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With diplomatic relations between the two cultures rapidly breaking down, Quark loses his bar first, then his freedom. But even penniless, he still has his cunning and his lobes, and those alone may be all he needs to come out on top -- and prevent an interstellar war!
The universe was about to make sense.
Quark stood behind the bar and anxiously studied the display screen above the replicator. His body was rigid with tension, motionless but for his eyes as he scrutinized the data before him. He held his arms folded tightly across his chest, as though trying to insulate himself against a cold wind.
Gripped by both expectation and apprehension, Quark felt isolated, although all about him, his establishment was awash in the sounds and sights and scents characteristic of a busy night. Conversations overlapped everywhere, glassware rang as customers were served, footsteps fell noisily on the deck plating and up and down the winding metal staircases that rose to the second level. Reds and greens and indigos gyred around the walls as the spinning dabo wheel reflected the ambient artificial lighting. And the odors of the occasional exotic drink floated through the air -- as did the odors of the occasional exotic alien.
But Quark was aware of all this only in a peripheral way; his focus was the display. He examined the various readouts as tiers of white digits adjusted themselves on the dark screen, as costs and prices fluctuated according to innumerous and often unpredictable economic factors, as months of his intricate planning and manipulation advanced toward a conclusion. Every few seconds, one complicated set of matrices replaced another, causing the display to emit a soft electronic hum, and Quark's mind hummed along with it.
It's going to happen, he thought: monetary values would slide the way he had foreseen, he would arrange the final transactions in this elaborate financial dance, and it would be done.Soon, he would be one step closer -- one significant step closer -- to being able to purchase the moon he had long dreamed of owning.
On the display, one of the numbers brightened, its hue shifting from white to a vibrant orange as it jumped past a threshold Quark had earlier defined. The value decreased for an instant, but then climbed once more, causing a staccato color change: orange, white, orange again.
If it did come, Quark knew, this would be one of those moments that rarely happened by chance. In truth, at least in his own experience, it would be the type of moment that seldom occurred even when painstakingly planned. How many times had he attempted a gambit such as this? How often had he scoured the business world for just the right set of circumstances upon which to found his financial future? Uncounted times, too many times, to be sure. True, there had periodically been a measure of accomplishment -- Quark certainly felt justified in considering himself a successful businessman -- and yet the level of his achievement had never attained the scope of his ambition. By Ferengi standards -- and by his own as well -- Quark knew that he so far had been only a marginal player in the thoroughly capitalistic system in which he had been raised. But now, at last, after months of labored and complex machinations, and after a lifetime of effort, lines of communication and intention -- his intention -- threatened to converge.
Quark's mind devoured the ever-changing numbers on the screen in front of him, willing them to achieve the values necessary for the fulfillment of his plans. He remained fixed in place, waiting nervously, until the heavy shuffling of feet directly behind him prompted him to move. In a single swift motion, his hand darted up to touch a control on the smooth surface of the display, blanking the data, and he turned to find out who had come within eyeshot of his work.
It was only Morn, Quark was relieved to see. He watched as the lumbering figure dropped onto a seat on the other side of the bar and set down a tall, cobalt-blue glass. The sole menace Morn posed, Quark mused, would be if he were to end his patronage here, because Morn had been a regular in the bar for almost as long as the place had been open, Quark had come to regard the monthly payment of his tab as a long-term business asset.
"You need a refill," Quark said, nodding toward the glass, and he was surprised to find that he felt momentarily unburdened as the simplicity of bartending replaced the relentlessness of his high-risk dealmaking. He reached for the glass, but Morn pulled it away and pointed a finger inside. Quark peered over the rim and saw a small amount of a bright-yellow liquid. "Oh, you don't want that," Quark said in a tone he had cultivated over the years to imply sincerity. "There's no flavor left in it." He reached forward again, more quickly this time, and took hold of the glass just above Morn's gloved hand Quark tugged, and after a moment, Morn relented.
"You're really going through this stuff," Quark commented. He bent down behind the bar and quickly found the right bottle: short and bulbous, transparent, not even a quarter filled with what Morn had been drinking. An import hologram decorated with the circular ensign of the First Federation was wrapped about its squat neck. "I'm going to have to order another case of tranya from my supplier," Quark added as he stood and emptied the bottle into Morn's glass. He placed the exhausted container on a shelf, adding it to a motley collection of other discards. Later, he or one of his employees would dispose of these using the replicator, recycling their matter into stored energy.
While Morn picked up his glass and sampled his replenished drink, Quark took the time to scan the rest of the bar; after all, his vigilance at the display had left him standing in a manner he ordinarily avoided -- with his back to the rest of his establishment. When filled with people, Quark's demanded attention. Ears open, eyes wide, went an old Ferengi saying, reflective of the wisdom that taught that customers should be trusted precisely as much as employees should be -- which is to say, not at all.
Quark gazed about, concentrating on picking out individual sounds amid the clamor of the bar. He heard the odd admixture of sibilant and rasping speech of a pair of Gorn huddled somewhere on the upper level; the voices sounded to him like air escaping the station into space while somebody complained angrily about it. A lone Otevrel -- evidently an outcast to be this far from home and in no apparent hurry to return -- sat quietly in a far corner, one slim tendril tracing the lip of his glass with a slight, silky tone. Closer to the bar, Lieutenant Commander Dax was down from Ops to provide her amusing, sometimes biting commentary of the weekly dart match between Chief O'Brien and Dr. Bashir. Intermittent flashes of light and bursts of high-pitched peals also emanated from that direction, produced by the board as darts struck it and points were scored.
And somewhere, Quark was fairly sure, Odo lurked.
Upstairs, he thought. Perhaps near the entrance to Holosuite Three. If the station's constable was still in the bar, he was stationary at present, but earlier, Quark had heard the shapeshifter come in, had heard the strange liquid rushing sound Odo made whenever he moved quickly, no matter his form. The sound, though nearly subaudible, was unmistakable to Ferengi ears. Quark had never let on to Odo that he could sometimes hear the internal flow of the changeling's fluidal anatomy. Having taken advantage of the ability on a couple of occasions, though, he thought it likely that the constable suspected the truth; of late, it appeared to him that Odo was careful to move more slowly whenever he wished to go undetected.
Quark strained for a moment to listen specifically for Odo, without result. He was about to return to monitoring the status of his deal, but the sudden cry of "dabo" stopped him. He looked past Morn and over at the gaming table, it was ringed with people, many of them smiling and laughing.
Quark glanced up at a pair of inconspicuous convex mirrors strategically positioned to allow him to observe the entire surface of the dabo table. The ample quantities of goldpressed latinum in the house's coffers were evidence that the house had been winning tonight, but the dabo girl -- a lithe Bajoran named M'Pella -- was now disbursing some of those funds to one of the players. The victor was a young Starfleet officer, Quark saw, one of those on leave from the U.S.S. Ad Astra, which was presently docked here at Deep Space Nine.
"Starfleet," Quark grumbled to himself. "Worthless. Value-less." He looked at Morn. "They're always more than willing to take my money at the dabo table," Quark said, as though the two had been in midconversation, "but they never want to drink anything." Quark briefly considered this, then added, "And when they do drink, it's usually only synthehol."
Beside M'Pella, the young officer took two handfuls of latinum and held them up as though they were trophies. The lustrous ingots caught the light and scattered golden reflections throughout the room.
"Of course, what should I expect from customers?" Quark complained. There were fifty-seven separate words for customer in the Ferengi language; the one playing through his mind right now had the secondary definition "river sludge."
"I'll tell you what I should do," Quark said. "I should close this place to Starfleet officers." Even though he was looking directly at Morn, Quark was really talking to himself. He did this out of habit, knowing that Morn was a talker, not a listener.
As if to confirm this, Morn shrugged -- as best Quark could tell, his answer for everything that did not directly involve him -- and went back to his drink. Absently, Quark began to clear the empty bottles from the shelf and place them in the replicator. He had grabbed the tranya bottle in one hand, and the curving, tapered neck of an amber Saurian brandy bottle in the other, when another thought occurred to him. He looked back over at Morn.
"You know, what I should do is just close the entire place down." The idea probably did not sound like a genuine suggestion, Quark suspected, certainly no more than it had any of the times in his beleaguered past when he had voiced similar notions. On those other occasions, though, the words had merely been a means of venting his frustrations about some unsatisfactory aspect of his life. But now...now he found that the idea suddenly held real appeal.
"I could do it," Quark told Morn earnestly, talking to him now, his hands waving the empty bottles about as he spoke. "If the deal I'm working on right now proceeds the way I designed it to, I should have enough assets to make a successful transition to a new business." Quark felt a flash of heat reach up his neck and across the back of his bare head at his own mere mention of the deal. Disquiet and fear mixed together in the four lobes of his brain. Before now, Quark had not told anyone anything about the deal he had been trying to engineer, not even of its existence. He had spoken of it only to the principals involved -- discretion had been required from the outset -- and even they were only aware of their isolated roles. Quark had diligently avoided doing anything that might even remotely jeopardize this potential masterpiece of his financial acumen.
"I could do it," Quark said. He put the bottles down in the replicator and pressed a control; they dematerialized in a coruscation of red light. "I could start a new business," Quark continued telling Morn. "It would take some time to prepare, and I'd have to find the right situation, but I could do it." It was a revelation: the profits he hoped to earn today would create not just a single opportunity for him but many. For the first time in a long time, abandoning the bar for another, better venture would be an actual option. He would no longer be trapped by circumstance in this often troublesome corner of the universe.
Morn raised his glass, threw his head back, and downed his drink in one massive gulp. The movement seemed unrelated to anything Quark had been saying. It was difficult to know if Morn had even been listening; he had such small ears.
Morn brought his empty glass down and pushed it forward; it left two thin trails of liquid behind as it moved through a tiny puddle on the bar. Quark automatically took the glass, grabbed a rag, and wiped down the wet surface. Then he bent beneath the bar and exchanged the rag for another bottle of tranya. He broke the seal with the edge of one blue fingernail and removed the stopper.
"Why don't I just leave this here," Quark suggested as he poured another drink. He corked the bottle and placed it on the bar. Morn smiled and nodded his agreement, then lifted his glass in a mock toast.
"As I was saying," Quark went on, undeterred, "what do I need this place for anymore? It's always been more trouble than profit." Morn gazed askance over the rim of his glass.
"What?" Quark asked, reading the doubt in Morn's expression. "You don't think I would do it? You think I need this place, Quark swept his arm out in an arc to take in his entire establishment. "I don't need this. Not for much longer, anyway."
Quark's voice was beginning to rise in volume, his words beginning to come faster. It was not what he was saying, he realized, but the anxiety and concern he felt about his deal that were surfacing. He was very worried that this business would not take place, even after all of his efforts -- or worse, that the deal would transpire, but not in the way he had planned. Still, apart from all that, who was Morn to tell him that he couldn't move on from here to a better livelihood?
"I'm not just a bartender, you know. I'm not even just a bar owner." Quark leaned forward over the bar-palms flat on its surface, his elbows akimbo -- to emphasize his point. "I'm a businessman. There is a difference."
Morn continued to regard him without saying anything.
"Fine," Quark told him. "Keep staring at me like that. It won't change things, won't -- " Quark gestured broadly again with his arm. This time, his hand struck the bottle of tranya, sending it skidding toward the edge of the bar.
Quark lunged. So did the usually sluggish Morn, who somehow managed to get there first; Quark's hands landed atop his, which in turn had wrapped around the bottle and prevented it from crashing to the floor. The gloves Morn wore on his hands felt papery and rough.
"You must really love this stuff," Quark said, looking up from where his upper body was stretched across the width of the bar. "I don't think I've ever seen you move that fast." Morn opened his mouth to reply, but before he could, a sound drew Quark's attention. Quark straightened quickly and spun toward the display screen.
The sound was a repeating pattern of tones, pitched so low that it was beyond the abilities of most humanoid races to hear. Quark stepped over to the screen and touched a finger to the control section. The alarm ceased.
Quark glanced around and saw Morn still holding the bottle of tranya. Out on the floor, several of Quark's employees were looking in the direction of the bar, evidently curious about what they had heard. Quark gestured to them with both hands, his fingers moving in an outward sweeping motion, an obvious signal that they should get back to work.
"Morn," Quark said, "why don't you sit back down and enjoy your tranya. I've got work to do."
As Morn eased onto his chair, Quark returned to the display and brought the arrays of data back up on the screen. In the background, he heard a dart thump into the board, causing a raucous electronic siren to play. From the disappointed words of Chief O'Brien, the winning dart must have been thrown by Dr. Bashir. Quark pushed those and all the other sounds around him away, once again immersing himself in the business at hand.
He scanned the readouts. Symbols representing dozens of different currencies -- Ferengi, Bajoran, Bolian, Yridian, and others -- decorated the screen. Latinum conversion factors competed with production assessments for importance. Treasury inventory quantities, pecuniary exchange rates, and tallies of monies in circulation aligned themselves in rows and columns. As before, numbers were spelled out in white digits and changed values several times a minute, some with even greater frequency. But now, five numbers were displayed in bright orange instead of just one; having attained specific values, it had been these which had prompted the alarm to sound. Quark had instructed the computer to emit the tones should all of the financial conditions he required finally develop.
For a short time, the reality of the situation failed to impress itself upon Quark's awareness, even though he only moments before had been anticipating this very event. Initially, there was no joy as he surveyed the numbers and applied to them only the general fiscal meaning he normally would. But by degrees, the significance of what he was reading crept into his mind. His mouth opened in prelude to a smile, revealing his sharp and irregular teeth, but a cynical disbelief born of experience prevented it from fully materializing. Cautiously, he allowed himself to recognize that the successful culmination of his labyrinthine scheme might possibly be at hand. A slight tingling began in his earlobes.
Quark glanced furtively around to assure himself that he was not being watched. Even though the bar was filled with people, nobody seemed to be paying him any attention. He listened for any movement by Odo, but he heard nothing.
Quark's fingers skittered across the controls. He entered a command protocol and one of the readouts changed to produce a directory of his personal files. He keyed in an access code and retrieved a file he had set up previously; it was his confirmation of the individual transactions composing the overall deal. He reread the file while his hand hovered above the TRANSMIT button.
Quark hesitated. Once he approved the transactions, there would be no turning back. Everything would have to proceed, and if he had failed to consider some hidden aspect of the deal, or if he had erred in any of his assumptions or mistimed any one of the many actions he had initiated, he would wind up insolvent. That thought alone made him draw back his hand.
No, Quark insisted to himself. This is your best chance, the best deal you've ever put together. It will work. He repeated the 62nd Rule of Acquisition in his head: The riskier the road, the greater the profit. He jabbed the button, transmitting the file to a financial institution located on Bajor through which he had filtered all of the arrangements in this enterprise.
He waited. He felt incapable of moving his body. His eyes locked on the display. He was so intent on his own actions that he felt physically segregated from everybody and everything that formed his surroundings. The many voices and sounds of the bar did not remain distinct as they reached his ears, but blended together in an incomprehensible cacophony.
Failure now would destroy him, Quark knew that, and not just financially. When he had first conceived this plan and then devised its blueprint, he had told himself that victory was not only possible, but inevitable. He discerned now, though, that he had never truly believed his grand design would climax as it now appeared it might, in what was nearly the deal of a lifetime for him. Nearly, because the ultimate deal would be the one that provided him the ability to acquire the moon for which he had so long yearned.
The moon, Quark thought, and very specific images were conjured in his mind. His cousin Gaila owned his own moon, and Quark's memories of visits there provided a basis for his fantasizing. He recalled the luxurious estate from which Gaila ruled his natural satellite, the ultramodern façade of the structure contrasting both with the lush countryside in which it was set and with its more traditional Ferengi furnishings. The only contemporary section of the interior was the office, where sophisticated equipment allowed inspection and control of the mining operations on the moon; a communications console also permitted monitoring of three different financial exchanges. Standing in that office, Quark recalled, had felt like being at the hub of a personal commercial empire.
For years, Quark had privately aspired to Gaila's standard of achievement. Even in public, he had revealed the purchase of his own moon to be a long-term goal of great moment to him. But his inner voice, speaking to nobody but himself, identified ambitions surpassing more than just the possession of some inconsequential rock in space.
Over time, Quark's brother had come to share in his vision, or in what he must have believed that vision to be, anyway. Whenever the subject arose, Rom would visibly take delight in discussing it, frequently entreating Quark to describe the moon and the home he intended to have constructed on its surface. Rom would even offer his own details of life there, talking about "his room" and about what he would do there, mentioning such activities as raising small animals -- cotton-tailed jebrets and treni cats and the like -- and planting a garden. It was never clear to Quark whether his brother proposed to take up permanent residence on the moon, but he assumed that would be the case; after all, Quark knew that Rom was not fully capable of taking care of himself without his help.
But the tranquil picture Rom painted of life on the moon bespoke his view that Quark would retire there. And whenever Quark verbalized his desire for his own moon to anybody else, they always appeared to infer that he wanted to settle there in order to live in leisure. But Quark had no intention of dwelling in retirement. The moon was an objective, but it was not an end in itself. Quark was, at this point in his life, to one extent or another, what he had always wanted to be: a businessman. Business was not only his livelihood, it was his recreation as well. Success in the world of commerce would not motivate him to leave that world, but to climb to another stratum within it. What reason would there be to excel in a way of life you enjoyed if, in doing so, you were forced to abandon that way of life? Had Zek attained the office of grand nagus for the sake of the office itself? No, of course not: money begets money, and power begets money, and the nagus, while serving in his official role, also used the influence and resources of his position to continue engaging, with great success, in his own business ventures. On his moon, Quark would do the same.
Gaila's survey of the financial exchanges and his mining operation merely hinted at what Quark planned for himself. Quark's communications center would not simply track the three most important indexes, but all the interstellar financial data available in the Alpha Quadrant. Utilizing his connections on Deep Space Nine, on Bajor, and on the other side of the wormhole, he would also keep abreast of business opportunities in the Gamma Quadrant. He would not build and manage mining facilities, which would necessarily incur high overhead, but would instead peddle the rights to mine his moon to the highest bidders. He also envisioned endless rows of cheaply constructed warehouse sitting on the horizon of his little world, storage installations for rent to the traders near whose routes he would settle. He would also provide landing rights for the many ships that would use Quark's as a way station. Maybe he would even open up a bar.
Quark could not refrain from smiling at the irony of that last thought. As he did so, two words began to flash on the display: INCOMING TRANSMISSION. The thoughts of the moon in his future were eclipsed by the business in his present. He thumbed a control and the brief contents of the incoming message spread across the readout. There were acknowledgments of all but one of the separate pieces of his confirmation file, which meant that only a single transaction remained to complete the deal.
Quark felt exhilarated and terrified at the same time. His lobes buzzed now as though with an electric charge. Contracts had been written and agreed to, monies had been spent and received, inventories had been purchased and sold, all as a result of his foresight and maneuvering. Like the proverbial wise man, Quark could hear profit in the wind; it sounded sweet.
Barely able to curb his excitement, he manipulated the display controls to gain access to his primary account on Bajor. Numbers danced across the screen. His gaze traveled to the bottom line of the report. A long string of digits, representing his net worth, was displayed there in red.
Right now, Quark was deeper in debt than any individual in the quadrant.
The ninety-seven minutes following Quark's financial ruin were among the most difficult to live through in his life. He struggled to act normally, struggled not to entertain thoughts of bankruptcy, of the forfeiture of all his property, of a future plagued by litigation and garnishment. But walking through the bar, taking orders and serving drinks, he remained distracted by all of these fears, so much go that he found himself deaf to many of the conversations taking place around him. He interacted with customers, entered their orders and accepted their payments on the personal-access display device he carried with him, but it was as though he were watching and listening to somebody else performing these tasks. In his mind, there were great patches of silence that simply overwhelmed his abilities to process the input of his senses on anything more than a superficial level.
It will work out, Quark tried to convince himself. Everything is happening just the way you planned it. Except he did not really know whether that was true. Apart from the final transaction, yes, everything Quark had done had concluded successfully, producing exactly the results he had expected. But without the successful completion of that final transaction, he would gain nothing. More than that, he would lose everything.
The image of the red number denoting Quark's net worth haunted him. His debts not only surpassed his assets, they dwarfed them. He had known this would happen, had prepared for it, but still, it was painful to actually experience it. He had to continue to remind himself that this was really the foundation upon which his entire plot had been built.
The great sums Quark owed -- to financial institutions, to governments, as recompense for monetary maneuvers he had orchestrated in the exchanges -- all of that had gone to fund a single purchase. The commodity was one not typically available to individuals, both because of the nature of the merchandise and because of its immense price. But Quark had been in the right place at the right time, hearing early rumors of the impending sale. He had immediately understood the potential to reap substantial profits by setting himself up as a middleman, by buying and reselling the merchandise himself. But the amount of cash necessary as earnest money, let alone for the full purchase, had far exceeded Quark's resources.
That was when Grand Nagus Zek had docked his new vessel, Wealth, at Deep Space Nine.
The nagus spent three days on the station preparing for a trade expedition to the Gamma Quadrant, and Quark took advantage of his proximity to the fiscal leader by doing what he always did in like circumstances: he spied on him. Quark's intimate knowledge of DS9's internal systems, coupled with his copious supply of security-defeating hardware and software, permitted him entry to many otherwise protected areas of the station's computer. In that way, he was able to access the companel in Zek's quarters and monitor his on-line activities during his stay.
Unfortunately, as Quark would have expected of any good Ferengi businessman, the nagus erected barriers against such surveillance. When he did not require Deep Space Nine's superior computing facilities or its communications link to the other side of the wormhole, Zek conducted his business aboard Wealth. And whenever he did need to use DS9's computer, every bit of information he entered or accessed was encrypted. All of his work also carried a destabilizing virus to prevent recording, a virus Quark was unable to neutralize in the short time the nagus was on the station; Quark therefore had to perform his observations in real time.
For two and a half days, Quark tracked each use of the comm panel in Zek's quarters. He forsook sleep as needed. He kept the bar open, but left it in the hands of his new manager, Broc, whenever the low-frequency alarm sounded, signifying that the nagus was using the station's communications or computer functions, In his own quarters, Quark stared at the comm panel for hours, studying Zek's handiwork as it was echoed there. The elegant, branching structures of the Ferengi language cascaded across the screen, its beautiful symbols and rich vocabulary rendered unintelligible by ciphering. Quark ran decryption algorithms, visually searched for patterns, pored over the notes he took.
His break came during the final fourteen hours of Zek's stay. Weary from his efforts, Quark was debating whether or not to continue when something in the scrambled data swimming across the comm panel drew his attention. He stared at the screen, but whatever it was had already been swept away in the currents of Zek's activities.
If only I could have recorded it, Quark thought, frustrated. Confident that it had been the key, he tried to replay the sequence in his mind, then sought to reproduce it on his padd, but he could not quite grasp what it was he had seen. All he could do was wait and watch and hope that it would happen again.
Forty minutes later, it did.
It was nonspecific, not exactly a pattern in the code, more a motif. Quark adjusted his decryption programs and put them back to work. The strings of characters transformed into something more recognizable, but not fully deciphered. Quark nudged his procedures and set them running again. Suddenly, the account codes and financial endeavors of the grand nagus were completely revealed. What he saw was unbelievable: Zek was losing money at an incredible rate.
Quark felt his eyes widen as the sense of that thought penetrated his awareness. He was unsure how to proceed. The financial leader of the Ferengi, the acknowledged authority of all commerce, the man after whom Quark had patterned his business life, was failing miserably, the deterioration of his business skills making itself plain. Just in the brief span he had been on DS9 the nagus had incurred astronomical debts.
It took more than ten hours of rigorous effort for Quark to assemble a sketch of what Zek had done. It was astounding. The methods, the decisions, the strategies, were far too complex for Quark to completely understand, especially since he had only been able to observe a portion of the entire plan. But he eventually understood enough of the broad strokes of the design: the nagus had floated obligation in currencies other than those in which they had been covenanted; had borrowed on time; had bought and sold on margin; had hedged his already considerable financial situation and had promised, although he could not actually have done so, to be able to monetize vast debts at any time within a one-day period. It was impressive, it was brilliant, and it was even legal, though just barely.
But more was involved than that, Quark was certain. Even though he realized that there were subtleties