At the very edge of the vacuum, all was silent. The pulse of the universe turned - slow and ponderous - a constant, slumbering heartbeat. Rise and fall, spin and heave. A towering red and yellow nebula - the ghost of some long ago forgotten star - floated silently through the void, and bathed the surrounding space in a constant, soft hued twilight.
On the boundary of this same cloud, the planet with no name was drifting. Wind swirled in gusts across its surface. And yet, despite the colours that some might even call beautiful, it was cold and barren - a dry, lonely sentinel lost as long as memory at the very fringes of the galaxy.
From a distance, its form was deceptively still, revealing nothing of the fearsome sandstorms that battered its already abused atmosphere. But close to, the edge of the sky bore a far more hazy appearance, reds and sandy browns showing themselves for the turmoil they really represented. And the planet with no name taunted in its solitude. Constant thick clouds never once relented, never once allowed a glimpse at what - if anything - could be found beneath that cover.
After a long silence, a second, much smaller ghost emerged from the darkness and into the dull gleam of twilight. Shapes resolved themselves from the distance. From no more than a barely visible arrow came the spread of something very much like wings, a protruding metal hull, and two painted streaks of orange running all the way from nose to tail.
They're here, thought the watcher.Perhaps this time…
The watcher was pleased to see the approaching vessel move in closer, and circle once around the planet with no name before finally settling into some kind of orbit. Had it known how, or even had a face to smile with, the watcher would have smiled. It had chosen well this time. After all those other grandiose failures, this was the closest that any of them had ever come. It had invested so much with every attempt, planned so carefully, allowed for every contingency. This time, surely…
A shock wave burst upwards from the planet's surface, shaking and pummelling the tiny vessel. Even from its distant observation post, the watcher could feel its force. But many times more powerful was the shock of imminent failure.
No! It was the closest any of them had ever come, so close that the watcher could almost taste the anticipation of those on board.
It stared in horror at the wayward ship, silently cursing its inability to stop what was happening, or even to look away. After such careful preparation, so much planning of every possible detail. For them to fail now… Again? The very notion was painful beyond comprehension.
But clearly, the watcher thought, its mistake could not be entirely a matter of bad planning. It had been too careful, gone through all the possible scenarios, mapped its course far too thoroughly to leave any room for error. No. It was obvious now. The fault was with the life forms on board the stricken vessel. They must have been too clumsy. Or too slow to react. Or simply too ready to be swept away by the same certainty that had - sooner or later - laid claim to all who had come before.
The watcher turned its shapeless body around, and crept away. Next time, it would have to make sure that its subjects were more worthy.
It did not stay to watch, even as the shuttle burst apart in a cloud of sparkling flame.
"There you are, Chief."
Miles O'Brien turned around, and held even tighter to his glass of Malt whiskey. A scowl passed over his face. Whatever happened, he would not be letting go of his drink without a fight. Although, to be honest, he was unlikely to end up with any choice.
It was Dax, striding confidently across the floor of Quark's with her cool blue eyes fixed on their mark. With every stride, O'Brien felt his stomach sink still further.
"You remember that problem we had last week?" she began.
"Which one?" There were always so many.
"The computer backups."
Oh. That one. That problem that's taken practically all bloody week, round the clock, to fix? How could I forget? They'd been randomly locked out of the computer, on and off, for the better part of a month.
"I might…" Caution was threaded through O'Brien's voice.
"Well, it's started again."
"You're joking!" Mouth hanging open like it was weighted down with lead, the sandy-haired engineer turned a disbelieving stare in her direction. "I mean, this is the first spare moment I've had in days, and if it's not one thing it's…"
His voice faded. He paused, studying her carefully, and the sudden tension went out of his shoulders. Half from relief and half from sheer irritation, a quiet sigh escaped through his nose. "You were joking."
There was an all too familiar gleam in Jadzia Dax's clear blue eyes. "Yes," she confirmed, entirely unrepentant. "I was."
"Very funny. And you never did have to come all this way. I should've known."
…Not unless you had a particular desire to see how I'd react.
"But isn't there some kind of Earth tradition?" She seated herself on one of the empty chairs beside him.
She means April Fools'.
"Entirely the wrong time of year," he reminded her, scowling only half in jest. "Besides, we've been waiting a long time for this."
"And of course --" The mischief in Dax's eyes was plain, and potent. "By 'we', you mean…"
"…Julian," she finished for him. "You've got your hands on some new battle simulation, and you're just dying to test it out."
"How is it that you know everything?"
"Just lucky, I guess." She shrugged. "And, he told me."
Should've known. No-one alive can keep a secret from Dax.
She stood up, eyes still gleaming with barely concealed mischief. "He's closer than you think," she told O'Brien, and nodded towards the entrance, where a tall, long-limbed man was already surveying the bar. Dax waved.
Finally noticing the smiling woman and her more irate companion, Julian Bashir made a direct approach for their table. His mouth opened in a broad grin.
Dax stood to leave as she returned his smile. "I'll leave you both to it," she whispered to Miles. "Have fun."
This is easier than I expected, came an unbidden thought from the silence. I could stay in this place for years. Nobody would ever know. Would have thought they'd put up better security than this.
The passage was as dark as the sky above the shapeshifter's home world - a place his kind had chosen for their retreat from a galaxy that feared them, hunted them, and drove them into the shadows.
Grids of light passed across the peculiar humanoid form he'd chosen to adopt for the sake of expediency. It was nothing unusual, of course - that expediency required disguise. After so much time spent hiding, as the solids gradually spread to every corner of the galaxy, and even after the shapeshifter and his kind had risen from their place in the darkness and become the masters of a powerful empire, the outcome had barely changed. The solids still feared them. But at least they had evolved into something to be feared - a force with the strength to bite before they were bitten themselves.
It would take time, but their order would come to the galaxy. And then the galaxy would accept it, or perish.
Yes, he thought. I could stay here, see this through. But then, what would be the point? A loose alliance with a barely known entity, built on the foundation of unintended promises? That was hardly worth staying away for. Besides, the others had given him a clear directive. Get in. Complete the mission. Get out. That was just what he planned to do.
And this pair - the tall, spidery human and his pink-faced companion - these would be the perfect choice.
The shapeshifter looked down to check the device in his hand, which flashed and flickered hypnotically. He knew exactly what he had to do. And he smiled.