Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

Faith, Part I: Hope

By Gabrielle Lawson

Disclaimer: Paramount and Viacom own all things Trek, including DS9, the main characters thereof, the Defiant, etc. I only borrow their characters and settings. The stories are mine. Do not copy without including this disclaimer and my name. Do not post without permission.

Author's Note: This story does reference other stories of mine. It can stand alone but it might leave you with questions. If you've read my other stories, those questions shouldn't come up. Those stories can be found here on , or on my web site, The Edge of the Frontier.

Acknowledgements: Thank you to my beta readers. Paula Stiles gave helpful medical advice, though I must say I never hear from her anymore. Jo Burgess debated and argued with me to help me work out where this story would go, and I thank her heartily for it. And Valerie, ever thankfulto you. I think you read just about everything I ever write. Also Victoria Meredith and Matthew Edward gave their comments and votes as well.


Julian sat in the darkness that had become his home. He leaned his head back against the cold wet wall and touched the PADD again. He hated the voice, but was glad for it. He could only guess how long it had been since he'd heard any other voice.

"Welcome to your new home," Sloan said, and in Julian's mind, he could see the man smiling. "I can't recommend the accommodations, but you betrayed us. There's a replicator, if you can find it. It will only produce one thing. You'll just have to live with that. I'm sure you can find water if you try hard. You asked once, what would have happened if we didn't find you trustworthy. I admit, this is more creative than we usually get, but you get the general idea. You're an intelligent man, after all."

The PADD went silent, and Julian wished the walls around him would do the same. But like Sloan had said, so many times, he'd find water. It had taken him two days, by his estimate, to find the source of the echoing roar of the waterfall.

The replicator had been easier, and it produced the only light he saw. But that light had gone out weeks before when he replicated the last of his emergency field rations. Two months worth. As the last bar shimmered into shape, he'd lost the last of his meager light. In return, he'd hoped to gain his salvation. His hope had a name: Data.

In the first days, he had longed for light like he had once starved for food. He'd wake only to find wakefulness darker than sleep. He'd touch his eyes just to see that they were indeed open. He'd worried, at first, that Sloan had blinded him, but he'd bumped into the walls enough to know where he'd disappeared to.

The walls ran with water, slowly seeping, giving life to the rock. Conical towers grew up from the floor to stumble him when he tried to walk. Rounded points hit his head and shoulders and dropped water down onto his clothes. Water and calcium and the drops became hard deposits on his clothes.

In the weeks to follow he'd mapped out some of the cave in his mind, hoping to find an exit to the unknown planet beyond. But he never so much as found an upward slope. Except once, by following the water toward its source. But all he'd gotten was wet. The passage had become too narrow to even crawl through. It had taken days to dry. He shook and shivered from the cool air. He still felt damp. He always felt damp.

He'd wondered, at first, if there were animals in the cave, but he hadn't heard any sound except the replicator, Sloan's voice, and the constant roar of the water. He could feel them, though, when he dipped his hands in the water. He'd even caught one once. A crayfish. It had pinched him. There were little fish, too, which nibbled at his fingers or the ends of his hair that touched the surface of the water when he washed.

In those first days, weeks, months, he'd felt many things. Fear, anger, self-pity, loneliness, hopelessness. He'd gotten stuck on that last one. Hopelessness. What hope was there? His one puny life mattered little. Everything was being lost with or without him. The Dominion was still in the Alpha Quadrant, and the Federation was still becoming the Dominion. Well, maybe not the Dominion, but certainly less distinguishable. Besides freedom, what was being fought for out there? It used to be more than that. But even in his last months up there-in the light-he'd started to feel it dwindling. Even in himself.

Sloan had only confirmed it, put details to his vague ideas and nails in the coffin of his ideals. The bad guys were bad, but the good guys weren't good. There was no point.

And yet, in the days, weeks to follow, he'd found himself replicating rations and drinking the water. Why? Some pointless, innate will to survive perhaps? Partly so. To calm the rumbling in his stomach and the old memories of his nightmares? Partly that, too. To see the brief shimmer of light? That as well. Life, to put it simply. Faith may die, but life goes on.


"It's here," Geordi called.

Riker followed the beam of light from La Forge's wrist beacon to where it shone on a small gray box. He stepped closer and looked over the engineer's shoulder. "That's not a transmitter," he observed. He had to speak up to be heard above the din of what he assumed was a waterfall somewhere in the cave. "It's a replicator." Portable. Starfleet issue.

"Yep," Geordi confirmed. "It was a replicator. But now it's a transmitter. I'm picking up a signal, and it matches the one Data was getting. I'm also picking up a slight flux in the infrared around here. Someone's been here recently."

"Well," Riker said, "someone had to rewire the replicator. Let's find out who."

"I've got life signs," Doctor Crusher said. She stood near one of the tunnels. Her tricorder beeped enthusiastically. "Down here."

That said, they all filed down that tunnel. Well, almost all. "Data!" Riker yelled, and then regretted it. The sound echoed down in the cave. He tapped his comm badge. "Riker to Data. We've found the transmitter."

"And I have apparently found the refuse," Data's voice came back to him over the comm line. "One hundred and seventy-seven Starfleet emergency field ration wrappers."

"Then I'd say who ever it is has been here awhile," Riker replied. "Join us, Mr. Data."

"Yes, sir."

The line closed and Riker continued down the corridor with Geordi and the doctor. The din became a roar, and Riker was thankful for the beacon he had strapped to his wrist. The darkness, like the noise, threatened to engulf him. It was like a physical thing he could feel seeping through his uniform into his skin. One hundred seventy-seven, Data has said. One ration had enough nutrients for three days. That added up to a whole lot of days. Months of this darkness and the mind-numbing racket of the waterfall.

Doctor Crusher said something, but Riker was unable to make it out. "What?" he shouted. But he couldn't hear his own voice.

Szymon sat beside him. "Now it is you who is sick," he said. "But you were always sick."

"Injured," Bashir argued. "I was injured. I outlasted you."

"But I died under the stars. You have died many times, and never under the stars."

"Leave him alone, Szymon," Max scolded. He could speak English now. Bashir was glad for that. He was never able to have a real conversation before. Only when Henri had translated for them.

"Yes, leave him alone," the Frenchman joined in. "It's not his fault. When you are murdered you do not get to choose where you die."

"I was never dead," Bashir argued. "Not really."

"It's not fair, you know," Szymon said. "I stayed dead. We all did. None of us got up again."

"I'm sorry," Bashir told him, and he meant it. "I would have saved you if I could."

"You knew how," Piotr interjected quietly. He could speak English now, too, and it was the first time that Bashir could understand him.

"I knew how," Bashir admitted. "But I couldn't save you, not there. They wouldn't let me. Heiler wouldn't have let me."

"Starfleet wouldn't let you," Szymon added.

Bashir nodded. "No, they wouldn't let me."

"So we all go to the chimney," Piotr sighed.

They were past the water now, and Riker could hear a voice. Then he heard laughter. It was strange laughter, almost maniacal, but also wistful. "If I could find the damn chimney," the voice said, with a highly apparent British accent, "I would've crawled up it months ago." The laughter stopped. "It has been months, hasn't it?"

They rounded the corner, Riker in the lead. He swept his light across the room-He always thought it odd that caves had rooms, but what else was one to call them?-and almost instantly hit the speaker. The man cried out and cringed, covering his eyes. A hand clamped down on Riker's arm, pushing the light off the man and onto the floor.

"Don't point it at him," Crusher whispered. "He's been in the dark too long."

"Do you see it, Szymon?" the man asked. He paused as if waiting for an answer, but he didn't uncover his eyes. "Maybe Heiler opened the door. She does that sometimes. To let the air in."

"He's nuts," Riker whispered back to Crusher.

"If he is," she scolded, "he probably has a good excuse." She pushed past him and walked toward the man. She kept her light low, on the ground. Riker could really only make out that the man was there. "Hello," she said quietly.

The man backed away from her, backing into the cave wall behind him. "I didn't do anything," he pleaded.

"I'm not going to hurt you," Crusher told him. "My name is-"

"Whaley," the man said. "Heiler, that Gestapo guy. And O'Brien. You were O'Brien once."

"Doctor Beverly Crusher, actually," she corrected him. "I'm here to help you." She opened her bag and pulled something out. "Let me cover your eyes so the light won't hurt."

Riker came up beside her and crouched down. "He is insane."

"I'm not insane," the man said, dropping his arm so that Crusher could cover his eyes. "I'm hallucinating. It happens sometimes, when things get really bad. I start seeing things. Well, not seeing. It's too dark for that. But I hear them. They're dead. That's how I know I'm hallucinating. They died a long time ago. But I hear them now because of the malnutrition."

Crusher was just getting out her tricorder to run a scan. "How do you know that?" Riker asked the man to keep him talking.

"He is a doctor."

Riker spun around, shining his light back toward the corner where they'd come in. "You know him, Data?"

"Data!" Riker spun around again. The man was standing. He nearly fell over, but he stood. "Where?" He held out a hand in Data's direction.

Data stepped forward and took the man's hand. "I am here, Doctor Bashir."

The man, Doctor Bashir-and Riker was sure that name was familiar-smiled. "I knew you'd come." Then he collapsed. Data caught him before he could fall.

Doctor Crusher was finishing up her scans when he entered. Picard looked toward the biobed where she stood. A man was lying there, in new coveralls. A mud covered uniform of some sort lay on the floor near the bed. The man was bearded and his hair was long and unkempt, reaching just past his collar. A bandage covered his eyes. "Who is he?" he asked Commander Riker who was standing to one side of the room.

"Doctor Julian Bashir, former CMO of Deep Space Nine." Riker answered.


"He was reported MIA more than six months ago. Dead, three months later."

"He doesn't look dead, Number One." The lights above the biobed showed the man to be very much alive. "How is he?"

"Malnutrition," Crusher replied, "just like he said. He'll be fine though, physically."

"And his eyes?" Picard didn't see any problem with the bandages, no red seeping from beneath them.

"Nothing," she said, replacing the instrument she was holding. "I'm going to run some tests anyway."

"He was in a cave," Riker supplied. "Looks like months. The light was too bright for him. He was hallucinating."

"You would, too," Crusher chided, "if you were starving and stranded alone thousands of feet below ground for months on end." Riker chuckled in response and then turned to leave.

Picard's brow furrowed as he thought about what months alone in a cave must have been like. "How did he end up there? That planet was uninhabited."

Data stepped forward then, holding out a PADD. "There is no evidence of a crash or any other debris. There were no entrances or exits large enough for a human to enter or exit the cave. He would have had to transport, as we did."

"But why?" Picard asked, reading the PADD. It had all the facts, but none of the reasons. It didn't make any sense that the man would strand himself. "He would have had to have a ship in order to transport. There are none on the long-range sensors. Did Deep Space Nine report any missing ships when they reported the doctor missing?"

Data took a moment to answer. Picard hardly noticed. A moment for Data was very short. "No, sir. There were no ships reported missing in the entire Bajoran Sector."

"Section 31."

"What?" Picard turned back to the biobed. The man was leaning up on his elbows.

"Section 31," he repeated. "You wanted to know how I ended up there. They put me there."

"Who is Section 31?" Data asked, stepping closer.

"Data, who are those people?" the man said, lowering his voice.

"I am sorry," Data replied, standing up straighter. "I should have introduced you. Doctor Julian Bashir, Captain Jean-Luc Picard and Doctor Beverly Crusher, Chief Medical Officer, USS Enterprise."

"Pleased to meet you," Bashir said. He sat up and offered his hand. "I was Chief Medical Officer of Deep Space Nine, but I dare say I've been replaced by now."

Crusher smiled and then turned away to continue working. But Picard was not a little taken aback by the man's-or rather, Bashir's-attitude. It wasn't what he would have expected from someone released from months underground. But what would he expect? Elation? Or something different, born out of distrust. Because someone had put him there. "Who is Section 31, Doctor?" he asked, trying to steer the conversation back to facts.

Bashir sighed. "A clandestine, extra-governmental organization that supposedly ferrets out threats to Federation security. To hear them tell it, they are the protectors of all the Federation holds dear. But you didn't ask them. You asked me. And I say they break every principle they claim to protect."

"And why would they strand you in the cave?" Picard pushed. He didn't know whether Bashir could be believed or not. He'd been hallucinating not more than an hour before. He could be insane, given the length of his isolation. But Picard found he was more worried that the man was telling the truth. "Did they consider you a threat?"

Bashir dropped his head slightly, so that, were his eyes not covered, he might have been staring at his hands. "To the Federation? No. To Section 31? Apparently."

"I'm sorry, Captain," Doctor Crusher stepped in. "You'll need to continue this conversation later. I think Doctor Bashir needs his rest. And I need to examine his eyes."

Picard and Data both turned to leave, but Bashir stopped them. "Data," he said, "would you stay?"

Data looked to Picard for permission, and Picard granted it with a nod. There was a level of dependence between the doctor and Data that Picard didn't quite understand. The signal they'd intercepted wasn't meant for anyone to find. It was meant for Data.

Doctor Crusher waited until the door closed behind the captain, and then started to remove the bandages. "Computer, lights off," she ordered, and the room became bathed in darkness. Not dark enough, though. Light from the stars let enough light in for shapes and dim shadows. And, of course, there were the instrument readouts. It would have to do. She unwrapped the last layer of bandage and already Bashir was cringing. She was ready though, and had the instrument before his eyes quickly. He relaxed. "Computer, scan optical nerves."

"Analysis complete," the computer intoned. "Visual acuity at above average levels."

"Above average?" Crusher whispered aloud. She remembered him now. Starfleet Medical was in a tizzy a while back about a decorated doctor who was revealed to be genetically enhanced. His name was Julian Bashir. Above average, indeed.

"That means I'm not blind," Bashir stated, not mentioning the enhancements.

Crusher decided to let it go for now. "Not in any real sense of the word," she corrected. "Let's call it external blindness. You're extremely sensitive to light. But I expected that and have prepared for it. We have guest quarters prepared for you. I'm glad you asked Mr. Data to stay. Perhaps he could escort you. The lights will be down in the corridor and in your quarters. I've programmed the computer to bring them up gradually beginning each morning."

Bashir thanked the doctor and then braced himself for the pain he'd feel when she took the instrument away. He'd heard her, of course, turn the lights out, but he could still feel it, like little pinpricks. He closed his eyes. That was enough in the darkened sickbay. It wouldn't work for the corridor. A strong hand touched his arm, and Bashir knew that it was Data. The android helped him off the biobed he'd been sitting on. He still felt weak, but not as much so. He was on the mend.

He was sure the light from the corridor would blind him even through his eyelids, but the door opened and nothing happened. Doctor Crusher really had prepared for this. He was thankful. Away from the viewports, he could even open his eyes to the comfort of the darkness he'd grown accustomed to. Data, of course, would know the way, regardless of light.

"Data," Bashir asked, breaking the silence in the corridor, "how long was I gone?"

"You were reported missing six months, two weeks, and five days ago." He stopped before reporting the minutes, though Bashir guessed he could have done it. Given a stardate, he could have done it himself. But he didn't even know what today was.

Bashir stopped, forcing the android to stop with him. "And then what?"

"I do not understand," Data said, and Bashir got the distinct feeling that Data was trying to avoid answering.

"I was reported missing and then what? Am I still missing? What did Starfleet have to say when you told them you'd found me?"

"I do not know what Starfleet Command will say," Data replied. He started walking again, and, given that he was much stronger than Bashir on a good day, it forced Bashir to continue down the corridor with him. "To my knowledge, they have not yet been notified." They stopped again and Bashir heard doors opening. His quarters? "Deck Ten," Data said, and Bashir realized it was a turbolift.

"You still didn't answer, Data," Bashir said, and wondered why an android-even one who could dream-would dance around a question so much. "Am I still missing?"

Data's voice actually dropped. "You are dead." The turbolift stopped and Data led Bashir out.

Again? Bashir thought. What will my parents think? He thought of the story of the boy who cried "wolf." "Then I suppose they'll be surprised," he replied evenly.

"Yes," Data responded, "I think they will. These are your quarters."

A door opened in front of them and, once they were through, closed behind them again. There was still only darkness, now even darker, very much like the cave. But more comfortable. The room he was in was warm and dry. It was quiet, with no roaring waterfall, but alive with little sounds that most people probably wouldn't notice.

"I can stay, if you require someone to talk to," Data offered, "or to show you around."

Bashir shook his head-and wondered if the android could see that. "It's alright, Data," he told him. "You can go back to your duties. I'll find my way around. I'm used to being alone." He heard the door open again. "But you're welcome to visit. I'm betting a lot has happened since we last had the chance to talk."

"Quite a lot," Data replied quietly.

The door closed and Bashir was alone again. Now what? he wondered. He hadn't really prepared for this day because he hadn't quite convinced himself it would happen. He was free. He thought perhaps he should feel happy, but happiness didn't come. It was no different. A damp cave or guest quarters on the USS Enterprise. He was still a prisoner. Only now, he was the only one who could see it.

It wasn't long before he had a visitor. The door chimed. He'd almost forgotten what kind of sound a Starfleet starship's door chimes had. He waited for it to sound again just so he could listen. This time there was a voice, too. "Doctor Bashir? It's Counselor Troi. May I please come in?"

Bashir sighed. A counselor. Still, he had expected it. If he had just rescued someone from six months alone in a cave, he would have prescribed counseling, too. So now he was the patient. It would probably be awhile before he was allowed to be a doctor again. Death tended to negate one's license to practice, after all. "Yes," he answered, unable to dredge up any show of enthusiasm. "Come in."

As the door opened, he saw the light from the corridor, so he turned his head away and covered his eyes. He listened for the door to close before he uncovered and turned toward her. "It certainly is dark," she said. She had a bit of an accent, and he remembered another Troi.

"Yep," Bashir answered. "How has your mother been? I hope she wasn't on Betazed when. . . ." He didn't bother finishing the sentence.

"She was," the counselor replied and Bashir could hear the sadness in her voice. "But I'm sure she's giving them hell anyway."

Bashir smiled, remembering the annoyance with which the ambassador was generally greeted at the station. Not always though. "I'm sorry." He paused for a moment and then welcomed her in. "I'd offer you a seat, but I haven't really explored the place yet. I'm sure there's a couch in here somewhere."

"Yes," she replied, "there is. I think I can find it. Would you like to sit down?"

"I already am," Bashir told her. "I tripped over this chair earlier." He heard her stub a toe, but she held her breath rather than curse it.

She let out the breath. "Found the couch," she said and he could hear her smiling. He thought it amazing that one could hear a smile, but it was there nonetheless. "It must have been hard," she started. "Six months alone in a cave."

So now it was officially begun. "Six months, one week and four days," Bashir corrected.

She was silent for a moment and he guessed he'd caught her off guard. "Data said two weeks, five days."

"Well, I wasn't in the cave the whole time," Bashir admitted. "I was with Section 31 before that. They're the ones who put me in the cave."

"What is Section 31?" she asked.

"Didn't the captain tell you before he sent you down here?" Bashir countered evenly. "Or can't you read my thoughts?"

That took her by surprise, too. He could tell. "No," she replied, "on both counts. I'm only half Betazoid. I can sense emotions. I can only communicate telepathically with other telepaths. According to your records, you're not a telepath. Unless-"

"No," Bashir cut her off. "I didn't lie about it, if that's what you're getting at. To be quite honest, I didn't lie about anything. I simply didn't volunteer the truth about my DNA resequencing." He paused, taking a breath. "Section 31 is part of the Federation Charter, a sort of security force not unlike the Tal'Shiar or the former Obsidian Order. They work outside of the law to ferret out would-be traitors to the Federation."

"Isn't that what Starfleet Intelligence does?" At least she was indulging him and not questioning his sanity just yet.

"Starfleet Intelligence works within the law," he countered. "They don't torture their prisoners, for one. They don't generally kidnap Federation citizens or proceed on the assumption that one is guilty before proven innocent. In fact, they don't often deal with Federation citizens at all."

"So Section 31 polices citizens," Troi reasoned skeptically.

"We have police to police citizens. Again, they're within the law."

Troi was silent for a long time. Perhaps she was thinking they'd gotten off on a tangent. "So they kidnapped you," she finally said. "Did they think you a threat?"

Bashir had already decided to tell the truth about Section 31. He'd decided that his first few days in the cave. If he should ever get out, he would tell everyone. They wouldn't remain a secret. "I'm not sure," he answered, "I think so, but I proved my innocence."

"Through torture?" She didn't sound convinced, but at least she sounded a little concerned.

"Psychological torture, yes. They withheld food, deprived me of sleep, and kept me in a holoprogram. Of course, I didn't know it was a holoprogram. It was all very realistic. In it, I was accused by Internal Affairs of passing information to the Dominion. Everything I'd ever done was turned around to show that I could be sympathetic to the enemy. They had everyone turning against me. They even had Weyoun trying to convince me I was an operative."

"But you proved your innocence?"

Was that a touch of suspicion he heard in her voice? "Are you an interrogator or a counselor?" he asked her. But he didn't give her time to answer. He didn't want a confrontation. "Yes, I held that I was innocent all along, and I finally discovered the holoprogram. They even used an implant to analyze my neurosynaptic relays. They were convinced, so I should think you should be as well. I hardly think I was a danger to the Federation these last six months. Besides, it was all just a test. I passed."

"Why put you in the cave if they believed your innocence, if you passed?"

It certainly sounded like suspicion. Well, it was to be expected, Bashir supposed. "They didn't." He realized that was confusing, so he continued. "They let me go, returned me to Deep Space Nine. I reported the incident to my commanding officer, but he couldn't find any evidence. No transporter traces, no record of Section 31. Starfleet Command would neither confirm nor deny Section 31's existence."

"But you ended up in the cave."

Confused was better than suspicious. "That was later," he said again, "They returned. More than once."

"Because they still suspected you?"

Bashir smiled, though he knew she couldn't see it. "No, because they wanted to recruit me. I told them no. I find their methods repulsive. Their existence is against everything I believe in. But my commanding officer saw it as an opportunity for an investigation, as did Admiral Ross. I was ordered to say yes when they returned for me, to play along."

"And what did you find out?"

"That they knew me too well," Bashir responded, unable to keep the bitter tint from his voice. "They manipulated me, used my principles against me, and they used Admiral Ross to do it. I was led to believe they were going to assassinate someone and by trying to stop it, I unknowingly sent an innocent woman to prison and furthered their true plot, which was to secure a more powerful position for one of their double agents. I was again returned to DS9 and yet again ordered to go along with them in order to expose them. That," he explained, punctuating the point, "is why I ended up in the cave."

Silence again. Six months in a cave could drive anyone to insanity. Bashir was convinced that was what she was thinking had happened to him. "It's hard to believe," she finally said, "that the Federation would condone such an organization."

"That's what I told Sloan."

"Who is Sloan?"

"He was my contact, I suppose," Bashir replied, "my interrogator and then my recruiter and my judge. The cave was his decision. A bit of creativity on his part."

You asked once, Sloan's voice sounded in his head, what would have happened if we didn't find you trustworthy. I admit, this is more creative than we usually get, but you get the general idea. You're an intelligent man, after all.

"I don't expect you to believe me, you know," he told Troi. "I wouldn't. If it hadn't happened to me, I wouldn't believe a word of it. Section 31 goes against every principle we've been brought up to believe in, everything we're supposedly fighting for. So why should you believe me?"

He hadn't expected an answer, and her answer surprised him. "Because I'm half-Betazoid." She moved a bit closer to him; he could hear her on the couch. "I can tell when someone is lying. You believe what you are saying."

Bashir leaned closer to her. "But do you believe what I'm saying?" She had no answer for that. So he asked her something easier. "Are you here to determine if I'm sane after my lengthy subterranean stay?"

He could hear her smiling again. "I think you're sane. It's more a question of stability."

Bashir nodded. "Do you think I'm stable?"

Troi laughed lightly. "I think I'll need more time to determine that." Then she became serious. "But I think everyone needs a little instability now and then. Get some rest, Doctor. It was nice meeting you."

"I'm sure I'll be seeing you again," Bashir said. As counselors go, he decided he liked her, though he was wary of her empathy. That could only complicate things. "I'm sorry I can't show you to the door."

"I can find my way, thank you. Watch your eyes."

Bashir took her advice and covered his eyes again. He heard the door open and close again and knew it was safe to uncover his eyes. He was tired. Probably a side effect of malnutrition. That, and he didn't know what time it was. He still didn't know where the bedroom was so he moved to the couch, remembering where Troi's voice had come from. He also remembered what she said. Everyone needs a little instability. Sounded good, but he couldn't use it. He couldn't get back to Deep Space Nine if he was unstable, and he had to get back to Deep Space Nine.

Geordi caught Data just before they sat down. "How is he?" he whispered.

"If you are referring to Doctor Bashir," Data replied quietly, "I believe Doctor Crusher will be giving us an evaluation of his health. If you are inquiring about his emotional state, Counselor Troi would be best to answer. I have only spoken with him for a few minutes last night. I cannot give an informed opinion."

Geordi gave him a smile, but let it go. He took his seat at the table. Data sat beside him.

"Good morning," Captain Picard said, starting the staff meeting. "Commander, have you finished analyzing the data?"

Data noticed that Riker looked more haggard today than usual. He shook his head as he spoke, "It's all gone. Every last living thing."

Doctor Crusher spoke up, "It looks like biomemetic gel."

Data let his breath out slowly and looked to the tabletop. In his mind, he quickly calculated all the lives that were lost. Deyon III had had a population of 6,521,372 humanoids and well over 50,000 species of animals. And he thought he could feel the loss of every one of them. It wasn't as deep as losing someone he knew, but the pain was there nonetheless. He'd been feeling that a lot lately. Like most mornings since the war began, when he started his shift, he turned off his emotion chip. The pain stopped instantly, and he straightened up in his chair. The others were looking down, too.

It was Captain Picard who raised his eyes first. "And what of our guest?" He looked to the doctor.

"He'll be fine," she replied, but not with her usual smile. "Malnutrition, some atrophy of his muscles due to inactivity, but physically, he's not in bad shape." She looked to Troi.

Troi wasn't smiling either. "Considering the trauma he's suffered, he's quite calm. He doesn't seem too excited about being rescued, but that could be shock."

"What about his story?" Riker asked. "What about Section 31?"

Troi took her time answering. Data thought perhaps she wasn't sure. "He believes it. Of that I'm certain. Whether or not it's true. . . ."

Riker leaned forward. "It can't be true. The Federation isn't like that. When we found him, he was talking to himself. He's not sane." Data noted a hint of bitterness in the commander's posture and tone of voice.

Apparently, Troi noted the same thing. She looked Riker in the eye. "I don't think you're qualified," she said, "to make that assumption. Hallucinations are not unlikely given his condition. And I found him to be quite rational."

"So did I," Picard agreed. "He didn't seem irrational or hallucinatory when I spoke to him, though, I admit, that was only very briefly. I wouldn't want to believe his story about Section 31 either, but with the war, a lot of things have changed. I want to talk to him again. He was put in that cave by someone. I doubt the Dominion would have bothered with the replicator, and he didn't strand himself. There has to be something to what he's saying, even it if is being distorted by trauma."

Bashir awoke expecting to touch the moist mud of the floor of the cave, but then he remembered where he was. The soft cushions of the couch met his hands. The Enterprise. He sighed and asked the computer for the time.

"The time is ten hundred hours," the computer intoned.

Only a few hours, Bashir thought and wondered why he couldn't sleep now that he'd been rescued. He had slept often in the cave.

He cocked his head and asked the computer to repeat. He listened to the voice. He'd not really paid much attention to it when he'd heard it on the Defiant, but it was different from the voice on the station. More polite. "Thank you," he told it, knowing it was unnecessary.

"You are welcome," it replied.

Bashir rubbed his face, and his hand lingered over his beard and then made its way to his hair. His hair was long, past his collar. He couldn't imagine what he must look like. He stood and began feeling his way around the room. He found an open doorway and went through it, following the walls again there. Another doorway, this one closed. He found the panel and opened it, remembering where to touch the darkened controls. He reached his hand through and found cloth. A closet. He must be in the bedroom. Good enough. He'd have a place to sleep, or at least to lie down. He continued along the walls and eventually found another door. It opened in front of him and he was sure he'd found the right place.

It was then that he realized his eyes were straining. He was trying to see. He'd given up trying to see a long time ago, but now his eyes were strained. Light. He still couldn't see anything, but there had to be more light, just an increment more. Crusher had said they'd raise the lights gradually. It had to be starting.

Still, it was, for him, nothing to get excited over. In practice, he was still blind. He held his hands in front of him and explored the room. He found a counter and a sink. He moved his hands around the counter and found the shaver. He couldn't do much about his hair, but he could remove the beard. If he wanted his life back, he had to find a way to feel like himself again. Like the increment of light, it was a start.

Afterwards, he rubbed his face again and felt only smooth skin. It felt odd, but familiar. He took a shower and wished that it was a water shower instead of a sonic one. He wanted to feel warm water on his skin. Still, he felt cleaner when it was done. He found the closet again and changed clothes, wondering what it was he'd been given to wear.

He was trying to find the replicator when the door chimed. He thought for a moment that the counselor had returned. Then he changed his mind. The door chimed again. The Captain, or may be First Officer. There were questions that needed asking. "Come in, Captain," Bashir called, deciding that they would want to limit the introductions just now.

The door opened and closed. "Good morning. How did you know?"

"Deduction." Bashir didn't bother to face Picard. He wouldn't be able to see him anyway. Besides, he was hungry. He continued his way along the wall: a dish, a table, the ports, but no replicator.

"Can I help you find something?" Picard asked after a moment.

"Replicator," Bashir replied.

"Of course," Picard said, though Bashir didn't hear him move. "About three meters to your left."

Bashir spun around. "You can see me?" He forgot about the replicator and was intent on the direction of Picard's voice. He still could see nothing. Not even the slightest hint of light. Perhaps he had gone blind.

"Night vision of a sort," Picard replied. "Something my Chief Engineer, Geordi La Forge, cooked up."

Bashir still looked. Night vision glasses or goggles usually gave off some detectable glow. But he could see nothing. He remembered La Forge from the last time he was on the Enterprise, when he met Data. He was an inventive man and he was blind. Technology helped him to see past the darkness, and perhaps now he was helping his crew to do the same. When he spoke, his voice with quiet. "Must be nice."

He turned back to the wall and moved to the left as Picard had indicated. He found the replicator and then froze. He'd eaten the same thing for so long, and now he could order anything. It was like the whole universe had opened up to him. He couldn't decide.

"Doctor Crusher recommends eating light for now," Picard suggested.

He was still undecided as to what he really wanted, so he took Crusher's advice and ordered scones with jam and tea. There was a familiar sparkle in the center of the machine, something he could actually see. He watched it until it went away. He reached a hand in to where the sparkle had been and found the food, just as he'd ordered it. He might know the technology, but it still felt like magic to him at times like this. A little starvation will do that to you, he told himself. He carefully picked up the tray of food and walked back to where he'd found the table. "You don't mind if I eat while we converse, do you?" he asked Picard, not really caring what the captain's answer would be. He was hungry and he was going to eat. It didn't matter what Picard thought.

"No. Do you mind if I join you?" Picard asked in turn. He moved. Bashir could hear him walking across the room. "Tea, Earl Gray, hot," he ordered at the replicator. Then he walked over and pulled out a chair. "I can describe the quarters for you, if it will help," he offered.

The jam was heaven. The fruit burst to life on his tongue. Starfleet field rations were worse than bland. He'd almost forgotten what real food tasted like. He nearly lost Picard completely in the sensation. "Um, no," he replied. "It's better if I find everything myself."

"It will only be for a few days," Picard countered.

"A few days," Bashir repeated. "A lot can happen in a few days."

"Point taken."

Bashir dipped another scone into the jam and waited for Picard to continue the interrogation he'd begun in Sickbay.

Picard didn't disappoint him. "Tell me about Section 31. Why did they maroon you?"

"I told you already," Bashir answered. But he was willing to repeat himself. He wanted Picard to know about them. He wanted Picard to believe him. "They marooned me because I betrayed them. I lied. My commanding officer told me to join them in order to find out more about them. I didn't want to have anything more to do with Section 31 but I followed my orders. I joined them. I infiltrated them. But they caught on and weren't appreciative."

"I've never heard of them," Picard said. Bashir heard him sip his tea.

"I'm not surprised. If you had heard of them, they wouldn't be as effective. Their victims don't expect them either." He finished the last of his scones and rose to return the plate to the replicator.

"Counselor Troi told me you spent time with them before they sent you to the cave," Picard went on. "What did you do during that time?"

Bashir thought for a moment of questioning Troi's ethics. But it was counterproductive. No harm was done. At least not yet. He sat back down and answered the question. "I trained." There were still some things he wasn't going to tell about. There was always the possibility that Section 31 was still listening. "They couldn't just hand me an assignment, not like before. I had to train and they had to trust me. In the end, they didn't."

"What did you learn in your training?"

Julian wished he could see the man. So much was said in a face. All he had were words. "A good many things," Bashir replied, again only planning on half-truths. "Practical things. Policies and procedures mostly. I can give you a full report for you, if you'd like."

"That would be helpful, thank you." Picard agreed. He must have decided to change the subject, because he let the subject of Section 31 rest completely. "My Chief Engineer has asked me to ask you about the transmitter. It was quite delicate work, even for an engineer."

Bashir cut him off. He knew where this was leading. "I took extension courses in engineering at the Academy," he said. "I'm not an engineer, but I do fairly well with Federation equipment."

"But converting a portable replicator into a transmitter is unheard off. How did you know how to do it? Such a thing wouldn't be taught in an extension course."

"I'm genetically enhanced," Bashir said, guessing that that was what Picard was getting at. "I read about them."


Apparently Picard was hoping for more. "Replicators and transmitters," Bashir clarified. "Do you know why I took the extension courses?" He imagined Picard shaking his head. The captain was silent so he went on. "Because one of my patients died. He didn't have to die. Not if I'd known what I know now. Any second year engineering student would have known. But I was in medicine. I had no idea and neither did anyone around me. And so the man died. I didn't want that to happen again."

"So you studied transmitters and replicators?"

He wasn't used to being so open, but he'd already started and he didn't see any risk in what he was telling. "No, I read about those more recently, but for similar reasons. I've starved. No matter what the science behind that little device on the wall, it's really magic to someone who has starved. You can't starve with a working replicator. I wanted to know how to fix mine in case it broke. I never wanted to starve again."

"And the transmitter?"

"Dominion Internment Camp 371."

"I don't understand."

"I was replaced, before the war started," Bashir explained. "I was held in the camp in the Gamma Quadrant. One of the other prisoners in the camp had converted an old life support system into a transmitter. He sent a signal into the Alpha Quadrant to Deep Space Nine. It's because of that signal that I'm not still there. I wanted to know how he did that. Once I thought of it, there in the cave, it really wasn't so hard to visualize the circuitry. I had a lot of time to concentrate. It was difficult in the dark, but I could see the circuits in my mind."

"You sent a signal only Data would understand." Not a question, but it implied one.

"Someone else might have heard. I didn't know if I was behind enemy lines or if Section 31 was still monitoring me. I knew I could trust Data, so I called for him."

"You're fortunate he got it," Picard replied, and Bashir could feel the interrogation slipping into a more conversational tone. "We only found your signal because we were ordered to the neighboring system. It was quite coincidental. You're lucky we found you at all."

Bashir chuckled just once. "Lucky? I suppose that's one way to look at it. The other way is to see that I'm an extremely unlucky individual."

"Why do you say that?" Picard asked, sounding a lot like Counselor Troi.

Bashir took a breath, but kept his voice even when he spoke. "I've been shot, shocked, beaten, replaced, flogged, gassed, had my fingernails ripped out, and my hand broken repeatedly with a hammer. I've been a prisoner of war before the war even started. I've been berated and kidnapped. I've been a slave. Twice! I've had someone reach inside my chest and grab my heart. I've been thrown into cells and nearly suffocated." He'd never said so much before. He had kept most of those things in. "And yet, here I am. Still standing. Yes, I'm a very lucky man. Or I'm not."

Picard was silent for a long time. Bashir could hear him sip his tea. Stalling. Too much, surmised. He'd said too much. Picard didn't know how to respond.

"I know how that feels," Picard said finally, taking Bashir by surprise. "Like fate must be against you. I've been a Borg, you know. It still haunts me. But I'm still here. It's not a curse. You'll see that, given time."

"I had six months," Bashir countered, barely speaking at all now.

There was silence after that. Bashir didn't feel like speaking. He had lost the words.

"Bridge to Captain Picard."

Bashir heard Picard tap his commbadge. It had a familiar little chirp, and he remembered a time when his own commbadge had meant so much to him. "Picard here," the captain replied. "What is it, Commander?"

"We'll be leaving Dominion space within the next half hour, Captain."

"Very good." Bashir got the distinct feeling that the captain was relieved. It was an easy way out. "I'll be right there." There was another chirp, and the comm line closed. "Good news, Doctor. We'll be able to inform your family and Starfleet Command of your recovery."

"But will they think that's good news?" His voice was barely above a whisper, so he wasn't even sure if Captain Picard heard. He was surprised then when Picard touched his arm.

"They're your family," Picard said, equally as quiet. He raised his voice little. "And Starfleet Command needs all the officers it can get." Then he pulled away and the door opened. The sudden flash of light sent a stabbing pain through Bashir's head, but it faded after a few moments. Bashir was left to imagine what his parents would think, what they would feel, when they found out he was alive after all. Starfleet Command was another concern. But not the same. To Starfleet he was just another officer, one who had lied. His parents loved him. He was their son.

Picard waited until the Enterprise had crossed over the Dominion lines. Only then did he relax his fingers. He hadn't realized how hard he'd been gripping the arms of his chair. The Dominion did that to him. The Borg gave him nightmares, but the Dominion made him nervous. He feared the Borg, but he also understood them. To a point. They were straightforward, purposeful, relentless. They had no need for deceit. The leaders of the Dominion specialized in deceit. Their minions were no less relentless, but they are not straightforward. They were clever, with more personality than the Borg. They had heartfelt, if manufactured, devotion where the Borg only had programming. They had a fire, a drive, where the Borg had just a steady hum.

"Mr. Data," he said with a voice as steady as it would have been if the ship had been traveling to Risa, "contact Starfleet Command, secure channel. I'll be in my Ready Room. You have the Bridge, Number One."

The transmission was already put through by the time he sat behind his desk. He tapped the control, and a face appeared. Admiral Necheyev smiled at him, but he noticed that her eyes didn't smile with her lips. She looked older, more haggard. But then, almost everyone he knew did, too. The war did that. "Good to see you again, Captain," the admiral said.

"And you, Admiral," Picard responded. "There was nothing there. Not a single living thing."

Necheyev nodded, her smile gone. The rest of her face was as severe as her eyes. "We expected as much." She looked away, and Picard could see the pain she felt. Deyon III used to have a population of over six million. The report had come some three months earlier. A rumor. The total destruction of life on Deyon III. The rumor even gave a reason: biological warfare. The Enterprise had been sent to confirm it.

"Dr. Crusher was able to identify the cause."

"Biomemetic gel?"

Picard nodded. "We'll be filing a full report as soon as we've had time to complete our analysis."

"Very good." Necheyev was all business now. "Though I can't say I'm looking forward to reading it. Thank you, Captain." She was about to disengage the transmission.

Picard held up a hand. "There is something else, Admiral."

"I've got news, Captain."

Captain Sisko was surprised by the call. He'd already talked to Admiral Ross twice that week. But something about the admiral's face told him he shouldn't mind the interruption. "Good or bad?"

Ross didn't answer the question. "They've found Bashir."

"Bashir who?" It wasn't that the name wasn't familiar. It definitely was. Sisko didn't forget the names of the casualties among his own crew. Especially not ones he considered friends. But Julian had been found more than three months ago. Or rather his body had been found.

"That Bashir," Ross answered, looking Sisko straight in the eye.

Sisko shook his head. "I don't understand."

"Neither did I." Ross agreed. "But it's true. Dr. Julian Subatoi Bashir is alive."

Sisko barely breathed for the next five minutes. It only took that long for Admiral Ross to tell what he knew. Sisko called Colonel Kira into his office and invited her to sit down. She looked at him, confused, as he paced back and forth across the floor. But he wasn't sure how to start. And he wasn't sure how he felt. He was happy, overjoyed. But it was such a surprise. Such an unthinkable surprise. "Julian's alive."

Kira just shook her head in little staccato movements.

Sisko sat down beside her and touched her arm. "Julian's alive," he repeated. "Admiral Ross just told me he was picked up by the USS Enterprise."

She was still shaking her head. "Where?"

Sisko stood up again and turned away from her. "Behind the lines. I don't know any of the details. Ross didn't know. Just behind the lines."

When he looked back at her, she had stopped shaking her head. She caught his eye. "It was them." She was resolute. "Section 31."

Sisko felt a stab of pain in his chest. Guilt. He hoped she wasn't right. But he also hoped she was. Any other reason for Bashir to be behind the lines would only be worse. "I don't know."

"I do."

Sisko sighed. "Gather the senior staff in the Wardroom, just the ones that knew him." He didn't think the other doctors needed to hear just yet. If it were true, they'd find out soon enough.

"What can I do for you, Beverly?" Picard asked as Doctor Crusher stepped through the door. He could just catch a glimpse of the bridge beyond and Riker standing near the command chair. The door shut and he focused on the doctor.

"I'm concerned about Bashir," she answered, holding out a PADD.

"In what way?" As Picard reached for the PADD, thoughts of changelings, clones, and Borg ran through his mind. The last one was irrational, a traumatic reaction. But the others were possible, maybe even probable. He pushed those thoughts away. No sense jumping to conclusions. He read the PADD.

Doctor Crusher summarized it as he did. "It's his medical history. I downloaded it just after we ended radio silence. That, and the number."

Picard was scanning the document. Bashir had a history longer than his service record. "Which number?"

"The one that isn't in there," she replied. "Mind if I sit?" She waited for him to nod and then continued. "It's on his arm. A tattoo, and a crude one at that. The letter A followed by six digits on the inside of his left forearm." She demonstrated as she spoke, running a finger along the inside of her arm.

Picard watched her. That rang a bell, but not a clear one. It was odd. Not that he had a tattoo, but that he had that tattoo. A and six digits. It was distinctive to anyone who had studied Earth history. A and six digits. Auschwitz. But that was hardly likely, given the man's age. "Perhaps he had a relative," Picard suggested, "who survived the Holocaust. Keeps it as a reminder."

"I thought so, too," Beverly admitted, then pointed to the PADD, "until I checked his medical history. There's a whole block there. He was treated at Starfleet Medical for a multitude of injuries, including lacerations to his back, malnutrition, and-"

"Cyanide poisoning." Picard had found it on the list. "It's impossible."

"As impossible as Will and Geordi riding in the Phoenix with Zephram Cochrane?"

Picard looked up at her. "Exactly just as impossible. You're telling me he traveled in time to Auschwitz? Why would he do such a thing?"

"I don't know," Beverly admitted, sitting back. She was obviously frustrated. Her face was just slightly flushed and her lips turned down in a frown. "Starfleet Command isn't telling."

"War will do that," Picard reminded her. "I suppose Starfleet thinks it's not our business, otherwise it would be in the records. Still, it is curious. What made you go through all this trouble? He didn't look to be in too bad a shape."

Beverly held up one hand, palm facing in, fingers spread. "His left hand," she said. "It's roughly thirty-three years younger than his right. Or rather the bones are."

Picard shot one eyebrow up and waited for her to explain. "That would make me curious."

She nodded and pointed to the PADD again. "Osteogenic replacements, same time frame as the others. He had every bone in his left hand replaced. It took some wrangling with the computer even to get those records. I think Starfleet doesn't want us to know."

Picard handed her back the PADD. "I never thought I'd have the opportunity to be in the company of a survivor. And of the gas, no less. Cyanide poisoning. It had to be the gas. In fact, he said so, though I hadn't placed that until just now. He also said his hand was broken with a hammer. That probably explains the bones. What was the number, the first three digits?"

"One seven three."

"That's fairly early," Picard said, speaking more to himself. He was trying to work out the date. "1942, or '43 perhaps."

"Well," she said, leaning forward again. "You know more about that than I would. Though I thought your historic interests ran to more ancient things."

"Some things just stand out and demand to be noticed, Doctor," Picard told her with just a hint of a smile. "Like a one-year-old hand on a full-grown doctor."

She smiled back. "Thank you, Captain." She stood up to leave.

Picard stopped her. "Considering Starfleet's apparent reticence on this matter, we should probably keep it under wraps ourselves for now."

"Of course," she said, all seriousness again. "But I'm still worried about him."

Picard nodded and waited for her to leave. He glimpsed the bridge again. Riker was looking his way. "So am I," he whispered. "So am I."

The door opened and he knew who it was before he uncovered his eyes. He smiled. "Data."

"How were you able to identify me?" the android asked.

"I could hear you," Bashir told him. "The captain was already here, and you're too heavy to be Troi."

"Understood." Data stepped farther into the room, and Bashir realized that he saw him. "How are you feeling today, Doctor?"

"I can see you!" Bashir blurted out. Data wasn't clear to him, not even a distinct person-shape.

"That is good."

Bashir looked around the room. He could just make out other things. Blobs of dark or light different from the universal darkness he'd lived with for months. One must have been the couch, another the doorway. He hadn't noticed them before. "It was the movement," he explained. "I could see you move. Now I can see other things."

"You have shaved," Data said just as bluntly.

Bashir was reaching for the blob that he believed to be the couch. "I didn't like the beard," he replied, "but I couldn't do anything about it until now." He touched the blob. It wasn't the couch. It was the chair. Close enough. "Have a seat, Data. Tell me what all I've missed."

"I have done some research on subjects I thought would be of interest to you."

Bashir stopped him. "Tell me about you first. We're friends, aren't we? Let's catch up."

"I saved the Earth from being assimilated in the year 2061," Data offered almost as a question.

Bashir laughed, not long, and not loud. He didn't want to insult his friend. "That's good. Thank you. But how have you been? How is the emotion chip working for you?"

"It is," Data began, and then he stopped and tried again. "It is what it is."

That struck Bashir as very philosophical but also very true. "Meaning?"

"There are times when I am happy to have it and times when it is a liability. I can feel happiness and security, even love. But I can also feel anger and fear and hatred. I've turned it on less often in recent months."

"War is hell," Bashir concluded.

"Indeed," the android agreed. "I sometimes wonder if leaving it off is a disservice to those we have lost."

Bashir envied him, but he didn't let that show. "The chip is good," Bashir told him, "but I've come to believe that all good things come wrapped in sadness. It's a package. You get them all together."

"War brings a unique set of circumstances," Data held, "more bad than good. It will be different when the war ends."

Bashir spoke quietly, allowing himself to speak what he truly felt. "There is bad that lurks in peace, Data, and revels in war, when it comes."

"You have changed," Data said simply.

"People change," Bashir replied, not denying it. "I'm no different."

"I hope," Data said, "that when this war ends, peace will change people as much as war has. You used to be optimistic, excited about life. The war has taken that from you."

Bashir nodded, thinking that through. It was true that the optimism and excitement were gone. But was it the war that had taken them? Perhaps. If there hadn't been a war, would any of the other things happened? Probably not, though it wasn't an excuse. "It has taken a lot of things, Data. Let's talk about something else. Let's pretend there is no war even if it's only for a minute or two."

They managed for more than an hour, until Data was called away for duty. They talked about what had happened in the years since they had met, but left out the war and the losses. Data told him about the passing of the Enterprise-D and the innovation of the Enterprise-E. Bashir told them about how Molly had grown and Kirayoshi had been born. He even caught himself smiling before the android left. But the war inside him never left. He could ignore it, push it away, but he couldn't pretend it wasn't there.

Knowing he was weakened by his exile, Bashir decided to exercise. The movement would re-condition his muscles, and exertion would occupy his mind. Perhaps, too, he'd wear himself out and sleep that night. He started slowly, with stretches. He sat on the floor, put his legs in front of him, and reached for his toes. He could almost touch them. Almost. He stretched farther, feeling the pull at the back of his legs. He stretched and did sit-ups, more than a hundred. He moved on to harder things, things that took more exertion. Push-ups, jumping jacks, and others. By the time he stopped, he had collapsed on the floor.

He lay for a while, just listening to his heart pound in his chest. He didn't move a single muscle except to blink the sweat from his eyes. He didn't think either. In that, at least, he'd been successful. By the time the door chimed again, his pulse had long since slowed to a peaceful seventy beats per second, and he'd watched the light levels in his quarters rise by 4.2 percent.

He raised his head when he heard the chime. Troi he guessed. The other senior officers would be on the bridge, except perhaps the doctor, but he wasn't due to see her until evening. It would be Troi. He wished she'd go away and leave him in peace there on the floor, but he resisted the thought. She was Betazoid. Maybe she couldn't read thoughts, but thoughts could lead to feelings, and he had to guard those carefully. Troi was the key on which his freedom depended.

"Just a moment," he called. His arms still felt rubbery but they pushed him up anyway. He used the couch for extra support as he got to his feet. He took a deep breath and steadied himself. He was thankful for the darkness. She wouldn't see if his color was off. "Come in."

The door opened, and he found that he didn't have to cover his eyes. They stung a bit behind his eyelids, but the light from the corridor was tolerable. The door hissed shut and he opened his eyes. He could just make out her silhouette. There was a definite, though not sharp, border which separated her from the door behind her. Everything was like that now. "Hello. It's Counselor Troi." He could hear her smiling.

He smiled back and hoped the smile found its way to his voice as hers did. "I know. I can tell by your hair."

"You can see my hair?" she asked, stepping farther in. "I can't see a thing."

No goggles. Good. He preferred to be on an even playing field. "Give your eyes time to adjust. There's light here, just not a lot." She stepped toward the couch, but he backed away. "I've been exercising. I need a shower. I hope you don't mind." It was the truth. She would know that. Feel it. "I'll be quick and it will give your eyes time to adjust."

He knew she'd smile graciously. "I don't mind at all."

He paused in the doorway and let his guard slip a little. Just a little. "No water showers?"

"The Enterprise-E is a practical ship," Troi replied. "No luxuries. Sometimes I miss that about the Enterprise-D. But we're at war. This is a stronger ship."

"Like the Defiant," he agreed. There was a time, he thought, when sonic showers were a luxury. "I'll still just be a minute." Sonic showers were also faster, so it didn't take long to wash the sweat away. He didn't bother combing his hair. Neither he nor the counselor could see it anyway. He joined her again in the living area.

"You're right," Troi agreed when he sat down. "I can just make you out. You feel better now, having rested?"

"I'm fine," Bashir told her, skirting the question. "I'm anxious to have my life back, if that's what you mean."

"Is that why you were working out?" Troi asked.

Questions. Just like a counselor. "I was working out because my muscles had begun to atrophy. But yes, in a way. I'm not in the cave anymore. I want normalcy."

"Understandable," Troi nodded. "And we're not trying to keep you from it. You're not a prisoner here."

Too close. She was an empath. He knew that. He had let too much slip. "But my eyes keep me here," he said, hoping to cover. He sighed. "I just want to erase the last six months. To go back where I was. I know that's not realistic."

"But it's natural to want it," Troi interpreted. She paused, probably thinking of the right words. "We can't erase the past, but we want you to have your life back, too. We need you. We need every Starfleet officer we have. Every doctor. But you'll understand we have to know you're well first."

"Yes," Bashir agreed, allowing himself to smile for her sake. "But it's harder when you're on the receiving end."

There was silence between them for a moment or two. Then Troi spoke. "We've contacted Starfleet Command. They were quite surprised. They're investigating."

Bashir sat up. This wasn't about counseling. This was official business. "Investigating what?"

Troi took awhile to answer. "There was a body," she said finally, "identified as you."

Bashir nodded again. That was worthy of an investigation. "Either I'm not who I say I am or the body isn't who you thought he was. May I ask which way you're leaning?"

"I've done some research," she replied. "There was some question of the body's identity. If you hadn't been missing for three months, there would have been more questions."

"So you think I'm me," Bashir concluded, hoping she'd agree. He was himself, and an investigation would only cause delay.

Troi regarded him for awhile in the dim light. She reached out her senses to him-again-and felt only his presence. The sincerity perhaps, certainly no sense of deception. "I do," she said, "and I think the investigation will prove only a formality." She waited for a wave of relief, hoping that by contrast she could sense the worry that he might have felt. But there was only the slightest of ripples. "You aren't relieved?" she asked.

"Should I be?" he questioned in return. "On simply the belief of the counselor? If someone wants the investigation to prove that I'm an imposter, it will happen. There is still so much uncertainty. Relief would be premature."

Logical, if a bit pessimistic, maybe even paranoid. He was guarded, carefully controlling any feelings he might have. Either that or he'd become hollow in his imprisonment, ripped of all but the slightest of emotions. He was enhanced. The former was possible. The latter was no less probable, but perhaps more treatable. She needed to get him talking, feeling.

"How do you know Data?" she asked, hoping to draw him out in a non-threatening manner.

He brightened, and it took her by surprise. It was the contrast that she had been looking for before. It was is if he had become a color-pastel, not brilliant-but it allowed her to see that he was a dark gray before. "The how is ridiculous," he replied. "But it inadvertently led to his discovering his dream program. I was fascinated at first by the care his creator had taken in making him appear human. He breathed, had a pulse, could grow his hair. But the more we spoke. . . . I felt I'd found something of a kindred spirit. I don't mean to sound arrogant, but there aren't many people who can keep up with me when I'm really into something. That's often a barrier in my relations to people, but not with Data. He could keep up, even surpass me. I felt free. I don't know if that's understandable."

The brightness faded a bit. He wasn't emotionless, just diminished. "I think I can understand," she told him, prepared to reciprocate if it would help him to trust her. "I'm an empath, with a sense beyond that of my crewmates. Their feelings bombard me. I must constantly block them and defend against the tumult of it all, especially now with the war. When I'm with my mother," she smiled mischievously, "despite her abrasiveness, I feel free. She's stronger than I am, able to dominate the scene enough to block out so much of the others. And I trust her."

"Exactly," he agreed, brightening again. "I trust Data. It wouldn't work if I didn't trust him."

"You'd feel threatened instead of free?"

"Not necessarily. But wary anyway."

Troi felt as if she were getting something now, but she wasn't sure what it was. Distrust? That's what it felt like. Not that she felt it. She didn't. It was the words he chose. But why distrust? He trusted Data but not Data's crewmates? Or perhaps it was wider than that. That was possible. If what he said was true about Section 31, then he might be manifesting his trauma in a general distrust of the Federation, as if it were too good to really be true.

"Do you trust me?" She asked, deciding to be blunt.

"I don't know you," he countered.

True enough. It wasn't an admission but it wasn't a denial either. "Then perhaps we should get to know each other," she offered. "What would you like to know?"