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On this day, like a beast with talons extended to claw through space itself, the Station stalked Bajor one final time.
Viewed from high above, from orbit, the dark, curved docking arms angled sharply downward, as if gouging the planet's surface to leave bloodred wounds of flame. And from each blazing gash of destruction, wave after wave of ships lifted from the conquerors' camps and garrisons, on fiery, untempered columns of full fusion exhaust.
As those ships exploded upward through the planet's smoke-filled atmosphere, the sonic booms of their passing were like the echo of the death-screams of the ravished world they left behind. The jewel-like sparkle of the departing ships' thrusters like the glittering tears of that world's lost gods.
On this day, on this world, sixty years of butchery and brutality had at last come to an end.
But on the dark station that was Terok Nor, with viewports that flashed with phaser bursts and shimmered with the fire of its own inner destruction, there was still far worse to come.
On this day, the Day of Withdrawal, the Cardassians were leaving. But they had not left yet...
Held within the cold and patient silence of space, the Promenade of Terok Nor itself was a tumultuous pocket universe of heat and noise and confusion.
The security gates that had bisected its circular path had by now collapsed, twisted by hammers and wirecutters and the frantically grasping hands of slaves set free. Glowing restraint conduits that once had bound the gates now cracked and sparked and sent strobing flashes into the dense blue haze that choked the air, still Cardassian-hot.
Hull plates resonated with the violent release of multiple, escaping shuttles and ships. A thrumming wall of sound sprang up as departing soldiers phasered equipment too heavy to steal.
Decks shook as rampaging looters forced internal doors and shattered windows. Among the empty shelves of the Chemist's shop, a Bajoran lay dying, Cardassian blood on his hands, Cardassian bootprints on his back, his collaboration with the enemy no guarantee of safety in the madness of this day.
Turbolifts whined and ladders rattled against their moorings. Officers shouted hoarse commands. Soldiers cursed their victims. In counterpoint, a calm recorded voice recited the orders of the day. "Attention, all biorganic materials must be disposed of according to regulations. Attention...."
But on this day, the only response to that directive was the desperate, high-pitched shriek of a Ferengi in fear for his life. And in fear for good reason.
Quark the barkeep kicked and fought and shrieked again, as the Cardassian soldiers, safe in their scarred, hard-edged armor, dragged him from his bar, soiling and tearing his snug multicolored jacket.
Quark opened his eyes just long enough to recognize the scowling officer, Datar, a glinn, who waited for him with a coil of ODN cable. In the same quick glimpse, he saw the antigrav lifter from a cargo bay bobbing in the air nearby; he heard the soldiers as they mockingly chanted the last words he would hear before he stood at the doors of the Divine Treasury to give a full accounting of his life --
"Dabo! Dabo! Dabo!"
Yet even as he faced his last minute of existence, Quark still couldn't help automatically tallying the damages each time he heard a crash from his establishment as the Cardassian forces laid waste to it.
A sudden blow slammed Quark to the Promenade deck, and a quick, savage kick from a heavy leather boot forestalled any thought of escape.
But even as he cried out in pain, Quark wondered if his brother and nephew had made it to a shuttle, and if the Cardassians had found his latinum floor vault. He gasped in shock as he felt Glinn Datar's rough hand claw at the sensitive lobes of his right ear, the violation forcing him to his feet. In the same terrible moment, Quark found himself wondering just why it was Cardassians always had such truly disgusting breath.
"Quark!" the glinn growled at him. "You have no idea how it pains me to take my leave of you."
"All good things," Quark muttered as waves of incredible pain radiated from his crushed right ear lobe and across his skull and neck.
Datar's swift, expert punch to the center of his stomach doubled Quark over, his lips gaping in vain for even a mouthful of air.
"Relax, Quark," the glinn hissed, reaching out for Quark's earlobe again. "It's not necessary for you to speak -- ever again!"
Quark felt himself hauled up until he stared right into Datar's narrowed eyes. He felt his poor earlobe throb painfully, already starting to swell.
"My men and I are going to make this a real farewell." The glinn nodded once and Quark felt huge hands forcibly secure his shoulders and arms from behind. Datar addressed his soldiers as if reading from a proclamation. "Quark of Terok Nor, you miserable mound of sluk scum: For the crime of rigging your dabo table, for the crime of watering your drinks, short-timing the holosuites, inflating tabs, and...most of all for the crime of being a Ferengi...I sentence you to death!"
Incredulous, Quark tried to plead his innocence, but his rasping exhortations were drowned out by the cheers of the surrounding soldiers. He tried to blurt out the combination of his floor vault, the shuttle access codes Rom and Nog were going to use to escape, even made-up names of resistance fighters, but the sharp cutting pressure of the ODN cable Glin Datar suddenly wrapped around his neck ended any chance he had of saying a word. Even the squeak that escaped him then registered as little more than a soon-to-be-dead man's choked-off wheeze.
Eyes bulging, each racing heartbeat thundering in his cavernous ear tunnels, Quark could only watch as two soldiers hooked the other end of the thick cable to the grappler on the cargo antigrav.
Datar slammed his hand on the antigrav's control and the meter-long device bucked up a few centimeters, steadied itself, then rose smoothly and slowly and inexorably, trailing cable until it passed the Promenade's second level.
The cable snapped taut against Quark's neck, yanking him at last from the grip of the soldiers who had held him. Kicking frantically, he felt a boot fly free. He grimaced in embarrassment as he realized his toes were sticking through the holes worn in his foot wrappings. Hadn't his moogie told him to always wear fresh underclothes?
Even Quark knew that was a foolish thought to have, especially at the moment in which he was drawing his last breath. His fingers scrabbled at the cable around his neck, but it was too tight and in too many layers for him to change the pressure.
Dimly through the pounding that now filled his head, Quark could hear the soldiers' laughter and hooting. Even as his vision darkened, he raged at himself for having failed to predict how quickly the end of the Occupation would come.
He had seen the signs, discussed it with his suppliers. Another month, he had concluded, perhaps two. Time enough to profit from the Cardassian soldiers being shipped out, eager to convert their Bajoran "souvenirs" to more easily transportable latinum. He had even already booked his passage on a freighter and --
-- Dark stars sparkled at the rapidly shrinking edge of Quark's vision, as he mourned the deposit he had paid to Captain Yates. Just then the roar of something large approaching -- something loud and silent all at the same time -- swallowed the jeers of the Cardassians, and Quark felt himself fall, flooded with shock that he was not ascending to the Divine Treasury but apparently on his way to the Debtors' Dungeon. How could that be possible? He had lived a life of greed and self-absorption. How could he not be rewarded with eternal dividends? He wanted to speak to someone in charge. He wanted to renegotiate the deal. He wanted his moogie!
And then the back of the deck of the Promenade smacked into the back of his bulbous head and scrawny neck.
Through starstruck vision, he saw the glow of a phaser emitter node by his chin, felt a searing flash of heat at his neck, and then the constriction of the ODN cable was gone.
"Breathe!" a harsh voice shouted from some distant place.
"Moogie?" Quark whispered. His mother was about the only person he could think of who might have any reason at all for saving him from the Cardassians.
Then Quark was roused from his lethargy by four nerve-sparking slaps across his face.
He wheezed with an enormous intake of breath, then choked as he saw who was saving him from the Cardassians.
This new Cardassian, gray-skinned and cobra-necked like all the others, was someone Quark had never seen before. He wore an ordinary soldier's uniform but had the bearing and diction of an officer, perhaps even of a gul. All this Quark observed in the split second it took for the new Cardassian to haul him to his feet. As a barkeep, Quark was a firm believer in the 194th Rule, and since he couldn't always know about every new customer before that customer walked through the door, to protect his profits he had been required to become expert at deducing a customer's likely needs and desires from but a moment's quick observation.
This Cardassian, for instance, would order vintage kanar, and would always know if the Saurian brandy was watered. An officer and a gentleman, Quark thought admiringly. Reflexively he considered the likelihood of the Cardassian also needing wise and seasoned -- and not inexpensive -- investment help.
But then the gray stranger locked his free arm around Quark's neck to violently spin him around as he fired his phaser at two other Cardassian soldiers across the Promenade at the entrance to the Temple.
Quark flopped like a child's doll in the stranger's grip. He goggled in surprise as he saw the body of Glinn Datar sprawled on the deck nearby, smoke still curling up from the back of his head and adding to the blue haze that filled the Promenade. Cardassians fighting Cardassians? It made no sense. Especially when it seemed they were fighting over him.
Suddenly Quark's captor crouched down and twisted to return fire to the second level. Still held in a stranglehold, Quark squealed as with an ear-bruising thump he was whacked backside-first against the deck. Crackling phaser bursts lanced past him, blackening the Promenade's deck. The scent of burning carpet now warred with the stench of spoiled food wafting along from the ruined freezers in the Cardassian Cafe.
"...I'm going to be sick..." Quark whimpered.
But clearly, the Cardassian stranger didn't hear, or didn't care.
Quark felt his gorge begin to rise. Under other circumstances, he woozily decided, he might wish he were dead rather than feel the way he felt now. But he seemed too close to that alternative already.
"...I have a stomach neutralizer in my bar..." Quark mumbled hoarsely. He waved a hand vaguely in the direction of an area behind his captor. If he could just get back to his bar....
But there was an abrupt lull in the phaser firefight, and the gray stranger jerked Quark to his feet. He pointed spinward toward the jewelry shop -- or what was left of the jewelry shop. "That way!" he shouted. "As fast as you can!"
Protectively holding on to both of his oversize ears, Quark peered through the haze at what appeared to be other figures hiding among the debris in front of the gem store. Their silhouettes were unmistakable. More Cardassians.
"Could I ask a question?" Quark whispered.
The Cardassian glared at him, then shoved him down to the floor again and leaped to his feet, slamming both hands together on his phaser as he fired blast after blast at a group of Cardassians suddenly charging him from the other direction.
Quark risked looking up just long enough to see multiple shafts of disruptive energy blast his captor and send him flying across the Promenade. Alone now, Quark acted on pure instinct and did what any Ferengi would do.
He sped for his latinum, all injuries real and imagined forgotten.
Scuttling like a Ferengi banker crab, half crawling, half running across the deck, he finally reached the door of his bar.
Quark rolled through the door and jumped to his feet once he was securely inside his own domain. "Safe!" he cried out, then cursed as his one bootless foot trod on a piece of shattered glass.
Only after digging the glass out of his sole did he think of looking over his shoulder. The scene was one of mayhem. The Promenade had become a full-fledged war zone. Phaser fire streamed back and forth like lightning in the atmosphere of a gas giant. On the one hand, Quark had no problem with Cardassians killing Cardassians. Especially since it would be a few days before he could get his bar reopened, so a few missing customers wouldn't be noticed. On the other hand, could it be possible they were killing themselves over him?
"Get down, you fool!"
Quark whirled around at the guttural command. He had no idea where it came from, but the rough voice was unmistakable.
"Odo?" Quark asked.
Suddenly, a humanoid hand shot out of a dark corner behind the overturned dabo table, trailing a quasitransparent golden shaft of shape-shifter flesh.
For an instant, Quark felt as if he were about to be engulfed by a Terran treefrog's tongue, then the hand slurped around his already bruised neck and snapped him into the shadows.
With the enforced assistance, Quark somersaulted to a sitting position behind a tumble of broken chairs. Automatically, his barkeep mind tabulated the potential cost of the damage. Half of them would have to be replaced, at two slips of latinum each. Three, he could see, could probably be repaired for half a slip each. He might even be able to get a deal from Morn if he could be persuaded to stay on the station. But the way Morn was always traveling around, never staying put for two days in a row --
"Quark! Get your head down!"
Instantly, Quark flattened out on the floor beside Terok Nor's shape-shifting constable. Odo's half-finished humanoid face, with its disturbingly small ears, stared ahead toward the front of the bar, as if he were expecting an attack any moment.
"How long have you been here?" Quark hissed.
"An hour. Since Gul Dukat left the station."
Quark felt a rush of indignation. If Dukat was already safely evacuated, why were all these other Cardassians still here? "You were hiding here when they dragged me out there?" he said accusingly.
Odo looked at him, nothing to hide. "Yes."
"Aren't you supposed to be the law on this station?"
"I am a duly appointed law-enforcement official."
"Doesn't that mean you're supposed to protect law-abiding citizens?"
"Your point would be?"
"They were going to kill me!"
"Yes," Odo said again.
Quark fairly vibrated with outrage as he tried to find the proper words to express his fury and sense of betrayal. "Then why didn't you try to stop them?!" he finally said, adding sarcastically, "In your capacity, that is, as a duly appointed law-enforcement official."
Odo shrugged as best he could for someone lying on his stomach among a cluster of broken bar chairs.
"A shrug?" Quark said. "That's your answer? The law doesn't apply to people like me? You're not a law-enforcement official, you're the judge and jury, too, is that it?"
As usual, Odo's eerily smooth visage revealed no emotion, only the weary resignation of a teacher forced to repeat a lesson for the hundredth time. "Fifty-two hours ago, Terok Nor ceased to be a protectorate of the Bajoran Cooperative Government. Martial law was declared under the provisions of the Cardassian Uniform Code of Military Justice."
Quark waited...and waited...but Odo said nothing more, as if his most unsatisfactory explanation had been fully complete.
"And?" the Ferengi said in a state approaching apoplexy.
"Quark, I heard the charges the glinn read against you. You have rigged your dabo table. You do water your drinks. You short-time the holosuites and inflate the tabs you run for customers who have consumed too much alcohol to be able to keep track of their spending. Under military law, the Cardassians were within their legal rights to execute you."
Quark's mouth opened and closed silently as if the ODN cable were wrapped around his neck once more. The only words he managed to utter were, "But they were going to hang me for the crime of...of being a Ferengi!"
Odo shrugged again. "Even the Cardassians are allowed poetic license." Then Odo held a finger to his lips and nodded sharply at the main entrance to the bar.
Quark looked out to the Promenade. The firefight had stopped. It was too much to hope that both sides had killed each other. Which could only mean one side or the other had won. "I hope someone steals your bucket," he snarled at the shape-shifter.
His insolence, however justifiable, earned him a sharp jab in the ribs. Unfortunately in the very location where the brutish Cardassians had kicked him.
Then three figures stepped into the bar.
Quark recognized them at once. They were the same three he had seen silhouetted by the gem store. Which meant the loser in the fight he'd just survived had been the Cardassian who had tried to save him.
One of the three interlopers scanned the bar with a bulky Cardassian tricorder. It took only seconds for him to point to the mound of chairs by the overturned dabo table.
A second of the three stepped forward. "Ferengi. Constable Odo. Step into the open, hands raised."
Quark looked at Odo. The shape-shifter had the expression of an addicted tongo player calculating the odds of calling a successful roll.
"Step out now," the Cardassian threatened, "and you will have a chance to live. Remain where you are, and you will certainly die."
"I'm convinced," Quark said and pushed himself to his feet, in spite of Odo's accusatory glare.
He frowned at the angry shape-shifter. "Oh, turn yourself into a broken chair or something." Then he stepped forward, hands stretched overhead, wincing as his torn jacket sleeve momentarily brushed his injured earlobe.
As Quark limped heavily toward the three Cardassians, he actually heard Odo step out from cover behind him. But then his attention was diverted by another surprising observation that had escaped him on first seeing the three strangers: These Cardassians weren't in uniforms. They were civilians. Three young males clothed in drab shades of blue, brown, and gray, without even the identity pins that might establish them as members of the Occupation bureaucracy or diplomatic corps. Two of them, though -- the ones in blue and brown -- carried military-issue phase-disruptor pistols, the housing of each weapon segmented like the abdomen of a golden beetle. What is it about Cardassians and bugs? Quark wondered. If he could just understand that about them, he'd know exactly what would tempt them to buy, and he'd corner yet another market missed by others.
But then Quark's soothing thoughts of profit were displaced by alarm as the gray-clad Cardassian shoved his tricorder like a weapon in the barkeep's face. This particular Cardassian was distinct from the others because he was bald. Quark had never seen a bald Cardassian before. In some ways, the sleekness of the Cardassian's skull made the alien look more intelligent. Except, of course, for his pathetically small ears. Not to mention the two secondary spinal cords running up the sides of his wide and flattened neck like cables on a suspension bridge. And the spoon-shaped flap of gray flesh on his forehead that made him look like a --
The light from the tricorder's small screen flashed a different set of colors across the bald Cardassian's face. "This Ferengi's Quark."
The Cardassian in the blue tunic gestured at Quark with his phaser. Quark noticed that his overgarment was torn at the shoulder and smudged with black soot, as if its wearer had ripped it on burning debris. "There are two other Ferengi on the station."
The Cardassian in blue didn't have to ask the obvious question for Quark to decide to answer it. There was no profit in withholding information for which they could easily torture him. "My brother and nephew. They left on a shuttle as soon as we heard what was happening on Bajor." Quark was confident he could carry off the lie. He had been dealing with the Cardassians -- and the gelatinous Odo -- long enough to have developed a reasonably effective tongo face.
The Cardassian in the torn blue tunic stared at Quark a few moments longer, as if he expected the Ferengi to suddenly break down and confess the real whereabouts of Rom and Nog. But since Quark had no actual knowledge of where his cowardly brother and confused nephew were at this precise moment, it was doubly easy to stare back with an expression of total innocence.
At last, his interrogator turned to the bald Cardassian with the tricorder. "What setting do we need to kill the shape-shifter?"
Quark stared hard at Odo beside him. Let's see how you like it, he thought peevishly.
But maddening as ever, Odo simply stared impassively at the three Cardassians, betraying not even a hint of emotion. The shape-shifter was as annoying, in his way, as a Vulcan.
"Wait." It was the third Cardassian who intervened now. The one in the brown tunic, so blatantly new it still bore the creases from having been folded on some display shelf, probably in Garak's tailor shop. This Cardassian was certainly not bald. His long black hair was drawn back in the same style as some soldiers Quark had seen. The new civilian clothes could mean he was a spy, but they could also mean he was a coward. Which one, however, Quark couldn't yet be sure. But because the brown-suited Cardassian didn't seem eager to kill Odo, Quark was leaning toward the latter.
"Can you take on the appearance of a Ferengi?" the Cardassian in the suspiciously new civilian clothing asked Odo.
Odo frowned. "If I had to."
Quark scowled at the constable. From the way the shape-shifter answered, it was obvious he'd rather change himself into a mound of garbage before he'd become a Ferengi.
"Would that work?" The question came from the Cardassian in the torn blue tunic, and was addressed to the bald Cardassian with the tricorder.
"We only have one Ferengi. If we need a backup...."
"All right. We won't kill you. Yet." The imperious pronouncement from the Cardassian in blue made Quark think for the first time that the group had a leader. Whatever that information was worth.
"How generous of you," Odo replied with ill-concealed sarcasm.
Responding immediately, the Cardassian leader slashed his phaser across Odo's face as if to teach him a lesson in obedience.
Though Quark had seen it before, he still cringed as Odo's face rippled into a honey-like jelly at the moment of impact, allowing the phaser to slip through his mutable flesh as if passing through smoke.
An instant later, Odo's humanoid face had reformed, his expression still one of vague disinterest.
The Cardassian bared his teeth like a Klingon, as if he were about to attack Odo again and this time with more than a single blow. But the bald Cardassian put his hand on the attacker's shoulder. "We can't keep her waiting," he said.
Her? Quark thought. Now that was something new. Perhaps there was another leader. But who? And for what reason?
The Cardassian in brown gestured harshly with his phaser. "Turbolift 5's still working."
This time it was Odo who made the first move. He started forward, onto the Promenade, and Quark followed gingerly -- with each step he could feel another sliver of glass he'd missed get driven deeper into his exposed foot. "Could I just get my boot?" he asked plaintively.
"Only if you want to die," the bald Cardassian growled.
Quark sighed heavily and gritted his teeth, stepping carefully around the sprawled bodies of the fallen Cardassian soldiers. "Interesting negotiating technique you've got there," he muttered.
"Faster," was the bald Cardassian's only reply.
Quark picked up his pace and followed Odo into the haze.
After they had passed a few empty shopfronts, Quark realized what was different about the Promenade. "Does it seem quiet to you?" he whispered to Odo.
Odo sighed. "Yes, Quark. Too quiet."
Quark snorted as he recognized the line Odo had quoted. "And I thought you didn't like holosuite programs."
"The next one of you who talks dies," a Cardassian snarled from behind them.
This time, Odo smiled nastily at Quark as if to say, Please continue. But Quark walked on in dignified silence.
As they stepped cautiously over the torn-down and sparking security gate leading to the Bajoran half of the station, Quark looked up to see a fourth Cardassian, also in civilian clothes, crouching on the second level. For an instant, their eyes met. It was Garak.
Quark was just about to call out Garak's name when he remembered the Cardassians' two phasers and the order he and Odo had just been given.
But the bald Cardassian had already noticed where he was looking, and now glanced up at the second level as well. Quark held his breath, but the bald Cardassian looked away, having seen no one. Garak had obviously jumped back, out of view.
Quark wasted no time trying to figure out why. No one had any reasonable explanation for why the Cardassians were leaving Bajor after sixty years of the Occupation. They were aliens, so in Quark's view -- in the sensible, practical Ferengi view of things -- they were obviously going to behave like aliens. As they should be allowed to do. Provided they paid their bills, of course. Alien or not, some laws were universal.
Turbolift 5 was on the Promenade's inner ring, just across from the small Bajoran Infirmary. Though the door to the Infirmary was open, Quark could see there was no sign of damage within. And why would there be? There had never been anything of value in it. All the medical supplies that came aboard Terok Nor were destined for the fully equipped Cardassian Infirmary across from his bar. The Bajoran Infirmary might just as well have been a barber shop for all the medicine that was allowed to be practiced in it.
Against all logic, the turbolift car arrived. Another event that made no sense to Quark. All the main lights on the Promenade were out. Only emergency glow panels were operating. And virtually all other equipment, from automatic firefighting systems to station communicators and the replicators were off-line. But not, it seemed, Turbolift 5.
The bald Cardassian scanned the waiting car with his tricorder, then stepped inside. The leader in the torn blue tunic waved Quark and Odo in without speaking.
Quark looked out at the Promenade as the lift doors closed. For a moment, he saw Garak again, huddled behind the rolling door of the disabled security gate across the main floor. At least, the figure had looked like Garak. But what would Garak have put on a uniform for...? Quark couldn't identify the tailor's military-style outfit, other than that he knew it wasn't Cardassian.
Quark looked to Odo to silently inquire if the shape-shifter had seen Garak, but Odo was still pointedly ignoring him.
Quark decided he could play that game every bit as well as Odo, and looked straight ahead as the lift descended. The movement felt unusually rough, as if the power grids were under strain. Quark tried his utmost not to think about that. The last thing he wanted was to be trapped in a turbolift with three surly Cardassians. Unlike Odo, he couldn't count on conveniently escaping by liquefying and slurping out between the doors....
Quark took another look at Odo as a sudden thought struck him. Why was the shape-shifter still here? He himself was trapped, of that there was no question. But Odo had already had at least a dozen opportunities to make his escape.
As Quark pondered the shape-shifter's motives, that portion of his brain that constantly counted and calculated registered that they had descended precisely ten levels. Almost unconsciously, Quark braced for the turbolift car's change of direction as it would begin to move laterally along one of the station's spokes.
But the direction didn't change. The car kept descending past the level of the docking ring.
Quark began to feel again the clammy touch of panic. Up till now, he had been operating under the assumption that there was something these three Cardassians -- and she, whoever she was -- wanted him to do. The fact that they wanted anything at all meant, reassuringly, that he was in the middle of a business transaction. And when it came to business, Quark knew he was definitely fighting on home soil.
But now, once again, he was heading into unknown territory. As far as he knew, the lower core of the station was the site of the fusion reactors, the power transfer manifolds and basic utilities, and its few residence levels were little more than prison cells for Bajoran ore workers. It was a realm for engineers, not business people. Even worse, he was not aware of any docking ports off the lower levels. The only way out of the lower core would be back up through the turbolift shafts.
Or through an emergency airlock, he thought queasily.
Quark moaned as he realized the trap he was entering. Then moaned again when he realized he had been so thrown off-balance by the lift car's continued descent that he had actually lost count of the levels they had passed. And every fool knew that a Ferengi who lost count had lost everything.
The two phaser-armed Cardassians continued to stare at him, their weapons held loosely at their sides as if daring him to break the rules and talk. But, finally, Turbolift 5 reached its destination.
The stop was so sudden, Quark felt the car rise back up a few centimeters as if it had overshot the desired deck. Then the doors opened.
The level beyond the open doors was so dark, it looked to Quark like the void of space itself.
But the Cardassian leader in the torn blue tunic pushed him forward anyway, and Odo at his side, even before a welcome pool of light from a palm torch sprang to life ahead of them.
"Straight ahead," the Cardassian leader ordered.
Quark limped on, as told. Adding to his resentful discomfort now was the fact that the deck plates on this lower level weren't covered by any type of carpet. They were just bare hull metal as far as he could tell. And since the station's lower core was terraced like a towering cake built upside down, Quark realized with a sinking feeling it was entirely possible that boundless space was really only a few centimeters below his feet.
But then, why are the deck plates so hot? he wondered.
He decided he absolutely hated Terok Nor. He'd be glad to leave it.
Alive, he added quickly, in case the Blessed Exchequer or any of his Exalted Tellers happened to be listening in.
The long, curving corridor on this level was narrower than others on the station. The ceiling lower. And except for a pale patch of light which Quark was just now beginning to perceive ahead, it seemed that none of the emergency glowpanels was functioning down here.
The spot of light from the palm torch kept skittering ahead, leading the way. On either side it was too gloomy for Quark to make out the Cardassian directional and warning signs on the bulkheads, but every few meters he passed an inner door. Some of these were open, with total darkness beyond.
If I were Odo, Quark thought darkly, I'd be through one of those doors so fast the light from the palm torch couldn't catch me.
But most inexplicably, the shape-shifter remained at Quark's side, even letting the Ferengi's injured foot set the pace.
Finally, just as Quark feared he would fall to the floor in exhaustion, the Cardassian leader ordered them to turn right at the next intersection. It was a cul-de-sac, where Quark would normally expect to find a turbolift. But instead, he halted before three more Cardassians, all females this time. Two were in soldier's armor, crisp, unmarked, the composite surfaces gleaming in the way Quark had come to recognize only the most elite Cardassian units were able to maintain. And despite the cold level of threat the two uniformed females presented, there was no doubt in Quark as to which female his three captors served.
She was the one in the middle, the only one in a matte-black civilian outfit that clung, Quark appreciatively noted, to the ridges of her spinal cords like a second skin.
"This is the only Ferengi on the station." Surprisingly, it was not the Cardassian in the torn blue tunic who was the first to address the female. It was the bald Cardassian with the tricorder. But in any case, Quark knew they were now in the presence of the real leader of the entire group, male and female -- She.
The female leader studied Quark as if he were livestock at an auction. Quark straightened up, smirking engagingly, but her widely spaced dark eyes turned to Odo. "Why is that here?"
The bald Cardassian in the torn blue tunic who was the first to address the female. It was the bald Cardassian with the tricorder. But in any case, Quark knew they were now in the presence of the real leader of the entire group, male and female -- She.
The female leader studied Quark as if he were livestock at an auction. Quark straightened up, smirking engagingly, but her widely spaced dark eyes turned to Odo. "Why is that here?"
The bald Cardassian's reply was instant. "I thought we could use him as a backup. He can take on the shape of a Ferengi."
Quark's evaluation of the female shot up in value with her skeptical response. "But can he take on the brain of a Ferengi?"
"Terrell," the bald Cardassian said deferentially, "with respect, we are running out of options. Dukat has left. The station will be under Bajoran control in hours."
Terrell frowned as she hunted for something in the engineer's case she wore at the side of her wide belt. "Unlikely. In fifty-three minutes, the station will be a debris field and navigational hazard. Dukat activated the self-destruct." She removed a palm phaser and without a moment's pause shot Odo.
The constable grunted and slumped to his knees, gasping painfully for breath. But to Quark's intense relief, Odo was only lightly stunned.
Terrell lowered her palm phaser and glared at the bald Cardassian. "Atrig, that thing is a shape-shifter. It could have escaped you whenever it chose. The fact that it didn't suggests it was spying on us."
The bald Cardassian's reaction to his leader's admonition was most revealing to Quark. It was definitely not that of a soldier. The Cardassian in the gray tunic merely clenched his teeth, glanced down, embarrassed more than anything else. Definitely not the response of a soldier. Quark's fuschia-rimmed eyes narrowed in speculation. If these two had come into his bar as customers, Quark would have instantly concluded that Atrig, Terrell's bald subordinate, was desperately in love with his superior, while Terrell considered Atrig as nothing more than a useful tool she might carry in her case.
"Of course," the bald Cardassian said, in almost a whisper, his head still respectfully lowered.
Terrell dropped the small phaser back into her case. "Just see you keep it stunned in case we do need it." Then she turned her attention to Quark. "You will perform a service for the Cardassian Union. If you succeed, you will have time to reach an escape pod before the station self-destructs. If you fail...." Her smile was cruel.
Quark looked questioningly at Atrig. Atrig understood. "Now you can talk."
"What kind of service?" Quark demanded. Let the negotiations begin, he thought.
"A simple one." Terrell turned her back to him and faced a blank bulkhead. Though he couldn't see exactly what she was doing, Quark could tell she was operating some kind of small device, for the bulkhead began to move to one side, revealing an extension of the corridor.
Quark's first reaction was one of true surprise. His second was of true apprehension. Over the years he had mapped every hidden section of the station, to establish his network of smugglers' tunnels -- but here was a corridor extension completely unknown to him. And beyond it, there was a light source, about ten meters past the bulkhead.
Quirk squinted at the light. It appeared to be emanating from a door whose center glowed pale pink.
"What's in there?" Quark asked nervously.
Terrell turned back to him. "Nothing for a Ferengi to fear." Then she nodded, and Quark felt himself pushed forward, toward the light, a phaser jammed between his shoulder blades.
Halfway to the door, he heard a sudden commotion behind him, then phaser fire. Odo. The constable must have tried to make his escape, and not been fast enough.
Quark chanced glancing over his shoulder and did a relieved double take. Odo was still staggering along behind him, supported by the Cardassian in the torn blue tunic.
But now the two armor-clad female Cardassians held a third stunned captive.
The Cardassian tailor was no longer in the strange uniform Quark had been unable to identify, but was back in his usual civilian garb. Quark didn't stop to question the change. He had always suspected that Garak wasn't the plain, simple tailor he made himself out to be. All Cardassians were masters of conspiracy, duplicity, and deviousness. The only remaining mystery for Quark was how the contentious aliens had managed to occupy Bajor as a cohesive force for as long as they had.
Atrig grabbed Quark's shoulder, forcing him to a stop three meters from the glowing door.
Correction, Quark thought. The door wasn't just glowing. It was pulsating. The effect was difficult to define precisely, but to Quark it seemed as if the door alternately bulged out and relaxed in, as if it were the flank of some large creature slowly breathing. The glow intensified with each intake of breath, changing from rose-pink to dark red, and Quark saw now that the light it created wasn't uniform. Instead, the vertical surface rippled outward, like a rock-disturbed pool of water standing on its side.
But that shimmering surface wasn't liquid, Quark knew. It was a solid layer protecting those on the outside from something that these six Cardassians didn't want to face -- or couldn't.
Yet for some reason, they believed a Ferengi could.
But why? Quark thought, even now still trying to find an angle to exploit. If whatever was causing the door to ripple and glow was some deadly form of radiation, the Cardassians could have captured anyone to...to do whatever it was they wanted done. It was a well-known fact to everyone on the station that no Cardassian officer would hesitate to order a fellow Cardassian soldier to face death.
So why do they need a Ferengi? And only a Ferengi?
"Garak," Terrell said with sarcastic condescension. "I don't know which surprises me more. That you haven't left the station already. Or that Dukat left you alive."
Quark looked back to see Terrell standing before Garak. The tailor's sagging body was held upright by the two female soldiers, each holding an arm. Garak shook his head as if to clear it.
"I was merely trying to warn you," the tailor said faintly. "I believe that Gul Dukat may have failed to inform you that for some reason the station's self-destruct system has been inadvertently activated. You should leave as quickly as possible."
Terrell patted the tailor's cheek. "Why, Garak, how noble of you."
"Terrell, my dear, given all that we mean to each other, I feel I owe it to you."
Interesting, Quark thought.
"And I owe you. So much."
Quark shivered at the unpleasant edge to Terrell's cool voice.
Garak merely nodded as he glanced at the glowing door. In the rose-colored light, his gray Cardassian skin took on an almost sickening, raw-meat color. "Well, I can see you're busy. So I'll be on my way."
"You'll leave with me, Garak. Interrogating you will help pass the time on the way back home." Now Terrell's voice was openly menacing.
Garak's careful civility gave way to cold rage. "You know I cannot go back to Cardassia."
"I do know," Terrell said. "That's why I'll execute you myself before we arrive." Then she turned toward the glowing door, her back to the Cardassian tailor as if he no longer existed.
Quark's eyes followed her movement to the door. He alone of the observers gasped at the change. It was as if Terrell now faced a vortex of glowing magma, blazing with light, yet producing no heat. Pulsating coils of red light snaked out from the rapidly deforming surface of the door. Some tendrils seemed almost ready to break free of the surface, as if whatever lay beyond was increasing its efforts to escape confinement.
Quark felt himself pushed forward again by the bald Cardassian.
"Terrell," Quark squeaked, his voice breaking in its urgency. "I'm going to need some information." More than anything else, he longed to run home. But he knew that wasn't possible. Perhaps he'd never see Ferenginar again. "What in the name of all that's profitable is in there?"
"A lab," Terrell said tersely. "What you're seeing is merely a holographic illusion. A new type of holosuite technology."
Quark couldn't be certain of the truth. He couldn't see any holoemitters in this hidden section of corridor. But then, they could be installed behind the illusion. Maybe --
Don't be a fool, Quark told himself.
Whatever was responsible for the phenomenon before him, it wasn't an illusion, and it was dangerous. There was no other reason for him to be here.
"So what do I have to do?" Quark asked.
"Go into the lab -- "
Quark couldn't help himself. "Through that thing?! You're crazy!" He flinched as Atrig shoved a phaser into his back. "My mistake," he croaked.
"We will open the door," Terrell continued. "You will go inside the lab, ignoring everything you hear, everything you see, except for the main lab console on the far wall."
"Everything I hear?" Quark asked, his voice trailing off as his imagination got the best of him.
Terrell ignored his apprehension. "On the main console, you'll see a...power unit. A...type of power crystal. Sixty-eight centimeters tall. Twenty-five wide at its top and bottom. Spindle-shaped. You can't miss it."
The corridor fell into momentary darkness as the door heaved inward.
"And you want me to bring it out," Quark said weakly.
Terrell nodded at him. "Very perceptive. It's in an open housing. Simply disconnect two power leads to detach it from the console, then carry the crystal out. As soon as you do...you'll be free to go."
Her very unconvincing smile confirmed the situation for Quark. He instantly knew that if he did succeed in retrieving the crystal from the lab, a minute later he'd be as dead as if he were still dangling at the end of an ODN cable on the Promenade.
Quark's agile mind raced to identify the loopholes in this transaction.
But he had run out of time.
"Open the door," Terrell ordered.
At once, the Cardassian with the torn blue tunic moved to place himself alongside the pulsating door, one arm stretched out before him. With one trembling hand, Quark shielded his eyes from the increasing red glare to see what the Cardassian was trying to do.
At the edge of distortion effect, Quark saw a door control. The Cardassian in blue touched it gingerly.
Incredibly, the door seemed to melt to one side, and Quark squinted as the light level reached an almost painful intensity.
" -- YES -- "
Startled, Quark looked around, trying to see who had just cried out.
It was Odo.
"YES! YES, I UNDERSTAND!" Odo shouted. He struggled in the grip of the Cardassian in the new brown tunic, the Cardassian who Quark suspected was either a soldier, a coward, a spy. "I WILL -- " Odo screamed. Then the shape-shifter began to reach out his arms, stretching away from his captor toward the bloodred light of the lab.
"Stop him!" Terrell commanded.
Instantly, Atrig stunned Odo again and the shape-shifter slumped, as his semiconscious body slowly assumed its humanoid shape once more.
"What happened?" Quark demanded.
"You didn't hear them?" Terrell asked in return. "The voices calling?"
Terrell's face blazed with reflected crimson light. "You'll do fine," she said. "Go! Now!"
Pushed relentlessly forward by Atrig, Quark swayed before the open doorway. He could see nothing in the lab except a swirl of light, a whirlpool of luminescence.
"Hurry!" Terrell shouted.
And then the light swirls fragmented before Quark, becoming writhing tendrils that seemed to reach out for him and --
This time the outcry came from Atrig, as the bald Cardassian leaped through the air to meet the coil of light heading directly for the woman he loved. The light hit Atrig square in the back, hurling him across the corridor as if a battering ram had struck him.
Atrig's limp form crumpled to the deck, a glowing patch of carmine light flickering over him.
Quark ducked as two more tentacles of flame-red energy snapped out from the doorway. Beneath the crackle of their passage, he heard hideous screams. Saw the Cardassian in blue and the other in brown lifted up from the deck, wrapped in red light.
Their cries became muffled as the scarlet glow spread over them, flowing around them like a hungry wave. Then, horribly, slowly, their wildly flailing arms and legs ceased their struggle, as if the light itself were somehow thick and resistant.
Forgetting for a moment that Atrig no longer was behind him to prevent his escape, Quark stared at the faces of the two trapped Cardassians. Their gaping mouths were stretched in soundless wails. And then, like a plasma whip being cracked, the two were sucked back into the vortex of light, disappearing in an instant.
Odo -- now held by no one -- knelt on the deck and looked back at the light. Quark could see him silently mouth a single word, over and over -- Yes...yes...yes....
The two female soldiers still held on to Garak, showing no fear, but clearly ready to leave as soon as they were ordered.
Quark turned to flee, but Terrell blocked his way. Her palm phaser was aimed directly at his head. "Hurry!"
Quark stared at Terrell. It was madness to do what she wanted. It was guaranteed suicide. But as much as he hated to admit it, if he didn't do as she ordered, then that fool Odo would be on his feet and stumbling forward in Quark's place, into something that for some unknown reason the Cardassians believed only a Ferengi could survive.
Quark told himself it wasn't respect he felt for Odo. It was just that after so many years of being adversaries, he knew how the shape-shifter thought, knew his strategies. And most importantly, Quark thought, he knew how much he could get away with. And for some inexplicable reason, the shape-shifter had stayed at his side all the way from the Promenade, when he could have escaped and left Quark to his fate -- alone.
Quark's chest swelled out as he drew in a deep breath. As the old Ferengi saying had it, Better the Auditor you know, than the Auditor you don't. Sometimes, he told himself, you just have to sign the contract you negotiated.
"Now!" Terrell ordered.
Quark released his breath in a mighty sigh, covered his head with his arms, and ran straight through the doorway into the blinding red light and --
-- his cut and bleeding foot suddenly sank into a soft sludge of cooling mud.
It was raining. A soft mist, really.
Quark stood completely still, eyes tightly shut.
The air was sweetly perfumed with the fetid rot of a swamp.
Quark lowered his arms from his head. Opened one eye. Then the other. And then he gasped as through the dark silhouettes of reaching branches and hanging moss, he saw the soft and welcoming lights of the Ferenginar capital city shining through the distance and the dark of night.
"Home..." he cried, delighting in the magical way the word created a delicate puff of mist before him.
But Quark was no believer in magic. He needed to know how it was he could see his breath as a delicate puff of mist. There had to be another source of light nearby.
He looked around trying to figure out where the lab had gone, where Terok Nor had gone, if he had finally died.
But all questions were erased as he saw a sparkle of blue-white brilliance approaching through the swamp trees, as if a living diamond were floating toward him.
Quark was completely overcome by the beauty of the spectacle. He stood transfixed until...
"Quark? Is that you, son?"
Quark's mouth dropped open in incredulity. "Moogie?"
"Over here, Quark...."
Quark shifted in the mud of his homeworld, and suddenly the glittering diamond was before him, held in his beloved mother's arms.
"Why didn't you tell me you were coming home," Quark's mother said crankily. "I would have made your favorite mooshk."
Quark's mouth watered at the intense memory of his moogie's mooshk. And to see her right now, glowing as if she were a part of the crystal she held, her completely unclothed skin faceted with light.
"So the only thing I have to give you is this," Quark's mother said. She held out the glittering jewel to him, until it seemed to float by itself, a shining, hourglass-shaped orb of promise and hope and everything anyone could ever want. "Go ahead, Quark. Take it...."
Quark reached for the orb like a child reaching for a toy. Every-thing was going to be perfect now.
But as his hands closed on the object his mother was giving him, one tiny nagging thought came to him.
Small. Subtle. Barely worth mentioning.
Something that might occur only to a Ferengi.
"Moogie," Quark said. "Can I ask you a question?"
And as Quark's mother began her transformation, Quark shrieked louder than any Ferengi had ever shrieked, as he saw --
Star trek Deep Space Nine Millennium Book 1: The Fall of Terok Nor copyright © 2000 by Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.