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Seven days ago
The world receded behind an infinite vista of radiant white, until all that remained was the beating of his heart -- the steady rhythm that kept him anchored to his life on the linear plane. He found his hand, long brown fingers flexing above his open palm, just as he had done during his original encounter with the Prophets. And like that first time, he came to understand that he was not alone.
But he had intuited from the start that this was not to be another meeting with the wormhole entities. His sudden need to experience the Orb that had guided him here had come from his vague sense of a different sort of connection, one deep in the center of his being...something that transcended even the most intimate relationships of his linear life. As his awareness continued to spread outward, he started to recognize those who were already assembled here: seven others who had, like him, been drawn by necessity to this place that was not a place, at a time when there was no time. He walked forward into a circle of Emissaries.
A gathering of men named Benjamin Sisko.
They looked at one another across the whiteness, men from different universes; each one, like him, born by design, and each of whom in time -- despite how differently their lives had unfolded -- had met his destiny on a world called Bajor.
Ben felt the void at once, a cold and yawning emptiness very close by, like a missing piece of his soul. To his immediate right, there was a break in the circle. Someone was missing.
"I take it," he said, "that we're here to do something about the hole in our ranks."
"Not us," said one of the others. "You."
Ben's gaze fixed upon the speaker, a clean-shaven civilian wearing the formal attire of a Federation diplomat, and as their identical eyes met, his counterpart's life and the world from which he came were suddenly an open book: Ambassador Sisko of the UFP Diplomatic Corps, who had lost his wife Jennifer on Cardassia Prime during a suicide attack by Kohn-Ma terrorists, even as he was trying to negotiate the withdrawal of Cardassia's military forces from Bajor....
Ben heard his heart beating faster. He focused on the sound, followed it back to his true self, realizing that it would be all too easy to become lost in the alternate lives arrayed around him. "I don't understand."
"He was your responsibility," someone else said. Ben turned and focused past the break in the circle, where another counterpart was gesturing toward the vacant space between them. What appeared to be a dagger was sheathed in the sashlike belt of his gaudy metallic uniform: Fleet Captain Sisko, the military governor of Bajor under a Terran Empire that never fell, the livid scar across his right, sightless eye the only legacy of the father who had betrayed him. "It was your task to reach him, to convince him to take his place among us."
"What are you talking about?" Ben asked. "I never even met our counterpart in that reality. How is anything about him or that universe my responsibility?"
"You ignored the signs," the imperial said.
"What signs? Every crossover was their doing, except for the first one, and that was entirely by accident!" As he spoke, the events of that original contact came back to him: Nerys and Julian's runabout mysteriously malfunctioning as it entered the wormhole, out of control until it emerged, inexplicably, in the alternate universe of the Intendant.
Then he paused, comprehension slowly dawning...along with the terrible realization that he had been blind to a pattern that had been there before him all along.
"It wasn't an accident at all," Ben said. "The Prophets wanted our two universes to connect."
"You're starting to understand," said another civilian, this one full-bearded and wearing a blue laboratory jumpsuit: Dr. Sisko of the Daystrom Institute, whose discovery of the wormhole years after the terrible accident that had claimed the life of his sister had led, not to strife, but to a new renaissance of art, science, and philosophy -- and to a spreading social revolution in which the free exchange of knowledge and ideas was catalyzing a gradual dismantling of the familiar galactic nation-states in favor of a loose but stable interstellar sprawl. "Every other crossover was initiated by their side, just as you said," the scientist continued. "And more tellingly, they all occurred by transporter. But your Kira and Bashir's runabout went through the wormhole to get there and back that first time, and you never stopped to consider the possibility that it wasn't a random event, or that your two universes seemed unusually permeable in the Bajoran system after that first event. You never wondered why no one in that universe ever opened their Temple Gates, despite the presence of a Sisko in that continuum. Not even after you learned the truth about your origins...that Benjamin Sisko does not exist by accident, in any universe."
"The Sisko of the Intendant's dimension," Ben realized. "He was supposed to have become their Emissary."
"That's the only reason any of us exist," said still another counterpart, his uniform an odd amalgam of Starfleet and Militia design: Colonel Sisko of the Celestial Union -- from the universe where Bajor was the nucleus of a vast planetary alliance that stretched from Cardassia to Earth -- who had discovered the wormhole at the height of a savage and protracted war with the Tholians...a conflict that had claimed the lives of both his parents. "We're each born onto a path we're meant to walk," the colonel continued, "but his life -- his reality -- made him the most reluctant of us, the one least open to accepting the role we're all meant to fulfill."
"Cowardice" was the judgment of Admiral Sisko, widower and hero of Wolf 359, whose Federation had long ago absorbed the Klingons, the Romulans, the Cardassians, even the Tzenkethi and the Breen. "The fear to believe in ourselves has always been our greatest enemy. That was where you came in."
"You're telling me I was supposed to have gotten through to him somehow."
"Not alone," said Sisko of the Borg, his mechanically aided voice reverberating as it passed through his dull gray lips. "Never alone. But it was your job to keep your eye on the ball." Ben repressed a shudder at seeing the fate he knew he himself had only narrowly escaped. But his revulsion was tempered by fascination -- that in a universe where the collective had overrun Earth and then pushed on through the Federation toward Bajor, the Prophets' plan for Benjamin Sisko had still come to fruition, even for one so wounded in body, mind, and soul.
"But why me?" Ben wanted to know. "You all seem to have understood my task when I didn't even know I had one. Why wasn't it one of you?"
"Because next to him, you were the slowest of us to accept who you really are," came the answer from the Sisko whose life seemed most like his own...until the death of his only son aboard the Saratoga, a loss from which he never recovered. Broken and consumed by grief, it destroyed his marriage, his career, and almost his will to live. But time and destiny eventually swept him to Bajor, and thus to the truth, as they had for every other Emissary. "Helping him would have helped you to reach a better understanding of yourself much sooner, to think outside your comfort zone, so you could have better prepared your Bajor for the trials ahead."
And there it was -- as it had been during the throes of the rapture that had led to his rediscovery of B'hala, and again during his tutelage in the Temple -- a fleeting glimpse of the pattern that held the Tapestry together, spanning past, present, and future...now coupled with the real possibility that he himself was responsible, because of actions he had failed to take, for putting it all at risk.
"What happens now?" he asked.
"Our most immediate concern," the admiral said, "is that the deserter's continuum is now vulnerable to the threat from your side."
"You'll know soon," said the scientist. "Events are proceeding quickly in both realities."
"The damage may already be too great for the outcome we're hoping for," warned the imperial.
"If the circle isn't complete, the Tapestry will unravel," the colonel countered. "That musn't happen."
"What must I do?" Ben asked.
And they told him.
"Are you all right?" Opaka Sulan asked after she had closed the Orb casket.
Ben nodded, but it was mostly reflex. The truth was, he was overcome with a profound sense of loss. Some of his previous experiences with the Tears had left him feeling either exhilarated or drained, physically and emotionally. But this was something else, something more disturbing; this time in the Orb's embrace he'd felt whole in a way he'd never experienced before, a near completeness that, in its aftermath, lingered only as an echo -- a memory that was now painful to recall, because it reinforced his utter isolation on the linear plane.
"Drink this." Opaka held out a goblet of water she'd poured from the decanter that rested on a narrow table by the door. "It will help."
Ben accepted the water gratefully. He drank it in one shot, savoring the cooling sensation in his gut. He looked around the room for some indication of how long he'd been in the Orb fugue, but of course there was no sign. The underground crypts that had been created to conceal the Tears until they could be safely returned to their shrines were windowless and offered no hint of the passage of time.
"The candles," Opaka said, taking back the empty goblet. At first Ben didn't understand what she meant, but then he realized she had read the question in his face and was offering him a clue to the answer. Now that he focused on them, he saw that the candles in the room were noticeably shorter than they were when the former kai of Bajor had led him to this place.
"Have I been here all afternoon?" he asked.
"Nearly so," Opaka confirmed. "As you've no doubt realized by now, the Orb of Souls can be taxing -- far more so than any of the other Tears. It is the least understood of the Nine, and the most unsettling. Encounters with it are exceedingly rare, for few meet its gaze willingly; even those who are called to it, as you were." She paused, studying his face. "Did you find what you sought?"
Ben didn't answer immediately. Opaka, of course, knew better than to ask him specifics -- Orb encounters were considered too personal to share, requiring each seeker to decode them as best he could. This one, however, had far less ambiguity about it than his previous experiences.
Finally he told her, "I learned what I needed to know. I'm just not sure I can do what's being asked of me."
The stout woman lowered her eyes. Her lips curled slightly upward, but she offered no comment.
"What?" Sisko asked. "No sage words of advice to trust my own judgment, to walk the path that's been laid out for me?"
She looked at him, arching an eyebrow. "When have you ever known me to tell you what you already know?"
"Then how about telling me what I don't know?"
Opaka regarded him a moment longer, concern knotting her brow. Then she reached up and grasped his earlobe between her thumb and forefinger. She closed her eyes. "Breathe," she told him, the way she had when they'd first met. "Breathe..."
Ben blew air out his nostrils, then took it back in slowly. He waited, still fascinated even after all these years by the ability some Bajorans possessed to read each other's inner state, a sensitivity that extended even outside their species. Jadzia had once speculated it was simply a limited form of "touch-empathy." Maybe that's all it was. Maybe.
Opaka opened her eyes and released him. "It's all right to be afraid," she said quietly.
"I'm not afraid," he assured her.
"Not for yourself, no. But you're deeply concerned about the consequences of the choices you must make."
He shrugged. "I've lived with that concern my entire adult life."
"But not like this."
Ben exhaled and glanced at the ark of the Orb of Souls. "No, not like this." He looked back at his old friend, grateful she was here with him. There were very few people in his life who had any real understanding of the burden he bore as the so-called Emissary of the Prophets, and none more so than Opaka, who eight years ago had started him on this strange journey of self-discovery and daunting responsibility. "There's something I need to ask you," he said.
"What can you tell me about the Sidau Orb fragment?" When she failed to reply immediately, Ben said, "I saw the look on your face when Lieutenant Ro first told us about it, two months ago. You know something. What?"
Opaka sighed. "What I 'know' may provoke more questions than it answers," she said at last. "I first heard about it long ago, in connection with a much-revered kai from many hundreds of years past, Dava Nikende. He supposedly kept an object that fits the description Ro Laren gave us: a single, tiny green stone set in an ornate golden bracelet, which Kai Dava wore around the palm of his hand until he died. The Vedek Assembly has always considered the story apocryphal; it was never anything more than a folktale -- an unlikely rumor, at best." Sadness seemed to overtake her. "At least it had been, before the Sidau massacre." She paused to wipe the tears forming in her eyes.
"I'm sorry," Ben said softly.
Opaka took a deep breath and regained her composure, but her mournful countenance remained. "Since then, I have been searching the Vedek Assembly archives for some forgotten insight into the artifact's origins...or its fate."
"I've told you that an encounter with the Orb of Souls is a rare event. Kai Dava was one of the few people known to have been called to it. Archival references to that encounter only slightly predate the earliest mention of the object he supposedly carried...the Paghvaram."
" 'Soul key,' " Sisko translated and turned his head toward the Tear's ark. "Then the fragment is from the Orb of Souls. Dava must have -- "
"No," Opaka said gently. "Not unless our understanding of Dava Nikende is so flawed as to be complete fallacy. He revered the Tears. He even foresaw the need to conceal the Orb of Prophecy and Change, centuries before the occupation, so that it would be safe from the Cardassians and here to receive you when you came to us. For him to damage a Tear would be unthinkable...and none of them bear the evidence of such a crime."
"Then what is this thing that three hundred people died for?"
"I wish I knew," Opaka whispered.
Ben and Opaka both turned. Yandu Jezahl, the tall, dark-haired theologian who had been placed in charge of the crypt, stood in the doorway, her expression grave. "What is it, Vedek?" Ben asked.
"Forgive the intrusion, but we've received a communication from your wife," Yandu said. "She said it was most urgent that she speak with you. She seemed quite distressed."
"We've routed the call to a companel on this level. If you'll follow me..."
Ben's first thought was that something had happened to the baby. But when Kasidy appeared on the comm screen with Rebecca sleeping peacefully against her chest, that initial dread dissipated quickly. The anxious look on Kas's face, however, gave rise to new fears. "Kas, what's happened?"
"I just heard from Ezri," she told him. "Something's gone wrong aboard the station. That Jem'Hadar that's been living up there -- he attacked Nerys and Lieutenant Ro, Ben. They're both badly injured."
Taran'atar? "Have they contained him?" Ben asked.
Kasidy shook her head. "Ezri said he fled the station. Commander Vaughn went after him in the Defiant."
Damn. "Kasidy...I have to -- "
"I know what you have to do. Call us when you have news."
"Are you sure? You and Rebecca -- "
"We'll be fine," Kasidy assured him. "Nerys needs you more than we do right now."
"I love you."
"We love you too."
He waited until he was certain that Kasidy had cut the connection, and then he released the anguish building inside him, pounding his fist once against the panel.
A hand touched his shoulder. Warm. Strong. Reassuring. He looked into Opaka's face and she offered him a slight, encouraging nod, urging him to go.
Ben took a deep breath and started marching toward the long stone stairway that led back to the surface.
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"My name is Iliana Ghemor," the Cardassian woman said. "I'm a former agent of the Obsidian Order, the intelligence arm of the Klingon-Cardassian Alliance, in what to you is an alternate universe. Now I'm part of the rebellion organized by the Terrans of my continuum, whose objective is to overthrow the Alliance and live free of tyranny. My assignment was to assassinate the Intendant of Bajor, Kira Nerys. I aborted that mission when I learned of a plot that involved individuals from your side. I crossed over to stop it."
"What was the nature of this plot?"
"To replace her with someone even worse."
The Cardassian's eyes narrowed. "You aren't very good at this, are you?"
"Who was planning to replace the Intendant?"
"You're not really an interrogator. Your technique is terrible."
"This isn't an interrogation. I'm just here to ask some questions."
"Whatever you want to call it, we don't have time for this. You have to let me speak to your captain."
"I'll look into that. Who was planning to replace the Intendant?"
The Cardassian sighed. "Your reality's version of me. My counterpart. Years ago, she was surgically altered to replace your Kira. I believe she has already crossed into my universe, killed the Intendant, and taken her place."
"If that's the case, why are you still in this universe?"
"This is pointless! I already told Commander Vaughn all of this! Just let me speak to Captain Kira."
"I said I'd look into it. Why are you still in this universe?"
"Because the device I used to make the crossover was destroyed...and because I need your help to stop my counterpart from carrying out her objectives."
"What are those objectives?"
"I'll reveal that only to Captain Kira."
"You'll reveal it to me."
"Wouldn't you rather know why that creature turned against you? What do you call it -- a Jem'Hadar?"
"We already know that someone who looks like Captain Kira was communicating surreptitiously with Taran'atar for the past three months, using a very sophisticated method of brainwashing. We know that Taran'atar supplied information to this individual that enabled her to carry out the massacre of a Bajoran village more than ten weeks ago. And we know that Taran'atar attacked Captain Kira and Lieutenant Ro before fleeing to the planet Harkoum, where, by a strange coincidence, we found you."
The Cardassian smiled. "There are no coincidences. And you didn't 'find' me. I rescued two of your officers."
"We also recovered a large cache of data on the genetic experimentation that was being conducted at the Grennokar prison facility on Harkoum -- experiments on living Jem'Hadar subjects dating back more than three years."
"Is there a question you want to ask me?"
"Are you responsible for Taran'atar's betrayal?"
"Were you involved in the Sidau massacre?"
"What proof can you offer that your story is true?"
"I can offer it to Captain Kira."
"What are your counterpart's objectives?"
"I'll reveal that only to Captain Kira."
The Cardassian's face froze as Lieutenant Ezri Dax touched the control interface, pausing the playback before she strode away from the wardroom screen and took her place at the conference table. "I'm sorry to say the rest of the interview was more of the same," she told the room. "The subject volunteered no additional information, and just kept repeating her demands to speak directly to the captain."
Kira stared at the unsettlingly familiar visage on the screen. She gave herself a moment to compose her features before swiveling her chair to face her officers: Dax, Commander Elias Vaughn, Dr. Julian Bashir, Lieutenant Samaritan Bowers, Lieutenant Nog, and Ensign Prynn Tenmei. "We may as well start with the fundamentals," she said, focusing her attention first on Bashir. "Your report, Doctor?"
From his place at the far end of the table, Deep Space 9's chief medical officer slid a padd toward Kira across the illuminated surface. It stopped precisely in front of her. Not for the first time, the captain caught herself envying Bashir's genetic enhancements. "Based upon my examination of our guest, I've managed to verify three salient facts," he began. "One: that she is a healthy Cardassian female approximately thirty-four years of age. Two: using our medical records of Legate Tekeny Ghemor to compare genetic profiles, I can confirm that this woman is indeed his daughter. And three: that analysis of her quantum resonance signature proves beyond any doubt that she is not native to our continuum. When I ran that signature through our database, the computer came up with only one match."
"Let me guess," Kira said. "The other Bareil Antos, the one who crossed over from the alternate universe almost three years ago."
"That's correct," Bashir said.
"I wasn't aware it was possible to differentiate between people from different universes that way," Bowers said, his deep brown forehead creased with interest.
"It's a relatively recent discovery," Bashir explained to the tactical officer. "Most of our knowledge comes from an incident involving our former strategic operations officer, Lieutenant Commander Worf, from about seven years ago when he served aboard the Enterprise. An anomalous trans-spatial event led to the temporary intersection of more than three hundred thousand parallel universes, each with its own unique quantum signature."
"All right," Kira said. "She's who she claims to be. The question is, can we trust anything she says beyond that?"
"She came to our aid on Harkoum at considerable risk to her own life," Tenmei pointed out.
"True," Kira acknowledged, offering Tenmei an approving nod. Ordinarily the Defiant's conn officer wouldn't be required to attend a briefing like this one, but Tenmei was one of the witnesses to the events on Harkoum, as well as being Taran'atar's captive from the moment he fled the station, and Kira had wanted her participation. "But is there any reason to think that her actions weren't calculated precisely in order to earn our trust?"
"I'm sure they were," Vaughn said. "But that in and of itself doesn't make her a liar."
"All of our interactions with the alternate universe have involved some level of deceit by their side," Dax reminded the group. "And as a Cardassian, she was born into the ruling authority that enslaves most of the species we think of as comprising the Federation. For all we know, the real Intendant is still alive and this is all part of another elaborate plan on her part to seize power over there."
"Or a prelude to an invasion of our side," Bowers added.
"We're getting a bit ahead of ourselves, aren't we?" Bashir asked. "We need to consider our visitor as an individual and in the context of recent events, not just our history with her continuum."
"With all due respect, Doctor," Nog said, "that's exactly the mistake we made with Taran'atar."
Bashir's eyes narrowed at the Ferengi engineer. "Taran'atar's recent actions were beyond his control," the doctor said, and Kira was surprised by the certainty in his voice. "As you know perfectly well, Nog."
"I think we all share strong feelings on that particular subject," Vaughn cut in before Nog could reply, casting a warning glance both at him and at Bashir, "and we'd do well not to let those emotions influence our thinking. The fact remains, our guest has so far acted in good faith."
"Except when it comes to elaborating on her claims about our universe's Iliana Ghemor," Dax said. "You gotta admit, Commander, it's a pretty wild story to accept on the face of it. The fact that she refuses to say anything more except to the captain is reason enough to be cautious. For all we know, she may be hoping to win us over just so she can finish what Taran'atar started."
His knife in my chest. My blood on the deck. Kira pushed the memory away.
"We've been cautious," Vaughn said. "We've had her confined for a week now on suspicion alone, under surveillance and under guard, and we've yet to make a ding in her shields. Unless the captain intends to authorize more forceful methods of interrogation, we've run out of options."
A shocked silence fell over the table. "Is that what you're proposing?" Kira asked pointedly. "A 'more forceful' interrogation?"
"No," Vaughn assured her. "Even if such action weren't unlawful and abhorrent, she's done nothing to deserve such treatment. I'm simply trying to make the point that short of taking such extreme action, we've reached an impasse with our guest. But we've yet to find any direct evidence linking her to Taran'atar's recent behavior or the Sidau massacre, nor ruled out the possibility that everyÂthing she's been telling us is the truth."
Kira felt a headache coming on. She closed her eyes and massaged the ridges of her nose. "Status of Lieutenant Ro's investigation?"
"Ongoing," Vaughn answered. "She's put Major Cenn in charge of the criminals we rounded up on Harkoum, but so far they've had little to say that's useful regarding their missing ringleader."
"That ringleader supposedly being our side's Iliana Ghemor," Kira said.
"If our visitor's story is to be believed, yes."
Silence settled over the wardroom again, and Kira saw a troubled expression seeping into Bashir's face. "Your thoughts, Doctor?"
Bashir hesitated, then took a deep breath. "I was just remembering my own experience in the alternate universe, and what it felt like to be trapped in a world that was so familiar, yet was so horrifically different. I don't know if I've ever felt so afraid or so lost."
Kira knew exactly what Bashir was talking about. She'd felt it too on that same occasion. "And you think our visitor may be feeling the same way?"
"I think she's doing her best to earn our trust, Captain," the doctor said. "Maybe it's time we considered trying to earn hers."
Kira took a moment to weigh the opinions she'd heard, then reached a decision. "Lieutenant Dax, please inform security that I'll meet with the visitor in my quarters tomorrow morning at oh-nine-hundred hours."
Dax looked at Vaughn, then back at Kira, her brow furrowed. "Me, Captain?"
"Have you become hard of hearing, Lieutenant?"
Dax blinked. "No, sir."
"Then that'll be all. Meeting adjourned." As her staff rose and started to file out, Kira said, "Commander Vaughn, stay a moment."
Vaughn stopped and turned back to face his captain, knowing that a storm was brewing. He considered reseating himself, then decided it would be best to remain standing. Kira's formality through most of the meeting -- as well as her atypical decision to delegate a task to Dax that ordinarily would fall to him -- had set the tone for whatever discussion would follow. He'd heard the thunder; now he braced himself for the lightning.
Kira was leaning forward in her chair, fingers laced in front of her chin as she waited for the other officers to vacate the wardroom. She looked weary -- physically exhausted and emotionally drained, none of which was surprising: Despite the risky regenerative treatments Bashir had reluctantly authorized -- under Kira's direct order -- to speed up her recovery, she was still the recent victim of a savage attack that had damaged her heart beyond repair. The organ that now beat beneath her healed chest was a biosynthetic replacement that, odds were, she would need for the rest of her life.
The same attack had shattered the spine of Ro Laren, who, like Kira, should have been convalescing but had instead thrown herself into some kind of investigative overdrive. Technically off duty, Ro was refusing to see anyone, but judging by the round-the-clock computer activity from her quarters, she was anything but idle. Vaughn had known many headstrong individuals in his long life, but Kira and Ro were in a class by themselves.
Not that he could blame either of them: Despite the lethal damage Taran'atar had inflicted, Vaughn knew that the Dominion observer's apparent betrayal had hurt them more. That same betrayal had launched Vaughn and the crew of the Defiant on a chase deep into the Romulan protectorate of the Cardassian Union, to a world where Taran'atar had taken Prynn as a hostage until he could join his new master. Vaughn resisted the impulse to rub his mended arm, still sore from his bone-breaking confrontation with the Jem'Hadar soldier.
For long seconds after the wardroom doors closed behind the last of the departing senior staff, Kira said nothing. When she finally spoke, she did so without looking at him. "You want to tell me what the hell happened out there?"
Vaughn frowned. "Captain?"
"With Taran'atar. With the Defiant. With Prynn." She turned to face him, standing up slowly. "I read your after-action report. I also read Ezri's, and Sam's, and your daughter's. And what I'm left wondering is, after all the questionable actions you took while I was out of commission...how is it you're still alive, Commander?"
A dozen answers came to the tip of Vaughn's tongue, competing for expression. He could have told her he'd survived because his tactics had been sound, or because his lifetime of experience gave him the edge he needed, or because Taran'atar had clearly been struggling against whatever had been done to him. Every answer would have been the truth, but none of them were honest. And it was his honesty Kira wanted. It was what she required. And it was nothing less than she deserved.
"I was lucky," he answered.
"Damn right you were," Kira said. "You put yourself, your crew, and the Defiant at risk, and you failed the mission."
"Respectfully, Captain, although Taran'atar did get away, Ensign Tenmei was recovered, vital intel was obtained, a criminal enclave was routed, and we returned to the station without a single fatality."
"Is that supposed to mitigate your actions? Going after Taran'atar yourself, first after he'd taken your daughter hostage and again after believing he'd killed her? Never once contacting Starfleet to apprise them of the situation and request assistance? Your judgment was, at best, questionable, and at worst -- "
"I was in command," Vaughn said firmly. "I took what I believed were the correct and necessary steps to resolve the crisis. If you're unhappy with how I do my job -- "
"You made it personal, Commander!"
He met her gaze. "Haven't you ever made it personal, Captain?" Vaughn asked quietly.
Kira's eyes narrowed. Her jaw tightened. Then she turned her back to him. "Get out."
"Captain -- "
"You're relieved of duty until further notice, Commander. Dismissed."
Vaughn blinked. At the age of 102, he thought he was long past being surprised by anything, but this turn of events had taken him completely off guard. He wanted to talk this out with Kira, explain himself, but the captain acted as though he had somehow betrayed her trust.
Is that what I've done? he wondered. Was I too close to the situation to make the right calls? The delay in reporting the incident to Starfleet Command had seemed like the prudent thing to do; there was too much they still didn't know at the time to risk making the situation worse by entrusting it to well-meaning men and women who had no experience with Jem'Hadar outside the context of the Dominion War, and who couldn't relate to Taran'atar as anything other than a deadly enemy. Someone who had gotten to know Taran'atar as an individual, Vaughn believed, stood the best chance of achieving the mission objective: capturing him alive. Because throughout the chase -- even when he believed Taran'atar had tricked him into killing Prynn -- Vaughn had been convinced that there was more to what was going on than met the eye.
But though that belief had been borne out, the mission had been anything but a resounding success.
If Prynn hadn't been involved, was there anything I'd have done differently? Would this crisis already be over?
As he pivoted away from Kira's back and marched out of the wardroom, Vaughn wondered if he had finally outlived his usefulness.
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