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Staggering Stories Podcast #263: Musical Helmets
by Staggering Stories Podcast
Sat, 20 May 2017 14:03

Summary: Adam J Purcell, Andy Simpkins, Fake Keith, the Real Keith Dunn and Scott Fuller review the 2017 Doctor Who episodes ‘Knock Knock’ and ‘Oxygen’, tell of their recent visit to the Doctor Who studios in Cardiff and the Capitol 2 Doctor Who convention, find some general news, and a variety of other stuff, specifically: […]


Staggering Stories Commentary #191: Doctor Who – The Pilot
by Staggering Stories Podcast
Sun, 14 May 2017 09:46

Summary: Adam J Purcell, Andy Simpkins and Keith Dunn sit down, puddled, in front of the 2017 Doctor Who S10 premiere episode, ‘The Pilot’, and spout our usual nonsense! This Doctor is a lecturing security guard, Bill is fattening up the locals and Heather has a very moist fixation. But enough of their problems, please […]


Staggering Stories Podcast #262: We Are Pete
by Staggering Stories Podcast
Sat, 06 May 2017 16:00

Summary: Adam J Purcell, Fake Keith and the Real Keith Dunn review the 2017 Doctor Who episodes ‘Smile’ and ‘Thin Ice’, and the 2017 film ‘Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2’, find some general news, play a game and a variety of other stuff, specifically: 00:00 – Intro and theme tune. 01:12 — Welcome! 01:39 […]


Staggering Stories Commentary #190: Babylon 5 – Intersections in Real Time
by Staggering Stories Podcast
Sun, 30 Apr 2017 09:00

Summary: Adam J Purcell, Andy Simpkins and Keith Dunn sit down, interrogated, in front of the Season 4 Babylon 5 episode Intersections in Real Time, and spout our usual nonsense! Sheridan is feeling strapped in, William is just doing his job and, well, that’s pretty much everyone. But enough of their problems, please sit down […]


Staggering Stories Podcast #261: Of Companions and Pilots
by Staggering Stories Podcast
Sat, 22 Apr 2017 17:00

Summary: Adam J Purcell, Jean Riddler, Keith Dunn and Scott Fuller review the 2017 Doctor Who episode ‘The Pilot’ and discuss what makes a Doctor Who companion, and a variety of other stuff, specifically: 00:00 – Intro and theme tune. 02:29 — Welcome! 02:21 – News: 02:36 — Star Trek: Discovery narrowly avoids Worf. 04:41 […]


Staggering Stories Podcast #260: Masterfully Unbound
by Staggering Stories Podcast
Sun, 09 Apr 2017 09:00

Summary: Adam J Purcell, Andy Simpkins, Fake Keith, Jean Riddler, the Real Keith Dunn and Scott Fuller review the 2016 Big Finish Doctor Who boxset ‘The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield, Vol. 3 – The Unbound Universe’ and discuss Doctor Who’s The Master in general, play a game, and a variety of other stuff, specifically: […]

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Deep Space Nine

Deep Space Nine: Reflections, Chapter Eleven

Written by Karen Dunn


With a grunt of pain, Marius clamped his eyes shut against the glaring light, pushed himself up off the bed and stood up. A wave of dizziness rocked him hard, but he kept his feet and slowly opened his eyes.

He had expected to wake up in the after life. The wound inflicted by the deviant had been deep and the blood loss extensive and as consciousness faded he had made his peace with the Creator.

The sight that greeted him, though, was not the afterlife - at least not the afterlife he had been raised to expect. He was in a bright white room with windows set into each wall looking out onto corridors with no end. The bed he was now standing next to was softer than any he had slept on before and the room was littered with technological miracles which only the Merchants could possibly have created.

He took a deep breath as he allowed his eyes to travel over each and every piece of equipment. A niggling ache reminded him of his wound and he lifted the hem of his tunic to take a look at his side. It was swathed in heavy bandages and was tender to the touch, but there was no blood and he could move with little discomfort.

He was alive.

He sat down heavily on the bed and held his head in his hands, "Sweet Creator."

A voice behind him made him jump, "Hello, Marius, " and he turned to find an old man smiling down at him. Dressed in beautiful flowing robes of a white material that matched his timeless hair, he could only be a Merchant and Marius fell to his knees with a hiss, "Lord…"

The old man frowned, "Oh, please don't kneel, young man, it puts a terrible strain on my neck having to stare down at you all the time."

Marius got slowly to his feet, his wide eyes never leaving the man's face, "Forgive me."

The Merchant nodded and reached into his robe, pulling a stubby metal device from the folds and pressing it to the overseer's neck. It beeped loudly and Marius jumped back with a yell of alarm, "What…?"

There was an exaggerated sigh, "Come now, you have long been aware of the wonders we create."

Marius stood his ground, despising the fear which had flooded his face, hating the fact that he had no control over his situation. Inside the walls of Caspii, his word was law - he could do anything he chose and no-one would dare question him. Here, he was frightened as a child. He swallowed hard and held his head high, "You took me by surprise. I do not fear you."

The old man chuckled, "I'm pleased to hear it." He studied the device closely and nodded in satisfaction, "You heal very quickly, young man. I'm actually impressed."

Marius allowed his hand to touch the bandages swaddling his side. Little pain and no blood, though he could almost feel the chill of metal as it tore into his flesh, could almost see the hate in the eyes of the deviant as she let his blood soak her hand. He closed his eyes, "I should be dead."

There was a rude snort and he looked at his companion, "Believe me, we considered letting you die. Your incompetence has scaled new heights."

He should have known. Despite his innocuous, grandfatherly appearance, this man was a Merchant and thought nothing of the people outside of the palace. Less than nothing. His wounds had been tended, his health restored and he was fleetingly grateful even as the familiar gut wrenching nerves kicked in as he faced his superior, "I can explain…"

The man didn't even look at him as he returned the instrument to his hidden pocket, "I'm sure you can," his tone was calm, pleasant, somewhat like a parent explaining to a child why an upcoming punishment was necessary and better for all in the long run, "but you'll explain to Taren, not to me."

Marius blanched, "The High Lord?"

"That's right."

He backed away a little too rapidly and collided with the bed, scrambling behind it with graceless haste. Had any of the inmates of Caspii been watching, they would have felt a deep satisfaction that the bully who had made their lives hell for so long was reacting so badly to his own personal demons, "I can't speak to the High Lord - he'll kill me."

The old man rounded the bed and took him gently by the arm, his grip, Marius found, completely unbreakable. He led the overseer to the door and smiled at him, "If he wanted you dead, we would not be speaking now. Come. They're waiting for you."

***

Taren, The High Lord of the Merchants, uncurled his slender form from its almost foetal sleeping position and stretched luxuriantly along the chaise longue with an exaggerated yawn. In his youth, he had been considered exceptionally handsome - a beautiful prize often sought after by the young women of his home world - but time and the elements had been harsh. As he entered his forties his thinning hair had taken on flecks of grey; not distinguished grey as so many men wore with pride, but patchy old man grey. His wife had died some years ago and now even the peasant women of this backward world only came to him for the riches he had to offer.

He was a prematurely old man whose body wanted nothing more than to sleep its remaining years away in comfort.

Not that Taren's pride would admit it - even to himself.

As Merchants went, he was almost laid back. He rarely met any of the indigenous population, never went to the Arena for the games and left most of the political decisions to his aides. He allowed fear of his name to spread and fester, just as fear of his father and grandfather had kept the populace in line. He was a figurehead. Last in a long line of figureheads who may have once had some real power, though few could remember why it was relinquished. With no legitimate heir to the title, the post of High Lord would become one of rank and not birth.

This fact bothered Taren more than anyone thought and he planned to rectify matters as soon as possible. If things went well…

Sliding off the couch, he left his chamber and walked the corridor to his office.

Had someone from twentieth century Earth been present, they would have commented that the room looked like a strange mixture of Ancient Greek luxury and the air traffic control HQ at Gatwick airport. The centre was dominated by a huge bank of consoles and a single oversized radar screen, the green lights and spinning sensors bleeping quietly to themselves.

The rest of the room was all spacious opulence; low seats overlooking the vast windows and the grounds beyond - the forest edging up almost cautiously to the gates. Fans and tapestries adorned the walls as ivy-like plants snaked to the ceiling, rooting themselves in every nook they could find. The floors were of bare stone, decorative rugs scattered here and there.

At the console sat another figure, an almost young man, his face creased in a permanent frown as he studied the radar closely, taking notes on a pad of paper before him. As Taren entered he leapt to his feet and bowed deeply, "Lord."

Taren waved him away with a click of the tongue, "As you were, Garus." He stood at the man's shoulder and peered at the readings, "Are they on the move yet?"

"Oh, definitely." Garus frowned at the screen, "They worked it out very quickly. I didn't expect them for at least another hour."

"And you're certain they're coming here?"

He nodded absently, scribbling furiously, as the bleep on the radar moved another inch forward, "I'd say there's nowhere else for them to go."

Taren wandered across the room and plucked a grape from one of the many overflowing fruit bowls dotted around the place, "Finally. And what about the craft?"

"I had it moved to the hanger. It's in a bit of a mess."

The High Lord shrugged, "I'm sure our visitors will be able to show us how to effect repairs."

Garus paused, chewing the end of his pencil in thoughtful consideration as he leant back in his chair and looked directly at Taren for the first time, "Where do you think they came from, Lord?"

Taren popped another grape into his mouth, "I don't know, Garus, I really don't know. But they're alone and in possession of knowledge that could make us very rich indeed."

"What if they refuse to help?"

The High Lord almost laughed, "After spending time with that idiot Marius I would think they're eager to go home."

Garus nodded and leant towards the radar once more, "I suppose…" his console beeped and he frowned at the readout, "Speaking of which, Lord. He's on his way."

Without a word, Taren walked over to one of the many couches and stretched out across it with catlike grace, his flint grey eyes riveted on the door. There was a cautious knock and he let out a harsh, "Enter!"

At the tone of the High Lord's voice, Marius almost fled, but his companion's grip was steady and he found himself propelled into the room and the door closing behind him. He had never been allowed near this part of the palace before, but his brain refused to allow him the luxury of taking in details as his superstitious eyes fell on Taren and a myriad horror stories from childhood nightmares crowded in on him.

He executed a painful bow, his hand clamped to his aching side, "My Lord."

Taren allowed a scowl to creep across his face as he looked the man up and down, "Are you a complete idiot, Marius?" The overseer swallowed, unsure what to say and Taren slid off the couch and walked over to him, towering above the smaller man, "Caspii has been running since before the town was built and never - never - has there been a fiasco of this scale. Prisoners do not escape from Caspii. Prisoners do not riot in Caspii. It is your job to see that there is order." He thrust his face into Marius's with a growl, "Isn't it?"

Marius pulled himself up to his full height. If he was to die, he would not go out whimpering, "Lord, the deviant…"

Taren snorted, "Oh, yes. The deviant." He returned to the couch and lay down again, pulling another grape from the bunch and examining it closely, "Think back, Marius. Think back to the day the deviant and her friend arrived at Caspii." He nibbled at the fruit before swallowing it whole, "Do you remember what you were told when we sent them to you?"

Marius nodded, "You wanted them broken."

"Exactly. We wanted them broken." He picked up a goblet of wine and drained it, "Whittled down. Defenceless." And hurled the empty cup at Marius, who only just ducked in time, the few remaining droplets of red liquid shattering against his skin like drops of blood, "We did not want them executed at dawn! What the hell did you think you were doing?"

Marius held his ground with great difficulty, "I apologise, Lord, but the deviant made things difficult. Refusing to kill an opponent in the Arena…her attitude…I was in danger of losing face…"

"And instead of that you almost lose your life and I am forced to cull virtually every inmate."

"I…"

Taren slid off the couch again and walk to the window, gazing out on the forest, "You lost your temper, Marius. That's all there is to it."

"Yes, sir."

He turned and smiled, "I should have you killed."

The overseer said nothing. The High Lord was well known for his fondness of games - his delight in making opponent and colleagues alike squirm before him as they waited to see which way his seesaw temper would fall. He stood now, with his head bowed, waiting for the axe to fall.

A knock at the door broke the moment and he let out a sigh of relief.

A hassled looking woman entered, her viridian robes dusting the floor as she bowed low before Taren and handed him a wad of papers. He tossed the to the waiting Garus without even glancing at them and looked down his nose at her, "Well?"

She stared right back at him, "The alien vessel has been taken to the main hanger and we've been over it several times." She shook her head, "Nothing. Our computers don't understand their computers and I have no idea whether they are anywhere near compatible." She retrieved the papers from Garus and tucked them under her arm, "If we are to make any headway, we need help."

Taren waved her away and she left without preamble as the High Lord turned his gaze back to Marius, "Now do you understand? You were about to kill one of the only people who can tell us how that vessel operates. Do you have any idea how advanced their technology is?"

Marius shifted from foot to foot as the wound in his side began to throb, "I had no idea they were this important.

"Obviously!"

Garus gave a discreet cough, "Lord, the transport…"

Taren nodded and stepped closer to the overseer, "You've served us well over the years, Marius, so I'll give you a chance to redeem yourself."

Marius straightened, "Lord?"

Garus tapped the radar, "That dot is a troop transport which your deviant and her friends have stolen."

Marius squinted at the screen, only vaguely understanding what he was looking at, "They're heading this way? Are they mad?"

Taren snorted, "Hardly! They want to go home. Because of your incompetence they know that there are people of intelligence in the region. They'll try to bargain for passage home."

"What do you want me to do?"

Taren shrugged as if bored, "They need to know who is in charge here. Take twenty men and stop the transport. Bring every one on it to me."

Marius smiled, the light of battle igniting in his eyes, "What if they cause trouble?"

Taren stood in front of him and glowered, "I want the deviant and her friend alive. Do you understand?"

Marius nodded and scowled, "Yes, Lord."

He turned to leave, but Taren seized his arm and said, "Alive, Marius. Do try and contain your enthusiasm this once."

The overseer bowed deeply, his pain filled breath hissing through his teeth and left the room.

***

They had come across a primitive road an hour ago and, at Jhemor's insistence, were following it towards the palace. At least that's what O'Brien hoped. He had mastered the controls of the transport with relative ease, the hands on steering and lack of any kind of autopilot reminding him of the tractors he had tinkered with on his Grandparents farm back home in Ireland, and was now attempting to guide it along the somewhat bumpy track whilst keeping his bearings.

Quite frankly, he could have used little help from his companions.

He glared over his shoulder at the others. Kira and Jhemor were sound asleep, the boy curled up against her side, his hand holding hers in a fierce grip. Katalia's sleep, he suspected, was more fever induced. She was slumped in one of the seats, her shattered arm cradled to her chest, a sheen of sweat glistening on her forehead. O'Brien hoped the Merchant's had some decent doctors. Words like gangrene and septicaemia kept wandering across his mind and he was becoming afraid that she wouldn't last much longer.

Lars and Odo were wide awake, chatting in animated whispers even as the Constable kept watch out of the back window in case any of the soldiers should come looking for their missing transport. O'Brien smiled to himself, unused to seeing the shapeshifter so at ease with a virtual stranger.

A persistent bleep from the panel in front of him caught his attention and he scanned a practised eye over a somewhat primitive radar detection unit. There was something on the road ahead of them. He eased the transport down to a crawl and called loudly, "We've got company."

By the time everyone was awake and alert, they had rounded a bend in the track and come face to face with a welcoming committee.

Three transports were blocking the track, and he counted twenty men with disruptors all pointed in their direction. He pulled the vehicle to a halt and scowled as he saw Marius limp to the front of the crowd and smile in an all too familiar manner.

Kira gritted her teeth and let out a low breath, "Doesn't he know when to quit?"

Odo let out a low growl behind her, "Apparently not. What do you think he wants?"

She glared out towards the man she hated most in the universe, "Nothing pleasant."

"Do you think the Merchants sent him?"

She shrugged, "Could be. Either way, we're in no condition to fight."

O'Brien glanced at her, "Are you saying we surrender?"

"For the moment." She looked Odo up and down, "I suggest you make yourself less conspicuous, Constable. It may be wiser to keep an ace or two up our sleeves."

Odo nodded, thought for a second then melted to the floor in a cascade of amber before solidifying as a rather plain belt which O'Brien picked up and strapped to his waist, "Time to face the music."

One by one they left the transport and waited as Marius and his troops walked cautiously towards them.

***

Compared to the primitive, inhospitable prison, the Merchant's palace more than lived up to its name. Whereas Caspii had been a hotchpotch of roughly hewn stones held together by age and the elements, rearing up like a lumbering beast about to strike, the palace was elegant. It was smooth to Caspii's rough cragginess, slightly off white to the prison's heavy browns. The walls were seamless, sweeping upwards and curving slightly outwards like a porcelain vase, peaking at a rim which no doubt hid battlements a-plenty. The windows were real, not jagged gashes added as an afterthought and, as far as the fugitives could see, they even contained glass.

The grounds through which they were led were immaculate, every plant and tree pruned to perfection as they shadowed ornamental fountains which glittered like diamond showers as they passed.

They mounted a row of wide steps leading to the doors which were opened by silent footmen and closed behind them with a gentle thud.

Once inside, they were led at gun point through the magnificent hallways, passed riches the likes of which they had never seen before. None of the guards spoke a word and even Marius, who revelled in the sound of his own voice, steadfastly refused to answer any of their questions.

The only sound was the tick-tacking of heavy boots drowning out the slapping of bare feet on the dappled marble floors.

***

Taren watched them approach on a tiny monitor, squinting through dulled green eyes as he cursed the ravages of impending age. It was not so long ago that he would have been able to make out the image clearly from the other side of the room.

Marius was leading the way, his once arrogant stride slowed by the pressure of his wound. The man behind him had a mess of blond curls plastered to his face and an annoyed scowl on his face. There was a woman with a bloody mess for an arm being supported by the farmer. Behind them came the deviant. He had to squint harder to make out the delicate mutation on the bridge of her nose. Such a shame. Take away the bruises and the ridges and she would be almost pretty. He found it hard to believe that she possessed the will to drive Marius to such distraction. He watched as she slowed her pace to wrap an arm around the shoulders of the last member of the party, a young boy, and whispered something to him, urging him on. Taren paused and peered closer, his eyes widening, "Sweet, Creator…"

Garus, engrossed in his work, looked up, "Lord?"

Taren shook his head slowly, his eyes glued to the monitor, "…nothing…"

***

Marius ordered the little party to a halt outside a rather grandly designed door and the prisoners waited at gun point as he knocked cautiously and ducked inside.

Kira scanned the halls around them, searching for any possible escape routes, their path to the outside easily memorised. They had hardly seen another soul on the long walk through the palace and she was pretty sure that security in the grounds was minimal.

If they could just lose their silent shadows…

Just as she looked across at O'Brien, the door re-opened and Marius came back out and snapped orders to the guards, "Take him, him and her to quarters", he barked, pointing at Lars, Katalia and Jhemor.

The guards nodded and hustled the trio away, having to prise Jhemor's hand from Kira's as the boy hung on for dear life, "Major Lady!"

Kira took an instinctive step after him and Marius took hold of her arm and tugged her back. She froze, a chill running up her spine as he grinned at her, allowing his rough fingers to caress her forearm in an obscene massage, "Not you, deviant."

Without another word, he ushered them into the room and closed the door behind them, taking up a sentry position to watch what unfolded.

Kira and O'Brien barely had time to take in their surroundings before a middle aged Merchant with greying hair and flowing robes bore down on them with the falsest of false smiles, "Welcome, welcome!"

He guided the startled duo to a luxuriant couch surrounded by small tables laden with food and wine. Kira and O'Brien sat slowly, relishing in the softness of the seat as the sank gently into it's cushions.

The Merchant poured each of them a drink and stepped back with a little bow, "My name is Taren."

They looked at him, the drinks untouched.

Not used to being left unacknowledged, Taren frowned and tried again, "High Lord of the Merchant Empire."

Kira placed her goblet very carefully on the nearest table and stood up, drawing herself up to her full height, her face emotionless, "My name is Major Kira Nerys, " she paused, "Political prisoner of Caspii."

Taren's frown deepened as he tried to work out whether or not she was mocking him, turning now to O'Brien, "And you are…?"

O'Brien didn't stand and didn't smile, "Miles O'Brien. Pleased to meet you, I'm sure."

The Merchant smiled broadly, "Yes, yes, pleased to meet you." He stepped forward and returned the goblet to Kira's hand, "Please accept the drink. I know you haven't been eating too well."

She directed a scowl at Marius, "And who's fault is that?" But she took the goblet and stared at the tempting liquid sloshing around inside. Worf would have growled something about not drinking with an enemy and poured the wine onto the floor. Very Klingon. Very noble. But she was not Klingon, her body ached and she was very very thirsty. She closed her eyes and took a long swig of the wine, sighing deeply as it hit her empty stomach.

O'Brien watched her and downed his drink in one gulp.

Taren was delighted, "See? It's not so hard to be friendly, is it?"

Kira eyed him carefully, "Friendly?"

"Yes. I just want us to get along."

She almost laughed, but no longer seemed to know how as she waved an arm at Marius, "For Prophet's know how long this animal has been trying to kill us and now you expect us to shake hands and be friends? You'll forgive me if I ask what the catch is."

Taren shook his head sadly, for all the world appearing distressed that she could have misunderstood his kindness, "There's no catch, Major. Major…Is that a military title?"

"Yes."

"Yes, you strike me as the type. There really is no catch, Major. "

He had stepped too far into her personal space and she backed away, her legs bumping into the couch. O'Brien stood up, allowing a somewhat protective hand to rest on the small of her back as the Merchant continued, "I believe that we could all be of great help to each other."

"What do you mean?"

He smiled, "I know you're not of this world."

O'Brien laughed, "That's ridiculous." When Taren looked pointedly at Kira's nose, the Irishman shrugged, "It's a birth defect. All her life she's…"

The Merchant sighed in exasperation, "Enough! We have your ship."

Kira blinked, "I don't know what you mean."

"Yes you do. I know you crash landed not far from Caspii. I know you saved Jhemor from the thugs we call prison guards and I know you don't possess the means to repair your ship and get home. That, " he smiled again, "is where I can help you."

They looked at each other and O'Brien shrugged, "We're listening."

Taren rubbed his hands together, "My technicians have been over and over your ship, but your computers and ours don't appear to be compatible. If you would be willing to help us sort out this little problem, we would be willing to help you repair it and go home."

They looked at each other again, an unspoken question passing between them. It was Kira who spoke and her voice was bitter as her eyes bore into the silent overseer as he stood at the door, "If you are so keen on getting us home, why was he so keen on doing us harm?"

Taren glared at Marius and approached Kira. She had nowhere to run so could do nothing to prevent him placing an arm across her shoulders. He seemed not to notice when she stiffened, and led her towards the window, his voice low, "Marius is an idiot. He doesn't recognise a business opportunity when he sees it."

She shook him off and backed away, "And you do."

He nodded, "I'm a Merchant. Business is my life."

"You sound like a Ferengi."

"Excuse me?"

She scowled, "No."

Recognising her stubborn distrust and realising she would not just cave in at the promise of something to eat and drink, he gave an exasperated sigh, "Major, please, I am offering the hand of friendship. Allow me to make amends."

She was no longer willing to listen, "Tell us where our friends are."

"They are resting."

"Why should I believe you?"

He spread his hands, "Because I have no reason to harm them."

She let her hands move to her face, drawing his attention to the cuts and bruises marring her features, "You'll forgive me if I don't find that a very reassuring answer."

Taren sighed and spun away from her, addressing Marius, "Take them to their quarters. Re-unite them with their friends."

"At once, Lord." Marius bowed and opened the door, stepping aside to allow Kira and O'Brien through. As they left, Taren called, "We'll speak again when you are fully rested, Major. I'm sure that, given time, you'll come to see the benefits of friendship."

***

Jhemor was first to greet them as Marius pushed them through yet another overly decorative door. The boy threw himself at Kira with a squeal of delight, "Major Lady! You're not eaten, no you're not!"

She disentangled herself from his embrace with a smile, "Eaten?"

He nodded, "Everyone knows that Merchants eat their prisoners, yes they do."

O'Brien ruffled his hair, "Well, we're not eaten Jhemor," he looked around the room, "Surprised - not eaten."

He removed his belt and dropped it on the floor where it dissolved into an amber puddle before reforming in the familiar grim visage of Odo. They stood in silence for a while as they took in the room.

It was luxuriant in the extreme, the walls and floors thick with rugs and tapestries, the furniture exquisitely carved and the tables laden with refreshments. A number of doors led off to sleeping areas - one for each person - whilst fresh clothes and, for the first time in far too long, shoes awaited them in the closets.

O'Brien gave a low whistle as he took a huge mouthful of an unknown fruit, "Well, if this is a trap, it's the nicest one I've ever fallen for."

Lars came over to stand next to him, "Who says it's a trap?"

O'Brien looked at him, "Experience."

Lars laughed as he poured himself a large goblet of wine, "They've been nothing but hospitable to us since we arrived. If you look outside, you'll see no guards on the door. We're free to roam. Perhaps this has all been some huge misunderstanding."

"Misunderstanding..!"

Noticing the Chief's face reddening with fury, Odo stepped between the two men, "Take it easy, Chief."

O'Brien spun round to him, "I'd tell your friend to think before he speaks. He wasn't at Caspii - we were…"

A groan of pain curtailed the argument and they turned to see Kira kneeling next to one of the couches, feeding water to the rapidly weakening Katalia as Jhemor hovered in the background. The big woman had lost a lot of blood, her pallor pasty, her eyes glazed.

Kira whispered something to Jhemor and the boy ran into one of the other rooms, returning with a sheet which the Bajoran began to tear into strips.

Soaking them in water she dabbed at the ruined arm, knowing she could do little to help. Katalia gasped in pain and placed her good hand on Kira's arm, "I'm sorry to…to let you down…Deviant…the pain…"

"Ssh, it's all right. Rest."

She shook her head, her eyes closing, "I should…be able to…help…"

Kira wrapped another strip around the wound in a makeshift bandage, "Help when you're well."

"No….listen…"

"I'm listening."

Katalia's usually powerful voice was barely more than a whisper as she finally gave in to sleep, "Don't…trust them…Don't ever…trust them…"

Her strength gave out with a sigh and Kira stood up, covering her with a blanket, "I won't."

As she turned away, Jhemor tugged on her arm, "Is she dead, Major Lady?"

"No, Jhemor, she's not dead. But she needs a lot of rest so it's best we don't disturb her." She watched as the boy nodded and yawned, "Why don't you go and get some sleep?"

"Okay." Rubbing his eyes, he disappeared into one of the bedrooms.

Lars put down his goblet, "I think I'll catch some rest myself." He nodded to O'Brien and chose one of the other rooms, closing the door behind him.

The three officers were left alone for the first time in the silent room, the only sound being the unsteady breathing of the sleeping Katalia.

Odo took a moment to take a proper look at his crew mates for the first time since they had broken out of the prison. He knew that they had lived through an horrific experience, though neither of them had volunteered details. He would not press them, but, as he watched Kira lower her battered body onto one of the couches with an exhausted sigh, he promised himself that he would be there for them whenever they chose to talk.

For now, though, there were things to do.

He crossed to the Major and offered her a plate of food, "Can we be sure they have no idea I'm here?"

She took the plate with a bright smile, "Positive. Taren told us about the runabout almost immediately. I think he likes to brag when he's got one up on an opponent. He'd have mentioned you straight away."

"Well, in that case I shall go and explore. I'll be back in a couple of hours."

"Be careful."

He nodded, "Always," and dissolved into an air vent.

O'Brien joined her sitting on the couch and they shared the plate of food. He took a bite out of what looked like a chicken leg, but tasted rather sweet, "Do you trust Taren?"

"Not in the slightest."

"What does he want?"

Kira sighed, "I have no idea, Chief," she looked up at him with sad eyes, "but did you notice how he seems to be on first name turns with Jhemor?"

He had wondered whether that had struck home, "Yes, I did. If we were betrayed from the inside, do you think..?"

She sprang to her feet, shaking her head, "No! No, he wouldn't do that. He wouldn't do that…"

"How can we be sure?"

She tried to take a calming breath, a trick she had mastered from infinite discussions with Sisko at his most stubborn, "He's just a kid, Miles. If we hadn't found him when we did, those thugs would have killed him."

O'Brien set the plate on the table and stood up, "Would they? Isn't it something of a coincidence that we just happened to bring the ship down there?"

"Maybe…"

"And if they were so set on killing him, why are we all still alive? Why did they just take us to the prison?"

She closed her eyes, "I don't know. Prophets, I'm tired"

He reached out and drew her into a hug, hurt when she almost pulled away before deciding he was safe and settling her head against his chest with a sigh. He stopped short of stroking her hair, "Look, let's get some sleep. We can't think straight when we're out on our feet."

She pushed herself away from him and nodded, "Sleep well, Chief."

"You too, Major."

They closed their bedroom doors behind them and all was quiet.

***

The scream woke Kira from her most relaxing sleep in days and she staggered bleary eyed to the door of her room, pulling a blanket round her shoulders.

All was quiet.

Assuming she had been dreaming, she turned to go back to bed when it happened again. A muffled, sobbing cry from Jhemor's room. Pushing open his door she peered inside.

The boy was in fitful, restless sleep on the bed, his face creased in a permanent frown. She paused. What if O'Brien was right? What if Jhemor had been the one who betrayed the prisoners? It would explain how Taren knew his name without ever having met him. What if..?

Jhemor flipped over in his sleep and another cry escaped his lips. Pushing her doubts aside, Kira crossed the room and lay down next to him, wrapping the blanket around them both as she shushed him and banished his nightmares.

Within minutes, they were both asleep and the apartment was quiet once more.

Unseen, somebody walked up to Jhemor's room, watched the sleeping pair for a moment then closed the door.

***

The palace was vast, even more so from the confines of the miles of air vents that criss-crossed its length and breadth and Odo had made little headway in his explorations.

He had sped through the dusty channels, allowing his substance to stream along the walls, feeling for vents and doors and peering through each as he passed. There was very little to see.

That the Merchants were the most material race he had come across was obvious after only a few rooms. They seemed to treasure possessions even more than the Ferengi, their rooms and halls lavishly decorated with precious metals and works of art.

The people themselves were shiftless and idle with servants from the outside world doing most of the work for none of the pay.

He despised them.

Turning a corner he could suddenly hear the sound of metal on metal and the steady buzz of power tools. He peered through the nearest vent and found himself looking down on the battered wreck of the Amazon.

He was no engineer, but Odo could not see the runabout flying again, no matter how many people swarmed all over it - and right now there were a lot of people in the hanger. He spotted Marius standing to the rear of the craft, peering in as technicians ran to and fro and generally getting in everyone's way.

The hanger door opened and Taren walked in, beckoning the overseer to a quiet corner. Odo slid on to the next vent and listened.

Taren nodded towards the door, "They're sleeping."

"So what should we do, Lord?"

Taren looked down his nose at the man, "We give them a few more minutes to recover and then we bring them here and put them to work, of course."

Marius shook his head, "Forgive me, Lord, but the deviant said…"

"I know what she said, Marius, but I have said that she will work."

He raised his hands in supplication, trying to get his point across without stepping out of line, "She's a trouble maker, Lord, they both are. They won't fall in line. Let me show them who's in charge. A few minutes…"

Taren snorted and turned away in disgust, "Your heavy handed approach has already put up walls between them and us. If violence didn't break them before, why would it work now?"

Marius almost growled, hating the way his hands had been tied; hating the way he had been reduced to little more than a lackey in the blink of an eye. Just one more minute alone with the deviant and he could work off a lot of the tension in his bones. But he knew it was not to be, so he opted for the next best thing, "Fine. Then give me Jhemor. They seem very protective of him. If he were in danger…"

Taren spun on him, eyes blazing, "NO!" The noise in the hanger stopped as if turned off at the mains as everyone looked at the High Lord. He glared them back to work and took hold of the overseer's arm, "We'll give them one chance to do as they are told. Bring them here. Let's see what they have to say."

"And if they refuse?"

He was losing patience, "They won't refuse. They need to know where they stand as much as we do." He released the arm and watched as the overseer headed for the door, "And Marius..?"

He stopped and turned, "Lord?"

Taren took a slow walk towards him, "I've been aware of your sadistic nature for a number of years, but I let it slide because you ran that prison so well, but know this: if you harm one hair on that boy's head I will kill you with my own hands."

Marius faltered, "But, Lord, he's nothing…he's a half wit…"

He stopped just inches from the smaller man and glared at him, "He was more the day he was born than you will ever be and you will treat him with respect. Do I make myself clear?"

"Yes, Lord." With a deep bow, Marius left the hanger as Taren watched the technicians work, his face as black as thunder.

Curiouser and curiouser, thought Odo as he dissolved like quick silver and sped back towards the apartment.

He arrived well ahead of Marius and woke the sleeping occupants as quickly as he could, explaining the eavesdropped conversation to Kira and O'Brien before becoming a vase in the corner. When the overseer burst through the door he was greeted not with bleary confusion but smug superiority as Kira and O'Brien stood and regarded him with disdain.

O'Brien all but pushed past him, "I assume we're wanted."

Marius glowered at him, "You're to go to the hanger."

He put out an arm to stop Jhemor from leaving with Kira but she stood her ground and crossed her arms, "He stays with me or I don't go."

The overseer looked as though he would dearly love to teach her some respect, but stood aside and let the trio pass.

The door closed leaving Lars looking down on the sleeping Katalia, "I'll stay here, then", he called to no-one in particular.

***

The technicians had gone by the time they arrived and only Taren was there to greet them, "Ah, Major Kira Nerys and Miles O'Brien, how nice of you to join me."

"Like we had a choice, " muttered O'Brien as he climbed into the back of the runabout, Kira and Jhemor behind him.

Taren and Marius made to follow but she stopped them with a look, "Nothing is agreed yet, Lord, so I'll thank you to stay out there."

He smiled at her, "Do I take it you are admitting to ownership of this vessel?"

Kira glared at him, "Do we play games or do we conduct business?"

Taren's unpleasant smile deepened as he stepped down from the runabout, pulling Marius with him, "As you wish. You have one hour. There are tools at your disposal."

***

As it turned out, the hour proved very productive. As Jhemor sat quietly near the door, trying to keep out of the way as the Major Lady and Mr 'Brien made the metal monster work, O'Brien eventually managed to coax the computer into some semblance of life and they began to run through their options.

Taren's technicians had managed to effect various repairs, which was worrying. If they could get this far with no instruction, how well would they do with a Starfleet engineer to help them. The hoped for incompetence was sadly lacking.

Kira leant back and rubbed her eyes, "Okay, Chief, what can you tell me?"

He shrugged, "Well, voice recognition is down. Whatever we do, we'll have to do manually."

Kira gave a short nod and began hitting keys on the panel in front of her as O'Brien watched, his eyes widening, "What are you doing?"

She didn't look at him, "Activating the self destruct. We have to take the runabout out of the equation."

"If we do that, we lose our last chance to get home."

She paused and took a deep breath, "I know," then continued her work at the panel.

Jhemor leant forward as O'Brien clenched his fists, his voice an almost whisper, "Major, the explosion would take out half the complex. These people have built a completely different civilisation under this roof. It's like two separate worlds with a wall in between. What if they can't survive outside."

She turned from the panel and glared at him, the bruises making her eyes as dark as coals, burning in her face, "Chief, we can't give them Starfleet technology."

He matched her glare for glare as Jhemor whimpered and backed away, "I agree with you, Major. But we can't deny them their own technology either. They'd be stranded here. Helpless. It goes against the Prime Directive…"

Kira's fists slammed into the console, "But they're exploiting the entire planet. We can't give them another weapon to use against these people."

O'Brien watched her for a full minute as she rubbed her sore hands and brought herself under control. When he spoke, his voice was soft and he placed a hand on her arm, "It's not up to us to interfere."

She looked at him, "We already have interfered, just by crashing here."

"That's not the way it works…"

She jabbed a finger towards the runabout window and the distant figures of Taren and Marius as they waited impatiently in the hanger, "Dammit, Chief, the runabout is useless unless they help us fix it."

He made a rude noise of disbelief, "I'm not letting them near it."

"Exactly. We have no choice. Given time, they're bound to work out the basic principles. We have to activate the self destruct."

Her hand moved towards a large red button, but O'Brien restrained her, his grip brooking no argument, "There are a lot of innocent people here. I don't know about you, but Prime Directive or no - I cannot commit cold blooded murder."

For a moment it looked as though she would finish the sequence with or without his approval and Jhemor cowered further away as they attempted to stare one another into submission. Eventually, though, she nodded and pulled away, "Then it looks as though we're stuck at an impasse."

The two of them abandoned their work and left the runabout, leaving Jhemor to sit and ponder what he had just heard, before he too climbed out of the ship and trotted across the hanger to join his friends.

Kira stood and faced Taren as he bore down on her, his fake smile making her feel ill, "Well? Can we help each other?"

She shook her head, "I don't think so."

"You don't think…"

She turned and walked towards the door, O'Brien and Jhemor in her wake.

Taren blustered, his face reddening in fury, "I offered you a business deal, Major. And no-one refuses to do business with the High Lord."

She didn't look back, "What are you going to do? You need us, Taren. You'll get your help when we're ready and not before."

The trio left the hanger with Taren's parting words ringing in their ears, "I may need you, Major, but what about your friends. They're expendable. Think of that."

O'Brien glanced at Kira as they walked down the hallway, "That was risky."

"I know, but it makes a change to be the one wielding the power."

He smiled, "How do you think he'll take it?"

Kira sighed heavily, long since tired of living on a constant knife edge and wishing for simpler things, "I'm sure we'll find out soon enough. Come on, Jhemor, let's get something to eat."

***

Marius had seen Taren annoyed before, had seen him sentence men to death simply because he was bored; but he had never seen him shaking with abject fury. Had never seen him reduced to virtual foot stamping with inbred temper. Now, though, the High Lord was a shaking mass of clenched teeth and clenched fists as he watched the door close behind the deviant and her friends, "How dare she! How dare she? I will not be spoken to in that manner."

The overseer swallowed nervously, "I warned you she has no respect, Lord."

For a second Taren considered taking out his ire on his underling, but steadied himself as plans formulated in his mind, "Yes, you did, Marius."

"What now?"

"Whatever her faults we need the deviant alive, just as we need O'Brien." He smiled at Marius, "I think we'll put your plan into action, overseer."

"Lord?"

"We'll fetch Jhemor. Give them something to think about."

Marius frowned, "But you said…"

Taren waved him away with an impatient snarl, "I said 'fetch' the boy, not maim him. We just let them think that I have taken him for sport. They'll soon rethink their disobedience."

Marius nodded, "Let me arm myself and I'll take you to them."

He crossed to a locker against the wall and pulled out a disruptor rifle then, with a nod to Taren, led the way down the halls towards the apartment.

***

Odo was waiting for them when they returned and the three of them gathered in O'Brien's room to talk things through. It was agreed that they could not give the Merchants access to a higher technology, none of them being willing to jeopardise the people of this world any more than they already were. It was also agreed that activating the self destruct whilst the runabout was still inside the hanger was unacceptable.

And each of them wondered briefly when they had abandoned the idea of returning home.

***

Taren's fury had not abated by the time they reached the apartment and slammed through the door, startling those within. In the blink of an eye he was across the room, Marius covering him with the rifle, and took Jhemor by the arm, "Come with me!"

Jhemor let out a cry of alarm and tried to pull away, his eyes pleading with the still seated Lars to help him.

Before the farmer could make a move, though, there was a blur of movement from the far couch as Katalia pushed herself up on her one good arm and threw herself at the High Lord with a shriek that may have been pain or may have been defiance.

She hit Taren square in the chest knocking him back against the wall, his grip on Jhemor broken.

Marius smiled and shot her down. She was dead before she hit the floor and for a moment there was silence.

Jhemor's wail of distress rent the air as he saw yet another friend fall to the overseer. Familiar tears began to race each other down his face as he launched himself at the detestable man and bore him to the ground, inadequate fists pummelling his face and chest.

Every instinct in Marius' body was screaming at him to snap the boy's neck, to put him down like the worthless vermin he was, but he knew that Taren's wrath was to be feared a lot more than a few minor bruises.

As one of the interior doors opened and the deviant came through, he covered his face with his hands and waited for everything to stop.

***

The discussions had trailed to an inconclusive halt when the sound of gunfire and screaming had sent Kira, O'Brien and Odo dashing from the Chief's room to the main apartment.

The first thing they saw as the door opened was Taren struggling to rise, pushing Katalia's body from off his legs and wiping distastefully at the blood which had splashed on his robes. There was Jhemor, perched atop Marius' chest pounding at his face for all he was worth.

Then there was Lars.

As the trio ground to a halt, the farmer got up from the couch with an annoyed frown and picked up Marius' fallen disruptor. He primed the weapon with a flick of the wrist and pointed it at Kira's head, "Get off him, Jhemor."

The boy looked up and bit his lip, climbing off Marius when Lars wrapped an arm around the Bajoran's neck and almost tugged her off her feet, "Don't hurt her, Mr Lars. Please don't."

Marius got to his feet and stepped back to join the High Lord with a smug smile, "It seems there will be no more pretence, Lord."

"So it seems", Taren gazed closely at Odo, taking in for the first time the deviant face which he had known was present but had never seen, then nodded at the boy, "Jhemor, come here."

Jhemor crossed the floor, a picture in dejection and Taren led him from the room. Marius nodded to Lars, "You know what to do" and closed the door behind him.

Once they were gone, Lars backed up against the door, keeping the trio well within his sights until O'Brien broke the silence, "It was you who betrayed us."

The farmer nodded, "I did my job."

"But…"

Lars shook his head and looked at Odo, his face containing none of the smug superiority which was ever present in Marius. His eyes were almost apologetic, "I meant everything I said, Odo. You saved my son's life and I will always be grateful, but the debt is more than paid and, well, this is business. I have a family to feed, my friend."

The Changeling growled, "I'm no friend of yours."

"That can't be helped. Now, all of you sit down on the couch." They glanced at one another and Odo took a step away, before Lars raised the rifle higher, aiming steadily between O'Brien and Kira, "And don't try any of those fancy tricks, Odo. I may not be able to harm you, but I can harm them."

Odo stepped back and they all sat on the couch, "What happens now?"

Lars shrugged, "We wait here until you decide to help us with your ship. If I haven't sent word to Taren within the hour, Jhemor will die. Another hour and one of you three will die and so on and so on." He shrugged again as if uncomfortable with the orders he had been given.

Odo glared at him with ice chip eyes, flashing a look which had reduced hardened criminals to babbling confessors, "I have to congratulate you, Lars. I have been a law enforcement officer for many years and I have never been fooled this way before."

The farmer shook his head with a low chuckle, "Don't feel bad, my friend, I'm good."

He gave a snort of derision, "Do Rissa and the children know you sold out to the Merchants?"

"Rissa is a Merchant. And the children will learn as they grow older."

Odo took a step towards his former friend and Lars covered him with the rifle as he walked, "And just what will they learn, Lars? How to treat people like animals? How to become devious and cruel? How to betray their fellow men for the sake of a profit?

"I didn't betray you, Odo. I risked everything to help you."

"And then you told Taren there was going to be a break out, didn't you. You knew what Marius had in store for my friends and you knew I wouldn't let anything happen to them, so you betrayed me to your masters like the slave you are."

For the first time, Lars' fingers twitched in anger, his face darkening, "I'm no slave, Odo."

If he had been concentrating harder on the job at hand and less on controlling his growing anger, the farmer would have noticed that the Changeling had been walking slowly round him, leading his aim away from Kira and O'Brien until they were standing behind him.

By the time he realised what Odo had done it was too late. O'Brien clubbed him down with a water pitcher and watched him fall, bending to retrieve the fallen rifle, "He may not be a slave, Constable, but he's a damned lousy watchdog."

They left the room at a run.

***

Jhemor was used to being afraid. He had spent his whole life cowering from real and imagined fears, real and imagined people. Walking down an endless hallway between two large men and wondering when they were going to kill him was almost run of the mill.

Almost.

He glanced sideways at Marius, remembering all the times the overseer had screamed at him, frightened him, slapped him. He knew the man's habits from experience and had seen others take the brunt of a particularly violent temper. He knotted his fingers together and bit his lip, "I don't like him," he whispered.

Taren looked down at him, unsure whether the boy had meant to speak, glanced quickly at Marius then placed a reassuring hand on Jhemor's shoulder, "He's nothing."

Jhemor hadn't really expected a response to his voiced fear and looked up into Taren's eyes, unsure by what he saw there. The man wasn't shouting at him, though, so he stopped dead in his tracks and gave it another try, "I don't like him."

"You're dismissed, Marius."

The overseer gaped, "But, Lord…"

Taren glowered at him, his voice a hiss, "You think I need protecting from him? You insult me, overseer. Go!"

As Marius skulked off down the hallway, Jhemor looked up at his unexpected almost ally, "I want to go back to my room, yes I do."

The reply was instant, clipped, "I'm sorry, Jhemor, but I can't allow you to associate with that deviant."

Taren continued to walk down the hallway and Jhemor trotted after him, "Major Lady's not a deviant. She's my friend."

The High Lord raised a dismissive hand, "It's not appropriate."

"I don't know appropriate."

Taren stopped again and turned towards the boy, something almost like affection reflecting in his eyes. He reached out and stroked a lock of the untamed ginger hair away from Jhemor's eyes and smiled, "I want better things for my son."

"Son?"

He nodded, "Yes."

Jhemor backed away, shaking his head. Marius and his kind had taken great delight in telling him terrible stories just to watch him cry. They had told him how his mother and father had abandoned him at the gates of Caspii because they wanted a normal child. Taren, it seemed, was cut from the same mould. But this time he wasn't going to cry. He wasn't going to watch them laugh at him, "You say bad things to make me help you. I won't hear you." He clamped his hands over his ears.

Taren pulled them away as gently as he could, "Jhemor, listen to me. You are my son and it's time for you to come home."

He shook him off with a wail, tears glistening in his eyes despite his best efforts to contain them, "You're a liar, yes you are. You leave me alone!"

And he turned and fled.

***

Taren found him sitting in the runabout in the hanger. The technicians and engineers had left and they were alone. He pushed aside a detached piece of bulkhead as he entered the battered ship and saw Jhemor sitting in the only surviving seat, running his fingers over a button on the panel before him, his face an unreadable mask.

The High Lord's feet cracked through the debris on the ground as he crouched down behind the boy and, after a second's pause, placed a hand on his shoulder, "Jhemor…son…"

He didn't turn, "I'm not your son. You're a bad bad man."

"I'm not, Jhemor. Believe me, I'm not."

He spun the chair round now and looked Taren in the eye, "Merchants hurted the Major Lady. Merchants hurted lots of people. You're bad."

He shook his head, almost pleading with him, "Please, I would have given anything for you not to have to live through that. But when it became obvious that you were not…normal…Jhemor, you would have become High Lord after me, but no-one would have followed a half wit."

Jhemor spun round, his eyes blazing, not a tear in sight, "DON'T CALL ME THAT! I'm not a half wit, no I'm not."

"I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I know you're not a half wit, but I never had the chance to prove it to anyone. They wanted you killed, Jhemor. They wanted the bloodline cleansed. But I saved you, son."

Realisation dawned, "You send me to Caspii?"

"Yes."

"Why? Caspii a bad place."

"It was the only place I could guarantee your safety."

A lifetime of memories hurtled through his mind and he almost sneered at the man before him, "I wasn't safe…"

"Don't you understand, Jhemor? I made sure you never fought in the Arena. I made sure you always had enough food. I made sure they never punished you when you escaped. How do you think you survived this long?"

Jhemor's face crumpled in frustration, "I don't know."

Taren edged closer, "I have no heirs, son. Your mother is dead. I need you. If you don't come back to me the crown will pass on to any person who can fight for it. It could go to some-one like Marius. He's a peasant, Jhemor. Do you want your crown to go to a peasant?"

"I'm a peasant, too."

"No you're not. You're better than the peasants and the deviants. You're a Merchant, Jhemor. You're my son and I love you."

Jhemor smiled at him and turned back to the panel and pressed the red button. The computer gave a half hearted chirrup and announced, "Self destruct engaged. Five minute countdown begins."

Taren gaped, "Do you know what you've done?"

The boy nodded, his green eyes laughing at his father, his freckled face split in a toothy grin, "I pushed the button."

The laughter faded from his eyes and he glared at the man crouching before him. In his whole life, Jhemor had only ever found wonder in the world around him. Sure, he had cried for the people who left his life in the Arena or at the point of an overseer's sword, but he had never really felt anger for their killers. He was long since numb to it and knew deep down that it was a waste of energy. Now, for the first time, he could feel fury coursing through his veins and spat hate into his words, "I'm not a Merchant. I'm not better than the peasants and the deviants. I DON'T LOVE YOU. Now you run or you go die."

He slipped past the wide eyed Merchant and sprinted for the door, colliding with Kira, O'Brien and Odo as they dashed in.

Kira steadied him on his feet, "Jhemor. Are you all right? What's wrong?"

He looked up at her, his eyes solemn, "I pushed the red button, Major Lady. Now you don't have to choose."

The three officers looked at each other before O'Brien bellowed, "Christ Almighty!"

Then the four of them ran through the halls towards the exit.

It was the only thing left to do.

*********

Chapter Twelve