Sam Lavelle strode onto the bridge of the Orb of Peace, hardly able to believe that he had given up a spacious Cardassian antimatter tanker for this austere Bajoran transport. He was sure he had gotten the worst of the deal, especially considering that he thought he was going to be rescued and sent home. His last voyage had been a perfect example of Murphy's Law, and this one promised to send him from the frying pan into the fire.
The cramped bridge had a strange viewscreen with Bajoran writing all around it. He was able to translate two phrases: "The devout will enter the Celestial Temple," and "The Kai holds the lantern of Bajor." Even without the platitudes, the stars glimmered enticingly on the screen, making him wish that he were going home.
But Sam knew there was no escape from this war -- not until the Dominion was driven back to their part of the galaxy.
He spotted the slim Bajoran, Ro Laren, seated at the conn. Both Captain Picard and Geordi La Forge looked Bajoran -- with nose ridges and earrings -- but Ro was the real thing. Sam remembered hearing stories about her on the Enterprise, but he had only seen her once, in Ten-Forward, just before her ill-fated mission to infiltrate the Maquis. Now she was captain of this Bajoran vessel.
"I'm your relief, Captain," he said, keeping his voice low in the dimly lit bridge.
"Thank you." Ro Laren rose from her seat and stretched like a willowy lioness, shaking her short-cropped mane of dark brown hair. She was wearing a Bajoran uniform which hugged the lanky contours of her body, and Sam looked longer and harder than he should have. Ro caught him staring at her, and her eyes drilled into his. Sam knew he should look away, but it had been a long time since he had gazed lustfully at a woman, and he wasn't anxious to stop.
"I'm sorry," he said, managing a shy smile. "I don't know what got into me. It's funny what even a small taste of freedom will do to a man."
Her face softened, and she looked sympathetic if still annoyed. "How long were you a prisoner of the Dominion?"
"About two months, I guess," answered Sam. "It's hard to say, because we were never allowed to see any chronometers, except when we were on work detail, building that damn collider. And then, we only saw shift timers. We were kept segregated from the women. I saw them every now and then on the worker transports, but that was it."
"I know the Cardassians -- it must have been bad."
He nodded slowly. "Yes, it was, and a lot of good people are still there. I wish we could do something to help them."
"There's no chance for a mass escape?"
"I don't see how," Sam answered glumly. "The complex where the prisoners are housed is near the collider, but each pod of prisoners is isolated. There's no way to get hold of a ship like we did -- that was a fluke. No matter when you do this, thousands of prisoners will be working. If your mission is to destroy the artificial wormhole, your mission is to destroy them, too."
Ro crossed her arms and wrinkled her ridged nose. "You know, that's exactly what I've been telling Captain Picard. And it sounds even worse coming from you, because you've been there."
"Yes, I've been there, and I can't believe I'm thinking about going back. This isn't exactly the way I envisioned my escape -- going back to that place, on purpose." Shivering, Sam sunk into the chair at the conn and studied the unfamiliar instruments.
"I'm sure Captain Picard would offer you a chance not to go, if he could," said Ro. "But we only have this craft, and no way to split up."
Sam snorted a laugh. "Yeah, if you don't mind me saying so, your demolition squad is a little shorthanded."
"We had a whole crew and more than one torpedo. But we lost five torpedoes fighting our way through the Dominion border patrol, then we got shanghaied by pirates in the Badlands, and hijacked by Romulans -- "
"Pirates and Romulans?" asked Sam with boyish curiosity. The smile faded from his lips when we saw how upset Ro was about these incidents. "Hey, I'm sorry if we lost more good people, but I'm sort of burned-out on death. I can't even think about it, if you know what I mean."
"I know what you mean," admitted Ro, staring down at the deck. "The Enterprise is supposed to take us home, but only if we alert them with a subspace beacon."
"But how quickly could they get here?"
"That's a good question." The Bajoran hovered over Sam's shoulder and pointed at his console. "You'll want to watch the hull pressure -- right there."
"Okay, thanks." Sam took some time to scan all the readouts, finding them fairly easy to understand. It wasn't nearly as complex as the antimatter tanker. He tried to concentrate on his duties, but the Bajoran's presence was bringing back memories and emotions he had tried to push away, without much success.
"I had a good friend who was Bajoran, Ensign Sito Jaxa," he said with a wistful smile. "Her death was the first casualty I really experienced in Starfleet, and it hit me pretty hard. She was killed by the Cardassians, and that act started the war for me a couple of years early. I was gung-ho to get at them."
"I followed Sito's career," said Ro, "but I never got a chance to meet her. I think I was away at Tactical Training while you and your friends were serving aboard the Enterprise."
Sam chuckled. "You couldn't help but to follow Sito's career -- she was full of zip. She got into a lot of trouble at the Academy."
"Along with Wesley Crusher," said Ro with a smile.
While they shared an unexpected moment of nostalgia, Sam glanced at the striking Bajoran. It was too bad that his life expectancy was so short, or he would have been tempted to pursue the former Starfleet officer. Of course it was wartime, and anything could happen.
Returning his mind to his duty, Sam adjusted the viewscreen, and a brown-magenta cloud coalesced into view, still some distance away. Pulses of light blinked on and off within its murky depths, which gave it an oddly cheerful glow, like a surreal Christmas wreath.
"The Badlands," he mused. "Is it all that bad?"
"Worse," muttered Ro. "I wouldn't go back there, except there's no other place to hide."
"Well, if it's any consolation, you're within striking distance of the artificial wormhole from here. It's just that there's a fleet guarding it, and it's ten kilometers long."
"So I gather," replied Ro solemnly.
They heard footsteps, and Sam turned to see Captain Picard come striding onto the cramped bridge. He looked odd with his Bajoran earring, nose ridges, and tufts of white hair; but his voice, bearing, and stern demeanor left no doubt who was in charge. Immediately, Sam stiffened in his seat and studied his readouts until he was caught up.
"Status?" asked Picard as he consulted the small padd in his hands.
"Estimated arrival time at the Badlands: one hour," reported Sam. "No sign of enemy craft."
"Thank you, Lieutenant. I haven't had an opportunity to say how good it is to see you again, although I wish it were under better circumstances."
"Me, too, sir."
The captain looked somber. "I've talked to your crew. I realize that we ruined your escape attempt. I'm sorry. I'm sure you expected to get farther away than the Badlands -- "
"I wasn't really expecting to escape," replied Sam honestly. "I just wanted to die like a Starfleet officer, not a slave. I don't want to go back to that place -- and I doubt if this mission will work -- but it's still a good chance to die as a Starfleet officer."
The captain's lips thinned. "I wish there was an alternative, but there isn't. We can't allow the Dominion to ever use that artificial wormhole."
"I know, sir," admitted Sam. "I thought the same thing every day, even while I was building it."
Picard consulted his padd and looked around to make sure they were alone. "I need an honest evaluation of every member of your crew. You know what we have ahead of us -- a major sabotage mission with a high degree of risk."
Sam frowned thoughtfully. "The only member of the crew I really know is Thurik, and I would trust him with my life. As for Woil, Shonsui, Horik, and Maserelli -- they're all career Starfleet officers, who ought to be fine in a crisis. But they've been through some rough times lately, and they may be close to cracking. I'm sure you could say that about all of us, except for Thurik, of course. Many times during our imprisonment, I wished I were a Vulcan."
"I've often wished that I were a certain android," said Picard with a wistful smile. "What about the scientist, Enrak Grof?"
Sam winced, trying not to show his doubts. "Until today, I would've said he was a traitor and a collaborator -- and an unpleasant one at that. He could've stopped us but didn't, so I guess he's on our side. As I'm sure he'll tell you, he's basically in it for the science and the glory. Grof knows that artificial wormhole backwards and forwards -- he helped design it."
"So he told me," said Picard. "None of the rest of you have any in-depth knowledge of its workings?"
"No," answered Sam. "Thurik knows some of the theory, but we were grunt labor, only told what was needed. Grof was right in there with the Vorta engineers, on a buddy-buddy basis with our resident changeling."
"You saw a changeling?" asked Picard with interest.
"Only once, when they put me in charge of the tanker." Sam smiled nostalgically. "To tell you the truth, Captain, I remember more about the food than anything else. It was the first decent food I'd had in weeks."
Captain Picard allowed him a slight smile. "I know this has been difficult for you, Lieutenant, and I wish I could relieve you of further burden. But you know our situation."
"Not really," answered Sam. "Taurik and I were captured early on, defending the outer colonies. We volunteered for that service, if you can believe it. I've heard rumors -- if this ship is any indication of what Starfleet can spare, I guess we're in a lot of trouble."
The captain looked grave as he explained, "If the Dominion manages to bring through reinforcements from the Gamma Quadrant -- either by clearing the mines from the Bajoran wormhole or through their new artificial wormhole -- the situation will be desperate. We didn't even know about the artificial wormhole until we encountered Ro and her passengers. There wasn't enough time to do anything but gather intelligence, which is why we're using this ship. We've done that, we know it exists, and now it's time to take the next step."
The way Picard said it almost convinced Sam that they could pull it off. He tried not to think about what few resources they had at their disposal, even if the Enterprise was out there somewhere. These people have no idea what they're up against.
After a few moments of uneasy silence, during which no one voiced their obvious concerns, the captain turned off his padd and set it on an empty console. "It appears we have to depend upon this makeshift crew, despite our doubts. Now I have to go talk to the Romulan."
Sam blinked at him. "Romulan? There's a Romulan on board?"
"A wounded Romulan," answered Picard. "He lost an arm when we recaptured the ship, and he's in the captain's quarters, recuperating. Had I known we would have all these casualties to deal with, I would've brought Dr. Crusher along."
Hesitantly Sam asked, "Is Alyssa Ogawa still serving on the Enterprise?"
Picard smiled. "Yes, we've managed to hold on to Ogawa. She's now chief nurse in sickbay, and that's quite a job in wartime. Do you feel confident with the Bajoran conn, Lieutenant?"
"Yes, sir. I'll contact you if I have any questions."
"Good. Ro, will you please accompany me?"
Sam couldn't help but watch Ro and Picard walk off the bridge -- they were two of a kind, calm and controlled on the surface and wild-eyed gamblers underneath. My life is now in the hands of those two. He would have disobeyed anybody else in the universe who ordered him to go back to that monstrous collider and the slave pens, but he had to follow Captain Picard. If anybody could get them through this insane war alive, it would be him.
As Captain Picard descended the spiral staircase to the lower deck of the Orb of Peace, he wondered what he should do with their Romulan prisoner. Some would say it was practical to execute him on the spot -- it was no less than he deserved -- but such actions were not in Picard's nature. Essentially, the Romulan had been doing the same thing they were doing, pretending to be someone he wasn't in order to gather information about the artificial wormhole. His methods were much different, however, in that he and his comrades had murdered a dozen innocent people trying to hijack the Orb of Peace.
Picard turned to glance at Ro Laren, who was striding behind him, a determined look on her angular face. He wondered if she thought they had a chance to destroy the artificial wormhole, to get out of this alive. But what could she tell him that he didn't already know? They were behind enemy lines, confronting overwhelming odds, and they had no choice but to continue.
Ro smiled at his concerned expression. "'It's all right, Captain. I've given up the dream of living to an old age and retiring on a Starfleet pension."
"I don't think anybody is enjoying their pension at the moment," remarked the captain.
With a rush of heavy footsteps, a burly figure bolted from the mess hall and planted himself in front of Picard and Ro, blocking the corridor. His eyebrows
and beard bristled, and the brown spots on his forehead, temples, and neck seemed to pop out of his skin, like mountains on a relief map.
Enrak Grof scowled angrily. "Captain, I just heard that you expect all of us to go with you on this insane mission to destroy the wormhole! I can understand why you and your crew would feel a need to sabotage it, but it's simply impossible that I go. I'm the only one in the Federation who understands this technology -- the only one who could possibly duplicate it. It's imperative that you send me back to Starfleet headquarters immediately!"
The captain tried not to grit his teeth as he calmly replied, "Believe me, Professor, I would like nothing better than to send you back to Starfleet, but this vessel and the people aboard it are all I have. You are the only one who understands the technology of the artificial wormhole, which makes you the most essential member of the party."
"I can't argue with that," snapped Grof, "but the information I possess in my head cannot die with me. You must find a way to return me safely to Starfleet!"
While Picard clenched his fists, and carefully considered his next words, Ro stepped in. "What if we could find a way to return the information you possess but keep you here with us -- to help? Would that be satisfactory?"
"If this is your only ship, how could you do that?" asked Grof skeptically.
"I don't know yet," answered Ro, "but soon we'll be in the Badlands, where almost anything is possible. Let's keep our options open, because there must be a way to safeguard your knowledge. In the meantime, I suggest you go to the science station on the bridge and start recording your notes."
The Trill nodded thoughtfully. "Yes, I suppose I should do that, anyway. What if I had an accident or something? Good thinking. What did you say your name is?"
"Ro Laren, captain of this vessel."
"Well, Captain Ro, I sincerely appreciate your willingness to accommodate me. I am not exaggerating when I say this technology is crucial to the future of the galaxy."
Reluctantly, it seemed, Enrak Grof shifted his attention from the attractive Bajoran to Captain Picard, and his scowl returned. "Captain, you just don't understand the import of the situation like Captain Ro does. You want to destroy the greatest invention of our times, but I won't let you destroy the knowledge as well."
"We'll find a way," promised Picard.
"You had better." The Trill stomped toward the spiral staircase and headed toward the bridge.
The captain watched him go, then lowered his voice to say, "Insufferable man."
"I know that kind," said Ro. "Maybe if he does a good job of transcribing his notes, we won't need him."
The captain nodded appreciatively, then grimaced. "But we still have him, plus a murderous Romulan and a handful of ex-prisoners, who should be in sickbay, not on duty."
Ro gave him a smile. "This is how we assembled crews in the Maquis -- whoever showed up. Sometimes it works."
"I'm glad you're here," said Picard gratefully. "Now let's go see our prisoner."
He led the way into the captain's quarters, the only private cabin on the whole ship. Since the Orb of Peace was a civilian transport, it had no brig or interior force-fields, so they had turned the captain's quarters into a temporary cell, with only a mattress. A Cardassian prisoner had managed to escape, but so far the Romulan prisoner had been docile. Of course, he had lost an arm and a considerable amount of blood; he had to be extremely weak.
Nevertheless, Ro drew her Bajoran phaser as they approached the door. Geordi had disabled the circuitry which opened the door from the inside, and the Romulan had been alone in there for several hours. They had to be prepared for anything -- from a dead prisoner to a berserk prisoner.
The captain nodded to Ro to be ready as he touched the wall panel. The door slid open slowly, as if it were still slightly damaged by the Cardassian's rampage. Soothing red and turquoise lights lit the cabin, which appeared empty except for a sleeping figure on the mattress.
The figure on the bed stirred slightly as they entered. Ro stationed herself in the doorway, her weapon leveled for action, and Picard took a step forward. The Romulan rolled over, gripping the bandaged stub of his arm. Lying there helplessly, he looked younger than Picard had remembered, the equivalent of a human in his early thirties. Picard knew, however, that appearances could be deceiving with these long-lived races. The prisoner gazed at them not with hatred or fear, but resignation.
"How are you feeling?" asked Picard.
He sighed. "Weak and ashamed over my capture. I assume now you will execute me."
"Don't tempt us," said Ro.
Picard's jaw tightened. "I still don't see why you had to kill my crew and hijack my ship, just to get away from Shek and Rolf."
"You don't know that Ferengi and his Orion henchman," muttered the Romulan. "We would have done anything to get away from them, even if our mission hadn't been almost finished. You happened along, and we knew we might not get another chance to escape. I sincerely doubt if you would have given us your ship."
"Perhaps not," answered Picard, "but we might have given you sanctuary, if you had asked. What is your name?"
"You can call me Hasmek, if you need a name for your reports, but I refuse to be interrogated."
"We know all about your mission," said Ro. "You talked while you were in shock. You and your confederates enlisted with the pirates to get close to the artificial wormhole. Now that you know it exists, you were going to advise your superiors to give up neutrality and ally themselves with the Dominion. Have I left anything out?"
Hasmek sneered at them. "Only that I also know your mission -- to destroy the artificial wormhole. I realize the Federation is given to fits of fantasy, but do you have any idea how impossible that will be?"
"We don't have much choice," replied Picard. "At the moment, our problem is what to do with you."
With a grimace, the Romulan sat up and stared at him. "You mean, you haven't decided to kill me?"
"That's not Starfleet practice," said Picard.
"However," added Ro, hefting her weapon, "not all of us are in Starfleet."
"You're Bajoran, technically neutral like us. Or are you a fake Bajoran, like him?" asked Hasmek.
Ro shook her head with disgust. "We're getting nowhere with him. I say we maroon him somewhere in the Badlands, somewhere he'll never be found."
The Romulan's cheerful disposition turned sour. "Yes, leave me to starve to death -- that's the humane Federation way. If you don't execute me properly, I'll make an escape attempt and force you to do it."
Ro asked, "I wonder what the Dominion would do with a Romulan spy?"
"Probably the same thing they would do with a Federation spy," answered Hasmek. "But they wouldn't have the qualms about it that you seem to have."
"We can't let the Dominion find him alive, and he knows it," said Picard. "We could conceivably give him back to Shek and Rolf, if we could find them."
The Romulan stuck his jaw out and assumed an arrogant pose. "That would be as good as an execution, probably for all of us."
The captain heard footsteps in the corridor, and he turned to see the Vulcan, Thurik, slip through the door. Even in the subdued light, Picard was surprised by the similarity in the facial appearance of the Vulcan and the Romulan. They were similar in age, too, and both men had straight black hair that was uncharacteristically long after their adventures in Cardassian space.
Hasmek was momentarily stunned to see his double, then he slumped weakly back into bed. "A Vulcan lackey."
"Captain," said Thaurik in a low voice, "we don't wish to alarm the crew by using the comm system, but Sam has detected a ship. They may be in pursuit."
"What kind of ship?" asked Picard.
"It appears to be Cardassian."
The captain exhaled as if he had been punched in the stomach. Relying on Bajoran neutrality, they had talked their way past Jem'Hadar and Vorta sentries, but not Cardassians, who couldn't resist harassing Bajorans whenever the opportunity presented itself.
"I'll check on it." Ro shouldered past Taurik and headed for the bridge, with the Vulcan right behind her. Left alone in the room with his prisoner, Picard turned and gazed at Hasmek.
"The Cardassians have no qualms about torture and execution, especially for spies," he said somberly.
"I know," answered Picard grimly.
Copyright © 1998 by Paramount Pictures