces on the station. He wondered when things had started to go so wrong for them.
Drawing a deep breath, he forced himself to give up on this line of thought. The road of 'what if' held an everlasting allure for him, but he had travelled it so often in the last years, there was nothing to gain by taking another trip down there. It wouldn't produce any new insights but would only leave him feeling miserable and depressed.
Concentrate on the present. Concentrate on our immediate plans, he told himself sternly when the doors to his security-office slid open and Major Kira strode in. She stopped in front of his desk and dropped into one of the visitors' chairs. "Garak, we've found yet another stowaway on the latest freighter from Ferenginar," she said and after a second's silence added, "seems to be someone from Earth." She frowned at him and continued, "I really don't understand these people. First they form an alliance with the Dominion and then they decide it was all a mistake and try to run away." She shook her head, sending her long red bangs flying, her face full of disdain.
Garak gave her a long glance, studying her features carefully. She looked about as tired as he felt himself. There were dark rings under her eyes, and while she had always been of slight built, there was a frailty to her now that worried him. Even the inner fire, the pure zest that had always been an essential part of her seemed subdued. The workload that rested on both their shoulders in preparing for the attack and their subsequent plans was clearly taking its toll on her, and the necessary secrecy didn't allow them to shift much of it to others. Most likely it was that tiredness that had spurred her into making such a comment.
He responded in a carefully neutral if maybe a bit condescending voice, "A little unfair, wouldn't you say Major? It's not as if the Federation's citizens had much of a say in the matter. It was the Federation Council that decided that appeasing the Dominion was the only viable option. It was also a decision that by now many Cardassians and Bajorans might secretly envy them for."
Kira's frown had deepened while he spoke. He winced inwardly. He knew that particular frown all too well. It was a sure sign for a lecture on its way or at least a scathing comment. He really hadn't meant to rile her this time, not on purpose, but even hinting at a similarity between Cardassians and Bajorans was always a sure way of doing exactly that. He should have learned that lesson eons ago. He worked with the woman for almost five years now, and just like his people and hers had become allies, unlikely bed-partners in oh so many ways, but allies nonetheless, the two of them had learned to get along. Nevertheless he tended to underestimate her almost reflexive protectiveness at even the slightest perceived insult or deprecating comment about her people.
Trying to forestall a tirade on her part he rose quickly, holding out his hands placatingly. "Major, why don't we take a look at that stowaway together?" Kira visibly swallowed the comment she had intended to make, then nodded and said, "I ordered security to take him to the Infirmary before I came here. The freighter he was on has suffered an attack by Jem'Hadar fighters on its way in and he was among those injured."
Together they left the office and walked along the Promenade towards the Infirmary. There were still a lot of people moving around them. Most of them belonged to the station's crew, with very few civilians among them who were either passing through or owned one of the few shops which led a meagre existence on Terok Nor. The first phase of the station's evacuation was imminent but hadn't started yet.
Garak was about to congratulate himself on avoiding one of Kira's lectures on the fundamental differences of Bajorans and Cardassians, when Kira picked up on his last comment. In a hushed voice meant to be heard by him alone, she said, "Just so you know, my people would never envy the Federation for giving in to the Dominion, whatever the cost for our resistance might be. We survived forty years of occupation by your people, we will most definitely survive whatever the Dominion might throw at us." She gave him a blatantly false smile, keeping up appearances, making sure to present a united front to the station's crew and residents, may they be Bajorans or Cardassians. Not surprisingly there were constant tensions between the two species on the station, which of course made it doubly important that the command crew at least weren't seen at each others' throats.
Garak sighed, then said in his best submissive voice, "Yes Major, of course Major," only to get a sharp elbow jabbed into his ribs. "And stop the patronising act," Kira hissed, now half in anger and half in honest amusement. They knew each other far too well, Garak thought. Old enemies who had become colleagues by necessity. It continually astonished him that they had found a way to work together on a personal level and that they were able to keep their people's recent and violent past out of their working relationship more often than not. When they reached the Infirmary he slowed marginally to let her enter first. She was after all Second in Command on Terok Nor.
The scene that greeted them inside was barely controlled chaos. Obviously many of the freighter's crew had been injured in that Jem'Hadar attack Kira had mentioned, and judging by the sheer volume of the moans and cries at least some of them badly. Of course the crew consisted almost entirely of Ferengi, and that species wasn't exactly famous for their stoicism in the face of physical pain.
What immediately drew both their attention was a group of medical and security personnel. They were arguing with someone in their midst who was hidden by the circle of staff. Kira barked a sharp command which caused the group to disperse immediately revealing the Human who obviously had been the focus of the group and who now turned to Kira and Garak with a pleading gesture. He wore clothes that had reached and passed the point of being shabby a long time ago. He was dirty, dark smudges decorated him from head to foot, and both his face and his hands showed cuts and bruises. "Please," he said to them, "I'm a doctor. Let me at least help with those patients who are more seriously injured." He spread his hands, gesturing towards some of the bio-beds.
"That's your stowaway, Major?" Garak asked leaning towards her, "Not too impressive I must say, a bit on the lanky side." He gave her a mocking grin. Kira reacted first with a scolding glance and then by studiously ignoring him. "Where's Doctor Jabara?" she asked. It was a Cardassian security-officer who answered. "She's on the Ferengi freighter, Major. They reported a critical burn case there and with the station's transporters down we couldn't beam the patient over here. She was treating him on board, making sure that he could be carried here as soon as possible when another containment breach on the freighter occurred and now the they are both trapped there. Apparently the section of the freighter they are in was sealed off to prevent any further leakage."
"And we have at least one Ferengi here who should be operated on immediately," the Human cut in, "and I am qualified to do so. I am, as I said, a doctor. Please, let me help," he said again. Kira looked at him thoughtfully. Garak knew that she was weighing the risks and potential merits involved in letting the Human treat the injured members of the freighter crew. At least until Doctor Jabara was able to return to the Infirmary, accepting the Human's offer for help might be the wisest choice and as long as he stayed in the Infirmary his opportunities to cause trouble were clearly limited.
Garak was about to offer his opinion to Kira, when suddenly a loud booming sound echoed through the station, making the deck below their feet shudder. In fact the shuddering and bucking was so violent that everyone at least stumbled. Many of the patients even fell from their bio-beds. One of the nurses slammed into a console she had been leaning over causing her to give a pained gasp. Medical supplies fell from shelves and the Infirmary rang with the noise of shattering glass. Afterwards there was a moment of almost complete and eerie silence, then the injured Ferengi continued their moans and cries, going for an even shriller pitch than before.
Kira tapped her com-badge. "Kira to Ops, what just happened?" she asked loudly, doing her best to be heard above the ruckus. "It's the Ferengi freighter, Major. There was a large explosion on it. It wrenched the freighter away from its docking port, and it tore a hole into our docking ring," someone in Ops replied. "Any losses?" Kira asked and the disembodied voice of the ops technician answered in a subdued tone. "I'm sorry Major, as far as we can determine we lost everyone on board, both the freighter's remaining crew and our own personnel. There's a slim chance that the residual radiation might mask some life-signs, but more likely everyone who was on board is dead."
Kira's shoulders slumped. She cast a look at Garak, a resigned expression on her face. She didn't have to say anything, he understood her perfectly without. Losing members of their crew now was one of the worst things that could happen to them, losing Doctor Jabara was even more disastrous. Right now they simply didn't have the means and the time to find suitable replacements for those they lost.
Kira asked the ops technician, "Do you know who's in charge down there?" This time the voice sounded much more lively, most probably because he knew he could give her good news. "Yes Major, Chief Trilar is," he replied and Kira said with relief in her voice, "Keep me informed if anything changes. I'll be in Ops shortly, oh and see if you can get a first status report from Trilar or anyone else down there. Kira out."
She turned her attention to their stowaway again. "What's your name?" she asked. "Julian Bashir," he replied "Doctor Julian Bashir." He took a step towards her, extended his right hand then seemed to think better of it, letting it drop again at his side. Kira had crossed her arms in front of her chest, her whole posture clearly indicating her reserve.
"Alright Doctor. See to your patients." Both her look and the tone of her voice showed her weariness. She added, "Just to be perfectly clear, should you do anything apart from caring for these patients you won't live to regret it. It would be in your own best interest not to forget this." The Human nodded. He turned and joined the medical staff who were still in the process of checking on those of their Ferengi patients that had found themselves been flung to the floor.
Kira looked at Garak. "I'll have to get to Ops. This accident will play havoc with our schedules. Just thinking about it gives me a headache." She sighed. "We'll need to talk about this later, see what alternatives we have." He nodded. "I'll head down to the docking ring. I'd like to take a look at the damage to our station," he told her, "please let Damar know that I will be late for our meeting." She sighed again. "I'll do that," she said and hurried out of the Infirmary.
Garak watched the Human for a moment. For all his scruffiness, he seemed to be competent enough when his medical expertise was called for. He interacted with the nurses and patients both resolutely and with confidence. Garak would've liked to continue his observations for a while. He found the Human interesting and the fact that he was a doctor made him even more so if for completely different reasons, but right now he had more pressing matters to attend to. He waved one of his security officers over, and said, "Keep an eye on him. When he's finished here, get him cleaned up and fed, then place him in one of our holding cells. I'll be at the docking ring."
When Garak and three of his security officers arrived at the scene of the accident he was surprised to see the sheer scale of destruction the explosion had caused. A complete section of the docking ring had been sealed off and engineers and technicians were frantically working to ensure that there wasn't any further loss in hull integrity. They did everything they could to make certain that the hole that now gaped in the docking ring wouldn't cause any interruptions in the power conduits.
He couldn't see Chief Trilar, so he waved to one of her staff. It was Trilar's Second, a young Bajoran man who came over to him. Garak asked him, "Is everything under control here?" The engineer replied, "So far, yes. We're doing our best to achieve the most important patching up now and to limit the repercussions only to this port. We are very lucky. Nothing truly essential was damaged. We just have a nasty hole in our docking ring and one port less for traffic as far as we can tell." He looked tired but relieved. "That sounds almost too optimistic for my liking," Garak said and grinned when the Bajoran gave him an indignant look. "Let's just hope you're right. Nonetheless it might be wise to recheck your evaluation."
He let the man return to his work and stepped to one of the docking ports closest to the sealed off section. He wanted to take a look at what was left of the freighter, and there it was right in front of him, adrift like a wounded beast. He could see trails of coolant fluids leaking from a large gash that went along the complete length of one side of the freighter. A small cloud of debris was spinning between the ship and the station. He couldn't see any bodies, although he knew that only meant that those were still inside the ship, trapped there to be retrieved by one of the salvage crews that were already preparing to get on board.
It took them almost an hour to get a complete picture of the extent of the damage to both the station and the freighter. The list of dead crew-members held a nasty surprise in itself and the percentage of supplies lost was far too big and caused more than one curse among those who were taking inventory. One of the technicians handed Garak a padd with a preliminary report and since there really wasn't anything for him to do down here, he decided to head to Ops to finally meet with Kira and Damar.
He called his officers together and said, "I want you to go over every detail of this accident. Be thorough, be very thorough. Although there is no initial evidence that this is anything but an accident, we should make absolutely sure that we haven't missed anything. As soon as its safe, get a team over to that freighter. I expect a full report as fast as possible and if you find anything out of the ordinary, anything at all, I want to be informed immediately. Is that clear?" His people nodded and he left them heading for Ops.
After Kira had left the Infirmary, she tapped her com-badge again, "Kira to Damar," she said. "Damar here," he answered almost immediately. "I will be late for our meeting and Garak even more so. The explosion...," he interrupted her, "Of course takes precedence, Major. Since I'm holed up in tons of requisitions and reports, I'll just be in my office until you drop by. Was there anything else, Major?" She replied, "No, that was all." "Very well then. Damar out."
Even for Damar that was short-clipped. She wondered what might have gotten him in such a bad mood. She didn't feel particularly offended, instead she wondered at the level of exhaustion that would cause a man like Damar to show his emotions so openly. She could practically see the accompanying face to his words, his lips pressed together to a small line, his eyes showing a constant frown that gave him a strangely sad look. It's time the waiting has an end. Otherwise someone might finally snap, she thought.
When she arrived in Ops it struck her for what must have been the millionth time how odd it was to see this obviously Cardassian Centre of Operations on a Cardassian space-station being manned now mostly by Bajorans, with only very few Cardassians among them. She still had trouble believing the chain of events that had lead to the end of the Cardassian occupation of Bajor and the handing-over of the Nor stations in its orbit. The changes in status between Bajor and Cardassia that had happened within a single year had been as dramatic as one could imagine. They also felt much like a cosmic joke played by the Prophets to test the belief of a wayward Vedek.
First there had been the Cardassians withdrawal from Bajor. That had taken everyone by surprise. Then the Cardassians had proposed a treaty of non-aggression and only a couple of months later Bajor and Cardassia were officially and formally allies. Of course all of this would never have happened if the Federation hadn't decided it would be in everybody's best interest and a jolly good idea to side with the Dominion. It had left all those who couldn't or wouldn't agree with that choice, to fight on their own or to band together in the hope of standing their ground against the Dominion. So the Expanded Alliance of Cardassia and Bajor alongside the Klingon and Romulan Empires had been formed.
The result was that she was now Second in Command on a formerly Cardassian space-station which held considerable strategic value for the whole Alliance. The crew consisted to three-fourths of Bajorans with only few Cardassians left, most notably Gul Damar and the Head of Security Garak. It had been sensible to keep some Cardassians to run the station. After all they had built it, but the fact that the Bajoran government had agreed to leave the command in Cardassian hands still rankled, even if Damar definitely wasn't the worst choice to be made. It was a purely political decision and Kira hated politics.
She moved down to the centre of Ops, acknowledging and returning the greetings of her colleagues who were busy handling the station's traffic and daily routines. She had expected the re-scheduling to be at least a small nightmare, but to her surprise it didn't take her long to ensure that all traffic schedules were properly dealt with and to make certain that any delays caused by the explosion were kept to the absolute minimum. To a great extent Terok Nor's function these days was to handle traffic. It was her job to guarantee that all the resources that were necessary to keep the war machine well oiled and running, reached their destinations as fast as possible. Apart from that they were one of the few ports in the sector where damaged ships could be easily repaired and refitted.
"Have you informed the Bajoran War Ministry about our recent mishap?" she asked the Ops technician who had been on duty when the explosion occurred. She looked at him, standing across from her on the other side of the central command table. He was a Bajoran, heavily built, somewhere in his forties and for the life of her she couldn't remember his name at the moment. He had come aboard only two days ago, but that was no excuse she berated herself. Nevertheless her mind refused to offer any name, so she only gave him a smile.
He returned it almost timidly, then with an apologetic shrug he said, "Not yet Major, I wanted to wait until we had a clearer picture how severe the consequences for station's operation would be." He straightened a bit. "Do you want me to call the Ministry now?" he asked. "No, it's alright. I'll take care of it," she answered, and had to hide a smile when she saw the relief on his face.
Being the bearer of bad news wasn't a desirable position to put yourself into. She could understand his reluctance. She established contact with the Ministry and was greeted by one of the ministry's secretaries. She didn't waste any time with pleasantries, but immediately got to the reason for her call. "A short while ago an explosion that occurred on a Ferengi freighter docked to our station caused considerable damage to our docking ring. We are re-scheduling all incoming and outgoing traffic to compensate. You should be aware that we won't be able to meet all requisitions without delays," she said.
The secretary's face turned into a grimace. For some unfathomable reason he seemed to consider her news a personal insult and replied in far too haughty a voice, "This is a most inopportune moment for something like that to happen, Major. I expect you are investigating this?" His demeanour clearly showed that given the opportunity he would be perfectly happy to lay the blame on her for this ill-timed event. She was about to give him a piece of her mind about this kind of behaviour, when Garak's voice coming from behind her beat her to it.
"Of course we are, Secretary. You can be certain that we will do everything to determine the exact cause of this accident. So far all evidence points to it being just that, an accident. However, if it was sabotage, I will find out who was responsible and whoever it was will pay. Of that you can be absolutely sure."
He had walked up to her and standing beside Kira he said with one of his most ingratiating smiles "Is there anything else you want us to look into, Secretary?" Giving Garak a sideward glance Kira had to bite her lip to keep from laughing out loud. He was giving the secretary one of those smiles that while being full of superficial servitude did nothing to hide the underlying menace. It clearly told everyone who saw it how much he despised having to talk to fools who just took up his valuable time. It didn't come as a surprise to her that the secretary who only moments ago had given every indication of being ready to launch into a lengthy speech about the exact untimeliness of the accident now only gave a curt nod. He said in a clipped voice, "I'll expect a full report as soon as possible." He unceremoniously ended the transmission without giving any of them the opportunity to acknowledge his request.
"How rude," Garak said, his face showing a perfect mask of polite displeasure. He looked at Kira, eyes wide in mock surprise. She snorted. "Thanks for cutting this short," she said, "come on, let's not keep Damar waiting longer than necessary."
Together they walked up to the station commander's office. After entering, Kira and Garak offered their greetings to Damar, then without waiting took up their usual seats in the back of his office. He left his desk and came over joining them at the small table. "Let's start with the freighter," he said.
Garak looked at Kira, head tilted to the side, seeking her permission to take up this part. She nodded and he shifted his attention to Damar. "As far as we can tell the explosion was caused by a plasma leak, which in itself was a result of the recent attack by Jem'Hadar fighters. Security is currently on board of the freighter to make certain that it was indeed an accident.
"We haven't ruled out sabotage, but it seems unlikely. Additionally there are engineers and technicians on board to restore as many of the freighter's systems as possible. Priority of course is the recovery of as much of the cargo as we can manage. Unfortunately it seems that we have lost all the spare parts we so desperately awaited to repair our transporter-systems." He paused briefly and looked at a data-padd he had brought with him. "At the time of the explosion, five members of our crew were aboard the freighter, among them were Doctor Jabara and Chief Engineer Trilar." He looked over at Kira.
She hadn't known that their Bajoran Chief of Engineering had been on the freighter. She felt a sudden pang of loss and briefly wondered why the Chief herself had been there, trying to seal off the leak. But it only fitted Trilar's way of dealing with such crises to be the one who tried to solve this herself. Kira knew her from their years in the resistance when it had been only the Cardassians they had to deal with and not the combined power of the Dominion and the Federation. Trilar had always preferred to be on the front lines. Now she was dead. Of course, she wasn't the first friend or colleague Kira had lost, either to the occupation or later to the war, but she had known Trilar for a very long time and the loss stung more deeply for that.
Kira hadn't listened to Garak as he continued and she had to forcibly drag her attention back to him to hear his last words, "...a provisional docking of the wrecked freighter should be arranged within two hours. We'll be able to unload the cargo then and retrieve the casualties." Damar's voice was thick with resignation and bitterness when he commented, "To lose both our Doctor and Chief of Engineering in a freak accident and all that on the eve of an imminent attack on Bajor. Either we deserve to go down in flames or your Prophets are showing a really poor taste in humour, Major."
Kira grimaced at that. She hated it when Damar brought up the Prophets. For a species that was so proud of having left any of their own so-called primitive, religious superstitions behind, he sure liked to refer to her beliefs whenever something bad happened. "They might still be a little bit incensed about you destroying the Celestial Temple," she snapped at him. "And if we hadn't collapsed the wormhole back then, this whole sector would be swarming with Dominion forces by now. Where would we be then, Major? Tell me that?" Damar snapped back, voice raised to a sharp bark.
This had been a matter of discontent between them from day one of their working together on the station. Like two old hounds of war they always returned to it, quarrelling and barking at each other, and as so often before it was Garak who attempted to diffuse the tension that had suddenly sprung up with a gentle cough. "Why don't we move on to our preparations for the attack and most importantly its aftermath?" he asked mildly.
He casually straightened out a couple of invisible wrinkles in his black tunic, affecting an air of nonchalance. Unlike the other remaining Cardassians he never wore a uniform, had always preferred black and dark-grey civilian suits. To Kira those had always been a perfect reflection to his more than murky past. But in a way they also were a signifier of his role of an intermediary between Damar and herself that he assumed every so often. They distanced him from the military of his people, the organisation that for every Bajoran conjured up the worst memories of the occupation and had established him as someone apart, a category of one.
Now he gave both Damar and Kira a disarming smile, then asked, "Do we have any new information that helps us to better pinpoint the time of the attack?" Damar shook his head, saying, "No, we don't. It's obvious that there's a fleet of both Dominion and Federation ships gathering, but so far our Intelligence hasn't been able to do more than make educated guesses as to their timeline." He gave Garak a wry smile. "Of course. With your good connections to the Order this can't be news to you, I'm sure." Garak shook his head, a rueful gesture. His gaze shifted between Damar and Kira. "After five years away from Cardassia my connections are far less good than you might expect them to be. It worries me that we are manoeuvring in the dark like that."
Kira said, "We may not know when they will make their move, but we do know that their prime objective will be Bajor and the Nor stations. The decision to destroy the stations as a last resort still stands?" she asked, looking at Damar. He answered with a slight nod, "Yes, here our governments are in perfect agreement at least." He smiled at the inherent joke, even if it was a bitter one. "As much as the loss will hurt, we can't allow them to fall into enemies hands. Klingon, Romulan and Cardassian fleet-contingents stand by to jump in at a moment's notice. There's still a chance that we will manage to make a stand and prevent the fall of Bajor and maybe even the stations. As you said their destruction is only a last resort. Do you know if Chief Trilar finished our station's rigging to detonate our reactors, Major?"
"Yes she did. She finished it this morning. I guess the arrival of the Ferengi freighter prevented her from reporting to you. I heard of it more or less by coincidence when we met at the freighter's docking port," Kira answered. Damar sighed in relief, then said, "I still hope that we'll be able to fend them off, but it's good to know that our contingency plans are in place." He paused for a moment, then continued, "speaking of which..." he trailed off, glancing first at Kira then at Garak.
Now Garak answered again, "Ours is mostly in place. We have a cloaked Romulan Interceptor at our disposal. The moment you give the evacuation order, we're on our way. So far we have managed to keep our special transport a secret. The only people who know of its existence are those who will be joining us. The problem is that with the losses of Trilar and Jabara we're short of an engineer and a doctor. Although we might have an alternative for the latter at least." Kira gave a derisive snort. "You're not talking about that Human stowaway, are you?" she said, disbelief clear in her voice. "You're much more barmy than I already believed, Garak. Or is this another manifestation of your obsession with picking up strays?"
He tutted at her. "Really Major, give me some justice here. I don't propose we take that Human with us just at face value." His features displayed a mixture of indignation and annoyance. "And how do you plan to clear that stowaway on such short notice?" Damar asked.
"Oh I'm sure between the major and myself we are more than capable of ascertaining his usefulness and - forgive me for using such a ridiculous word - harmlessness. And if we are not satisfied we can always shove him out of the nearest airlock." Garak said jovially.
Damar sighed, turning to Kira he said, "I trust Major, that you keep him in check." He jerked his head in Garak's direction as if it wasn't perfectly clear to all of them that he was speaking of their Head of Security. Almost against her will Kira responded to his mockery in kind. "Don't worry, I can handle him." She gave Garak a stern look who returned her gaze with a self-satisfied smirk.
And again he has got Damar and myself out of each other's hair and even managed to draw me into their verbal fencing, Kira thought. There was a time when I would have been disgusted of myself, sitting here having a civilised conversation with two Cardassians, two killers, of all people, but that was the past and it was a far simpler time. Another thought crossed her mind. I was far simpler too. She barely stopped herself from a rueful chuckle. She looked at Damar and Garak. These two most certainly wouldn't understand the joke.
It took them almost an hour to finish their meeting's agenda, but finally they came to a close. Damar got up and raising his hands behind his head and stretching his back languidly, he said, "Garak, why don't you check back with Security and make sure there are no new developments in the investigation of the explosion? There are a couple of things I'd like to discuss with the Major." Garak's face turned a perfect blank at that. He stood up and with a wordless nod to Damar and bow to Kira he left the office.
"Just two observations, Damar," Kira said. "One: you need to put on a bit more weight. Those bulky uniforms of yours hide a lot, but if you're not careful I might start to confuse you with an occupation-starved Bajoran." At that she gave him an exaggerated up-and-down look, grinning slightly. "Two: do you really have to make my life even more difficult than it already is by treating him like you and I have secrets he is not privy to? In contrast to you, I'll have to work with Garak for a considerable time yet."
Damar made an impatient hand gesture. "None of us has gone through the last years unchanged." He waved in the direction of his office's doors through which Garak had just vanished. "We have all become shadows of our former selves, even him, especially after that injury he suffered last year. As to your second observation, I couldn't care less, Kira."
He sat down again, looking pensive. "I might regret saying this. It should be absolutely unacceptable to confide in a member of an inherently inferior species like the Bajorans obviously are, but I hope for your own sake that your assertion that you can handle him, wasn't empty words. So far he has been held in check by the two of us and the rules and regulations his rank and position have put upon him. The moment you leave on that Romulan ship that will change. Be careful, Kira."
Instead of giving the flip remark that almost reflexively came to her, she went for a simple and sober nod. She stood and replied "Of course taking the warning of a member of a species that has time and again proven to be both utterly deceitful and just cold-hearted bastards is absolutely out of the question. Apart from that I understand and appreciate your concern and warning, Gul Damar."
She even went so far as to give him one of those courteous Cardassian bows and if their circumstances hadn't been so serious she might have found it amusing how he instantly relaxed at the sight. As if acknowledging and adopting his cultural code meant that she truly understood him and was on his side. "Very well, Major," Damar said, "then by all means, don't let me keep you."
Leaving Damar's office Kira joined Garak at the central command table. "Any news on the explosion?" she asked. "Nothing, Major," he replied, then continued "that was quick. He didn't have too much to say to you after all?" Kira chose to ignore the question. Instead she said. "Come on, let's see if that Human is ready for interrogation. No use in putting that off."
When they entered the security office one of Garak's officers, Lieutenant Nalas Prym, was already waiting for them. "I placed him in one of our holding cells about an hour ago," the Bajoran woman said, "and I just checked back with the Infirmary. According to the staff the Ferengi he operated on will most likely make it."
Garak nodded at the information, then said, "Thank you Prym, that will be all for now." Kira new it was a mistake to comment, but she simply couldn't resist. "You're on a first name basis with your Bajoran subordinates? Some of them, at least?" Her voice clearly conveyed her incredulity. Garak for his part just gave her one of his most innocent smiles. "Aren't you?" he said, then deflected any further questions Kira might have wanted to ask by pointing to one of the security monitors on the office's walls.
"Now Major, look at this perfect picture of innocence, remarkable wouldn't you say?" The monitor showed the holding-cell Bashir had been placed in. The Human seemed to be asleep. Someone had given him the opportunity to clean himself and the same someone, most probably Prym, Kira thought, had been kind enough to give him clean clothes. He looked about ten years younger now than he had before and as Garak had said far too innocent. Lying on his side he had slung his arms around himself. With his knees slightly pulled up he gave a strange display of both ease and vulnerability. Someone had also used a dermal regenerator on him and had taken care of his cuts and bruises, which even heightened that impression.
"So," Kira said, "we're putting him through the mirror-routine?" Garak answered "Seems reasonable." Then he asked, "I expect you want me to rattle his cage a bit, before you join in the fun?" "If you wouldn't mind," Kira answered dryly. He rolled his eyes. "Just some time I wish you wouldn't always typecast me in the role of the villain, Major."
Kira snorted and replied, "Oh come now, whom do you think you can fool with that kind of remark? You're thriving on this. It's entertainment for you." She made sure to keep her voice teasing, so it didn't sound too much like an insult. Sometimes he could be surprisingly touchy about certain subjects and this was most definitely one of them. In response Garak just gave her another roll of his eyes and went over to the doors that led to the holding-cell area. Drawing a deep breath he looked over his shoulder, gave her a wink and vanished through the opening doors.
Bashir hadn't meant to fall asleep. It was the combination of being awake for far too long, the emotional turmoil of being caught in one of the half destroyed cargo-bays of the Ferengi freighter, the rush of being hauled away to the Infirmary and his subsequent work there, that had caused him to doze off.
Subconsciously he must have heard some noise that woke him slowly, but his mind reacted only sluggishly. It was the feel of rough hands gripping one of his arms and his neck, and pulling him upward from the cot he had lain on that sent adrenaline rushing through his body, making his muscles tense. He realized that it was the Cardassian he had first seen with the small Bajoran woman in the Infirmary that was now pulling him to his feet.
He drew a shaky breath. He wanted to tell the man that this kind of treatment really wasn't necessary when a sharp blow across his mouth stopped him before he even had the chance to utter a single word. It hurt and he tasted copper and realized he had bitten down on his own tongue. He felt slightly dizzy from the sudden upward-motion and found himself swung around and pressed face first against a wall. His hands that he had instinctively brought between himself and that wall were roughly pulled behind his back and cuffed.
He wondered what he might have done wrong. Had the Ferengi he had treated died? What else could be the cause for this? He felt a rising panic. Were they going to kill him, even if he had been useful to them in treating the injured? His heart beat way too fast and he had to swallow repeatedly against a sudden urge to throw up. The light meal he had been given a short time ago now lay in his stomach like lead.
A very tiny part of his mind, the part that could look at the current situation with professional detachment, told him that he reacted perfectly normal. He showed all the standard physical reactions to this sudden threat on top of the stress caused by his long escape. Of course the much larger part of his mind that right now dominated his thoughts told him to get ready to fight or flee, leaving him with weak knees and gasping for air.
His hands now immobilized he found himself swung around again. "Normally I have voles like you for breakfast," the Cardassian said. His right hand closed around Bashir's throat, the threat clear. Bashir found himself looking into a pair of ice-cold blue eyes that stared at him. "But the major has forbidden me that pleasure. At least for now." The accompanying smile that appeared on the Cardassian's face sent shivers down Bashir's spine. He felt paralyzed and he desperately hoped that major was around somewhere.
As if on cue the doors that led to the outer office slid open and the Bajoran woman that had been present at his capture joined them. "Garak," she said angrily, "didn't I tell you, you should wait for the interrogation until my arrival?" She gave Bashir a glance that seemed to be both annoyed and apologetic. "Oh very well then, have you asked him why he's here?" And Bashir decided now would be the perfect time to start explaining. The fact that Garak seemed to think the same, and expressed it by tightening the grip of his hand around Bashir's throat was an additional and powerful incentive.
"As I said, my name is Julian Bashir. I've served as a doctor in Starfleet. Now I'm on the run," he gushed out. The Bajoran eyed him speculatively, then she said, "I'm Major Kira and the friendly Cardassian clinging to your neck is our Head of Security, Garak." She paused for a moment, as if waiting for Garak to say something, but the Cardassian contained himself to the clinging and a menacing smile. After a glance at him, she gave a slight shrug. "Why are you on the run? Have you woken up one morning and spontaneously developed a spine? Or have you suddenly discovered a conscience?" she asked.
Bashir inadvertently flinched at her words, then he answered, "The Dominion is developing a series of artificial nano-viruses keyed to only affect certain species - like for example -Cardassians." He shot a nervous glance at Garak. "I was forced to join their research-team. It wasn't easy, but I managed to escape." Before he could say anything else, he found himself suddenly pressed to the wall again. Garak's hand was once again tightening around his throat, making it hard to breathe.
He could feel the Cardassian's body pressing against him, crowding him. With horror he realized that his own treacherous body reacted to this renewed threat in the worst way possible. Not only was his heart hammering, beating in his throat, not only were his muscles tense and shaking at the same time - no, now he was getting a hard-on. Again a tiny detached voice reminded him that such a reaction wasn't uncommon in this type of situation. Still, he felt heat spreading all over his body as he flushed in humiliation. What would he give for something, anything to happen just now to end this. He was so utterly mortified. Fleetingly he hoped that Garak wouldn't notice his predicament, but as tightly as he pressed up against him, there really was no chance for him not to notice.
Bashir closed his eyes for a second, but opened them with a shocked gasp when he felt Garak shift against him. He saw the sly smile on the Cardassian's face. Bastard, Bashir thought. Garak for his part leaned forward, bringing his mouth close to Bashir's ear. "Exciting, isn't it?" he whispered mockingly. Abruptly he took a step backward, then grabbed Bashir by the throat again. "Nano-viruses, eh? A cowards choice, just what one might expect from the Federation," he hissed. He tightened his grip until Bashir's gasps for air turned into feeble wheezes. Bashir had started to feel light-headed some time ago. Now his view dimmed. With rising panic he tried to struggle free, which only resulted in a tighter grasp and even less air in his straining lungs.
Just then Major Kira snapped, "That's enough Garak. Let him go!" Suddenly he could breathe again and did so in large gulps. "Give me one good reason why we should believe you," the Major said. "I have the research data with me, at least a part of it," Bashir answered hurriedly. "I hid it in the freighter's cargo bay. Please, I'm telling you the truth. Discovering that they are planning to use biological warfare was just the last straw for me. It's not as if everyone in the Federation or Starfleet is content with the way things went with the Dominion."
He risked a glance at Garak who had stepped back further, his arms crossed in front of his chest, and had half-turned to Major Kira. The two exchanged a long glance, then Garak told him in a deceptively mild voice, "Please get back into the cell Doctor and I advise you to sit down. You look like you might need it."
For a moment Bashir looked back and forth between the two of them, confused by the abrupt change in demeanour. Then he turned and stepped back inside the holding cell and watched as Garak switched on the cell's force-field. It would have been great if he had freed Bashir of the hand-cuffs, but his sudden good-will didn't seem to include that option and Bashir didn't dare to ask for it. He was just glad to be granted a respite, even if it might only be a brief one.
He found himself alone again and sat down awkwardly on the cot of his cell. Drawing deep breaths he tried his best to calm down, to get himself under control again. He swallowed a couple of times in an attempt to ease at least some of the pain in his throat.
Now that he was able to think clearly for the first time since being so rudely awakened by Garak, it was pretty obvious to him that they had played him. The suspicion had crept up on him earlier, but the constant pressure they had put on him during the interrogation had made it impossible to act upon that feeling. Now that he thought about it, the knowledge wouldn't have helped him in any case. Calling their bluff, if indeed it had been one, most likely would have caused him only more trouble.
He had heard stories about atrocities done to Federation prisoners. Even if some of them were only propaganda he wasn't too keen to find out the extent of truth and fiction. On top of that he was very aware of the fact that it had been exceptionally bad timing to turn up on Bajor's doorstep when everyone expected an attack on the planet, even if he hadn't had a real choice in the matter.
He had almost been caught when he had stolen the research-data and that had left him with no other option than to run immediately. The Jem'Hadar attack on the freighter he had chosen as his means of getting out of Federation space had put a premature end to his escape. He could only hope that Major Kira and her Head of Security believed his story.
He thought about his two interrogators. His impressions of the major had remained mostly superficial. He had noticed her slight build and the rust coloured uniform of course. Apart from the mere physical appearance she had struck him as a no-nonsense person, if a bit whimsical, although he couldn't pinpoint what had given him that notion.
The Cardassian was another matter entirely. As a doctor the first thing that had captured his attention had been the scarring of course. In this day and age seeing something like that was rare. He hadn't been given much time to think about it however, because the next thing he remembered far too clearly was feeling the Cardassian pressing him against a wall. For a split-second he had been surprised to notice that the man was indeed an inch or two shorter than he himself. He had felt hard muscles before his awareness had been completely captured by those ice-cold blue eyes that obviously belonged to a psychopath and a hand that had dug hard into his throat. Of one thing he was absolutely sure. Both of them were unquestionably dangerous and not to be messed with.
He looked up when he heard the doors of the holding-cell area opening with a slight hiss. It was Garak returning alone. He came to stand in front of Bashir's cell. "This is what we're going to do," he said. "First we're going to pay a visit to that freighter's cargo bay. You will retrieve the data you've hidden there and hand it over. If, and only if that proves genuine and useful you might have a future to consider. Do you understand?" Bashir nodded and got up. Yes, he understood perfectly.
Retrieving the data crystal and handing it over had taken them less than an hour. There had been a moment of near panic on his part when he had thought that the data-crystal might have been destroyed in the explosion. Initially he had hid it, so he might be able to use it as a bargaining chip in case of him being captured. For a couple of minutes he had fervently berated himself for the idea, but after a bout of frantic searching he had found it at last. Now he was back in the cell, and his hands had been freed before he was left alone again. Although he still felt tired to the bones he had been too afraid to try to sleep again at first, but in the end his exhaustion had gotten the better of him.
He couldn't tell how long he had slept, but this time the hand that shook him awake was far gentler even if it was again Garak. The Cardassian looked at him with an amused expression. "I hadn't expected you to fall asleep again. I'm not sure if I should be disappointed or impressed," he said with a wry smile. He waited until Bashir had pulled himself up, then sat down on the cot beside him.
For a long time Garak just sat there, wordlessly scrutinizing him and it took Bashir all his self-control not to fidget or start to babble just to fill the silence, but he managed to hold still - barely. Finally Garak said, "You are a very lucky young man. Not only does it seem that the data you've given us is good, but you've arrived at a time when we are in need of a doctor." He paused as if waiting for a comment, but Bashir wasn't going to make one.
Garak continued, "This is the deal. You will work in the Infirmary. When you're not needed there, you will enjoy my hospitality by staying in this cell and before you ask, no this is not negotiable. I don't trust you, and I want to know where you are at all times. In return we're offering you a chance for sanctuary." Now Bashir asked dryly, "And there isn't really an alternative, right?" Garak smiled and answered, "How perceptive of you. You're quite right of course."
Almost a week passed by in which Bashir settled into a certain routine. The days he spent in the Infirmary, taking care of the Ferengi that hadn't been able to leave yet. He learned about the evacuation plans and the possible self-destruction of the station and even helped in transferring medical supplies to the handful of transport vessels that were assigned to evacuate the station's personnel. Curiously there were supplies missing from the Infirmary that he couldn't find on any of these transports' shipping manifests.
He asked one of the Bajoran nurses, a sweet woman by the name of Dassi Ridana. She had been the most friendly among the staff and so he had come to rely on her whenever he needed information, help, or was looking for some simple company during a lull in the day. At his question about the missing supplies however, she gave him a strange look, then said, "Forget about them. They are none of your concern." Her voice had been unusually sharp and he had spontaneously decided he could live without the knowledge.
At the end of his work-shifts officer Nalas escorted him to his cell where he spent the rest of the day and the night. Garak always showed up late in the day and his 'visits' always followed the same pattern. He strolled into the holding-cell area, amiably inquiring about Bashir's wellbeing, and then questioned him about some details of the research-data Bashir had handed over or his own person. These visits always were such a strange mixture of intense curiosity and affability paired with deep suspicion and more or less subtle threats that they always left Bashir's mind reeling. He found Garak's mercurial behaviour towards him both fascinating and unnerving. He also felt challenged to respond in kind, to join in the verbal sparring and to make certain to score a hit for himself every now and then. Of course he knew he was playing a rather dangerous game there, one that was undoubtedly most unwise in his current circumstances, but in a way that made it only more alluring. He had never been one for wise decisions.
It was on the fifth day and after his work shift in the Infirmary and his return to his holding-cell that his routine was disrupted. He was surprised to see Garak entering the cell area with a small box in hand. "And how was your day, Doctor?" he asked pleasantly while he switched off the force-field to Bashir's cell. "Oh splendid," Bashir replied sarcastically. "I'm glad to hear it. May I come in?" Garak now asked, politeness personified, and Bashir couldn't help chuckling. "By all means," he answered, "my home is your home. I hope you don't mind the cramped accommodations though. My keeper tells me that what it lacks in space it makes up for in cosiness."
He was curious to see what the Cardassian had in mind now. He was again surprised when Garak sat down on his cot and started setting up a game-board. To Bashir it looked rather strange, with lots of small pieces on a rectangular board with sloping inverted sides. He had never seen something even remotely similar. "What kind of game is it?" he asked. Garak looked up from the board and replied, "It's called Kotra. It's a Cardassian game of strategy and conquest. I thought you might be a trifle bored and decided this would be a good way to complement the other purpose of my visit."
"That's very considerate of you. And what other purpose might that be?" Bashir asked. "Why Doctor, to hear more about you of course. To finally determine if you are indeed to use one of your quaint Human phrases 'the true article' or if it would do better to push you out of the nearest airlock as a spy. It might interest you that that was my first instinct upon seeing you." Garak accompanied his words with another brilliant smile. Still a bastard, Bashir thought, but wisely kept the comment to himself.
True to his words Garak set out grilling Bashir about almost every aspect of his life, his career, and his motivation for coming to Terok Nor. He did so in detail and, at crucial points, repeatedly. It was when Garak asked him for the third time, "So Doctor, why don't you tell me exactly what drove you to steal this data?" that Bashir couldn't bite back a groan. He answered, "Oh please, just which interrogation technique is that. Driving your prisoner nuts by repeating the same question over and over?" and course all that question accomplished was that it earned him a delighted smile by his jailer who gave him another scrutinizing look, head tipped to the side and a silent encouraging nod until Bashir gave up and started telling that story - again.
At the same time and to Bashir's considerable chagrin, Garak had obviously far too much fun in sweeping Bashir's game-pieces off the board. He won the first three rounds of the game with cheerful ease, even though Bashir thought that he was getting marginally better from match to match. It was quite late when he determined that he really had enough of this, and instead of answering another of Garak's questions decided it was time to turn the tables if possible.
He said, "You should allow me to look at that. I can see that it's bothering you and I'm certainly able to do something about it." He gestured at the angry looking scar that serrated Garak's right neckridge. When the Cardassian didn't react, he continued by asking, "What caused it and when? It must have been some kind of large blade." He fell silent. Garak continued to look at him wordlessly and unblinking. He had been in the process of decimating one of Bashir's defensive flanks. His hand hovered over the game-board now, clearly forgotten for the moment. As if coming out of a trance he shook himself and Bashir could have sworn he heard a soft hiss. "It was a Bat'leth," Garak said at last, causing Bashir to frown in confusion. "But the Cardassians and the Klingons are allies," he said. Garak grimaced, then replied, "It was a matter of friendly fire, or more precisely of a friendly blade, Doctor. It happened a year ago and unfortunately it took too long until the wound could be treated properly," he paused for a moment, then added, "and I can't imagine that you might know of a treatment Doctor Jabara wouldn't have been aware of."
Bashir smiled. "There's only one way to find out. Come and see me in the Infirmary," he said. Again Garak gave him an intense stare, as if he was trying to solve a puzzle. Then he said, "It's rather late, Doctor. I believe we should call this last match a draw." Before Bashir could protest he had hastily packed up his game-board. "Good night, Doctor," he said and after re-initiating the cell's force-field he almost fled the holding area, leaving a baffled Bashir behind.
I wonder what brought this on? Bashir thought. He hadn't expected to hit a nerve. Now if he could only figure out what it had been that had set the Cardassian on edge, he could avoid it in the future or try to use it to his own advantage. Today the reality of being the only Human on this station, possibly the whole sector, and being cut off from his people by his own actions had hit him and hit him hard. He couldn't afford the luxury of being picky in his dealings with the people here. If he wanted to survive, he had to look for any angle that might help him. He only hoped he was up to the task.
Bashir's offer had taken Garak completely by surprise and he hadn't liked that, hadn't liked that at all. He had fled the cell area that night and the next day left him with no time to think about it. Finally there were reports of fleet-movements that indicated that their time of waiting was coming to an end at last. Intelligence reports of both the Tal'Shiar and the Obsidian Order clearly stated that the attack on Bajor would come in the next fifty-two hours.
He was having breakfast with Kira, when she broached the subject of their special evacuation arrangements. "What about your pet-project?" Kira asked with some amusement. "Pet-project, Major?" he asked back. "That Human doctor of yours, Garak," she said grinning. "Will he join us when we leave?" Garak sighed. "He's definitely not my pet-project and I'm still undecided," he answered. "Well, time's running out. You should make up your mind. The last of our non-essential personnel leave today. It would be easiest to stuff him in with that lot if you believe he isn't worth the risk." She scrutinized him expectantly.
For a while he looked down at his plate not really seeing what was in front of him. From an objective standpoint he wasn't able to make an informed decision. There were simply too many unknown or unverifiable variables in the equation that made up this Human. He would have to trust his gut-feeling and otherwise just stay cautious. Looking up at Kira he said, "We're going to take him with us." Kira's eyebrows shot up. "You're sure? she asked.
"Major, please. I'm as sure as I can be considering the circumstances." Garak answered with a resigned shrug. "And that has always been good enough for me," she answered conciliatorily, then added, "Are you going to tell him?" He shook his head. "No, he'll find out soon enough. I will inform Prym though. She'll make certain he finds his way on board should I not be around to do so." Which was of course a nice euphemism for saying that there was an alternative plan should he get killed before they were able to leave Terok Nor.
Kira nodded, then said, "Good idea. Without Trilar, it'll be necessary to rely far more on her than we had originally planned. She isn't an engineer, but at least she has a technical background that should come in handy." She cocked her head, then continued, "Ah, but I forgot. That should be old news to you, given how close the two of you are."
Garak allowed only the slightest smile to show on his face and replied lightly, "Jealous, Major?" "In your dreams," she replied dryly, and before he could respond she changed the subject. "Bring Nalas up to speed on our special transport, will you?" She rose. "I'll have to get back to the madhouse formerly known as Ops. It seems like everyone in the Alliance has decided to do just one last run of shipments via our station before the Dominion and their Fed-Lackeys decide to drop by. It's a small wonder that we haven't had any collisions so far with all the traffic coming and going."
Garak's smile grew wider. "Maybe you need a collision, Major. It would certainly thin out the crush. I could help, if you let me... ." He didn't finish the sentence. He didn't have to. Kira's response came immediately as she shook her head emphatically. "You're mad, you know that?" and in accordance to their long-time ritual he replied, "So you tell me daily, Major."
He got up too and said with a small bow of his head. "I'm off to see that the last nonessential-personnel you mentioned is safely shoved into their transport, so if you should get bored of your madhouse, feel free to visit mine." Kira shook her head again. "I might actually take you up on that offer," she replied and left him, heading for the nearest turbo-lift.
He cast a look around. The replimat that normally would have bustled with life at this time of station-day was almost deserted. As he left he could even hear the soft echo of his steps in the silence around him. It was a sound of foreboding, a sound he'd never heard on the station before unless it was in the middle of the station's night. It spoke of loss and loneliness. He shivered.
Prym's voice and the welcome warmth in it interrupted his morbid thoughts. "Come on, it's not that cold," she said lightly as she came up behind him and fell into step. He gave her a sidelong look and replied, "Just because you Bajorans enjoy living in a freezer doesn't mean that other species must follow that example, Prym, and good morning to you too by the way."
It was their usual banter and it did a lot to lighten his mood again until they reached the airlock of the transport that should be boarded today. Two of his people were already there and involved in a heated argument with a Bajoran woman who stood between two others who held her by the arms, obviously trying to prevent her from leaving.
"Is there a problem?" Garak asked as he and Prym joined the group. The Bajoran woman gave him a baleful look and replied, "You can't force me to leave. You can't! My husband is staying and I will too." He was about to give her the cutting remark such an obtuse statement deserved when he felt Prym's hand at his wrist. For a second he considered ignoring her, these inane Bajorans really drove him to the brink sometimes. But what would be the use? So he told the woman calmly "Why don't you discuss this with Officer Nalas here while we continue with the boarding?" He made a gesture to the side and Prym managed to pull the woman out of the way without much resistance.
Garak turned to the rest of the group of Bajoran and Cardassian personnel that had already gathered for the boarding. "Proceed," he said and motioned to his officers to get on with their task of checking ID's and making sure that everyone who should leave, would actually leave. It took them almost two hours. They had to virtually drag two other stragglers through the airlock, but in the end everyone - even the woman that had been so adamant in her refusal - was on board.
"Join me in my office," he told Prym as they headed back to the Promenade, "I think it's time you learn of our plans after the coming battle." Her eyebrows shot up at that. "And what makes me deserve that honour?" she asked. "Trilar's death," he replied flatly. Unsurprisingly the rest of their walk went by in silence.
Late in the afternoon he found himself in front of the Infirmary. He couldn't say what had brought him here. There were a million good reasons why he shouldn't go in, but he felt strangely compelled to do so nonetheless and equally reluctant to analyze his feelings for doing so. Walking through the doors, he waited for Bashir to notice him. The Human was talking to a Ferengi who lay on one of the few bio-beds that were still occupied. He stood with his back to Garak, so he didn't notice him immediately, but eventually he turned around. On seeing Garak, Bashir gave a wide smile. "I wouldn't have thought I'd actually see you here," he said. He went to one of the empty bio-beds and patted the surface. "Hop on please," he added.
Garak gave the doctor an indignant look, but refrained from commenting. Instead he wordlessly complied. He was puzzled when Bashir stopped him from lying down, and instead asked him to remain sitting. The doctor seemed to be in a strange mood, both excited and nervous. Stepping close and between Garak's dangling legs, he asked, "May I?" and he sounded almost coy when he said it, deepening Garak's puzzlement. For another second Garak was unsure what exactly the doctor was asking for. Then it dawned on him that he was asking permission to touch him. He gave a clipped nod.
At first the contact was feathery light, but when Bashir probed at the scarring with a firmer touch, Garak involuntarily flinched and gave a sharp hiss. It wasn't so much a reaction to the actual pain, which was bearable, but more a conditioned reflex to anything or anyone touching him there. His lack of control and him being so obvious annoyed him. Normally he made very sure not to be that overt, not to show any weakness. Bashir grimaced in sympathy. He said, "Maybe an anaesthetic would be a good idea."
Garak immediately shook his head. "No thank you, Doctor." Bashir gave him an upset look at that but acquiesced without comment. Again he reached out, but this time with his other hand. He touched Garak's unmarred neckridge, stroking down from below his ear almost to his shoulder. Again Garak almost flinched, but this time for a very different reason. Oh Great Gul, he thought. And that fool most likely has no idea what he's doing. When Bashir continued his exploration with an upwards stroke, Garak reflexively closed his eyes and had to bite back a groan.
"This is fascinating," Bashir said, his voice full of innocent curiosity. "Is there a significance to the colour-change?" Garak's eyes snapped open and he looked at the doctor, exasperated. Before he could say anything though, Bashir continued his observations, "Interesting, your pupils are dilating. Those neckridges are really sensitive, right? he asked and gave Garak an open smile, "I'm not exactly an expert when it comes to Cardassian anatomy and physiology."
Garak was torn how to react, how much to tell. On one hand, this Human was really getting under his skin and he should by no means allow that. During this examination Bashir had managed to make Garak lose his composure not once but twice. First regarding his neck-injury and now in a very different and far more dangerous way. On the other hand, he simply couldn't remember how long it had been - if ever - since someone had reached out to him like that, had met him with such open and guileless appreciation.
Don't fool yourself, Elim. There's really only one way you want to answer him, he thought. He smiled back at Bashir and said, "Let me put it that way, Doctor. If you insist on continuing this...," he paused to put as much effect into his next words, turning his voice to silk, "...fondling, I'd prefer it if we went somewhere more private first." He let his smile turn suggestive and it was hilarious to see how realization oh so slowly dawned on Bashir. He snatched back his hand as if it had been burned, and he sounded very apologetic and more than a little bit flustered when he said, "I'm, ah, I'm sorry." He blinked rapidly, his hands now ruffling his own hair. "It's, ah, it's important to get a, to get a tactile impression apart from any scans."
He stopped his attempt to justify his actions, and then his expression changed suddenly to mirth. To Garak's surprise, he started to laugh. Garak watched the Human for a while, taking in the picture. Bashir just stood in front of him, still very close, but without actually touching him now, chuckling and grinning. When it became clear that he had no intention of explaining of his own accord, Garak asked, "What's so funny, Doctor?" Still chuckling Bashir gave him a coy smile and said. "It's just that this is the second time we find ourselves in a strangely exciting situation," and here his smile turned downright dirty.
"Oh?" Garak replied, "You mean, you did this on purpose?" But Bashir wasn't so easily unsettled again. "No, of course not. Really, that would be highly unethical, wouldn't you say?" he grinned even more, "Why don't we get back to the main reason for your being here?" he said, his demeanour turning professional again. "It goes without saying that the best way to treat this would be surgery. However, Nurse Dassi told me that option isn't available to you. She also told me not to ask about that," he said his tone of voice turning decidedly questioning at the end. "She's a very wise woman, Doctor," Garak replied. "You should follow her advice."
For a couple of seconds Bashir just looked at him, incredulity clear in his face, then he gave a resigned sigh and said, "Fine, I have something else for you that will be helpful. It's a salve that properly and regularly applied should help at least with some of the nerve damage that is causing the pain." He turned to a locked compartment out of which he took a small container. He put on a surgical glove and taking a small amount of the salve the container held on his gloved fingers turned back to Garak.
"Maybe I should apply this myself, Doctor," Garak said warily. Bashir shook his head and answered, now very serious, "No. Sorry, but this is potent stuff. There's a reason why I wear a glove. For the same reason I won't allow you to take this with you. It will stay here for now and I'm the only one to apply it. Actually I started putting this together the first day I was in this Infirmary. It's custom-made, based on Doctor Jabara's notes on the injury and her previous treatments. And before you ask, Nurse Dassi gave me access to those notes and she also breathed down my neck while I read them, making sure I couldn't set my eyes on anything else of your medical file." Bashir smiled at the memory.
Garak didn't feel particularly reassured by those words and it must have showed on his face, because now Bashir said, "It's perfectly safe if the application and the effects of it are supervised by someone competent. Trust me."
Ah, there's that word again - trust, Garak thought. So carelessly used and flung at my feet like a worn rag to be disposed of. Nonetheless he said, "I bow to your medical expertise, Doctor. But I warn you," he raised a finger, "behave yourself." Bashir cocked his head in response as if he was earnestly considering. Then he grinned and said solemnly, "I promise."
Two days later Garak once again stood in Bashir's holding cell. It was late at night or more precisely very early in the morning and he had been deep in thought, looking down at the sleeping Human. Naturally Bashir had indeed behaved himself after Garak's warning, keeping his touch strictly professional. What had surprised him however was how lenient he himself had been with the Human. By all rights he should have been far more forceful in re-establishing his control of the situation. Instead there had been an almost playful mood in their banter afterwards until Garak had left the Infirmary. In retrospect he found his own behaviour quite alarming. He felt partial towards this Human that had dropped in their lap so unexpectedly. Kira had called him on it already in referring to Bashir as his pet-project. That had been very disconcerting.
Only minutes ago he had received the call that informed him that the Dominion-Federation fleet was on its way and their own fleet-contingents were moving into position. He hadn't been asleep. In fact he had sat only meters away at his desk in the security office, waiting for that call. He had sat in the dark, listening to the small sounds the station made even when most of her inhabitants were asleep. He had thought about the last five years he had spent on this station, about the fate that had brought him here. This would be his last night on Terok Nor, most likely the last night for Terok Nor.
Some time ago, he had seen Major Kira passing his closed doors. She had seen him too, had stopped for a moment waving him a sloppy salute then had continued on her way. Most likely she is prowling the station, paying her own tribute, taking her leave. He had considered to join her, but no - it wouldn't be appropriate. They might have learned to work together but this taking of leave was far too personal to share between them.
He leaned forward, giving Bashir's shoulder a light tap. The Human still seemed to be fast asleep. It took him an eternity to show halfway conscious responses. "Really Doctor, this is the third time I've had to wake you like this," Garak said and watched the Human's slightly uncoordinated attempts to sit up. "Hmm," Bashir said, "you know what they say, third time's a charm." He smiled dreamily. Most likely still half asleep, Garak thought. Bashir stretched his back, then said in a voice that sounded much more awake now, "What happened to your com-badge?"
Garak answered, "Ah, so you are awake now, good." He sat down and handed the com-badge to Bashir, who turned it in his hands. "It's Romulan," Bashir said. "Yes it is. It is part of the arrangement that will get us off this station." Bashir handed it back and Garak fastened it to his tunic again. He was surprised to see a look of profound relief on Bashir's face, who said, "You know, yesterday I asked Officer Nalas about the evacuation and she said she couldn't find my name on the list of evacuees of the last transport. She also told me not to worry, which of course made me worry only more."
Having listened with growing amusement to Bashir's story Garak said, "You're not leaving on a transport. You're coming with me and Major Kira." For a moment Bashir seemed to mull this information over, then he looked up, his eyes narrowed almost to slits. "A cloaked Romulan ship?" he asked, head cocked to the side in a questioning gesture.
"Very good, Doctor," Garak replied, honestly pleased. "Now listen carefully. I don't want you to get underfoot. Hopefully we won't have much use for a doctor until the evacuation order comes. Nonetheless you should collect one of Jabara's medical kits. From now on you're going to stay with me. If for some reason we get separated, stick to Major Kira or Prym, that's Officer Nalas to you. And one thing - do as you are told! Without one of the three of us, you won't get off this station."
"You could tell me how to reach the Romulan ship on my own." Bashir said and he sounded more than a little irritated. "No," Garak said. "Because you still don't trust me?" Garak just looked at him silently until the Human gave in. "Alright, forget I asked. What happens now?"
As Bashir discovered, for some time nothing much happened. First Garak had told him to get that medkit. He had went to the Infirmary and did just that. He also collected that concoction he'd put together as treatment for the Cardassian. On returning to the security office, he realized that he had made that trip for the first time unescorted. So, I'm at least a little bit trustworthy, he thought grimly.
On his arrival he discovered that Garak had produced something that nearly resembled a decent breakfast. There was some kind of almost hot tea and a couple of loafs of a crusty, thick bread that was filled with something that tasted interesting if indefinable. It was still very early, not really morning by station time, and while it had a distinctly surreal feel to it, he went for the tea and food with vigour. There was no saying when he might get something again. Garak sipped at his tea ignoring the food. He leaned forward and angled for the medkit Bashir had put down on his desk's console. Standing up he said, "Excuse me for a moment," and forestalling any possible protests by Bashir he added, "eat your food Doctor, and don't worry I won't do anything untoward to your equipment."
He left for the holding-cell area only to return not two minutes later, once again placing the medkit on his desk. Bashir looked at it suspiciously. He wondered what Garak might have done with it, when he heard a faint sound coming from it. Giving Garak an incredulous look, he asked, "Why is my medkit purring?" He stretched out his hand to take it, but that only got him a slap across his wrist, "Leave that be. It's called an acoustic hallucination, Doctor. Ignore it. And now, lets talk about something else." There was finality in Garak's voice, making it clear that he wouldn't entertain any more enquiries into the subject of purring medkits.
Soon afterwards they arrived at Ops. When they left the turbolift Bashir saw Major Kira at the command table talking with another Cardassian. That must be Gul Damar, he thought. Garak had mentioned him, but Bashir hadn't met the man in person. Damar and the major seemed to be arguing over something. When Bashir heard a soft sigh from Garak, he turned his head to see the Cardassian frown at the sight. Garak said, "Wait over there at the replicator. Try not to cause any trouble."
Doing as he was told, he watched Garak join the other two, effectively interrupting and ending their quarrel. There were glances thrown in Bashir's direction then the trio headed up a couple of stairs and vanished behind a set of doors. It left Bashir with nothing much to do than to watch the Ops crew and otherwise wait for something to happen. He briefly contemplated inspecting his medkit and its mysterious new content or more likely inhabitant, but decided against it. Whatever Garak had put in there, he wouldn't want to risk letting it escape in Ops when he opened the kit without needing to.
He used his strategic position at the replicator to get his hands on another mug of tea. The tea was good, hot and sweet. He tried to discern what was going on around him, but unfortunately most of the crew around him worked in silence, exchanging only a couple of words now and then. What he was able to gather was that they were monitoring the progress of the enemy's fleet. That would be my people, he thought grimly. Apparently the Alliance's fleet was already in position because remarks that referred to their status or position were rare.
He would have loved to step up to the command table to take a look at the tactical display, but didn't dare to do so. He had received quite a few of decidedly hostile looks after Garak had left him. The crew tolerated his presence because he had been brought here by the station's Head of Security but nothing more. With nothing left to do but watch, it was fast becoming boring, which struck him as a very callous feeling, especially considering what was at stake for these people and knowing how many lives - on both sides - would be lost at the end of the day.
He was impressed by the calm professionalism they displayed. Apart from an undercurrent of tension they performed their duties with an ease and grace that surprised him. During the last days he had seen a very different behaviour during the evacuation. There had been a lot of frayed nerves, anger and occasionally tears. Nothing of that was present here. It's like being in the eye of the storm, he thought. Yes, this figure described the scene before him perfectly.
He was interrupted in his musings when the trio returned. For a moment they paused at the top of the steps as if taking in the view and possibly that was exactly what they were doing, Bashir thought. A young Bajoran at the command table called out to them, "At present speed estimated time of arrival for the enemy's fleet is now two hours. Our own contingents are all in position." Gul Damar nodded in acknowledgement and said, "Thank you, Velar." He exchanged a couple of words with Garak and Kira that Bashir couldn't understand then the three came down to the command table.
Garak continued on and came over to Bashir and said, "I'll be down at the main Habitat ring. You'll stay here." He was about to leave when Bashir stopped him. "What are you going to do down there and when will you be back?" he asked. With a raised eyeridge Garak first glanced down at Bashir's hand that had closed around his arm then up again, giving Bashir a pointed look that caused him to hastily drop his hand. "Afraid of getting lonely? asked Garak with a mocking smile. Bashir grinned at that, "Not likely," he replied, "but you've made it very clear, that you are my best ticket out of here. I just want to make sure you don't wander off and get lost."
Garak gave him another sharp glance, then he relented. "While Terok Nor has exceptional shielding, courtesy of our Romulan allies, there's still a distinct possibility that we'll have to deal with attempts at boarding. That's my responsibility and I need to check with my people that everything and everyone is ready. I'll return to Ops before the attack to take up one of the tactical stations," he paused for a moment, then added, "I hope that meets your approval, Doctor." He didn't wait for an answer, but put his hand on Bashir's shoulder, giving it a light squeeze, before he turned and left.
Bashir looked after him, then turned around to continue his watch of the command table and the Ops crew. It startled him when his first glance was met by an intense stare from Major Kira. Obviously she had watched his conversation with Garak and judging by her expression she was curious, puzzled by something, maybe even angry, he wasn't quite sure which. He briefly considered asking her what was the matter, but then he contented himself with a smile. She didn't return it, but she did shift her attention to the displays in front of her. Sooner or later - that is if we survive - I'll have to find out what that expression was about, he thought, better sooner than later.
With both the Major and Gul Damar present in Ops and the deadline drawing close, things started to get more lively now. Velar called out the status and estimated time of arrival for the enemy's fleet at short intervals, his clear young voice sharp and crisp. There was a marked rise in tension among the crew.
Looking around Bashir felt strangely disconnected. He hoped Garak would return soon. He was his best chance to get some answers to what was going on. Since he had woken him earlier the Cardassian had loosened up in sharing information. Bashir wondered under which circumstances Gul Damar would give that order for evacuation. So far he only knew that the Alliance was expecting a massive attack on Bajor. It wouldn't be the first one, Nurse Dassi had told him, but it might very well be the last. This time the Alliance would be hugely outnumbered.
Garak finally reappeared in Ops when an ETA of only twenty minutes was called out. He looked grim when he joined Kira and Damar at the command table sparing Bashir only a brief glance. "We haven't been able to establish a complete lock-down of the station. Apparently the freighter's explosion did some damage that now interferes with our internal force-field pattern," he said.
"How much of it are we missing? Kira asked, a worried scowl on her face. Garak answered, "All main sections are locked and sealed. Since this is achieved by internal airlocks and doors, everything there is as planned. Of the force-fields we were able to establish only 25 percent of them. Priority has been given to securing central stations. Nonetheless our security is severely compromised. With the relatively small number of security personnel we have, we won't be able to accomplish much should we really get boarded.
"Unfortunately our reduced internal force-field pattern interferes with our planned evacuation routes to the docking-ring and the upper pylon. They are both blocked now. We have come up with a possible pattern shift that can be effected on short notice though. It opens both routes, but it will also allow any unwanted guests," he grimaced sourly, "to reach Ops or the station's core. Trilar's Second has informed me that hypothetically that might allow for the defusing of our rigged reactors. He says he is fairly confident however that this shouldn't be possible in the remaining time after the evacuation order is given."
Kira's scowl had deepened while he spoke, now she said sharply, "Let's hope he's better at that estimate than his evaluation of the station's damage after the explosion. I distinctly remember him stating that nothing really essential had been hit."
"In any case, it's too late to look for alternatives now," Damar said. "It's time," and raising his voice he addressed the whole crew in Ops, "Listen everyone, you all know I am not one for many words or fancy speeches. Let me just say this: Today we fight for Bajor, but we also fight for every homeworld of the Alliance. We fight for our freedom and for the freedom of our children. May the Prophets be with us all."
He looked expectantly at Kira, who stared back at him with a baffled expression. With a sharp nod she acknowledged his words. She let her gaze slowly travel around Ops and its crew and added, "Let's kick some ass, people." There was a chorus of soft chuckles among the crew at that and a palpable air of renewed determination all around. During Damar's short speech Garak had left his side and taken up one of the slightly raised stations that surrounded the command table at the centre of Ops. He waved Bashir over.
Bashir was glad to leave his observation post at the replicator. Grabbing his medkit he quickly rounded the command table and joined Garak. He was more than a little surprised when the Cardassian handed him a phaser. His surprise must have been obvious on his face, because Garak said, "Don't give me that look, Doctor. You might need it in case we'll have to deal with boarding parties."
It was a chilling thought. He might not have any qualms about shooting at a Jem'Hadar soldier, particularly if it was in self defence, but he wasn't so sure he could do the same if it were anyone wearing a Starfleet uniform. As if Garak had read his thoughts, the Cardassian said, "You made your decision when you stole that data and came here, Doctor. To your people, you're a traitor. I advise you to come to grips with that fact right now. Doubts or uncertainties could be lethal. You, no we simply can't afford them." Garak gave him a very serious look, then nodded as if there was some confirmation of his words on Bashir's face that Bashir himself wasn't aware of and swivelled in his chair to concentrate on his station's controls.
A traitor. You my alien friend have a real knack for delivering the most uplifting counsel, and at the perfect time at that. He had almost eagerly waited for the Cardassian to return to Ops a few moments before. In a way Garak had fast become his beacon to orient himself in a new and scaring situation. Truthfully he might not have understood the real extent of the consequences his actions would have. He had left his home and burned all the bridges behind him and the realization of that had hurt - had hurt a lot. Garak, notwithstanding the threats, the posturing and the cutting remarks, had treated him civilly and Bashir had been so glad and relieved for that.
Now however everything suddenly felt like treading on quick-sand. A traitor. Of course I'm a traitor, and not only to the Federation, no - to these people too. Once a traitor - always a traitor. How stupid of me to think otherwise. He looked at Garak's back and tried to view the past days with this new insight in mind, but shied away from it almost immediately. No use in trying to second-guess everything now or he would drive himself mad. As a reminder not to be too trusting Garak's counsel was certainly valuable, but he still wanted to believe that the two of them had found a true connection, a kindred spirit.
Standing at the command table Kira had divided her attention between the tactical display in front of her and watching the exchange between Garak and Bashir. It had caught her completely by surprise to see Garak handing the doctor a phaser. At first she had thought she hadn't seen right, but no it really had been a phaser of all things. Such a sign of trust went so fundamentally against everything she had believed she knew about their Head of Security.
She had always taken Garak as the very paragon of the paranoid Cardassian. Now that paragon was trusting someone she herself wasn't so sure of with a weapon. I'll have to keep an eye on these two, she thought grimly. Either Garak knows something he hasn't been telling me about this Human or he's finally gone completely bonkers. She couldn't decide which alternative was more likely or which one was scaring her more.
"ETA 5 minutes." Velar continued his countdown, and Kira turned her concentration firmly to her display and chimed in, "All weapons ready." Afterwards silence fell in Ops while everyone stared either at their own displays or at the central viewscreen that now showed the station's immediate vicinity. Two Romulan warships and one of the very few existing Bajoran battle cruisers could be seen, otherwise there was just black space. The major part of the Alliance's fleet had taken up defensive positions where the enemy's forces were most probably coming out of warp.
Seconds and minutes ticked by, then Kira broke the silence by saying. "Here they come. They are moving straight for the main bulk of our fleet, ignoring the Nor stations - at least for now." She glanced at Damar who looked back and said. "What wouldn't I give to be able to move this thing now, to be able to join in the fight instead of having to watch and wait." The longing in his voice was almost painful to hear. Garak gave a derisive snort at that and said. "Oh I don't think we have to wait long until the fight comes our way."
The plan was to put the Nor stations' superior weapons and shielding capacities to their best use by trying to lure the larger battle cruisers into their firing range. "Velar?", Damar prompted. "Communication silence is held so far," Velar replied. Damar said, "Good, as long as everything goes according to plan there's no need for any blathering. Although I'm surprised that our Klingon allies have been able to restrain themselves from uttering any war cries or other nonsense like they did the last time."
His voice was heavy with irony at the last comment and not unexpectedly the slur earned him grins and silent laughter from almost everyone in Ops, Bajorans and Cardassians alike. However it did nothing to alleviate the tension as everyone watched the battle for Bajor slowly unfold. As expected the combined forces of the Dominion and the Federation outnumbered their own fleet at least two to one - still, there was a chance to hold Bajor, to force a retreat - or so the Alliances lead strategists had insisted. And even if it meant the destruction of the Nor stations that wouldn't be a price too high to pay for that.
But, now looking at the figures and the symbols representing ships on the command tables display, every once in a while seeing one or even a couple of their own wink out, things looked and felt very different for Kira. It felt like an inevitable slide down a slope with the fall of her homeworld at the end.
Suddenly she saw what she had been waiting for, what she had been fevering towards. "There," she almost shouted, her hand slapping the edge of the command table. "Our mixed battle-unit One is heading in our direction. They have five Jem'Hadar battle cruisers on their heels. Finally we get something to do!" She exhaled sharply to let at least some of the hungry tension inside her dissipate. Being confined to the role of the watcher had been equally excruciating for her as for Damar. Now excitement rose within her replacing and drowning almost every other feeling.
Again it was Garak, cold and calculating as ever, who did his best to spoil it by remarking, "Finally indeed, it's a depressing sight to see our fleet being taken out ship by ship, if not that much of a surprise." Without looking up Kira snapped, "Why don't you concentrate on your drone swarms instead of boring everyone with your predictions of doom." She heard Garak's in draw of breath, but before he could answer her with a sufficiently cutting remark, Damar beat him to it, saying calmly, "ETA?" and Kira answered, "Two minutes until they'll be in firing range."
And then the two minutes were up and battle cruisers and warships were screaming around them, performing a bizarre and deadly dance around the station, weaving around her, targeting her and using her as a shield all at the same time. "Drone swarms away," Garak announced and Kira gave him a very quick glance and a provocative grin, her hands never stopping to fly over the weapons controls. She threw him a breathless, "Now let's see how good those favourite toys of yours really are," and heard him snicker in response, no other reaction forthcoming this time.
Between battle-unit One and their own considerable firepower they made short work of two of the Jem'Hadar ships. Kira felt her hopes rising. The absolute numbers still weren't in their favour of course, but if they could manage to use all the Nor stations to their best effect and with just the right amount of luck they might be able to force that retreat - Bajor would remain free. It would be such an important declaration of defiance, such a boost for the flagging morale throughout the Alliance.
Suddenly the station rocked. Kira barely stayed on her feet, keeping a white-knuckled grip around the edge of the command table. She heard a surprised grunt from Damar, who had slammed into that edge. So far any hits had more or less bounced off their superior shielding without having much effect. Apparently now something had changed. "Lieutenant Nalas?" Damar asked.
Nalas, who had taken over station's defences when Garak had deployed their attack-drone swarms, answered, "That shouldn't have happened. Even with the remaining Jem'Hadar battle cruisers teaming up and concentrating their fire on one of our core shields, they shouldn't have been able to weaken or penetrate them. I don't understand it." She had barely finished the sentence, when Garak shouted, "One down."
True to his words Kira saw one of the symbols that stood for the Jem'Hadar cruisers wink out. Only a second later another vanished. It was the one she had been barraging with constant phaser fire and she added with satisfaction, "And another one."
"That makes two and leaves only one," Damar said. "Boarding parties?" he asked. "None," Nalas responded, "An attempt to transport was made, but they didn't make it through." She smiled grimly. "If they know what's good for them, they'll think twice before attempting that again." "Maybe," Kira said, she pointed at the command tables display, "but there are three other Jem'Hadar cruisers heading towards us and they are flanked by two Starfleet ships, both of them Defiant-class."
"Kira, Garak, concentrate on the Federation ships. Nalas, get engineering to check on our shields again. Whatever's wrong with those, they have to fix it fast, otherwise our role in this fight will end far too soon," Damar said. "Our battle-unit's lead-ship is hailing us." Velar announced, drawing everyone's attention. "Put them through," Damar said.
It was a woman's voice that asked, "Terok Nor, this is Sub-commander Terman of the Romulan warship Pride, tell me - what's the use in equipping your station with our superior weapons and shielding-technology if you're incapable of maintaining them in working order?" There was a lot of anger and derision in that voice causing Damar to grimace.
"We're at it Sub-commander," he answered. "Now, if there isn't anything else you wish to discuss, we're kind of busy at the moment." As if to emphasize his statement the station shuddered again. Without waiting for a command Velar just cut the connection.
"Nalas?" Damar asked again and the answer came immediately, "Engineering is at a loss as to what's causing the power-drain in our shields. They are re-routing now." The last remark caused Kira to give an angry yell. "And they are re-routing from our weapons systems. How am I supposed to deal with those Defiant-class starships with reduced capacities?" She risked a short glance in Damar's direction and then she wished she hadn't.
There was a look of utter resignation on his face she really needn't have seen. It felt like a dose of ice-cold water drowning the small flame of hope that had kindled within her after their first seeming success. She said, "Doesn't matter, I'll manage. I'll find a way," and she didn't know whom she wanted more to convince with that statement, Damar or herself - most likely both of them.
"Garak, now would be a perfect time to really impress me with those drones of yours," Kira said while she desperately tried to change her firing pattern to compensate for the lessened firepower of the station. She looked over at Garak and saw him working at least as frantically as herself. His Human was standing behind him, one hand on the chair's backrest, the other on Garak's shoulder, looking anxiously at the displays in front of them. Garak returned her gaze and he looked deeply worried. "I'll see what I and my toys can do Major," he replied. "Unfortunately those Defiant-class warships are the worst when it comes to penetrating their shields. They have the most advanced phase-modulators of all the Federation's ship classes.
The station rocked again, this time even more violently than before. The lights in Ops flickered and here and there sparks were flying from consoles whose conduits couldn't handle the power fluctuations. Just when relative calm returned Kira saw that one of the Federations ships must have been destroyed, at least she couldn't find it on her display. Garak's self satisfied, "However they are not indestructible," confirmed her guess and she grinned wildly at him.
Again the station shook under fire, this time from four Jem'Hadar cruisers, that once again were concentrating their fire to punch through one of their core shields. This time every light in Ops went out for a second and when they returned it felt like everyone was holding their breath for what would come next. It was into that thick silence that Nalas finally said, "Damn, we have visitors."
And now the inevitable has finally come to pass. Any second now and Damar will give the evacuation order, Garak thought. With the station being boarded they couldn't guarantee that their rigging for self-destruction would remain in place. They might risk losing the initiative, losing control of the station and the only option was to start the self-destruct countdown and leave. Because of the reduced internal force-fields his security forces were completely insufficient to deal with any serious boarding attempt. They didn't stand a chance.
Until now his attention had been solely on the fight, and while it was far from over he now registered other things as well. He became keenly aware of Bashir's presence behind him, who had been practically clinging to his chair and his shoulder with a death grip since the first time the station had been hit hard enough to rock. He doubted that the Human had even been aware how hard his grip had become during the last minutes. Now Bashir loosened it and Garak heard a softly murmured "Sorry," coming from him. Garak only shook his head at the triviality of the apology, his concentration now divided between the ongoing battle and awaiting Damar's next command.
"Velar," Damar said at last, "put me station-wide." At Velar's nod he continued, "Attention everyone. We've been boarded. Follow evacuation procedures immediately. Damar out." He looked around Ops, at the crew-members around him and at last at Kira and Garak. None of them had moved and Damar smiled. "That means you too," he said.
Garak couldn't say why, but suddenly a nasty suspicion rose up in him. He said, "Haven't you forgotten something? What about the self-destruct countdown?" Damar's smile grew even wider. "No, we won't need that. I'll initiate the self-destruct manually. It wouldn't do to give up on the station prematurely while we still can make a difference in the battle, wouldn't it? If timed right the self destruct can even take a couple of enemy ships with us."
"Are you out of your mind?" Kira almost yelled at him. "And as heroic as you might think that plan is, how much can you accomplish alone?" Her look was both accusatory and pleading, willing Damar to come to his senses. Instead of Damar it was Nalas who answered. "But he won't be alone, Major. I'll stay as well." She looked at them serenely. "If you would be so kind as to transfer control of the drone swarms to my console?" she said to Garak giving him an expectant look.
Kira looked from one to the other and finally her gaze settled on Garak too, silently asking for his back-up in rejecting this plan of action, but he already had made up his mind. He felt Kira's look on him slowly turn from questioning to reproachful as he wordlessly transferred his controls over to Prym. He stood and gave first her, then Damar a respectful nod. Then he addressed Kira, "Come on, Major, we'll need to get to our transport."
For a second they stared at each other, then Kira relented, looking away. Quietly she said to Damar, "I assume you're taking over weapon's control," and without waiting for an answer she pushed the few necessary buttons and continued, "Weapons control transferred." Just like Garak she gave them a silent nod. She turned to the rest of the crew. "Let's move, people."
To file out through the only unsecured door leading out of Ops took only seconds for the remaining crew present. Afterwards only Garak, Kira and Bashir were left. "How long do we have?" Garak asked as they turned to leave too. Damar gave them a lopsided smile. "Just don't dawdle. We'll do our best to give you the time you need to get out, but we all know our priorities."
For the first couple of corridors they all stayed together, moving cautiously but swiftly. They split up when they reached the Promenade. The larger group of crew-members was heading for one of the upper pylons. A Bajoran transport was standing by to swoop in, perform an emergency docking to collect everyone and leave as fast as possible. The other group consisted only of himself, Kira and Bashir. Their destination lay in the docking ring. We should be five, Garak thought. Damn Trilar and Jabara for dying and damn Prym for her self-sacrifice.
They were already halfway to their docking port when they ran into a boarding-party. The Jem'Hadar immediately opened fire and to Garak's surprise it was Bashir who reacted first. He had taken down two Jem'Hadar with well aimed shots before Kira or Garak himself had even raised their weapons. They sprinted for cover and only belatedly realized that they had chosen the wrong direction.
Brilliant Elim, he thought. He spied around the corridor's corner and was instantly greeted by renewed fire. He returned it with a couple of shots, drew back hastily, and turned to Kira and Bashir. "Great, now we're cut off. What happened to your superior Cardassian sense of direction?" Kira snapped at him angrily. He felt his temper rising.
Before he could come up with a fitting response however, Bashir surprised him again. Pressing his hand over Garak's mouth, he said, "The clock's running. What do you suggest we do, Major?" More to the point, what kind of game are you playing now, Doctor? Garak added to himself.
His initial surprise was fast turning into anger, shifting from Kira to Bashir. Then he forcibly reined himself in, conceding a begrudging approval. This really might not be the best time for a snapping contest between Kira and himself. It was disconcerting however that Bashir not only foresaw his reaction but felt so confident, he dared to silence him like that.
Kira looked at least as startled as he had felt initially. Her eyes were flicking back and forth between the two of them. She said hastily, "It's Garak who knows the set-up for our internal shields. He should know best if there is an alternate route we can take." When Bashir took his hand away, she added. "You know, I'm surprised you still have all your fingers."
Garak gave them both a scorching look. They looked back, utterly unimpressed by it, so he relented by saying first to Bashir, "We're going to have a talk - soon," and then to Kira, "Yes there is an alternate route. Come on," and retracing the way they had come, they broke into a run.
They threw caution to the wind now and ran as fast as they could while they traversed the Promenade to get to another cross-section that would lead them to their destination.
Without an automated countdown Garak had no idea how much time was left until Damar would initiate the self-destruct - regardless of who was still on board. The station was under constant and heavy fire. Every once in a while her shields were breached or failed completely and the resulting rocking sent them careening into a wall or to the floor. They ran and ran. To their loud footfalls that echoed through the corridors came another sound - the sound of desperate panting, of people running for their lives.
When they reached the docking ring they were forced to slow down. The detonations and the shaking and rocking of the station's structure had reached a frequency and intensity that made it impossible to keep up more than a fast jog. It had been a particularly violent shaking that had sent them all to the floor. Kira had crashed headfirst into a supporting beam and it had taken Garak and Bashir precious seconds to bring her back to full consciousness. While slowing down went against every screaming instinct, they could afford to carry one of them even less.
Garak had fallen back bringing up the rear with Bashir and Kira leading, quickly securing every crossing they had to pass. They're good. If I didn't knew better, I'd believe they've been working as a team for ages, Garak thought fleetingly, his concentration diverted for the briefest of moments. He threw another look over his shoulder, routinely checking for pursuit. What he saw left him only a split-second to react before the Jem'Hadar fired.
He was close enough to the others to push them down and out of the line of fire, but he himself had no such luck. He felt white hot pain lancing through his left thigh while he fell forward, his vision blurring. It was a mercy when his implant cut in, flooding his body with endorphins, blocking out most of that pain. Bashir and Kira were returning the fire, both on their knees, when Garak's vision cleared again. He kept his head down relying on the two to take out whoever was behind them.
Bashir was at his side as soon as the firing stopped, pulling him into a sitting position, shoving him with his back against the corridor's wall. The Human frantically checked his wound, swearing under his breath while Garak gave an involuntary groan and closed his eyes. He felt a hypo at his neck, then there was Bashir's breathless voice close to his ear. "It's just a flesh-wound, no artery hit." The relief in the Human's voice was evident and Garak wanted to bask in it - no time for that of course.
When he opened his eyes a second later, Bashir had already stood up and grabbed his hands, pulling him up on his feet. To his chagrin he almost toppled over. He certainly would have, if Bashir hadn't grabbed him even more tightly. Pulling one of Garak's arms over his own shoulders and slinging his own arm around Garak's waist he secured him firmly against his side. Kira watched their manoeuvring impatiently, keeping an eye on their surroundings, making sure there weren't no other sneak attacks. "Ready to go?" she asked and Garak nodded with gritted teeth.
They were even slower now and it was a testament to their frazzled nerves that they all flinched when Garak's com-badge chirped. He tapped it and a voice said, "This is Vexel. What's keeping you? We leave in 5 minutes. If you're not at the airlock by then, we'll leave without you."
Kira swore under her breath. "At this speed, we'll never make it," she said. "I'll convince him to wait." She cast a glance at Garak's disbelieving face and added, " Trust me, I can." Without waiting for an answer, she turned and ran ahead.
"Lately everyone seems to vie for my trust. It's pathetic, really." Garak uttered under his breath as he and Bashir started to follow. It earned him a bitter laugh from Bashir and a sarcastic "Maybe you should feel flattered instead of being so paranoid."
Garak turned his head, giving the Human a sharp look, intending to give him another equally biting remark, it died on his lips when he saw the look of barely controlled panic on the Human's face. He grunted instead and only said, "Move faster," and Bashir obeyed instantly and without another word.
Barely a minute might have passed when his com-badge chirped again. He tapped it, and Kira's voice, scared and breathless like he had never heard her before, asked "Why aren't you here already?" Garak looked at the corridor ahead of them. They'd almost made it. "We're almost there, Major. Don't let us down now," he said beseechingly.
Then - finally - they rounded the last bend of the docking ring and saw the airlock that meant escape. Someone was standing just outside, their back to them, as if expecting an attack from that direction of the sloping corridor. Hearing them approach the figure whirled around and they saw that it was a Romulan guard. Garak's relief was short-lived though, when the man raised his disrupter, aiming at them.
They stopped dead in their tracks. When the Romulan made no move to lower his weapon, eying both of them wearily, Garak said. "We don't have time for this." The Romulan nodded. "No we don't, but allowing a Human and a possible Shapeshifter on board would be even more foolish," he said coolly.
Garak felt Bashir tense beside him. He himself had just about enough. He raised his phaser and said, "Whoever you are. It's the wrong time to play games, because this is one you won't survive," just as Kira's voice came out of the airlock, "Prophets Trenn, let them through!"
To Garak's surprise the Romulan actually lowered his weapon at that. He stepped back wordlessly allowing them access. Then Garak saw what had caught the guards attention - his injured leg and the blood that had soaked his trousers and splattered on his left boot. The Romulan even offered a hand to help now. Garak ignored him as they limped through the airlock. Too much bleeding to be a changeling, he thought grimly amused.
Inside they were greeted by Kira. She tapped her com-badge. "Vexel, we're ready to leave," she said. "Finally," a harsh voice replied, "get up to the bridge, now!" Kira rolled her eyes, but motioned them towards a turbo-lift.
When they arrived at the bridge they were greeted by a tall Romulan. He looked rather old, far too old to still be in active service, Garak thought. Regardless, his command posture was flawless. He gave the trio a critical stare. Gesturing to the viewcreen he said, "It's about time. I wouldn't have waited a minute longer - look."
When they did the gravity of the situation was obvious. Almost a dozen enemy ships and as many of their own were involved in a fierce battle with Terok Nor at its centre. The station had suffered a lot since they had left Ops. Parts of her showed massive destruction, opening whole sections up to the vacuum of space. Garak saw the Bajoran transport that should have picked up the bulk of the station's evacuees drifting lifeless near a severely damaged pylon. What a waste, he thought. He heard Kira's sharp intake of breath as she saw it too. Her hand gripped his elbow, squeezing hard and for once he let her.
Regardless of the damage the station had suffered, she hadn't been silenced. Blazing barrages of phaser-fire caused both Jem'Hadar cruisers and Federation warships to weave and spiral around her. Taking all that in, he realized that their own ships were slowly drawing back from the station. The movements were subtle, nothing too obvious but to him it was clear that they intended to get to a safe distance. "He's going to blow her any second," he said. He stared at the viewscreen while their already cloaked Interceptor slowly pulled away like all the other Alliance ships were doing. "You're right," Kira whispered.
It started with a blinding white lance of light that burst out of the station's lower centre. That's the initial reactor-core overload. Less than a second later multiple chain reactions set in that caused a whole series of explosions. They were not quite as bright but in their extent and number even more terrible to watch. For another split-second it almost looked as if the station drew herself in, like a crouching predator coiling its muscles for the final leap and then Terok Nor flew apart. She became a blazing ball of fire that expanded so fast the circling Federation and Dominion ships didn't stand a chance. They tried to run, but none of them made it.
For some time afterwards the Interceptor's bridge was completely silent. Garak felt Kira's hand let go. She made a small gesture of reverence with both her hands. Offering a prayer to her Prophets, recommending Prym and maybe even Damar to them. I wonder if he would like that. It would certainly amuse him, Garak thought.
Vexel came slowly over to them and stood at their side. The four of them watched as the last fires on Terok Nor flickered out, the last oxygen used up. The remains of the station that once had been brimming and bustling with life now resembled nothing more than the wretched and scattered bones of some large prehistoric beast. Finally Kira turned to Vexel and asked, "What about Bajor?" The old Romulan only shook his head, then he said, "Their surrender is only a question of time. The Alliance fleet is already retreating, that is what is left of it. Bajor is lost. I'm sorry, child."
And for a short moment she looked just like that - a child, forlorn and grieving. Then her eyes sought first Vexel's, then Bashir's until she finally locked gazes with Garak. He held her stare and saw when her will to fight returned. "We'll get it back, will we?" she asked him and there was really only one true answer to that. "Yes, Major, of course we will."
TBC in 'Taking Risks'