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All things considered, Dax thought, this has been one helluva voyage.
Seated in the center seat of the U.S.S. Defiant, Ezri keyed the navigational display on her port command console and reviewed the arc of their journey through the Gamma Quadrant. With more than nine-tenths of the voyage complete, they had made direct first contact with eleven different civilizations, eight of which had expressed interest in follow-up contact by the Federation. In addition, long-range probes had exchanged friendship messages with sixteen other promising contacts. They had recorded or obtained samples of 644 new varieties of life; mapped (with the help of the probes) nearly 1200 cubic light-years of space; witnessed the emergence of a new sentient life-form into this universe; prevented a genocidal civil war; discovered an ineffable artifact with which members of the crew -- herself included -- had made intimate personal contact; and, somehow, managed to pass Burning Hearts of Qo'noS among every member of the crew along the way.
Even Senkowski had finally broken down and read the Klingon romance novel, after a particularly brutal loss in the crew's regular poker game. Once boredom with the usual stakes had set in, Prynn (of course) had suggested betting dares. The game quickly became more popular than ever among the winners, and despised among the losers -- Senkowski having been among the latter, after he accepted the dare to read Burning Hearts of Qo'noS during a savage hand of five-card stud with Lieutenant Nog.
One helluva voyage indeed.
Of course, they'd also seen their share of tragedies. Ensign Roness had been killed not long into the mission, while under Dax's command; they managed to make enemies of at least three different civilizations (possibly more; transmissions from two of the longrange probes had cut off abruptly, their fate unknown); and many of the crew had been personally affected by some of the things they'd encountered along the way. Not what we came out here for, Dax thought, but we all knew the risks of exploring. It was, for many, what being in Starfleet was all about. "Risk," she quoted to herself, "is our business."
"Did you say something, Lieutenant?"
Dax looked up. Ensign Thirishar ch'Thane had turned from his sciences station to look at her inquiringly. She must have spoken aloud without realizing it.
"Just talking to myself, Ensign," Dax said. She worried about Shar. Defiant's science officer had been among those most wounded during their travels, but ironically, not by anything directly attributable to the voyage itself. Shar had been betrothed to three other Andorians back in the Alpha Quadrant, and one of them, Thriss, had grown so despondent by Shar's choice to go on this mission that a month ago she'd committed suicide.
Since receiving that awful news, Shar had been battling his own guilt and despair. Work had been his tonic, but Dax knew that his hours off-duty, when he was most idle, were the hardest for him. Her attempts to engage him as a trained former counselor seemed to help somewhat -- he was grateful to talk to someone who understood the emotional and psychological dangers many Andorians faced as a result of their fragile reproductive biology. With Thriss dead, the chances of her surviving bondmates picking up the pieces of their lives to produce the child their culture mandated were slim. Dax feared what would happen to him when they finally returned to Deep Space 9. Would Shar's remaining bondmates embrace him so that together they could work through their shared grief, or would they blame him for what had happened to Thriss, and by extension, to all of them?
All this passed through Dax's mind as Shar looked back at her pleasantly, almost childlike in his demeanor. "Have you studied the data from that biostream yet?" Dax asked.
"Some of it. I regret to report it's looking more and more like a missed opportunity."
Dax nodded ruefully. Three days ago the ship had passed within a light-year of a strange ring of organic molecules, orbiting half an A.U. out from a white dwarf star. Although the readings were anomalous, the captain had elected to launch a probe and press on, rather than investigate directly. Setbacks in their encounters with the Inamuri, the Cheka web weapons, and the so-called "cathedral" had put them behind schedule in returning to the Alpha Quadrant. Add to that the total loss of their replicator systems during the cathedral affair -- a development that was now severely limiting their ability to feed themselves and repair damage to the ship -- and Vaughn had been compelled to make some tough choices about whether or not to, as he put it, "stop and smell every rose" they came across for the remainder of the voyage.
The cloud ring, however, had been a particularly tempting discovery, especially after the probe had started sending back indications that the organic molecules were far more complex and densely organized than originally thought. Shar believed they'd discovered a new type of spaceborne colonial life. But by then, the unusual star system was well behind them.
"Maybe the next wave of explorers from the Alpha Quadrant will learn more about it," Dax said. That was their primary mission objective, after all: to blaze the trail for the ships that would eventually follow. And with ninety percent of their journey done, Dax knew they could all be proud of what they accomplished.
"Yes, sir," Shar replied. "It's just...frustrating to come so close to something so new and not being able to study it."
"Remind me to tell you sometime about Jadzia's first attempt to study a Bajoran Orb," Ezri said
Shar tilted his head to one side, intrigued. "I recall reading that report. The Orbs defy conventional analysis, don't they?"
"Yup," Ezri said, then added deliberately, "so far anyway." In response, Shar's antennae rose up before he turned his attention thoughtfully back to his console.
Dax smiled. Nothing lifted Shar's spirits quite like a new challenge. He was one of those people who became more exhilarated the harder a puzzle was to solve. Of course, she thought, with the Orbs, a good scientist could die from the happiness before he learned anything substantive. I can be so cruel sometimes.
"Lieutenant, can you come here a moment?"
Dax spun in the command chair to face Bowers, standing at the aft tactical station. He's got that look --
She got up and joined him. "What's up, Sam?"
"I was monitoring telemetry from our advance probes," Bowers explained, "when one of them sent back this." Defiant's tactical officer nodded toward his console display, indicating a particular waveline in the midst of a chaotic stream of white noise.
Dax blinked, certain she was seeing things. "That looks almost like -- " She looked at him sharply. "Sam, this better not be a joke, or so help me -- "
"Ezri, this is no joke," Bowers insisted quietly. "I've triple-checked it, and I'm telling you, it's exactly what it looks like...almost."
Dax frowned and stared at the reading. "All right. Give it to me from the top...."
"'Spinach Frittata,'" Dr. Julian Bashir read aloud off the Starfleet ration pack. " 'Just add water.' " His face puckering, he replaced the package on the wall rack and grabbed another. "'Ham and Brie on a Quadrotriticale Baguette.'" He put that one back, and picked up a third. " 'Denevan Cherries Flambé.' " He arched an eyebrow at that one. It might be worth trying it just to see the flames leap out of the ration pack. But no; he wasn't in the mood for something sweet right now. "Eelshark Salad with Mixed Greens" looked promising, until he read the warning label: "CAUTION: May be toxic to non-Bolians." With a heavy sigh, Bashir finally grabbed a pack labeled "Assorted Grilled Vegetables" and took a seat at a table on the other side of the mess hall. "Have I happened to mentioned that I've come to detest Starfleet field rations?" he asked his dining companions.
"Yes, quite a few times, in fact," Elias Vaughn replied without looking up, seated on the doctor's left and eating from a pack Bashir could see was labeled "Arroz con Pollo." Vaughn consumed a forkful and added, "You're attitude surprises me, Doctor. Colonel Kira once mentioned that you fought to get assigned to DS9 specifically so you could rough it on the frontier."
Bashir winced, recalling that first day on the station. He'd been an overeager junior-grade lieutenant, and as his first official act, he'd successfully managed to offend the station's first officer, then-Major Kira, by describing Bajor and the space around it as a "wilderness" in which he intended to carve out his own legend. Looking back on it, it was a wonder Nerys hadn't decked him.
Bashir looked at Tenmei, seated opposite Vaughn and eagerly devouring her Baba Ghannoush. "Ensign Tenmei's appetite seems unaffected," he noted.
"Learn to live dangerously, Doctor," she suggested playfully. "You'll be amazed how much you enjoy everything."
"Remind me to make an appointment for you to see the new counselor when we get back to the station," Bashir said. Tenmei stuck out her tongue at him as he turned back to Vaughn. "I don't suppose Nog has had any luck at all with the replicators?" he asked.
Vaughn shook his head. "Shall I remind you why we're eating field rations in the first place?" Bashir gave up. "Touché, Commander." Being reminded that the replicator systems had been sacrificed in order to save his life, as well as those of Ezri and Nog, was an effective way to silence his complaints. Until the Defiant returned to Deep Space 9, meals would be restricted to the ration packs, and whatever they could cook from the limited raw ingredients stored in the cargo bays.
"You know," Vaughn said at length, "back in '04, I was in a situation much worse than this one."
Tenmei leaned over in Bashir's direction. "Run for it, Doctor, before he gains a head of steam," she advised.
"I remember it well," Vaughn said, seemingly oblivious to Tenmei's warning. "I was assigned to a ship that had been forced to go quiet for a month on the wrong side of the Tholian border. No replicators, no holodecks, complete radio silence. Just eighty-five people with nothing but ration packs, a library computer, and a lot of imagination."
"I told you," Tenmei said to Bashir in a singsong voice.
"You know, sir," Bashir got out, "that sounds fascinating, but I just realized that I left something on in the medical bay -- "
Vaughn's hand closed around Bashir's wrist, refusing to let him leave. "I can still recall Crewman Richards stealing the rats from the biolab for meatloaf --"
"He did not," Tenmei said.
Vaughn arched an eyebrow at his daughter. "Who's telling this story, Ensign? Anyway, the point is," Vaughn said, releasing Bashir and grabbing the tall drink at the commander's elbow, "that compared to many who came before us, we live and work in luxury, even when deprived of some of the things we take for granted."
"Point taken," Bashir assured him.
Vaughn drained the last of his iced tea and smiled. "That was delicious. And you haven't even started your meal yet."
Bashir looked at his unopened ration pack and smiled sheepishly. "I think I'll save it for later," he said as he rose from the table. "For when I'm really hungry." Pack in hand, Bashir nodded to his fellow officers and started for the door.
Tenmei laughed. Vaughn smiled and shook his head.
As Bashir was crossing the room, the mess hall doors parted and Ezri walked in, carrying a padd. Uh-oh, Bashir thought. I know that expression. Something's up....
"Hi," he said as they met up with each other. "You okay?"
"What? Oh, yeah. Just a report I need to make to the commander. Enjoy your dinner?"
Bashir held up his ration pack. "Decided to save it. See you when you get off duty?"
"Sure. I'll even grab one myself and we can eat together."
"It's a date," Bashir said. "Try not to work too hard."
Ezri laughed. "Where the hell were you when I decided to transfer to command?"
Bashir was already in the corridor. "Being supportive," he called as the doors closed behind him.
Dax walked toward the table, trying not to rush. Judging from the look on Julian's face, he'd figured out immediately that she had something to tell Vaughn. She hoped she wasn't that obvious. Then again, Julian's enhanced perceptions helped him to pick up on visual cues that might escape other people. Especially in someone as close to him as Ezri.
"Commander, Ensign," Dax began. "Hope I'm not interrupting."
"Actually, I was just about to get going," Prynn said, rising from her chair. "I promised Mikaela I'd look over her ideas for improving the navigational deflector."
"If you have time, stop by my cabin later," Vaughn said. "I found a Rowatu recording in the ship's database that I don't think you've heard."
Prynn smiled. "Okay. 2100?"
Prynn bid Dax goodbye and departed the mess hall. "It's nice to see you two getting along so well, now," Dax told Vaughn. "If you don't mind my saying so, I think it agrees with both of you."
Vaughn sighed, staring after his daughter. "Lot of wasted years to make up for. We've learned quite a bit about each other on this voyage."
"She's a good officer, too," Dax added. "Quick, dedicated, talented. You should be proud. The next generation of Vaughns is off to a good start."
Vaughn snorted. "Fortunately for her, she's a Tenmei through and through." He turned to meet Dax's gaze, then glanced toward the padd she was holding. "So what's up?"
"I was hoping you could tell me," Dax said as she took the seat Prynn had vacated. "Sam was reviewing the datastream from the last pair of probes we sent out when one of them detected an anomaly in one of the narrower subspace strata, a layer nobody we know uses for communications because of the high background interference. There was so much white noise, in fact, Bowers admits he almost missed it. He passed it through the filters a few times to be sure, and there's no longer any doubt: it's a Starfleet transponder signal." Dax handed Vaughn the padd for his perusal. "One of our people is out here, where nobody else from the Federation has ever been, as far as we know. But the signal's not like any that Bowers or I have ever seen before. The beam is much stronger, as if it was designed to punch through all the subspace interference it was being sent through. But since ordinarily we wouldn't look for a communications signal in that stratum, it made me wonder if it might be connected to Starfleet Intelligence or..." Dax paused, stopped by the look on Vaughn's face. "Are you all right?"
Vaughn was frowning. Not in confusion or contemplation, as if he'd found some new puzzle to solve, but in what Dax could only characterize as denial. The look crossed his face for only a second before returning to the neutral expression he usually wore.
"Who else knows about this?" Vaughn asked quietly, still studying the data.
"Just Sam," Dax said. "Is there something -- "
"Make sure it stays that way," Vaughn interrupted. "I don't want either of you sharing this with anyone. Return to the bridge and engage the cloaking device immediately. Then alter course to trace this signal back to the source, maximum warp. If the crew asks -- tell them not to." Vaughn stood up and started to leave, taking the padd with him.
"You want to tell me -- "
"No," Vaughn snapped. "Just carry out my orders, Lieutenant." At the mess hall door Vaughn stopped. "One other thing: The Sagan's taken a beating the last couple of months. I want her better than ready in case we need her. Have a complete battery of systems diagnostics run from bow to stern, and an overhaul on the navigational array. Put Tenmei on it."
Dax frowned. "All right," she assented, "but it'll take time."
"Whatever it takes," was Vaughn's response. "Just do it." He stepped across the threshold and the door closed behind him.
Dax watched the commander go, wondering what new crisis had just been sparked.
When Vaughn reached his quarters, he found he couldn't recall how he'd gotten there. He knew he must have traversed the corridor from the mess hall, ridden the turbolift up to deck one, and passed through the door of his cabin, but he had no memory of making the journey. Only one thing occupied his thoughts, one impossible thing.
Setting the padd down, he touched a contact on the back wall of his cabin, causing the basin to emerge. He held his hands under the faucet and cool water gathered into his cupped hands. Bending over, he brought the water to his face, splashing his eyes, soaking his beard. He repeated the process, again and again, realizing that each breath was becoming more difficult. He stopped and stared at his hands. They were shaking.
Steady, Elias. You'll hyperventilate or worse, push that hundred-year-old heart of yours right over the cliff.
Vaughn closed his eyes and steadied his breathing and heart rate, using a Vulcan meditation technique he'd learned...when? Forty? Fifty years ago? So hard to keep the events of his life straight in his mind sometimes. When he opened his eyes again, his aged reflection stared back at him from the mirror above the basin. Water dripped from his silver hair, forming rivulets in the deep lines of his face. Dark hollows surrounded his eyes. So many damn years...
Vaughn grabbed a towel and patted himself dry. Then he picked up the padd and collapsed on his bunk.
There was no mistaking the transponder signal. He'd committed the code to memory decades ago. But why here, and why now, of all times? He sifted through the possibilities, and decided the only answer he could believe was the one that made no sense at all. But if it was true...if the trail they were now following led to the Valkyrie, then the closure he'd long sought for the disastrous mission to Uridi'si might finally be within his reach.
He fell asleep with the padd clutched to his chest, dreaming of the dead.
Copyright © 2002 by Paramount Pictures.
Posted July 3, 2011
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