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Staggering Stories Commentary #198: Babylon 5 – Day of the Dead
by Staggering Stories Podcast
Sun, 20 Aug 2017 09:00

Summary: Adam J Purcell, Andy Simpkins and Keith Dunn sit down, visited, in front of the Neil Gaiman’s Season 5 Babylon 5 episode ‘Day of the Dead’, and spout our usual nonsense! Zooty has a terrible secret, Lennier has a shadowy visitor, Lochley is trying to establish an identity for herself and Kosh has another […]


Staggering Stories Podcast #269: Jago, Litefoot and AsBill
by Staggering Stories Podcast
Sun, 13 Aug 2017 09:00

Summary: Adam J Purcell, Andy Simpkins, Fake Crumbly, Fake Keith, Jean Riddler and the Real Keith Dunn have a retrospective on Doctor Who ‘Series 10’, discuss Big Finish’s ‘Jago and Litefoot, Series 4’ audio boxset, play a game, find some general news, and a variety of other stuff, specifically: 00:00 – Intro and theme tune. […]


Staggering Stories Commentary #197: Doctor Who – Knock Knock
by Staggering Stories Podcast
Sun, 06 Aug 2017 09:58

Summary: Adam J Purcell, Andy Simpkins and Keith Dunn sit down, bugged, in front of the 2017 Doctor Who S10 episode, ‘Knock Knock’, and spout our usual nonsense! Bill has herself some new digs, the Doctor is suddenly a man with a van and the landlord has a wood infestation. But enough of their problems, […]


Staggering Stories Podcast #268: Whittaker and Watling
by Staggering Stories Podcast
Sun, 30 Jul 2017 09:00

Summary: Adam J Purcell, Andy Simpkins, Fake Crumbly, Fake Keith, Jean Riddler, the Real Keith Dunn and Scott Fuller discuss the casting of Jodie Whittaker as the Thirteenth Doctor, remember Deborah Watling, find some general news, and a variety of other stuff, specifically: 00:00 – Intro and theme tune. 01:37 — Welcome! 02:07 – News: […]


Staggering Stories Commentary #196: Babylon 5 – Rising Star
by Staggering Stories Podcast
Sun, 23 Jul 2017 09:00

Summary: Adam J Purcell, Andy Simpkins and Keith Dunn sit down, allied, in front of the Season 4 Babylon 5 penultimate episode Rising Star, and spout our usual nonsense! Sheridan has a new job offer, Garibaldi has an impromptu rescue to mount, Ivanova jumps ship and everyone is generally very busy. But enough of their […]


Staggering Stories Podcast #267: The Doctor has a Fall
by Staggering Stories Podcast
Sun, 16 Jul 2017 09:23

Summary: Adam J Purcell, Andy Simpkins, Fake Keith, Jean Riddler, the Real Keith Dunn and Scott Fuller review the 2017 Doctor Who episodes ‘World Enough and Time’ and ‘The Doctor Falls’, take look back at Big Finish’s ‘Doctor Who: Spare Parts’ audio play, find some general news, and a variety of other stuff, specifically: 00:00 […]

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Deep Space Nine

Deep Space Nine: Reflections, Chapter Three

Written by Karen Dunn


Martin Baskell hit the Promenade by 20:15 hours and smoothed down his dress uniform as he took in the scene around him. The usual multi-cultural hustle and bustle of life at this cross-roads in space was muted in the extreme. A small area of staging had been set up outside Quark's and all the stall holders were shutting up shop as their customers began to gather in respectful silence for the memorial service. He eased his way past the early evening queues at the Replimat and ordered a black coffee, leaning against the replicator to drink it when he saw that no seats were free.

Some-one tapped him on the shoulder, "Martin?"

He turned and found himself eye to eye with the nervy Ensign Andrews and smiled as she dropped her gaze self-consciously, "Hello, Jill." He took in her immaculate appearance, auburn hair swept back from her face, her spotless uniform, her Heroic Conduct medal gleaming at her breast, "I take it you're here for the service?"

She nodded, "I was hoping to be."

"Hoping to be? You and Odo were like two peas in a pod. You're almost certain to be offered his job."

She glared at him, her blue eyes like chips of ice, "I don't want his job!"

Baskell frowned. He and Andrews had been through the Academy together. They had survived a Cadet Cruise which ended abruptly at Wolf 359 as the Harriman disintegrated under a Borg weapon. Andrews had risked life and limb to get every single person from sickbay into the life pods and then stood waiting for death when there was no room for her. The Captain had tried to swap places with her, his badly broken leg pooling blood on the deck as he dragged himself to the door, but Andrews had hit the launch button and blasted him to safety, making her peace with whichever deities she believed in before the Chekov beamed her out just as the deck vanished beneath her feet.

At the Presentation Ceremony, as the medal was pinned to her shirt, Captain Okuda had jabbed her in the chest with his walking stick and told her to forget the "bloody Kirk complex" and concentrate on staying alive in future. Andrews had looked him straight in the eye and told him to practice what he preached.

By the end of the evening, Okuda had bet every officer in the room that Andrews would make Captain by thirty.

Jill Andrews, though, was a quiet soul, never truly at ease with herself, always doubting the obvious talents she had been blessed with. She had no desire to be Captain of anything. Fear of unwanted responsibility had sent her running headlong into the first deep space posting that came up. Anything to keep her away from the Academy and a red uniform that would never really fit. She had spent the last six months under the parental wing of Constable Odo and had blossomed into an outstanding security officer. Everyone on the station respected her and, just as Odo never found it necessary to fire a phaser, Jill had been known to deal with drunken Klingons without having to raise her voice.

For her to snap over such an innocuous comment was unheard of. Baskell placed a hand on her shoulder, "Hey, I'm sorry. I meant no offence. It's just that…"

She waved him off, "No, I'm sorry, Martin. Um, I have things on my mind." She returned his smile, "You're looking better than last I saw you. Did you go to Doctor Bashir like I told you to?"

Baskell grinned, "I had a run in with Commander Dax - she all but ordered me there."

Andrews reached out and helped herself to a mouthful of his coffee, pulling a face at the bitter taste, "She's a good officer. Odo used to talk about her all the time." She smiled, lowering her head as she returned his cup to him, "Did you know that she used to break into his quarters and move his furniture around?"

Baskell choked, "You're kidding?"

"I'm not. She would go in and move everything a fraction of an inch to the left or a fraction of an inch to the right. It used to drive him crazy."

Baskell shook his head, "How could he possibly tell?"

Andrews gave him a sideways look, "You're kidding, right? I think he used to enjoy it deep down. Not that he'd ever admit it."

They laughed quietly, ignoring the admonishing looks that were shot their way from the ever growing crowd outside Quark's. Baskell was the first to sober, his young brow creased in a frown, "I just wish the Commander would stop being so hard on herself over the accident. I was in Ops when it happened - I saw everything and she did nothing wrong." He shook his head and drained the last of the coffee, "She was such a help to me last night, I feel I should return the favour, but she won't even speak to Captain Sisko. What chance do I have?"

Andrews looked around nervously, "Perhaps the Captain isn't saying anything she wants to hear."

"What do you mean?"

She hesitated and Baskell could see the famous self doubt creeping to the surface as she chewed on the nail of her little finger. He took her arm, forcing her to stop, "Come on, Jill, what do you know?"

She took a step away, her eyes darting furtively from one place to the next, "Not here. Cargo Bay 3."

He followed her to the turbolift without a word, waiting until they were moving before breaking the silence, "We won't get in there. That's where they're storing the salvage."

She sighed, "Yes, Martin. I was in charge of the operation. I think I may just be able to remember my own security code."

The 'lift whined to a juddering halt and they stepped off, rounding the corner to face the cargo bay doors. Andrews tapped the keypad and they trundled back revealing a junk yard of charred and twisted wreckage. Baskell walked slowly round the room, shaking his head at the damage, careful not to actually touch anything. Crouching down to peer beneath a large section of hull, he looked up at Jill as she hovered by the doors, "Is this all of it?"

She nodded, "All that was worth saving. They had to disintegrate some of the more badly damaged pieces to make the traffic lanes safe. This is all that was left."

Baskell got to his feet, "I take it you found no…um…organic…"

"Bodies? No nothing. But after an explosion like that…I heard that Doctor Bashir was having to treat some cases of eye damage in people who were looking straight at it on the Promenade."

Baskell whistled softly, "That's one hell of a big explosion."

"Yes…"

She was getting twitchy again, her gaze darting back and forth from him to the door, like a child scared of being caught playing in some-one else's back yard. He took one more look around, "So what did you want to show me?"

Gathering her courage, Andrews crossed to the back wall, disappearing into the shadows and forcing Baskell to follow her, "This."

Leaning against the bulkhead was the buckled remains of a runabout warp nacelle. Baskell knelt down next to it and reached out to run a hand along the edge, "I don't understand, Jill. It's a warp nacelle. It's wreckage. So what?"

Andrews knelt next to him and pulled his hand away from it, "Nacelles are relatively delicate compared to the rest of the ship. It doesn't take much to damage them and nine times out of ten, in an explosion they are completely destroyed."

Baskell shrugged, "So this one was that one time out of ten - it was well made. I still don't see what you're getting at."

Andrews stood up and led him back to the rest of the wreckage, "Look around you, Martin. Do you see anything else from the runabout?"

His eyes scanned the bay quickly and then in more detail, taking in every charred scrap of metal, every twisted indefinable lump of plastic, before he turned to face her, incredulous, "Are you saying that's all you found?"

She nodded, "It doesn't make sense. The cockpit is made of reinforced duridium. It could skip round a star and still be recognisable. We should have found something. For the warp nacelle to survive and the cockpit to be destroyed…well, it just doesn't happen."

"Have you told this to Sisko?"

She shook her head, "The engineering team has started work on a report, but they're more interested in the alien ship. It's made of some kind of metal they've never seen before. They haven't even looked at the nacelle yet." She began to chew on her nail again, "I tried to mention it, but, well you know what engineers are like."

Baskell snorted, "Yes, they never see the wood for the trees. We should tell the Captain about this as soon as possible."

Andrews caught his arm as he turned to leave, reddening at his questioning stare, "Martin, if there is any chance that the runabout survived the explosion, don't you think it should be Dax who figures it out?"

He paused, "I don't know, Jill. What if this was just a fluke? What if the nacelle just happened to be blown too far from the main explosion to be destroyed? If we offer Dax a lifeline and then it gets pulled away from her…she may never recover."

She was standing between him and the door, obviously not willing to let this go, "Dax will be fine - that slug thing will see to that - it's the others we need to think about." She sighed in frustration, "I've got a feeling about this, Martin."

"A feeling..?"

"Odo used to say that he didn't believe in hunches. He used to say that the evidence you need is always there, if only you dig deep enough." She reached out and took his hands, almost pleading with him, "I think we need to go deeper, Martin. And I think we need to let Dax do the digging."

Baskell squeezed her hands and smiled, "Okay, Jill, you're the detective, we'll do it your way. We'll tell her as soon as the service is over."

**********

By the time Baskell and Andrews reached the memorial service, the Promenade was full to bursting as almost every person of every race on the station gathered to listen to the tributes to their fallen friends and colleagues. Bashir was speaking at the moment, his voice steady, his hands clasped tight in front of him. In the background Baskell could hear the monotonous rhythm of the Bajoran death chant as it drifted from the temple.

He let his eyes roam the people on the stage as Bashir finished what he had to say and retook his seat next to the white faced Keiko O'Brien. He touched her hand and she smiled at him a little too brightly.

As he walked forward, Baskell finally caught sight of Dax. She was sitting a little behind Keiko, her back straight, her face an impassive, unreadable mask. She looked as if she were attending an Academy lecture and when Captain Sisko turned to look at her and asked her to speak she shook her head and said quietly, "I don't think that would be appropriate, Benjamin."

Baskell saw a cloud of anger shroud Sisko's face as he stood and faced the crowd. He tried to listen to what he was saying, but his attention was caught by Dax as she rose from her seat and stepped down from the back of the stage, disappearing into Quarks before anyone else noticed. Gesturing to Andrews, he followed.

They entered Quark's together and saw Dax sitting, stiff backed, on a stool at the bar. One of Quark's lackeys poured her a glass of something green and then scuttled away to process her credit chip.. Dax took a deep swig of the drink and let her head drop.

Baskell touched Andrews on the shoulder, "Wait here."

Jill took a seat at the nearest table and watched Martin approach Dax, sliding onto the stool next to hers.

Dax looked up at him and straightened her back, draining the remainder of her drink, "Shouldn't you be at the service, Ensign?"

Baskell shrugged and shook his head at the lackey as he asked to take his order, watching impassively as the little Ferengi scowled and began pointedly cleaning glasses at the replicator, "There's no need."

Dax looked at him, "Really?" she stood up, placing her glass on the bar and glared down at him, "I hope people show more respect at your memorial."

She made to leave, but Baskell stopped her, his grip like iron on her arm, "I would appreciate it if you hear me out, Commander."

Dax held his gaze for a long moment until he released her, then she sat down and folded her arms, "Make it good, Mr. Baskell. I have no time for games."

Baskell studied her for a moment. Outwardly she was still the same old Dax. Her appearance was immaculate, the spots running down the side of her face and neck a sultry brown in contrast to her alabaster skin. Her eyes, though, were a living embodiment of pain. He had always regarded Jadzia in a different light to the other officers on the station. She occupied a pedestal in his mind, high above the respect he felt for the others, and it hurt him to see her falling from it with this self destructive guilt trip. He thought back to the night before, blushing a little at the memory - the shame of losing control in front of her. If truth be told, he had not forgotten she was there when he woke, he had simply been unable to face her alone. He hoped that he could pay her back. He swallowed, "Do you remember what you said to me last night?" She said nothing, her fingers running round the rim of her glass, so he continued, "You told me that I could either live with the choices I have made or let them destroy me. Take a little of your own advice, Commander, but take it the right way. You are stronger than this - you have to be."

She moved her hand away from the glass, her fists clenching as she fought to remain in control. Her eyes flashed dangerously, "What are you basing this on, Ensign? What possible experience could you have to be giving me advice?"

Baskell swallowed again, refusing to be intimidated, "None," he admitted with a shrug, "I hope I never experience what you must be going through." Dax snorted and stood up, this time shaking off his arm as soon as he reached for her. She was almost at Andrews' table when Baskell called after her, "If I do, though, I hope I show more dignity and courage than you have been."

Dax turned to face him, her hands clasped behind her back, an eyebrow arched, "What did you say?"

He walked slowly towards her, only stopping as he entered her personal space and could feel her breath on his face, "I called you a coward, Commander. There are clues for you to find here, and you won't even open your eyes and look at them."

She frowned, "What clues?"

Baskell beckoned to Andrews and she handed him a data padd. He held it up for Dax to see, "The inventory from the sight of the accident."

Jadzia took the padd and studied it with a practiced eye. The readings from the alien vessel meant nothing to her. The metal was an unknown quantity. The rest…well, a full analysis was called for. As for the runabout…the survival of a warp nacelle was a surprise, but…

Baskell and Andrews smiled as she tapped the padd's controls, searching for more data and finding none. She frowned as she looked up, "Is this everything?"

Andrews nodded, "Yessir, that's everything."

The frown deepened, creasing her brow as she turned things over in her head. The smile, when it came, lit up her whole face and she beamed at them, "They could have survived!"

Andrews gave a small nod, "Um, we did think so, yes." She reached out and tapped the padd, calling up a new screen, "We've covered the whole area, though. We've sent search parties to the gamma quadrant and back again. There's nowhere they could have gone."

The smile hadn't left Dax's face; that half hidden, tolerant smirk that spoke of secrets known and never shared. She drew the two Ensigns into a hug which surprised them all, "There's always somewhere to go. We just have to hope they left a forwarding address." Pulling away, she made for the door at a trot, "Come on."

Andrews and Baskell caught up with her and Martin asked, "Where are we going?"

She waved the padd at him, "To Ops. It's time I got back to work." She let Andrews pass before taking Baskell's arm in a grip as powerful as the one he had used on her at the bar, "Just one thing, Mr. Baskell. If you ever call me a coward again I shall contact Gowron and tell him that you've been spreading unpleasant stories about his mother. And Ferengi aren't the only race in the galaxy who are over protective of their Moogies."

They walked onto the Promenade together, silent as the rest of the crowd as they listened to Sisko finish his tribute. If he spotted Dax, he did not acknowledge her and she hoped she would have something to make him smile again soon. She followed Andrews and Baskell into the turbolift and headed for Ops.

 

Sisko tore his attention from the closed doors of the turbolift and concentrated on completing his speech. The people before him had hung on his every word as he paid tribute to Kira, O'Brien and Odo. To some he was the voice of experience, the man who had lost his wife and lived through the grief. To some he was simply the man in charge and they listened because it was what they were used to. And to some he was the Emissary - the voice of the Prophets - and they listened because they believed what he was saying. Sending up a silent wish that Dax could begin healing herself, he looked down at the mass of faces before him and attempted an encouraging smile, "…and, though their beliefs were as far apart - as different - as it is possible to get, they lost their lives together in view of the wormhole. And I believe that the Prophets are watching over them, wherever they are…"

**********

The cockpit was full of smoke and Odo thanked the Prophets for the tenth time that he no longer possessed lungs to choke him or tear ducts to blur his vision. With the runabout spinning like a top, alarms blaring, panels sparking, he was fighting down an unaccustomed rush of panic as he fought with the controls.. He was not sure what had happened to them, remembering only an explosion, the force of which had blotted out rational thought for a long moment. When he had regained control he found that he was the only one still conscious; Kira and O'Brien sprawled across their consoles in a tangle of limbs. Heart racing, he had checked for life signs and, finding a strong pulse in both of them, tried his best to make them comfortable before turning his attention to where they were and how they had got there.

Although able to pilot a runabout, Odo was not as skilled at its controls as either of his prone companions. A quick glance at the sensor readout told him that Bajor, the wormhole and the station were nowhere to be found and there was a planet looming far too large off of their port side. It was there that his skills came to an inadequate end.

The runabout continued to tumble, washing him with a disorientation he was not used to and tossing Kira and O'Brien from their seats like broken rag dolls. Odo jabbed furiously at the controls, a thin tendril of Changeling self anchoring him to his seat as he tried to work out which of the insistent alarms he could actually do something about. Aware of the plight of the other two, he shot out two more amber ropes and held them down as best he could. The fewer bumps and bruises they had to deal with, the better.

"Computer." His relief when the computer chirruped in response was almost tangible, "Identify that planet."

The machine didn't even pause, "Unable to comply. This area of space is uncharted. No recognisable landmarks within sensor range."

He muttered a curse he had heard Kira use frequently when dealing with these pompous Starfleet contraptions, "Scan the planet. Is it able to support humanoid life?"

"Confirmed. Planet is Class M and capable of supporting humanoid life." There it was, that smug edge to the clipped female voice - why had he never noticed it before? He assumed this was yet another side effect of his time as a human - an ability to allow the smallest of things to get his back up. Not that he actually had a back to get up anymore.

"Computer. Is it possible to achieve orbit of the planet?"

"Negative." Why did it always sound so cheerful, "Damage to navigation systems is too severe."

"Is it possible to land on the planet?"

A pause. He felt an absurd sense of triumph knowing that he had made the machine think, "Unknown. Damage to atmospheric thrusters is severe."

He wasn't expecting that. Whether positive or negative, he always assumed the computer would have an answer. He had assumed it would pilot them down to the planet where they would send up some distress beacon or other and tell each other pointless campfire tales until help arrived.

The ship lurched and he tightened his grip on Kira and O'Brien, "Computer, set course for the nearest land mass and begin landing sequence."

"Confirmed."

The entrance into the planet's atmosphere was rough to say the least, and for one heart stopping moment Odo feared the runabout would shake itself to pieces. The ship was in worse shape than he thought with systems cutting out intermittently and for a frightening ten seconds they were without both gravity and life support. At that point he had screamed at the computer to increase its efforts whilst begging the planet to hurry up and hit them.

The turbulence had not decreased once they were through the upper atmosphere and into a virtual free-fall. He could make out the terrain below them quite clearly and was not sure whether to be dismayed or grateful that there were no signs of life.

They hit an air pocket, causing the battered ship to buck and rear and a new alarm blared impatiently at him, "Warning, atmospheric thrusters are off-line."

He looked up, his eyes wide with near panic. The ground through the cockpit window was coming far too close far too quickly, "Computer. List crash procedures."

Another wave of turbulence hit them and the runabout did a back flip that caused him to lose his tenuous grip on the console. He slammed into the back bulkhead, cushioning his friends as best he could, "Computer! Engage crash procedures!"

He could see the tops of trees through the window and braced himself as the ship skipped over the top of them, snapping branches as it went. In a second he knew they were going too fast. Unless he did something quickly, he would be the only one who stood a chance of surviving this landing. Through the cacophony of noise assaulting his senses he just made out the computer cheerfully announcing, "Unable to comply."

Without another thought, he let his shape dissolve as he pulled Kira and O'Brien closer to him, flooding pools of his amber substance round them, over every limb, hugging every part of them, before allowing the outermost parts of himself to solidify into a perfect sphere, coccooning them inside a bubble of pure Changeling.

The concentration needed to hold that shape as the ship sliced through the trees was immense. He was aware of metal wrenching and tearing with an almost living groan as the runabout screamed its death throes and buried itself deep in the ugly trench of earth it had carved on its way down.

He felt himself thrown violently from the bulkhead as the ship came to rest and for a second he lost his bearings.

Then all was still.

Aware of the heart beats of his precious cargo he allowed himself a sigh of pure relief that he had succeeded in getting them down alive. Then he let his shape go and dissolved through a crack in the floor, not knowing or caring where he fell.

Just needing to sleep.

For over an hour there was silence.

Then, "Where the bloody hell are we?"

Kira groaned as O'Brien's foghorn voice bounced around inside her head. They had come round from their stupour at much the same time to hear birds singing in the distance and feel a warm summer breeze caressing their skin.

She pulled herself gingerly to her feet, feeling tender spots all over her body that were bound to become bruises, and surveyed the wrecked runabout. The hull was badly breached, indeed she could make out the landscape outside through the gaping wound to the rear of the craft and thanked the Prophets that the atmosphere was breathable. From what she could make out, the computer was down. She was no engineer, though. Maybe there was some secret Starfleet button to be pressed which would repair the damage and get them the hell out of here. She turned to watch O'Brien as he disappeared beneath a smouldering console, "Anything?"

He muttered something under his breath as he started pulling the useless innards out of the machine. Realising she would have to wait for any sort of coherent reply, she decided to prepare phasers and tricorders for the three of them - not that Odo would carry a phaser. It was the one bone of contention between them. She had come to understand his refusal to use one, but his stubborn insistence that he did not need to carry one as a deterrent would always baffle her.

It was only as she stood, aghast, before the melted wreckage of the weapons and equipment lockers that she realised that Odo was nowhere to be found.

A quick search of the limited space on the runabout failed to turn up the Changeling in either his humanoid or gelatinous form so, with a glance at O'Brien's protruding feet, she stepped gingerly through the hull breach and onto unknown soil.

The terrain around them reminded her of Bajor. In one direction grassy, rolling flatlands gave way to the steep hills that dominated the skyline, whilst in the other she saw the remains of the dense woodland they had obviously demolished on their way down.

But no sign of Odo.

Knowing that it would be foolish to set out alone in search of him, she went back to the runabout and called to O'Brien, "Chief?"

His annoyed voice was muffled, as though he were holding a screwdriver in his mouth, "Look, Major, you have to give me a bit of time…"

She crouched down and tugged at his foot, "No, Chief, listen. Odo's gone."

He shuffled out from beneath the console and looked at her, "What do you mean, gone?"

"Look around you. He's not in here. You can see for miles outside and there's no sign of him."

O'Brien frowned, "Should we go look for him?"

Kira sat back against the console rubbing her eyes as a headache threatened to explode, "We need to know more about what's out there before we go anywhere."

"Well, you could go and do an initial scan while I try to retrieve what I can from the computer core…"

She cut him off with a shake of her head, "We lost all the tricorders in the crash. Phasers too."

"What?!" O'Brien let his shoulders slump, "Then the quicker I get this done the better." And he ducked back under the console with a string of mumbled Irish curses.

Feeling like something of a fifth wheel and more than a little worried for her shape-shifting friend, Kira ventured back outside, hoping against hope that she would see Odo come strolling over the nearest hill, ready to frown at her in that way he had as she demanded to know where he had been.

She sat down on one of the fallen trees and waited.

A shout rang out in the distance.

She could hear some-one screaming.

She got to her feet, ready to fetch O'Brien, but he was already leaving the runabout, "What was that?"

She scanned the horizon and pointed, "I don't know. It came from over there, I think."

They listened in silence.

The shout came again, closer this time and Kira turned to O'Brien, "Back inside."

He stood his ground, "That's not a good idea, Major. I managed to salvage a partial long range scan from the computer memory."

"And?"

"And the civilization on this planet is pre-industrial. They haven't even invented the combustion engine yet."

Kira let out a sigh of frustration, "Great. So if they find the ship with us in it, they're liable to burn us as demons."

O'Brien snorted, "I was thinking more of the Prime Directive, Major. We can't let a pre-industrial world have access to the technology on the runabout."

She was staring towards the hills now, "Much good it would do them." He started to protest, but she cut him off, "All right, Chief, we'll set the self destruct and run."

He stared at his feet, shamefaced, "The self destruct is inoperative."

Kira gave him a withering look, "In that case, Mr. O'Brien, we need to keep them away from here. I suggest we just run."

So they did.

They covered the hundred or so yards of flatlands in record time, stopping only when they came to the foot of the first hill. Looking behind them, they were relieved to see that the runabout was all but invisible, buried deep in the ground, well hidden by the fallen trees.

The shouting came closer. They scanned the horizon together and O'Brien pointed to the top of the hill, "There!"

A young man of perhaps sixteen years was cresting the hill in a panicked flurry of arms and legs. He wasn't very tall, a few inches shorter than Kira, his limbs too scrawny, his hair a mess of ginger curls. He was dressed in a one piece knee length jerkin, tied at the waist with a belt. His feet were bare and they could hear him crying heavily.

He tripped and fell, rolling down the slope then scrambled up again and ran headlong into O'Brien with a cry of terror. The Irishman took a firm grip on his arms, "Whoa, steady there."

The young man's blue eyes were wide as he tried to pull free of his captor, "Let me go! They'll get me, they will, let me go!"

Kira stepped past them as five men appeared at the top of the hill. They paused when they saw the two strangers, then ran, sure-footed, towards them. The boy began to wail and struggle harder, "They'll take me back! They will, they'll take me back !"

O'Brien shook him once, "Enough! We won't let them hurt you." He released his grip and the boy scrambled behind him, threw himself to the ground and curled up in a ball, trying his best to make the world disappear.

The men had reached Kira now and O'Brien stepped up to join her. They were all similarly dressed, much like the boy, but with some kind of leather armour protecting their chests and backs. They all wore boots and carried stubby swords. The larger of the five stepped forward and addressed O'Brien, "Will you protect this criminal?"

Kira glanced back at the cowering huddle behind them, "What has he done?"

The man glowered at her, "What he has done is no concern of yours, deviant." He hefted his sword, his eyes locked with the Chief's, "Are you protecting the criminal? Speak!"

O'Brien shook his head, "We need to know what he's done. We won't let you hurt an innocent boy."

The man raised the sword higher and growled, "He is an escapee from Caspii. We're here to bring him back."

"Caspii?"

The man paused, eyeing him warily, "The prison."

Sensing a change in his mood, O'Brien nodded, "Of course. We've been traveling. Names - they kind of get mixed up."

The man took a step closer his sword inches from O'Brien's throat, his voice quiet, "You must have traveled a long way, friend, to claim ignorance of Caspii. You'll give me your name."

The Chief swallowed and Kira spoke up, ignoring the glares of the other men as she stepped brusquely between her friend and the sword, "I am Major Kira Nerys and this is Miles O'Brien and we don't want any trouble."

The man's eyes shot daggers at her as she stared up at him, "You'll have more trouble than you can cope with if you speak to me again, deviant."

"Why do you keep calling me that?"

He scowled, "I'm not blind - it's what you are."

Kira's hand moved unconsciously to the bridge of her nose and the delicate ridges which told all and sundry that she was Bajoran to the core. The man laughed cruelly, "Haven't exactly made any attempt to hide it, have you…deviant?"

Seeing Kira's shoulders tense as the fury built up within her, O'Brien touched her arm, "Major…"

She raised her hands in defeat and forced a smile through gritted teeth, "No problem, Chief." She stepped aside and went to stand by the trembling mound that was the escaped prisoner, listening carefully to everything that was said.

The man had raised his sword again, holding it far too close to O'Brien's face, "I'll ask you once more to step aside, friend"

To his credit, the engineer didn't flinch, "And I'll ask you once more what the boy has done…friend."

Kira's hand crept automatically to her belt, before she remembered with a silent curse that she was not armed. If things turned nasty, they were in big trouble. She crouched down next to the boy, ready to coax him into a run if need be. To her surprise, the big man laughed in O'Brien's face, "You really have been travelling too long, haven't you friend." The smile vanished as the sword was pressed into the flesh at the Chief's throat, "Or else you would know to get out of my way and turn over my prisoner."

O'Brien gasped and froze. The sword was remarkably sharp and he knew that one movement and he would be skewered through. He let his eyes stay fixed on the scowling face of the man before him, aware that the other four had moved behind him. He heard a brief scuffle and an explicit Bajoran curse as Kira was pulled to her feet and forced to stand next to him, a second man holding her from behind, his arm round her throat.

A third man dragged the screaming boy past them, grinning as the poorly aimed kicks and punches barely grazed him. The big man lowered his sword and nodded, "Let's go." He slapped O'Brien on the back, "Well, friend, it looks as though your memory is about to be refreshed."

"What do you mean?"

The man shoved them both forward, forcing them to climb the hill, "Obstructing the course of justice. Protecting a criminal." He glared at Kira, "Association with a deviant. You're about to get a close up view of Caspii. From the inside."

********

The march to the prison took almost two hours. The first hour had passed in relative silence, with only the muffled sobs of the boy and the jibes and laughter of the guards breaking the monotony. The closer they came to their destination, though, the more animated their fellow prisoner became. He had taken to walking hand in hand with Kira, apparently unconcerned that she may be a demon, pointing out landmarks to her and telling the story of his daring escape. From what she could piece together she knew his name was Jhemor and he had been in the prison for as long as he could remember, though he didn't know why. He had escaped by hiding in a trader's wagon as it was about to leave the prison.

He was also a little simple.

Talking to him like an adult only confused him and she found herself chatting with him as though he were a toddler. She had tried to get as much information out of him as possible, but his disinclination to recall actual facts coupled with the guards' willingness to administer a swift thump whenever they said the wrong thing meant she hadn't learnt much.

One thing he did talk about was his overseer, "Marius is in charge of all the people" he announced with an all-encompassing sweep of his arm. His voice dropped and he tugged at her arm, "He's a bad man, yes he is. He shouts and he hits people for hardly no reason at all." His eyes were pleading with her, "You be careful of him, Major lady, or he'll shout at you too, yes he will."

Kira gave him a fond smile, "I'll be careful. I won't give him any reason to shout at me."

Jhemor nodded, satisfied, "That's good, that is, 'cos you and Mr. 'Brien won't be there for long. You didn't do anything really bad and you can hardly tell that you're a deviant at all and when the merchants come for the games I'll tell them you helped me and they'll let you go."

They walked in silence for a while, the hilly terrain rapidly giving way to more flatlands. A column of smoke rose up in the distance and all Jhemor's previous excitement vanished. His grip on Kira's hand tightened, "That's it. That's Caspii, it is. They're cooking, they are."

The big guard prodded him in the back, "You're not going to get stupid on us, are you, Jhemor?"

The boy was trembling and Kira released his hand and wrapped her arm protectively round his shoulders as he answered, "No, sir, I won't get stupid."

They walked the final mile or so in silence, watching the prison come into view as they crested the final rise. Walls of stone, with long metal spikes running like soldiers at attention along its length, hid the complex itself and O'Brien could see what he assumed to be the main gates being opened by four stocky, heavily armed men. One of their captors gave him a hard shove, forcing him to move faster, "Time for sightseeing later, friend."

He clenched his fists against his rising anger, his refusal to accept lightly that he was being treated this way. They were on an unknown planet with no sign of help arriving in the near future; they had lost the one person who could have bluffed his way - shifted his way - out of this, and getting himself killed would be of little use to anyone.

He steadied himself and concentrated on following Kira and Jhemor through the gates. They trundled shut behind them and O'Brien jumped when they slammed home.

*********

Once inside the walls of Caspii, events moved too quickly for Kira and O'Brien to keep track of. They were shunted from one room to the next by big men who enjoyed getting heavy handed and who seemed unable to talk without shouting. Then they were stripped of their clothing and left for what seemed like hours, standing naked together in a cell that smelled of fear ingrained into the very walls.. O'Brien found himself constantly engrossed by some fascinating spot on the wall just above the window, whilst Kira, bereft of such inhibitions after a lifetime of living in such conditions, attempted to lessen his embarrassment by staring at her feet and not saying a word.

When the door finally opened they looked up with pathetic eagerness at the thug who entered. He leered openly at Kira, taking in every curve on her body as she glared back, daring him to try anything. With a snort of laughter he threw a bundle of cloth at her, "Get dressed."

She examined the clothes, passing half of them to O'Brien who scrambled into them with a speed belying a man his size, then dressed herself, well aware of the lecherous stare of the thug at the door. When she was done, she looked across at the Chief and, despite the situation, found herself fighting down the urge to laugh. They both wore one piece tunics, similar to Jhemor's, which ended just above the knee. Their feet were bare.

The thug stepped forward and gripped her arm, "Out!"

After another half walk, half stumble down an interminably long corridor, they were pushed through a set of double doors into the largest hall either of them had ever seen. The room had no furnishing except for a raised area next to the doors and was full of people all standing in rows, all dressed the same as Kira and O'Brien. The low rumble of a hundred frightened voices mixed with the quiet sobs of the more faint hearted.

The thug shoved them forward, "Choose a line and stand in it until told otherwise." And he left them.

"Pleasant guy," muttered O'Brien as they joined the second row of prisoners, "I wonder if they're all as charming as him."

Kira was only half listening as she studied the hall around them, taking in every detail, memorizing the faces of every guard, "I don't plan on being here long enough to find out."

"I'm with you all the way, Major. But where would we go?"

"The runabout."

He shook his head, "That thing will never fly again, it's wrecked. I don't have the tools to make that kind of repairs."

She stepped closer, her voice low, "We may be able to salvage something, Chief. If we can get a distress call out and arm ourselves…some of the phasers may be salvageable…"

He shook his head, "Look around you. These people have barely discovered metallurgy. If we go firing phasers…the Prime Directive…"

"Doesn't mean a thing to me. I'm not Starfleet, Chief, I'm not bound by your rules."

He gritted his teeth as he prepared for a battle of words, but a shrill voice curtailed any rebuke he may have been ready to launch, "Mr. 'Brien! Major lady!" And Jhemor came bursting through the row behind them and threw himself into Kira's startled arms. She disentangled herself awkwardly and O'Brien ruffled his hair, "Hello, Jhemor."

The boy forced himself between them and beamed, "The guard said they were chopping you up to eat you. I knew he was lying, yes I did." He frowned, "I think they say those things to make me cry."

O'Brien snorted, "I could cope with being chopped up and eaten, lad. I thought I could cope with anything they threw at us - then they go and make me wear a bloody dress!"

Kira turned from her examination of the room to look at him, "It's not a dress, Chief, it's a tunic" she smiled, "and it's flattering to your legs."

He snorted, "To your legs maybe. I have the kind of legs that look a lot better when no-one can see them."

All conversation was brought to a rude end when the big double doors were slammed open admitting a middle aged man who pushed past the guards and regarded the people before him with a casual sneer. He was about the same height as O'Brien, but the similarity ended there. His body was all muscle, compact beneath his unbuttoned shirt. His black hair cut close to his scalp and his eyes like two beads, piercing and cold.

"That's him," whispered Jhemor, "that's Marius, yes it is, that's him." And he hid behind O'Brien.

Kira watched Marius as he strolled up and down the lines of prisoners, tapping a short truncheon against his thigh, his lip curled in a scowl as he glared at them all in turn. Every now and then, he would smash the truncheon down on some unfortunate soul without provocation, grinning as his victim writhed in pain. Kira had seen men like him before all too often. Strutting Cardassian soldiers who delighted in the intimidation and humiliation of Bajorans during the Occupation. Bullies. Marius would have been well at home amongst them. She smiled to herself, "Odo would have known how to deal with him" and wished again that she knew where the Constable was and whether he was all right.

"You find something amusing, deviant?"

She snapped her head up and found herself nose to nose with Marius. She has been so caught up in her thoughts for the Constable that she had not noticed his approach. He was snarling at her, his breath rank in her nostrils and she forced herself not to flinch, shrugging instead and shaking her head, "No."

She was looking him in the eye, refusing to bend under his stare, but stiffened when he smiled a smile of pure malevolence, "Do you see anyone else in this room laughing?"

"Not since you walked in."

If she was expecting the man to swap insults with her, she was mistaken. He merely turned and continued his inspection, passing to the end of the row. Jhemor crept out from behind O'Brien's legs and tugged at her sleeve, his voice barely a whisper, "You make him cross, Major lady. He hurt you if you make him cross."

Kira placed a hand on his shoulder and whispered back, "He's a bully, Jhemor. If you face up to bullies they have no power over you." She caught O'Brien's eye and knew in an instant that he didn't believe that any more than she did. If they were to get out of this prison, find Odo and get home alive, she would have to be careful of the enemies she made.

Marius had reached the end of his inspection and mounted the podium by the doors, scowling down at them like an overseer, his truncheon held across his chest, "Welcome," he said, "to the last place you will ever see."

A rumble of fear ran through the huddled prisoners and Kira sighed as Jhemor moaned and gripped her hand, clinging to it like a lifeline. Marius slammed his truncheon against the door, "Silence!"

It seemed that the fear of Marius himself was greater than the fear of the prison and the horrors it threatened, as the prisoners fell silent immediately, their eyes riveted on the man before them. He slapped the truncheon into his palm, "While you are here you will do as I say. You will do it promptly and without question. You will follow the orders of your superiors immediately. Any failure to obey an order will be dealt with…" he smiled, showing his perfect white teeth, "…severely."

He stepped down off of the podium and began his cat-like prowling of the rows once more, eyeing each of the cowering figures in turn, "The fact that you are here tells me that you are criminals. I have no time for criminals. I have no time for people who challenge the order of things. We are the greatest civilization of all time - we will be so long after you and your kind are gone. Things have been this way for almost two thousand years and they will not change because a few degenerates say they should."

He reached the end of the first row and started on the second. Jhemor hugged Kira's arm as the man approached and she hustled the boy behind her, willing him to stay quiet. They had brought themselves to Marius' attention too much already. She lowered her eyes and listened to his booted feet approach, the rhythmic tapping of the truncheon in his palm making her heart race. For an instant she was back on Bajor during the Occupation. A sabotage attempt at one of the mining sites had gone disastrously wrong and she was lined up before the local Gul with Shakaar and Lupaza, trying her hardest not to show weakness as he bore down on her and screamed obscenities in her face. The prison they had finally ended up in was very much like this one and she fought down the memories of what had happened there. It would do her no good to give in to the fear of what had been.

The feet came closer, "There is only one way out of here alive," he laughed, "though no one has ever made it. I am required by law to give you the opportunity to buy your freedom. I am required by law to let you earn the means to pay for your freedom." The feet came to a halt in front of Kira and she lifted her eyes and returned his scowl. Though he spoke to the whole room, his eyes never left hers, "I am not required to make things easy for you. If you want to get out of here, you will have a fight on your hands."

Without a word of warning he raised the truncheon and smashed it down across her chest. She collapsed, gasping for breath, aware of O'Brien's cry of warning and Jhemor's wail of terror and of Marius as he knelt next to her and growled in her ear, "If you ever speak to me like that again I will make you wish you were never born." And he continued his patrol as though nothing had happened.

Kira squeezed her eyes tight against the tears of pain that threatened to betray her. She felt gentle hands help her up and looked into O'Brien's concerned face as he steadied her on her feet. The Irishman was shaking with rage, "The man's a bloody sadist."

Kira patted his hand awkwardly, "I'm used to sadists, Chief."

A small sob from ground level turned their attention to Jhemor. He was sitting on the floor, hugging his legs and rocking to and fro. O'Brien knelt down and pulled him to his feet, whispering encouragement, "Come on, lad. Best not let them see you cry."

He and Kira held the boy's hands as he stood between them. Together they listened until Marius finished speaking and the prisoners began to file from the room, encouraged to go the right way with shoves and thumps from the guards.

Kira nudged O'Brien, "Look."

"What?"

She nodded towards the door, where, every now and then, some-one was dragged from the line and thrown into a side room, "They're separating us. Everyone he used that stick on is being taken away." She looked into his eyes, "Whatever happens, Chief, you have to get out of here and find Odo."

"Major…"

She waved him down as they approached the exit, "There's no time. I'm giving you a direct order, Mr. O'Brien. You will find a way out of this and get as far away from here as possible. You and the Constable should be able to come up with a route home between you."

A hand seized her arm and dragged her out of line. Without a word, she was thrown through the open door into a dark room full of sobbing, frightened people. She could hear Jhemor's high pitched wail as he called to her, then the door slammed shut, blocking him out and she could no longer see a thing.

 

O'Brien gripped Jhemor's hand tightly and pulled the weeping boy onwards as he followed the line of inmates deeper into the complex. He didn't struggle for long and by the time they were pushed into their cell he was no longer crying.

As the locks were snapped home, O'Brien sat his young charge down on one of the three bunks that dominated the room, then straightened to take a proper look around. Not that there was much to see.

As an avid fan of tales from Earth World War Two, Miles had read all about the treatment of prisoners of war and the conditions in which they lived. If he had been asked to run up a holosuite program for such a scenario, this would have been much as he would have designed it.

The room was no more than twelve feet wide and perhaps fifteen feet long with a high ceiling. The walls were solid stone, fused together by time and the elements, green with mildew and cold as space. In the far wall was a small window some eight feet off the ground. It was slatted with heavy bars and offered very little light. The only furniture was the three bunks, one against each wall, all covered with rough blankets and the thinnest of mattresses. The fourth wall was bare except for the heavy oak door. O'Brien tested it with his shoulder and found it solid. The hinges were huge, fashioned from long rusted iron and he knew he would never open them without tools. There was a small hatch at the top of the door which he assumed gave the guards full view of the cell's inhabitants before the door was opened.

He sighed, "Well, I guess we're going nowhere fast." He crossed to the bunk beneath the window and sat down, dejected. After a moment, Jhemor climbed up next to him, "Where's the Major lady?"

O'Brien shrugged, "I dunno, son."

Jhemor laid his head on the engineer's knee, yawning, "I like her," he said, "I not want them to hurt her."

O'Brien looked down at the sleepy boy, "You and me both." The boy's eyes drooped as he finally gave in to fatigue and O'Brien looked up at the impenetrable door, "But if you can think of a way out of this, let me know, 'cos I'm stuck for ideas."

*******

Having spent longer than she cared to remember in one Cardassian prison or another, Kira was familiar with the various techniques used to break prisoners' spirits. Being locked in an unfamiliar pitch dark room with twenty strangers for Prophets knew how long was not one she had experienced before, but she had to admit that it was effective.

For the last few minutes one of the men had been hammering at the door, screaming to be let out. She recognised raw fear when she heard it and doubted that he had ever been locked up before, but it was the ones who panicked that put the rest of them at risk and she hoped that their captors would come for them soon or she would kill him herself.

Feeling her way along the wall towards him, she tugged at his arm until he was still, "Stay calm. If you show any weakness, they'll use it against you."

She felt him face her as he ripped his arm free, "What do you know about it?"

Before she could answer, the door was thrown open and the lights came on, blinding them. She stepped back, pulling the man with her as Marius strode in followed by a band of his uniformed thugs. He cast a disparaging glance at the huddled group as they stood blinking in the glare of the harsh lights, "Up against the wall. All of you."

The thugs stepped forward, ready to 'help' anyone slow to obey, but Kira and the others had had more than enough attention from them and were quick to line up against the far wall. Marius took a slow, almost casual walk up and down the line. Not once did he look at them, paying more attention to the room around him than to the row of fear standing at almost painful attention in anticipation of what he would do.

Kira let her eyes follow him as he walked, her patience wearing thin. As soon as she had been pulled aside and deposited in this room, she had mentally prepared herself for the fact that she may never leave it. She had no idea where she was, no idea how to get home again. A simple mission had gone disastrously wrong and, as senior officer, it was her responsibility. She had already lost Odo and the Chief was now languishing in some cell or other with only a young half wit for company. She took a sideways look at her fellow internees and found a mixture of old men and wide eyed innocents who looked no more capable of protecting themselves than a vole in a nest of Klingon Targs. Marius was sharing a private joke with one of the guards, joining the man in raucous laughter and something inside her snapped. She no longer had the inclination to let this bully boy walk all over her, "Care to share the joke?"

He turned and smiled, then barked an order to one of the thugs. Kira watched as the other prisoners were led from the room, then turned to face Marius as he looked at her, his eyes boring into her skull, "I knew you would be the first to break."

"Break?"

He trotted almost keenly over to her, stooping slightly so he could look her in the eye, like an adult speaking to a child, "Break. I just knew the will to speak would overcome the will to stay alive."

Kira snorted and broke the eye contact with a contemptuous toss of her head, "If that's a threat, I'm not impressed."

He straightened up, "No, I didn't think you would be." He reached out and stroked her earring, smirking at her involuntary flinch, "I have a proposal…"

She scowled, "I'm not interested."

His hand clamped onto her forearm, fingers digging painfully into the flesh, "I'm not giving you a choice."

Kira held his gaze steadily, summoning as much malevolence as she could muster even as a flicker of fear ignited in her eyes. He ran his hand over her earring again and this time she remained still, refusing to give him the satisfaction of knowing he was getting to her. When he gave it a tug, however, she slapped his hand away and jumped back, fists clenched as one of the remaining thugs raised his truncheon and stepped towards her.

"No." Marius held up a hand and the man stood down with a nod. Marius leant against the wall and regarded Kira casually, "As I was saying, I have a proposal. I recognise a trouble maker when I see one and if it was up to me I would have you executed on the spot." He spread his hands in a gesture of resigned acceptance, "Unfortunately I have to obey the law - and the law states quite clearly the circumstances under which I can dispose of you. Being a potential trouble maker, even a deviant trouble maker, isn't one of them."

She didn't let her guard fall, "Lucky me."

"You think so? We'll see if you still feel lucky this time tomorrow."

She shook her head, "You don't scare me."

Marius snorted and pushed himself away from the wall, "Then you're not as clever as I thought you were."

"Just get on with it."

The scowl returned and he walked to the door, "There is a way for you and your friends to get out of here," he smirked at the look of hope on her face, "Let's see if you're worth it, shall we?"

He closed the door.

*************

It had been over an hour since the other inmates were returned to the cells, but there was still no sign of Kira. O'Brien leant against the door, squinting through the hatch at the corridor outside, waiting for something - anything - to happen. He had tried to speak to the others as they were marched past, but not one of them had even looked at him. He glanced over at one of the bunks and the sleeping Jhemor and offered up a word of thanks that the boy had not woken. He didn't feel up to dealing with high pitched panic right now. He walked over to the bunk and covered him with one of the blankets, wishing again that he didn't look so young. It was the same back home; he always had a hard time dealing with the baby faced officers, the ones who reminded him of his youngest brother.

Jhemor muttered and stirred in his sleep and O'Brien stepped back to his place at the door, and waited.

He didn't realise he had drifted to sleep until he was startled awake by Jhemor tugging at his sleeve. The boy jumped back, "I'm sorry, Mister 'Brien, I'm sorry."

O'Brien shook his head, "Don't worry about it."

He heard a commotion close by and peered through the hatch again, Jhemor on tiptoe at his side, "That's what I wanted to tell you, Mr. 'Brien. I heard Marius, yes I did. He's bringing the Major lady back."

Sure enough, the door at the end of the corridor was thrown open revealing two of the guards. O'Brien and Jhemor were back on their bunks before they could be seen. Moments later, Marius pushed open the door and smiled his unpleasant smile, then stepped aside to allow Kira to be thrown in. She hit the ground with a gasp of pain and O'Brien felt part of his world collapse.

He was by her side before the door closed, "Major…"

She flinched as he touched her and he gritted his teeth at the sight of the bruises on her face and arms. She tried to stand, but her body wasn't ready to move just yet so he carried her to a bunk and laid her down, then ran to the water bucket and scooped up a ladleful of the rancid liquid. After one swallow she shook her head and he tossed the ladle aside. When he turned back, he was amazed to see her smiling. He knelt next to her, "What did he do?"

Kira shook her head again and licked her lips, "It doesn't matter, Chief." Her voice was strained as if she were fighting discomfort, determined not to break. She held out her right hand which was clenched into a tight fist. When she opened it, O'Brien saw her delicate silver earring, which was as much a part of her as her flash-fire temper, nestled in her palm. She smiled up at him as he took it and carefully examined it for damage, "He didn't take it, Chief. For all his bragging and boasting, he couldn't take it." She sighed and let her eyes close in exhaustion, "Round one to me, I think."

O'Brien pressed the earring back into her hand and regarded her sadly, as she wrapped an arm around Jhemor in an awkward cuddle, "Sure, Major, " he thought, "you've won the battle, but if things carry on like this, he'll win the war."

She opened her eyes again, as if sensing his concern and squeezed his hand, "Hey, don't worry, Chief. If the Cardassians can't finish me, some jumped up little barbarian doesn't stand a chance."

He tried to return her smile with confidence, but failed miserably. Kira beckoned him nearer, "I learnt one thing. It seems he wasn't just being over dramatic when he said we would have to fight to get out of here."

"What do you mean?"

She swallowed, closing her eyes against the pain, "Apparently the only way to make money is to fight…in an Arena…for the entertainment of some local merchants." Her voice broke and she turned away, "If you win and they think you made a good enough show of it, they pay you. When you save up enough, you can buy your freedom."

O'Brien watched her as she battled back tears. He brushed a stray strand of hair away from her face, his voice gentle, "Who do we fight?"

She looked up at him with a sigh, "Each other - other prisoners. Anyone that bastard Marius says we fight…and…"

"And?"

"And it's to the death."

Jhemor began to cry.

*********

It was two days before Marius showed his face again. Two days of physical healing, hunger and mind numbing boredom.

They had spent hours telling each other stories, more as a means of keeping Jhemor calm than for any real need to hear them. Kira's tales of the Bajoran Resistance scared him, though, and he much preferred to listen to O'Brien's Earth fables; sitting enrapt at his feet as he told him stories of princesses and kings and pots of gold at the end of a rainbow.

When the bolts on the door were thrown back he cowered away with a moan of fear and all the work was undone.

Kira stood when Marius entered the cell, her stance defiant as he approached her. He walked round her, looking her up and down as if examining a piece of merchandise, "Bruises don't suit you."

She gave a snort of laughter, "I could have told you that before you went out of your way to give them to me."

He chuckled as though they were sharing some private joke, "But you do so insist on encouraging me." He smiled as she braced herself, ready to take the blows she knew were coming, and stroked her shoulder almost tenderly, "Oh, don't worry, I'm not going to hurt you. It wouldn't be fair."

She bristled, "Fair?"

"If you're to stand any chance in the Arena you have to be fit."

O'Brien stood up, "Two days without food and you think we're fit?"

Marius turned his attention to the Irishman, "I hope so, for all your sakes. If you're not, they'll be dancing round your funeral pyre by nightfall."

Jhemor whimpered and Marius laughed out loud, "And the half-wit act won't save you this time, Jhemor. You'll take your turn at the games along with the rest of them." He knelt down next to him and ruffled his hair, grinning a malevolent grin at the tears that were racing each other down the young face, "Don't cry, boy, there'll be a big crowd to watch you fight. And you never know, you might win."

He didn't shut the door on his way out.

There was nowhere left for them to run to.

 

An hour later they joined the other inmates on the short march to the Arena - a small, somewhat pompously named patch of land circled by cells that made the one they had just left look palatial. Behind the cells sprawled the amphitheatre - a huge stone circle of seats - packed with well dressed merchants, traders and spectators, all baying for blood as the prisoners were paraded before them. Marius, like some twisted ringmaster, introduced them to their audience as the "best of the best. The gladiators who are to do battle for your entertainment" whilst imploring them to be generous in their appreciation.

For one brief moment, Kira was reminded of Quark and wondered briefly how much this brute of a man was slipping into his own pocket, before she, O'Brien and Jhemor were pushed into one of the cells as the first 'game' began.

They sat facing each other in silence, each lost in their own world of thoughts and fears. Each wondering how the hell they were going to get out of this one. The rules had been made clear - they would fight or they would die. If they survived they might be paid.

O'Brien caught Jhemor's eye and gave what he hoped was an encouraging smile. The chances of them being paired off in a death match were…well, quite high, actually. He found himself wondering whether he would be able to force himself to kill the young man. Would he put his own life before those of his friends?

Kira sat next to Jhemor, her back ramrod straight, her eyes a little too bright, the half healed cuts and bruises from her beating at the hands of Marius standing out in livid contrast to her pale skin. He hoped that she would be spared any future such encounters. If she kept on bringing herself to their captors attention she would not get out of the place alive - and he was damned if they were going to lose anyone else on this mission.

A roar from the crowd heralded the death of the first 'gladiator' and they stiffened as one as heavy footsteps crunched toward their cell. The bolts were thrown back and Marius sneered in at them, "So much for Jilara." He eyed them one at a time, letting his gaze settle on Kira. She glared back at him with open hostility and he reached in and grabbed her arm in his vice of a grip, "Time to prove your worth, deviant."

O'Brien leapt to his feet, "Let me go instead. She's too weak to fight…"

Marius's hand smashed across his face, knocking him to the floor, "You were warned about speaking out of turn. I won't warn you again."

Kira gazed back at her companions as she was dragged to the arena, but said nothing. Stumbling against Marius' rough grip, she gave a small smile and was gone. O'Brien found himself staring at the solid wooden door as it was slammed shut in his face. He slapped it in anger, "Dammit!"

Jhemor's soft tone cut across his ire, his voice trembling as he tried to be brave, "Is the Major lady go to die?"

O'Brien didn't bother to answer. He scuttled across to the tiny slatted window which faced the Arena and peered through. Kira was being dragged to the centre of the ring to face her opponent, Katalia, a woman from a few cells down. She was large and strong with a surprising turn of speed and he wondered whether the Major could take her down.

The whistle blew, the crowd roared as the two women began to circle one another cautiously, looking for an opening. The sun beat down steadily, glinting off of Kira's earring, bragging to Marius that he had been unable to take it from her. O'Brien craned his neck to catch a glimpse of the overseer and the look on his face made him very afraid for his superior officer. He knew that the man would challenge Kira again, should she survive the day. And he knew that he would be unable to protect her.

He turned back to the ring as Jhemor sat next to him, his voice small, his eyes bright with unshed tears, "It might be better if she die in the Arena. Yes, it might."

O'Brien glared at him, "Don't say that"

Jhemor looked at the floor and whispered, "At least it be quick."

***

Kira blinked as the sweat trickled into her eyes, the sun burning her neck. Katalia's gaze was relentless, never leaving her face, her hands hanging at her side in casual mockery of her opponent. Years of experience had taught the Bajoran never to judge a fighter on first impressions and she held back and waited for her chance. Rumour had it that Katalia had crushed the life out of a man for knocking into her accidentally and that three guards had been hospitalised trying to free him. Kira didn't know if the rumour was true, but she was not going to get careless. She tried to read the other woman's face but her eyes were like flint and gave away nothing.

They circled each other again, neither willing to make the first move.

The crowd began to grumble and Kira saw Marius vault the wall into the Arena and raise his hand. She felt the sting before she heard the whip crack and flinched, her concentration broken.

Katalia's fist slammed into her face, flooring her as her nose let loose with a steady stream of blood.

The crowd cheered.

Kira pushed herself to her knees and tried to get her bearings, a wave of dizziness making her sway and almost fall. A foot crunched into her chest, knocking her the rest of the way down. The foot tried to stamp on her as she floundered in the sand, but she rolled away and got to her knees, coughing up a lungful of dust. Katalia pulled her off her feet, dangling her in mid-air.

Kira looked at her groggily, instincts honed from a life time on the edge of death screaming at her to fight for life. She slapped feebly at the fingers which were tightening at her throat, legs kicking wildly as her lungs heaved for air, "…damn you…"

Katalia smiled and threw her at the Arena wall like a rag doll.

Kira slid down the wall in a daze, no longer wanting to move, her throat on fire, burning as if she had swallowed glass. Blackness teased the edge of her vision and she knew that consciousness was fading and welcomed it. It would be so good to sleep.

A familiar voice called to her from a long way off, "Get up, Nerys. You have to get up."

She let her head loll to the side and saw O'Brien's eyes glinting through the slats of the pen window, pleading with her, "You have to get up. Now."

She could hear the crowd roaring and see Katalia as she drank in the applause and she knew that she didn't have long left. O'Brien was calling to her and she wanted to tell him she was all right, that she just needed to rest a while, that she was sorry she had led him into this, but all that came out was a choked sob.

***

O'Brien gripped the ledge before him in frustration as Katalia tramped forward, intent on finishing the job. He knew that he could not watch Kira die. Not here, not like this. No matter what followed, she had to live and he would protect her from Marius with the last ounce of his being, "Nerys," he urged, his voice a hiss, "get up, please get up."

She said nothing, and he saw her tears mingle with the blood from her battered nose. Something inside him snapped and he hammered his fists against the slats, "ON YOUR FEET, MAJOR!"

She stirred, her eyes flickering open as her soldier's training took over and her body tried to obey the order, no matter who it came from. She fought to stand, but her legs didn't want to hold her and she moaned in pain and frustration. Katalia was mere yards away and O'Brien screamed through the window, "You stay on your feet, Kira Nerys, or I'll blast you out of a bloody airlock!"

A stick slammed against his fingers and Marius glared in at him, "Shut it."

But it didn't matter - Kira was standing.

Katalia didn't pause in her advance. Her prey was wounded and all but out for the count. Only the formality of the kill remained. She reached out to take Kira by the throat once more - a quick, merciful death. She blinked as the smaller woman ducked beneath her arms and brought her knee up into her gut. Katalia gasped and staggered back. Kira aimed a roundhouse punch at her chin and followed through with a kick to the throat.

Katalia hit the ground, groaning. She tried to find her feet, but Kira knocked her supporting arm away and slammed her heel into the woman's nose. Pay back.

Bleeding profusely, her body wracked with pain, Katalia looked up at Kira in defeat and waited for death.

The crowd was on its feet, baying for blood, chanting for the kill and Marius crossed the Arena and threw a dagger at Kira's feet, "Finish her."

Kira lifted her eyes to his, pure exhaustion etched across her face, "I already have."

And she turned and walked back to the cell.

O'Brien caught her as she fell through the door.

The crowd began to boo.

Marius curled his lip and strode toward the cell with three guards, tapping the dagger against his palm as he came. There was nothing O'Brien could do to stop them as they took Kira from his arms and dragged her away.

**************

Chapter Four