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The Price of Prophecy

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You're no one special. You're just an ordinary girl with a few ordinary ambitions. Your name is Sarah Dillard. You are training to be a photographer, and you are in New Orleans when it happens.

What exactly happens, you aren't quite sure. One moment you're celebrating Mardi Gras, recording action shots and playing with the light. You've had a few synth-ales and then some real alcohol but it's just enough for a pleasant warmth to curl through your limbs.

"The Orb of the Emissary," a voice says. You turn and you're looking into your own face with one subtle difference. You are looking at yourself as a Bajoran.

"Look," says your cypher-self, and you look. It's beautiful – glowing, perfect. You gasp as it rotates within its box, as the light seems to unfurl, curling towards you in welcome. You don't have the sense to be afraid as the light comes closer and closer. Another moment and you have breathed it in.

And then, for a while, 'Sarah' sort of… stops.

***

You have been screaming in your mind for days. You can't scream aloud because whatever this thing is inside your head, It has taken over your voice. It has taken over your words and deeds. It has taken your life, this cold alien thing. It speaks to you only once, to answer your furious screaming wail, Why are you doing this to me?

It looks at you then, if such a thing were possible. That's how it feels, anyway, as though the thing were eyeballing you inside your own damn mind. Because it could be no one else, the thing replies, and after that It is silent.

***

You go to St Louis Cathedral every day. That is, the creature takes you there. You don't know why. It's hard to imagine that this body-snatching alien, or whatever It is, could be interested in either history or religion. Why on earth would It steal your body just to wander around the city?

It's keeping you in New Orleans. You should have been back in Australia three days ago. Chris was waiting for you there; the next block of your photography course was due to start. Your family are there.

The creature in your head either doesn't hear any of that, or dismisses it as irrelevant. Probably the latter. Nothing you do moves this thing. You cry, you plead, you beg, but It will not release you. It just walks around the Cathedral, around Jackson Square, and It waits.

***

You feel the intent when It zeroes in on someone on your fifteenth consecutive day in the square. A man, handsome but not really your type, is walking through the square carrying what looks like vegetables. It takes your body over to him and quite purposefully smashes into him. For a moment you feel a flare of hope, that perhaps this man is next, that the thing will jump into him instead of you. The hope is quickly followed by shame that you would wish this unbearable imprisonment on someone else. But you cannot, cannot bear this and you don't know anything else to hope for but that this thing will let you go.

But all that happens when you approach the man is that you feel your face give a blinding smile.

"Lovely day, isn't it?" you hear your voice say.

And the man blinks in surprise, and smiles back.

***

Joseph Sisko isn't a particularly special man from what you can tell. He likes cooking, of all things, and It is telling him how impressive that is, when you are wondering why in this age of replicators anyone would bother. It seems determined to laugh at his jokes and worm Its way into his heart, and you wonder why, why, why this is worth your life. What is so important that this thing can just steal your life from you?

You thought it would be a threat to the Federation, you thought It was doing this for something important. But to steal your body for the sake of starting a relationship with this man? It doesn't make any sense, and that just makes this so much worse.

***

It occurs to you to wonder, when you can't manage any other way to make sense of what is happening, whether Joseph himself has somehow done this to you. If he had failed to find his perfect woman and so has settled for turning you into some kind of slave to satisfy himself. It seems determined that this relationship is going to progress. It has already allowed him to paw at your body and kiss your face and throat. You curled up tightly in on yourself when that was happening. You didn’t want it, didn't want any of it.

Tonight is your fifth date in ten days. Your? Their. You are not any part of this. But it still feels like you when he touches your hand, when he strokes your hair. It's your body and you feel it all, but you can control nothing, nothing at all.

Joseph is careful, considerate, even tender. He lays your body down on the bed with reverence.

You've screamed at It before, but never like this. Please don't. Please, please don't. I'll do anything. I'll do anything.

But for the hundredth time your pleas go unanswered and It spreads your legs for Joseph to fuck you.

***

You stop screaming after the wedding. You weren't really achieving much. Joseph continues to fuck you every night, telling you how much he loves you. Your limbs are always pliant, your face always happy. Somewhere inside you a little ball of hatred for this man is curdling, turning solid.

Then you find out you're pregnant. That's when you start screaming again.

***

The parasite takes fourteen hours to come out of you. You never wanted children and Joseph sobbing how perfect it is with that dumb look of joy on his face would be reason enough in any case to despise the thing.

It is definitely happy about the birth. You know now when It is pretending to Joseph and that seems to have stopped.

It is changing inside you. It is becoming less alien – or perhaps you have acclimated. It is becoming more like you – or perhaps you haven't been yourself for so long that you've forgotten what it feels like.

It tries to wrap some kind of thought around you – some tentative reaching out? You bat it away.

Is not a son a cause for joy? It asks, sounding genuinely puzzled.

You can't help it: you laugh, long and hollow.

***

It had a visitor the other day. Your head is attracting quite the crowd. Someone should add it to the New Orleans tourist guide.

The two of them seemed to talk. The other one said, Your task is complete. Do you not wish to rejoin us?

It said, I must watch over the Emissary.

The other gave a flicker of something like impatience. That is linear. Corporeal. We already know what will become of him.

It said, He is my son.

You felt the last trace of hope die.

***

The thing is, love is a weakness. You have always known that. You have had your heart broken more than once; you learned.

You don't suppose that Its love is like any kind of love you know, not exactly, but you do know that It is distracted these days. It's been doing all the things mothers do – staring at the baby Joseph named Benjamin, touching it with wonder, smiling every time it smiles.

You refer to the baby only as 'the baby' because you know what you have to do.

It hasn't taken a great deal of interest in your thoughts lately, all wrapped up in the baby. It has forgotten you exist.

It doesn't think you could be a threat.

One day It dozes off in the afternoon.

You steel yourself, then push with all your strength. Push again, shoving at a will older than you can comprehend. But it is weakened now and you are strong.

With one final effort you break through.

You can still feel It there in your mind. It's asleep still, quiet.

You run to the nursery. The baby is there, gurgling.

You pick it up and dash to the window. Your apartment is six floors up.

The baby looks at you like it thinks you're playing a game. You watch it realise you aren't and begin to scream.

Like a true mother, It wakes up immediately. Horrified, It shoves you back down into the depths and gently places the baby back in its cradle. Then It sits down.

What are you doing? It demands and for the first time in any of your interactions there's emotion there. It is near hysteria. He is your son!

He is your son! you scream back. You have taken my whole life and now I will destroy anything of yours I can!

You'll never get the chance again, It vows.

You feel yourself relax. You'll never weaken? You'll never feel that lazy love again? You'll never have a momentary lapse? You're so certain, are you? I only need a few minutes. I have nothing else to hope for.

It is silent then. You wonder if It is beginning to realise just how much wrong It has done you.

What if… It begins, then stops. What if I went away?

It is still in charge of the body, but you feel your heartbeat quicken nonetheless.

If I leave you, It says, will you promise not to harm him?

You're not sure. Freedom is all you've hoped for in the two long years since this thing leapt inside you, but with revenge in your grasp can you really walk away?

Please, It begs, and you relish the power.

But that makes you sick with yourself. This is not who you wanted to be.

If you let me go, you say, then I will not harm him.

It reaches down to stroke the baby's face. I want to look after him, It says sadly.

With that your moment of understanding is done. I WANT TO LIVE! you scream.

It nods your head slowly.

After his birthday, It says.

Four days.

Not one day more, you reply.

***

The baby has a lovely first birthday party with its doting parents. It watches the baby sleep.

It doesn't want to leave. It doesn't, It doesn't, It doesn't.

And then It's gone.

You take your first breath as a free woman in two years and you prod the empty place in your mind It used to fill the way you would prod a gap in your mouth where a tooth has been removed.

"I'm alive," you whisper to yourself, and a feeling of joy such as you have never known fills you.

***

It takes a day to sort out your papers. A day to pretend to Joseph that nothing's wrong. A day to pack the few things from your old life It bothered to keep.

Two days after the baby's first birthday you have caught a transport to Australia and disappeared.

***

It's hard to adjust back into life as an actual person. At first, simple decisions are overwhelming. What to eat, when to sleep. Your hormones are still going baby-crazy but there are ways around that and your overriding revulsion at that thing ensures that the feelings are not unbearable.

Your parents cry when you go to their house. They ask where you were, why you haven't called in two years. You make up something they clearly do not believe, but they are so happy to see you that they don't press too hard.

Your old boyfriend Chris has moved on, of course. Men ask you out occasionally, but you can't imagine ever enjoying sex again, so you decline. A counsellor would probably be able to help, but they would likely think you had been hallucinating and you are rock solid certain that It was real, It was alien, It was not your imagination.

You wake up screaming sometimes, your muscles locked into pushing your husband off your body, the rapist out of your mind. You wipe the sweat from your skin and wonder if this is what you meant by living your life.

***

Time may not heal all wounds but it does make the scars smaller. You go and see that Counsellor in the end, and even by talking about some highly edited features of the last two years you find that you are able to make progress. You pick a new man – a Betazoid named Talloc. He is as different from Joseph as a man could be and you sink gratefully into him. You re-enrol at photography school. You build a life that isn't quite what it was meant to be, but isn't half bad, all the same.

Talloc is due to take you out in his hovercraft in the morning. You're going to go out into the last unpopulated areas – drive to Uluru, which never grows less inspiring. Talloc's never seen it.

You opt to spend the night alone. You still need some space from time to time. Talloc understands, naturally.

There is someone in your house when you get home.

You immediately tense. You have been through so much already.

"Who are you?" you demand. "What are you doing here?"

The figure turns around. It looks like a man, an ordinary black man, but you know how deceptive appearances can be. "I wanted to talk to you," says the man, if he is a man. "I wanted to talk to you and it couldn't really wait."

"Who are you?" you demand again.

"I'm…" He takes a deep breath. "I am Benjamin Sisko."

Your eyes widen. Your skin begins to crawl and you back away. "No… No…" spills from your mouth.

"I don't want to hurt you," Benjamin says. "Please, I just… You're my mother and I want to…"

"I'm not your mother," you scream, bringing your hands up to your head, curling inward. "That thing held me down while your father raped me, that's what happened! That thing inside my head let him rape me over and over again until it had you and then it still wouldn't let me go! What are you?" On that last your voice nearly breaks. You cannot bear this.

Horror crosses Benjamin's face. "I'm sorry. They needed-"

"I don't care what they needed," you spit. "It was my life and my body and they took it. They just took it."

Benjamin is biting his lips. You wonder if he knows that you tried to kill him once. You wonder if he can imagine your horror at everything that was done to you.

Benjamin approaches you slowly, hands open in a show that he means no harm. "I'm sorry," he says. "So sorry. They needed me."

You don't understand. "Why you?" You look at him and you see a man in a Starfleet uniform – a captain, how nice for him, but you don't see a saviour, you don't see a reason for the violation that left you so scarred. "Why are you so damned important?"

Benjamin grimaces. "Nothing I say will justify it." He looks away. "I came because… in this stream, you die tomorrow."

"What?" you gasp.

Benjamin looks you full in the face. You see it then – he is so much like you, so much like your father. And Joseph is there, too. You don't understand how he can seem to be older than you but nothing about your life made sense since you looked into the damned orb.

"In one timeline you die tomorrow. Hovercraft accident," he says. His voice is sad. "But I think I see…" He frowns with his eyes closed, working something out. Then he opens his eyes again. "Tell Talloc that you're ready to meet his family. Go to Betazed tomorrow. There's a transport leaving from Melbourne. Marry him there. Lead a long life."

You tense. "I've had enough of being forced to do things."

Benjamin's mouth turns down at the corners. "It is a suggestion. But I can tell you, if you do it you will be happy."

You look at him, look at his face again for all those familiar details.

Benjamin looks at you compassionately. "I don't know how to undo the wrong that was done you," he says. His voice is one that could inspire armies. "But I promise you I'll try."

"Thank you," you respond sincerely, unbending for the first time since you found him here. In another moment he is gone and you are alone, facing the future for the first time with a sense of hope.

~fin