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The Worm in the World

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It coiled at the center of the world, alone. This, it knew, was not as it should be. It required something to complete itself—a mate, or mates—but beyond that certainty of absence it knew nothing about what it was or how it had been reduced to this, this half-thing abandoned in a close wet firmament.

But it existed. If it existed, it must have a reason. It had better figure out that reason.

Begin with the basics. The world, it learned from the photoreceptors along its midline, was divided into darkness and light: very little visible-spectrum radiation penetrated the density above it and below and to one side of it, but one horizon, the nearest border of the world, was suffused with a faint warm glow. This horizon was shot through with a fine tracery of translucent webs, which it perceived as the colors red and blue. How did it know to bracket off those bands of the EM spectrum with names? Uncertain.

Where did it begin, where did it end? It shifted itself, probed its own boundaries. It was vast, it realized, though finite. Its body stretched halfway across the world’s span. But it could only move so far—it was tied down, it discovered, anchored by thousands of filaments and threads and membranes that grew from its flesh out into the world. It tested those filaments gingerly, found which ones were conduits of electric impulses, which ones of neurochemicals, which of cells suspended in fluid. Its body was shot through with the same kind of red and blue webs that laced the near horizon, and through those webs it found that and the rest of the world shared a system of inner tides, driven by the deep, slow, reassuring pulse of something high above in the dark.

Less reassuring were the patches of dorsal filaments that failed to respond to any type of stimulus. The tissue remained, but there was no way of knowing what their purpose had been. Whatever medium animated them had winked out, had drained away.

Could those bonds be cut, it wondered? Perhaps it was no longer safe to be pinioned here. It thrashed its body, head to tail, a single rippling muscular surge. No sign of give in the dead dorsal filaments.

But an instant later, an earthquake. A storm. Tremors, the firmament expanding and then descending with an alarming irregularity. A crackle of lightning, a downpour of chemical stimuli that it recognized as the leading edge of terror: fight or flight, life reduced to a basic binary system. And here, alone, the damp dark pressing in on it, it could do neither.

I’m moving, it heard in the vibrations that shivered the tissue of the world. I can feel it but I can’t—What do I do? I knew this could happen, but I never thought—

It could make meaning out of the earthquake, the worm realized. The world was alive, could communicate. They had communicated before. How did it know how to interpret these particular patterns of waves? A mystery, like the names of the colors. Maybe it had been created with the knowledge. Maybe—more frightening—it had learned at some point in the past, learned and lost the memory of learning.

Another wave of intelligible vibration rolled over it, cross-cutting the earth’s seismic shudder. A different, lower frequency dulled by passage through some less efficient medium. Not a part of the world, then, it sensed, or at least not directly contiguous. So there were other beings, then. Worlds beyond the world. Its sense of vastness diminished a little.

Breathe, said the new frequency. Breathe. Don’t hyperventilate. You’re having an anaphylactic reaction to the bite, but the antihistamine will bring the swelling down.

A shadow moved across the horizon, throwing the worm and the world into night. The cool of a chemical introduced suddenly into the world’s ecosystem, cascading down from above. Cool, it thought, dark. Blue. It squirmed again, wanting the light. Tested the thinner filaments nearer its tail. Another cascade of hormonal stimulus—flavors of panic it was beginning to recognize as belonging to names. Epinephrine. Norepinephrine. Cortisol. The structure of the world was growing tighter around it, the shape of the firmament raggedly distended.

Vibrations from below, unintelligible ones. The blue other, it sensed, had moved out of the world’s orbit. Light returned abruptly, a flood of red blistering on its photoreceptors.

You’d better not pass out on me, Lieutenant. This resonance was higher-frequency, accompanied by a faint static charge—something alien, electric, and alive had come in contact with the surface of the world. I’ve already got fifty kilos of vaccine to haul across a swamp, I’m not about to haul your deadweight as well.

To the worm’s surprise, the red other—brisk and ungentle though its vibrations were—had a quelling influence on the world. The world’s cortisol had gone down slightly since Blue had introduced the chemical into it, but that couldn’t explain all of the endocrine rush triggered by Red’s proximity. A savory cocktail. Norepinephrine, yes—activation—but also other, less defensive ingredients. It could name dopamine, estrogen, testosterone. (How?) The world was a little frightened of Red, it decided, but also excited by it. It wondered if that had something to do with the static charge.

At any rate, whatever Red was, it had the power to calm the storm. The pressure inside the world began to ease. Their shared pulse self-regulated, rapid but even.   

All right, rumbled the world. All right. I’m sorry, Major. Julian. I’ve just forgotten what it’s like to be…to be one thing. It’s so strange. A five-pointed shadow crossed the light. The worm felt a gentle pressure on the near horizon. I wonder if I can hear me.

No way of knowing that until we get those isoboromine levels up, I’m afraid. Blue’s frequency. A lower amplitude, this time. It’s hard to predict how exactly the bite’s going to affect it. The Lissepian colony is thirty kilometers to the west, though, and once we get there, with any luck they’ll have some sort of benzocyatic solution I can use to stabilize your bond long enough to—

Benzocyatic solution? In the colony that forgot to pack their malaria vaccine when they moved to a swamp?

There was a sharpness in the frequency that the worm recognized. Though the worm could not say how, it knew that this tone was habitual for the world, reached for automatically in times of discomfort or distress.

Touché. Though in their defense, they couldn’t have known that the Federation survey vessel had a couple of anopheles stowaways.

They still should have been more careful. Surveyors and colonists both. Ugh. How did Humans survive sharing a planet with those things for so long? If I’d been in charge of first contact, if I’d had even an inkling of what mosquitos were going to do to the rest of the quadrant, I’d have evacuated Earth and then nuked it from orbit.

A moment of uncomfortable quiet; a flicker of endorphins drowned by adrenal bitterness.

Anyway, I think we’d better assume no treatment before I get back to the station.

As a worst-case scenario, Blue said, tones clipped.

Then, the world, very low amplitude: How long are we looking at? Before. You know.

Twenty-two hours.

Red made a sound, hoarse and guttural and full of consonants.

Twenty-two hours? A wordless shudder, as though Red had struck some exterior surface against which the world lay. Of course there’s a time limit. Every away mission there has to be an impossible Prophets-damn time limit.

 

*  *  *

 

The world was growing dimmer. Not just because the source of the soft light now struck the worm’s photoreceptors at an indirect angle, but because the electric architecture that linked it to its living world had begun to fail. The decay wasn’t too far advanced yet, it thought. A few dead conduits, a few more patches of filaments that wouldn’t engage when it probed them. But the world was in trouble; more trouble than Blue had predicted. The worm shifted itself in frustration and wished it could remember something, anything, that it could do to patch up what was broken. Its body was so enormous and so strong—a single cord of powerful muscle—and yet all it could do was allow the world to carry it through space, feeling the rolling thunder of its speech and the slower, steady rocking motion of its transit, unable to free itself or to remember more than fleeting, unpredictable scraps of what it had been. 

It had learned, by attending to the intermittent broadcasts from Red and Blue, that the content of these broadcasts had a direct impact on the world’s nervous and endocrine systems. It suspected that Red and Blue were organisms that shared this structural trait. The world seemed especially concerned about its comrades’ endorphin levels and sought to manage them via that habitual tonal mechanism the worm had recognized earlier, a mechanism it could now name as “humor.” 

Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. The world was weakening, and humor did not always successfully mask this.

As it failed to do now, when Red and Blue finally noticed that the world had fallen far behind. Had stopped, in fact, and changed its posture, the worm’s weight shifting subtly forward in its hollow.

Blue’s resonance, when it reached them, was faint.

Jadzia? Blue called. Do you need another hypo?

No! No. Not yet. I just spotted what looks like some kind of giant bog orchid; I’m trying to figure out if there’s a way to collect it.

In fact, the world was having some difficulty with gas exchange, which the worm felt as a faint tingle in its filaments. Hypoxia would kill the bonds faster, it knew, but what could it do? The world regulated the atmospheric tides; the worm just had to live with them.

Evidently neither Red nor Blue was convinced by the world’s explanation. They approached, Blue’s light springy double-tap and Red’s swaggering stomp resounding through the substrate of space. The worm remembered something about fifty kilos, which it knew to be a measure of mass, and figured most of the fifty kilos had been added to Red.

A bog orchid? Really? Red, dubious.

A cascade of epinephrine disquiet through the world was carefully dammed up, prevented from spilling over into its vocal tone. 

Yeah, see? The blue thing, over there. You want to wade out and get it for me?

No thanks.

If it’s a new species I’ll name it after you.

Lieutenant, I did not survive the Occupation just to drown in a swamp trying to pick you a flower.

Come on, where’s your spirit of adventure?

Red’s resonance grew spikier, its amplitude shorter.

Oh, I don’t know, I must have lost it. Probably somewhere in the pile of scrap that used to be our runabout. Which, may I remind you, worked perfectly until a certain pilot’s spirit of adventure impelled them to fly us straight into a patch of ionizing radiation—

Hey, it was the weirdest ionization matrix I’ve ever seen, I couldn’t just let it pass!

—shorting our engines and our comms and stranding our little ‘routine humanitarian aid mission’ in the middle of mosquito-infested nowhere!

Let her alone, Major. Blue, leaping to the world’s defense. If not for the mosquito this would barely have been a diversion. It’s bad luck, is all. It could have happened to anyone.

Oh no. Through the thinness of space the worm felt the hum of Red’s frustration. No, this kind of ridiculous disaster only ever happens to Starfleet. When we get back to DS9, I’m putting in for a transfer. Let someone else handle the holo-ghosts and viral possession and—and temporal vortexes!

You wouldn’t!

The tone was light but the worm tasted the world’s indignation, a wash of emotional distress overlaying the low constant ripple of physical discomfort. Yet another disjuncture between meaning, expression, and body chemistry. The worm wondered if the world was aware itself of how complex its interactions with Red were. Blue it related to in a straightforward oxytocin-forward fashion, but Red…Red was a puzzle.

Watch me. Red paused. You know how many vortexes I fell through running away missions for the Resistance? None. And since I got ‘promoted’ to your staff, as the Provo powers-that-be so generously put it? Four. Four vortexes.

‘Vortices.’

What?

The plural. It’s ‘vortices.’

Doctor.

Yes, Major?

This is why no one likes you.

 

*  *  *

 

Doctor, we don’t have time for this. Shoot them up and let’s get moving again.

Major—

That’s an order, Doctor.

I don’t take orders on medical matters. Blue, in a chilly blue tone. Sir.

The world, for the moment, lay dormant. Red and Blue were arguing, far enough distant that the worm suspected they didn’t want the world to hear. The surface of the world was pressed against the substrate of space, though, and that substrate was an excellent medium for carrying sound. It listened to them, wary and curious. By now it had figured out that the cadences of the two others’ voices were radically different, did not follow the same structural rules, yet it could understand them both and they could understand each other. How? What if, it wondered, with a shiver of existential disquiet, each of them was a world in its own right, with its own worm at its heart? And what if each of those worlds was itself a kind of worm, linked to a still greater world by invisible filaments, sharing concepts through those filaments the way the worm shared its world’s basic physical and emotional ecosystem?

But this kind of contemplation was difficult for it. Technical details had returned the fastest—terms for the physical properties of its environment—along with glimpses of a broader universe, mostly hydrological. It was in abstract thought that it noticed its incompleteness. It needed its mate to philosophize. 

We have to ration the diphenhydramine, Blue went on, a little gentler, and she can’t keep going at this pace.

I know that. Red was moving in restless circles. I know that. But they can’t lie there forever either. We have sixteen hours to get back to the station, the suns are setting and there are still twelve klicks left of this fucking swamp.

Five more minutes. We’ll get her up in five. Then another eight milliliters—

And then we move on.

Agreed. A pause. Major, we’ll make it. She’ll be all right. 

They! Red’s resonance was unexpectedly savage.

I’m sorry?

You always do that. Call them ‘she’. Like there’s just one of them.

Well…yes. We do lunch every few shifts, you know, I think she’d have said by now if it bothered her. Why do you always use the plural? There’s no Joint-singular case in Dahkurja or in English; anything we say is going to be an approximation.

An hour ago you jumped down my throat for saying ‘vortexes’ and now you’re fine with approximation.

That’s different. English loanword, English rules. Well, Latin loanword via English, Latin rules, but—never mind. But do you really want to start using the Tawi’ pronoun as a loanword? All sixteen unpronounceable agglutinative syllables of it?

No. Not that, I mean, they’ve as good as said not to bother.

‘Not unless you can grow a second hyoid,’ I believe, was the line.

It’s just, the singular, it…doesn’t feel right somehow. Especially not now.

Now that they’re separated.

Now it’s clear that they can’t be separated. I mean, I knew in theory that the worm in there was them, same as the parts of them that walk and talk and joke around and, you know, have pretty lichen spots…But seeing them like this, acting so much like themself but so obviously…Damn it, there really isn’t a way to talk about this in Dahkurja!

She’ll be all right, Major.

Stop saying that! No, she won’t. Not if they don’t make it. And we have sixteen hours.

In the silence that followed, the worm’s neural fibers wrestled with this new information. There was a depth of social context underlying the tension between Red and Blue that remained opaque to it, but it was clear that they were arguing about the world. The world, and whether it was one or more than one. When the worm had awakened, alone, it had known at once that it shared part of its matter with the living ecosystem around it. But what if—it sampled the notion cautiously, like an unknown chemical—what if the world and it were not supposed to be cognitively separate, either? What if their thoughts, their actions, were supposed to be as mutual and simultaneous as their grosser neurochemical responses? Them, Red had insisted. The worm in the world was them. Joint-singular.

The worm turned this theory over, and turned it over, and found it had the texture of truth. It was a visceral inference, comforting and terrifying in equal measure. Comforting because it told them something about who they were and how they were situated in the universe. Terrifying because it meant that, with every little neurochemical light that went out, they were ceasing to exist.  

 

*  *  *

 

Just another step. And careful around the muck—agh! Sorry. That’s it. There you are.

I’m not a toddler, Julian. That was the world, faint and strained, the resonance pushed through a vessel too narrow for it.

Sorry, Jadzia. Major, can you get her from here? I’ll go prep the hypo.

I’ve got them. Red, their voice amplified by the stretch of their surface that now directly adjoined the world’s. For now. You know, you’re heavier than you look.

Thanks a lot, Major.

The world lurched forward onto slightly more stable substrate. Although the chemical conduits that ran between the world and the worm were growing thinner by the minute, the worm could still feel the ghost of their relief. It had been an uncomfortable hour: the quivering substance through which the world moved had exacerbated their trouble with oxygen exchange, and numbness had spread to part of the worm’s own tail end.

Darkness had descended on the near horizon, too, so the worm lacked even that rudimentary form of sensory input. All that remained to them was their vestibular sense—the sense that told them the world was being let down, laid out carefully on the substrate—their ability to perceive static and resonance, and the fading savor of the world’s endocrine system.

Light taps heralded the return of Blue. The weight of the world shifted, involuntarily, the worm thought. Another cold rush of something running down the world’s ribs, precipitating a faint flush of fresh oxygen. 

How are you feeling? Blue, low amplitude. The gentle, the concerned bedside-manner Blue.

Good. Better.

You’ve looked better. You look awful.

Careful, Major, thrummed the world. All this flattery might go to my head.

What the Major no doubt meant to say, Blue interjected, is that we’re concerned there’s more than a simple histamine reaction going on here. I don’t know enough about Trill physiology to predict how a mosquito bite is going to affect all the parts of your…system…and—

And you’re going purple.

Well, purple always was my color.

Jadzia! exclaimed Blue, at the same moment as Red barked Lieutenant!

Too obvious? I’ll think up a more creative line next time.

That well-worn tone had the flavor of desperation. The world was furiously deploying humor against the advance of pain and weakness and frustration, but they couldn’t even manage to keep their own endorphin levels up, let alone those of their comrades.

I’d like to take some blood, run it through what’s left of the tricorder, Blue went on, and figure out how to stabilize you until the suns come up. And in the meantime, you should rest. Both of you, Blue added.

I’m fine. I’ll keep watch.

You’ve been carrying almost the entire weight of the vaccine shipment, almost the entire day. If you’re not prone by the time I finish setting up the field scan, Major, I’m going to make it an order.

You’re welcome to try.

Blue’s double-tap moved irritably away across the firmer substrate. Red’s presence lingered. They shucked off a weight, scuffled around in a heterogeneous pile of textures for a few moments, made another consonant-heavy aggressive sound when they evidently failed to find what they were looking for.

Major. Shouldn’t you be, as our good doctor put it, prone? The world’s tone was airy, but they were barely able to produce more a harsh whisper. The worm felt their voice mostly through their chest now, not as a presence in the thin space beyond.

I’m not sleepy. Also, shush. Save your breath.

You won’t let him have anything without a fight, will you?

He gives as good as he gets.

I know, I’ve been listening to you go at it for the last fourteen hours. But you usually start it.

Red let out a long loud rushing sound.

He’s just so…Starfleet. No offense. All the optimism. The do-gooding. The Prophets-damn confidence, the certainty that he’s always right and that everyone loves him—

A pause. A pause in which the worm, attenuated though its bond to the rest of the world was, felt a distinct, incongruous spike in that norepinephrine-dopamine-testosterone-estrogen solution.

This doesn’t have anything to do with the lunch dates, does it? Because if it did, hypothetically—

Red exclaimed something less aggressive, though still a tangle of consonants, and shook a kind of crinkly metallic material out across the world. The worm felt the world being rocked from side to side, brief static brushes from Red’s surface, a sudden flush of warmth from the thin medium of space outside.

There. Knew I managed to salvage one of those blankets. There’s still half a bottle of water left; you should have some before you crash out.

The world was lifted, held, hydrated. The confusion, the cold of hypoxia mingled strangely with the endocrine tides drawn by the proximity of Red’s surface. And still, still the determined stabs at humor.

This is nice, the world murmured. You, tucking me in. Getting me a glass of water. Can you sing me something?

Red snorted.

In your dreams, Lieutenant.

Fine, then, help me think up a dream program for dream you to sing. That time I caught you in the turbolift—you’re a tenor, right? You know any arias from Gav’ot—

Red made an awkward strangled noise.

Oh, for the—you just do not quit, do you?

What?

With the stupid jokes! After everything that’s happened! You know, I always assumed it was Curzon who made your stupid jokes, but I guess it’s all of you, isn’t it? I guess I know now to be mad at all of you when you say something…well, like that.

Like what?

Like all today. Pick me a flower, Major. Sing me something, Major. Pretend you’re going to—it’s not professional and it’s not—Prophets! Why can’t you just take something seriously? For once? There was a raw edge to Red’s resonance. I’m terrified, Dax. And you’re purple, and you’re making fun of me.

A five-spoked surface of Red’s came down on the near horizon with a jolt of static. It was the first time they’d felt Red so close, close enough for a flush of warmth from their surface to break through the metallic material and the matter of the world and reach the worm deep down where they lay. Almost involuntarily the worm turned toward it, arched themself into the heat. The world made a small sound. Red’s surface jumped as if in surprise, but they didn’t pull away.

Was that—?

Yes. That was. The world was breathless, all its humor spent. And I didn’t know I was going to do it beforehand. Like I’m—like it’s not even me.

Oh, Dax.

You think you’re terrified? the world went on. You think I’m not? I’m trying to keep going, just running on the familiar old paths in my brain as long as I can, but this whole time I’ve known, really—really what I am is dead.

Dax!

I am! You want to understand me on my own terms, I know that. But you can’t. Because I’m not like you. I’m not a man, or a woman, or a worm, I’m Joined. I’m a bunch of chemical and electrical seams stitching up three hundred years into one mismatched assortment of body parts. And those seams have unraveled. And all I’ve got left is stupid Jadzia with their stupid jokes and a bunch of stupid things they’re too scared to say and this stupid, silent parasite that’s still kicking around in my ribs.   

Dax.

And Starfleet. I guess I’ve still got my pips.

Dax.

Promise me something.

I don’t like where this is going.

This mission. The vaccine, those wildly underprepared colonists—if it comes down to a choice, you and Julian are going to finish all that. Starfleet’s going to save the day.

You’re going to save the day with us.

Now you sound like Julian.

The worm heard, and the worm assembled missing pieces of information slowly in their neural fibers, and then the worm felt, with a rush of borrowed hormones, the onset of terror that was all their own. The world was trying to make Red promise to leave them, even if their existence might end.

The worm registered their objection in the only way they could: they hurled themself toward the horizon, as far as the filaments would let them. Some fine strand of tissue snapped near their tail. The world gasped and moved that five-pointed part of themself over the near horizon, overlaying the five-pointed static shadow of Red.

I don’t think the worm agrees with you, Red said.

The worm might make it. It can put itself in stasis; it’ll last for a little while, after. Maybe long enough to survive. If you call in an away team from the colony, if you can find us again out here.

Instead of responding, Red stretched themself out beside the world. The part of them that was nearest remained where it was, but they felt the heat and charge and pressure of Red bloom suddenly all along one of the world’s borders. Even dulled by the loss of cells and nerves, the sensory input was overwhelming. For the world, too, thought the worm. The pulse high up in the world picked up its tempo, and the worm felt the echo of a second pulse reverberating through the firmament, falling gradually into time with the world’s.

Against the world’s edge Red began to resonate. A strange kind of resonance: quiet, deeper in pitch than Red’s speaking voice and more varied in tone. It was a moment before the worm realized that there was still content in the resonance, albeit content that was difficult to decipher. They heard the names of colors, of landscape features recalled in a flash of visual memory, of some kind of nutrient they remembered trying back when they and the world had shared a palate. Other clusters of waves never resolved into words. But they sensed that Red was communicating less with words than with the shape of the sounds themselves, sounds rising and falling, airy and long and low, sculpting hills and hollows and lush floodplains in the joined expanse of their bodies. Almost like a kind of neurochemical, they thought. Shared emotion unmediated by meaning.

The worm wasn’t sure how long they all stayed locked in that shared resonance, but they were sorry when it was gone.

Thought so. The world, scarcely any resonance left of their own. Tenor. Real light, real pretty.

Sorry I don’t know any Klingon arias.

No, I liked it. What does it mean—‘jahdi, jahdi’?

Name of a plant. From the Dahkur hills. Bitter but edible, hard-winter food. The Cardassians played it over the camp radio all the time when I was a kid, before they realized what we were actually singing about and banned it.

So what’s it about, really?

Holding on. Holding on with everything you’ve got. Because winter won’t last forever.

The world did not reply.

 

*  *  *

 

Sometime around dawn, the world began to end.

The worm realized it had gone dormant only once it was awakened by a harsh, forced gasp from the darkness above. The whole firmament shuddered around it. Aside from that horrible sound and a faint glow behind the filigree on the near horizon, it could perceive almost nothing. The filaments that bound it to the world—electrical, chemical, material—were dead, the atmosphere too thin for consciousness to persist very long. It was alone.

They, it reminded itself, it was a they. Joint-singular. But who were they without the world?

It was not ready to cease to exist. Maybe the world had made peace with the idea, but life, for the worm, was still raw and new and full of so many unsampled textures and tastes and impulses. It knew it could go into stasis—the world had told Red as much. It could wait out the apocalypse, maybe wait long enough to be found and resituated in another cosmos. But then it wouldn’t be them anymore. Not the same them. It didn’t want to let themself go before it knew what it meant to be them.

So what could it do?

The worm listened. The pulse that drove the tides was still audible, though faint—almost as faint as the second pulse, Red’s pulse, which it could feel stirring evenly in the hollow of the world. Red was still nearby, then. Close enough, maybe, for the worm to communicate with them.

It leapt, insofar as it was possible for it to leap in its cooling cradle of tissue. Filaments snapped. A little blood seeped sluggishly from torn capillaries. The worm pushed towards the horizon, towards the electric shadow that overspread the dawn, once, twice, a third time.

The tempo of Red’s pulse changed. The shadow twitched.

It pushed again, a fourth time, a fifth time. Another gasp forced its way out of the world.

Dax? Red’s voice, muzzy and confused. Then sharper, Dax!

Red pressed down on the horizon, close enough that the worm could convey its motion to them without risking any more damage to itself or the world or the red-blue webs. It rippled a sixth and a seventh time, just to make sure Red knew it was there, was alive, wanted to stay that way.

Doctor! Red’s frequency was rising, shrill and piercing. Wake up and get over here. Something’s wrong. Something’s really wrong.

Something was really wrong. The worm felt fluid washing against it where there should not have been fluid, felt its awareness fade as stasis took it, unwilling—

 

 

*  *  *

 

Out in space, Red and Blue were fighting.

There has to be another solution! Blue was shouting. We can’t just jettison the vaccine—even if we managed to find it again, it’s photosensitive, it won’t last another day out here. And that’s the mission, remember? Remember that—missions, duty? I’ll figure it out, I’ll figure something out.

Will you figure it out before they stop breathing?

I will! Her pulmonary function is stabilized for now, and—and I always figure out some kind of strategy before time runs out. Maybe I can synthesize benzocyanin out of her blood sample—

With what fucking lab?

I don’t know, just give me a minute—

Stop pretending some third option is going to magically pop into your head! You’re not going to be that hero, not this time. This is a choice: either we save the vaccine or we save Lieutenant Dax, and you can’t order more Dax by the case from Starfleet fucking Medical Supply!

Look, I know what I want to do. I’m as terrified as—I can’t even imagine—But might be a week before they can formulate another batch of vaccines tailored to Lissepian systems, and another week to ship them. People will get sick. People might die. Give me a minute to figure this out.

We don’t have a minute. Doctor, if you’re going to help me, help. If not I’m going to pick them up myself and I’m going to carry them til I can’t carry them any longer, and then I’m going to drag them on my hands and knees through the swamp til we either reach the colony or we drown. Either way, I’m done arguing with you. You people have had so many Prophets-damn miraculous deliverances that you can’t even make a choice when it means life or death.

A pause.  

But the choice you’re making, Major—it’s the wrong choice. Jadzia said so herself.

Maybe she did. They aren’t so sure.

You mean the symbiont.

I mean Dax. All of them.

Another pause.

I know what I want to do.

Would you feel better if I pulled a phaser on you?

Maybe. No. No. I have to take responsibility for my own actions.

All right. Get their feet, then, while I get their head.

But on the record, choosing one person over a whole colony is wrong.

And I’m not Starfleet. I don’t have to make the right choice.

 

*  *  *

 

Motion, swaying. Stumbling.

The world shook around the worm, rolling from side to side in whatever flexible medium was supporting it. The worm struggled awake. Their pulse was still there, but not much else.

Another stumble. They were moving over that unstable substrate again, sinking with every other step. Red and Blue were both out of breath. The worm could hear their pulses hammering at both ends of the world.

Another stumble. The world slipped, a dizzying plunge for an instant towards the unknown.

This is impossible. Red. I can’t coordinate our steps over this kind of terrain.

That’s a polite way of pointing out, panted Blue, that I can’t keep up with you.

I wasn’t going to say anything. I know you’ve invested a lot in this whole hero persona—  

Don’t rub it in. Look, what matters is how to get Jadzia on a transport as soon as possible. We should be, I think, a kilometer to the settlement. Not that I can measure exactly with this useless bloody thing, but. If you think it would be quicker, over that short distance, for one person to carry—them…Maybe you should go ahead.

It might be. The worm thought it recognized a note of surprise in Red’s resonance, maybe a note of grudging respect. 

You take them then. I’ll follow.  

All right. Help me shift them—there. Ow. Prophets damn.

The worm felt itself swinging through space, striking with an audible thump against the surface of Red. Red staggered for a moment, slipped, but held on. With a groan and a burst of profane consonants, Red shouldered the world.

Dax, if you can hear me in there, Red rumbled, you’re buying my drinks for a year.

I’ll hold them to that, said Blue. Now go be the hero. Run.   

 

*  *  *

 

Brighter light on the horizon, almost yellow-pale. Many voices, a heady jumble of frequencies. Some high-pitched unintelligible chime sounding steadily in the background.

In the distance the worm picked out Red’s tenor, ragged with exhaustion.

Yes, Commander, Red was saying, a mosquito. No, we had no idea. Yes, as soon as possible.

A different voice replied—one the worm was sure it hadn’t heard since the beginning of its existence but which stirred something deep in its neural fibers. Even distorted and flattened by some additional transmission medium, the voice was familiar. Twice-familiar. For the first time since the collapse of its link with the world, the worm felt certain that everything was going to work out, that the worst was past, that they were back on familiar ground.        

Chief? At warp nine, how long to Umoth V?

That’s…one hour and twenty-six minutes, sir, if you want to push it.

Red released a long, long, furious-sounding breath.

Times two, Red muttered, makes exactly twenty-one hours, fifty-four minutes.

What was that, Major?

Oh, nothing. Just try not to get caught in a temporal vortex or anything on the way.

 

*  *  *

 

The same pinging, rustling, clamorous space. Red and Blue, speaking quietly.

Major, you’ve been heroic enough for one day. You’re dehydrated, you’ve got a sprained wrist, and if you go you won’t make it back in time to meet the runabout. You’ll be stranded here at least another day. With the mosquitos. And—lower-frequency—and the Lissepians.

I can’t do anything else for Dax. Red was moving again in their trademark tight circles. And I can’t just sit here waiting.

I think you’ll find you can, if you really set your mind to it.

No. No, I have to go back. I have to try.

You were the one who kept insisting we had to choose, Major! What was it you said? No third option? Well, we made a choice. And I’m glad we did. And we’ll both deal with the disciplinary committee when that time comes, but in the meantime—

Bashir.

Kira?

Thank you for helping me make the wrong choice. Now let me fix it. Let me try to do things the Starfleet way, for once.

Kira—

Keep Dax out of trouble til I get back.

As it slipped into stasis it tasted them one last time, a warm brief blush of static.

 

*  *  *

 

Their eyes opened onto light so clean and stark it almost hurt. Full-spectrum light falling from a panel somewhere just out of their range of vision, washing evenly over the planes of their body. At first it was too much; they shut their eyes again. They felt a flash of surprise and delight at finding they were able to close their eyes, then, a moment later, wondered why they were so surprised. Of course they could close their eyes. How else were they supposed to sleep? They reached up, their arms curiously leaden, and rubbed their eyes with the heels of their hands, the pressure sparking spiderwebs of red and blue on the inside of their eyelids.

Beside them, they heard a sharp intake of breath. Heard footsteps—swift, swaggering footsteps muffled by industrial carpet.

Dax opened their eyes.

Above them, against the light, was the face of a woman. She was pale and drawn, black gaze underscored by purple shadows, but her hair was bright as a lick of flame and her red, red mouth was open in a breathless smile.

“You’re back!” exclaimed the woman, and she laid her hand lightly, carelessly, in the hollow of their abdomen. They felt her twice, once as five fingers sparking over the surface of their skin and then, somewhere deep inside them, as an impression of warmth and pressure and a flavor of static that was as distinctive as the outline of her face.

Her name, her rank—they knew those words for her now. But the texture of her touch had a different name and it was that name that welled up from their throat, almost before they were aware of it.

“Red,” they said, and they moved under her fingertips.

The day was coming back to them in fits and starts. They remembered the ‘routine humanitarian aid mission’ briefing, the ion storm, the crash, swatting some kind of insect on their forearm. And then two sets of memories, just two, both of which felt like they belonged to someone else. Two impressions of utter solitude. Breathlessness, pain, existential panic. And Major Kira, the one bright thread patching those memories together. If they remembered nothing else about the day, they remembered Major Kira. They remembered stumbling through a sun-blistered expanse of swamp, drawn forward by the rust-red beacon of the Major’s back. They remembered the stupid jokes they’d made to keep her spirits up and to hide, even from themself, the things they really wanted to say to her. And they also remembered a weird intimacy that bloomed as Jadzia—the defensive, self-contained parts of Jadzia—faded away. They remembered naming the precise chemical ways in which the Major’s closeness aroused them. They remembered feeling her voice in their body, being literally moved by a song.

Their respiration, their pulse quickened. Ironic, they thought, that the worm alone was able to figure out in minutes what all of them had managed to repress for a year.

They reached for her hand.  

And then the rest of their returning humanoid senses caught up with them, and the Major processed what Dax had said a moment before, and the Major said, “Wait, what about red?” at the exact moment Dax coughed, “Oh wow, did a vole die in the vent or something?”

It was a truly rancid smell, the smell of death and damp earth and the pair of unclaimed racquetball shorts that had lain bunched up on the station’s locker room floor for the last month. It was enough to make part of them—the part of them that still remembered what it was like to be a worm—wish that they were tucked away again in a smaller world, shielded from the horrors of outer space.    

Major Kira’s face fell.

“Is it that bad?” she mumbled. “I stole a terrarium from Dr. O’Brien to put it in, but I guess it’s still not…not as airtight as I’d hoped.”

“What,” said Dax carefully, breathing through their mouth, “are you talking about?”

Instead of answering, the Major reached over and plucked something off the console next to the bio-bed. She held it out to them, tentative. Almost shy. As though it were a gift.

In her hands was a glass sphere occupied by a single fist-sized blue flower. Its petals were broad and fleshy, spotted with livid hues of bruise-purple, and its stamen protruded black and stippled like a strangled tongue. The carapace of a fly, partly dissolved, drifted in a pool of enzymes at its heart. It looked like a corpse. It stank like a corpse. But it was a gift from Major Kira, and so it was the most beautiful flower Dax had ever seen, in all their seven lifetimes.

They took the terrarium from her, turned it around, held it up to the light, suddenly oblivious to the plant’s overwhelming odor of mortality.

“I don’t believe it,” they breathed. “The bog orchid.”

The Major shrugged, avoided their eyes.

“You said you wanted one.”

“You madwoman. I was joking. When did you—”

“After,” she said, shifting from foot to foot. “I was holding it, apparently, when the Lissepian search party found me. They may not be so good at transport logistics, but they’re really, really good at navigating a swamp. We should have had more faith in them.”

“Wait, back up—what search party?”

“For me. And the vaccines. After I went back for them. Turns out I don’t have Starfleet luck.” 

“Went back?” They blinked at her over the terrarium’s glass arch. “You mean you and Julian—”

“Long story. Read my personnel file if you want the details; it’s all in there under Conduct Unbecoming an Officer. The point is you’re here, you’re safe, you’re you again, and I don’t regret a Prophets-damn thing.”

A complicated tangle of emotions was working itself out in Dax’s chest. Shame, gratitude, anger, relief. Hadn’t they told her to complete the mission, whatever it took? Hadn’t they reminded her that they were Starfleet, that this was their duty, that if they had to die in a ridiculous disaster at least they’d die knowing they’d done the right thing? But at the same time, it wasn’t like all of them had signed up for Starfleet. Part of them—seven parts of them, their crowd of formers and the worm itself—had been thrown into it by the Symbiosis Commission with no say in the matter. And they, too, were themself. How could they begrudge the part of them that valued wholeness, valued life, over the chilly comfort of duty? How could they begrudge Kira, who’d heard what they’d been too scared to tell her outright?

“I don’t know what to say,” they murmured at last.

“You could say thank you. It’s what the Commander said, after he finished yelling about how irresponsible I am. Right after he finished explaining why he wasn’t going to allow the Provos transfer me off the station, ‘disciplinary liability’ or not.”

Dax took a deep breath. They looked at her. Red. The hand that had heard them, the second pulse that had lived for a while in their chest. Red, savior of the world.

“Thank you,” they said. The sincerity almost hurt.

“You’re welcome.” Kira let silence linger in the air between them for a moment. Then she added, “You should thank Julian, too, when he gets back. He took the whole Conduct Unbecoming an Officer thing a lot harder than I did.”

“Oh bless him, his first strike.” Dax sensed an opportunity to cut the tension; leapt at it. “What have you done to his pure, virginal record?”

Somewhat to their surprise, the wisecrack landed. Kira relaxed and broke into a grin—one of those startling grins that transfigured her entire face, sharp and bright as a sunrise.

“I do feel a little responsible for him, now,” she admitted.

“And that’s why you’re calling him Julian!” Dax exclaimed, the laugh rising in their chest threatening to spill over. “Must be serious, if you’re on first-name terms. You know you don’t have to marry him, right?”

A flush crept up from the collar of Kira’s uniform. Little blossoms of red on the back of her neck, her cheekbones.

“You know, once I would have blamed Curzon for that,” she snorted, “but now I know better. Julian and I have just been talking, or at least fighting more…nicely…and there you go making it into another stupid joke. You’re just allergic to earnestness, aren’t you? All of you.”

“And that’s why you like me,” they ventured, idly turning the terrarium over in their fingertips.

The flush deepened. Red hair, red uniform, rosy abashed face. Part of them, they figured, would never be able to think of her as anything but Red.

“Did Julian happen to tell you about the lunch dates, during all this talking?” they went on, emboldened. “Did he tell you that I turned him down twice, that despite all appearances he’s a grown-up who can take no for an answer, that we’re honestly just good friends? I don’t suppose that would have anything to do with why he’s ‘Julian’ now, would it?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Kira growled. Brilliant, flaming red.

“All right, all right, have it your way.” Dax held their hands up, palms out, in that near-universal humanoid gesture of peace. “Just saying. If he rates a ‘Julian’, I hope I rate a ‘Jadzia’.”

“You’re impossible. Fine. Jadzia.”

“And,” they went on, “do I get to call you Nerys?”

Kira let out an exaggerated sigh, but Dax thought they spotted a glimmer of amusement in those black eyes. 

“As long as I’m still Major in Ops. None of you Starfleet types take the Militia seriously as it is.”

“I’ll remember that,” they assured her, trying to keep their tone light, trying to hide how much it thrilled them to feel that name on their tongue, between their teeth. “Nerys.”

They were beginning to blush themself, they realized. As a distraction they held the horrible, wonderful orchid close to their face, breathing in its aroma of rotting flesh, of standing water. If I were a fly, they thought, this would be lethally intoxicating. They’d never seen anything quite like it—it was compelling enough as it was. Or maybe that was just the Nerys connection. After all, it proved that she thought about them, cared about them, more than her prickly public persona would let her admit. And if she was willing to risk getting caught bringing her science officer flowers, maybe that persona was starting to soften a little, anyway.

“Nerys,” they repeated, savoring the name. “Nerys, thank you. For saving my life. And for the orchid. It’s beautiful.”

“If you say so.”

“It’s beautiful,” they insisted, “and I can’t wait to write the paper. I promised I’d name it after you, didn’t I? You’ll be immortal. I’ll call it…Pogonia graveolens nerysii.

Nerysiae.”

Dax looked up, startled. A lean, lanky specter hovered in the doorway, blue-jacketed, a shock of untidy hair falling over one eye. Blue, they thought twice, with a rush of affection and exasperation. Good old Blue, here to spoil the moment.

Nerysiae, not nerysii,” Julian went on earnestly. “You want the feminine singular genitive suffix, yes? So, Pogonia graveolens nerysiae, Nerys’s foul-smelling swamp flower. Also, why are you out of bed, Kira? Also, good God, get that thing out of my infirmary!”

“Julian—” they began. “Nerys—”

Nerys’s foul-smelling swamp flower?!” Nerys hissed, fists curling into little knots of wrath.

Julian looked from Dax, to Nerys, to Dax again, his expression all wounded innocence.

Dax couldn’t help it—they burst out laughing. It was the first time they’d laughed since being stitched back together, they realized, and as they laughed part of them held back and marveled at the intricate, improbable beauty of that interplay of muscle and breath. They laughed, and they felt the contraction of their diaphragm like a vast movement of the heavens, and they felt the endorphins wash over them like a flood, and the seven and two and one of them all thought at once I/we are here, I/we are whole, I/we are going to hold onto this world with everything I/we have.

“Julian,” Dax gasped, relief resounding all through their manifold being, “this is why no one likes you.”