Alternate Timeline: What if Julian Bashir had not been allowed to remain in Starfleet?
Author's Note: The following is set roughly concurrent with (beginning just slightly before) DS9 Season Five's "In the Cards", and follows on from the AU story "Firewall". It may reference some events and characters, but is not a sequel in the truest sense of the word, and therefore not necessary to have read the first story in order to understand the second. (Although of course, far be it from me to stop you.)
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is not my puppy, even if it does have an occasional habit of whining and scratching at the door.
This story (and especially its title) was inspired in part by the lyrics below. (Not mine either.)
"They're called Bui Doi, the Dust of Life.
Conceived in Hell, and born in strife.
They are the living reminder of all the good that we failed to do.
We can't forget, must not forget, that they're all our children too."
("Bui Doi", Miss Saigon. Lyrics by Alain Boublil and Richard Maltby, Jr.)
Those who travel along the road will often find that it divides along the way. And occasionally the choice of where to go may even be their own.
"A life in exile may not be wholly pleasant," another man had told him once, at another time and in a place so very far away. "But it does leave a man open to new adventures, which he might otherwise never have thought to experience."
Whichever way fate takes you, the further you move along one path, the further you will stray from where you might have been.
Her doll left footprints in the dust - two ever so slightly uneven rows of tiny, oval grooves. Prompted by a hand around its waist, it bounded purposely forward even though its destination was really not at all far from where those first steps had begun.
Mid-morning sunlight sketched clear lines around her shadow, where the ground turned to a gleaming shade of golden-tan. Some of the finer dust particles had attached themselves to the subtle pinkish grey of the young girl's arm, overlaying it with just a hint of colour.
"You'll be in trouble," said a voice from above. A second, larger shadow drifted into view.
She looked up, squinting. "Will not."
It was a boy, three years her senior and tall for his age, but also remarkably thin. His neck sloped at the shoulders, framed by a line of even ridges far more pronounced than her own - and still more so as his silhouette stepped between her slitted eyes and the light of the Bajoran sun.
He nodded towards the dust already gathered on her arms and on the lower half of her dress. "You will too, getting all dirty like that. What you doing, anyway?"
She barely even saw him move. Swooping down, the boy yanked the doll from her short, chubby fingers. "Hey!" she shouted, rising to her feet so quickly that for a moment she even felt a little dizzy. "Not funny!"
The boy laughed, and danced away from her attempts to snatch back what was hers.
"Give her back." She was running now, but her six year old legs were never a match for the boy's much longer stride. "Lerin!"
She caught up with him around the next corner, and found him staring at the wall. His jaw was slack, arms hanging limply at his sides, and the grey-green hue of his face had been rendered close to white. He clasped her shoulder. His hand was painfully tight, and the girl squirmed. Snatching her doll, she struggled for freedom, and looked to see what had so engaged the older boy's attention.
She knew immediately that it was writing. The smooth, flowing lines clearly marked it as Bajoran. And the satin blue of the paint was one of her favourite colours. The words were not any that she could easily understand. But the expression on Lerin's face was enough to made her shudder.
"Teyanha! Lerin!" Both children turned at the sound of their names. A familiar woman strode towards them, her single earring glinting as sunlight passed across her face and hair. But when she saw what they had seen, she stopped and beckoned hurriedly.
"Come away from there." There was tension in her words, and her skin was pale.
As she folded an arm around each bewildered child, the woman hastened to lead them away. But she continued to glance nervously behind her - almost like something was chasing them. And the scrawl of tightly packed, curving blue lines took a long time to fade from Teyanha's thoughts.
There were three of them - a trio of pale, dark eyed ghouls, accusing from a corner of the room. Dim light and condensation draped across walls that were already scuffed and brown. And in its centre was the woman and her baby. Both of them huddled under a single moth-eaten grey blanket, both caught in a tight embrace. Both with the smell of fever, and the cold, grey pallor of death.
Rolling carefully out of bed, Julian Bashir massaged his aching neck, and yawned. Must've slept wrongly on it last night, he thought, although this was the first time in many days that his sleep had not been disturbed. He quietly congratulated himself for having the foresight to have walked the distance instead of taking a transport. All that exercise must have been helping after all.
But it was also making his muscles ache. Even Augments get the blues. A chuckle escaped him at this secret jest. He was still a little flushed - presumably from the warmth of last night's bedclothes. But it was nothing that could not be mended with a cool drink and a few splashes of water on his face. He pushed himself upright, bare feet protesting against the icy touch of the floor.
"Sleep well?" the old priest asked him as he ventured in to the main hall.
"Too well," Bashir responded with an early morning smile. He rubbed the muscles of his neck again. "Actually, so well that I didn't even realise I was sleeping badly."
The priest laughed, a warm and hearty sound. "I know that feeling."
Taenor's monastery was built on the edge of a sloping hill, just a day's walk from the nearest village, three from the nearest city. Its presence was defined by a series of sculpted gardens, carved by generations of vedeks and ranjens who had taken the precise aesthetics to be a reflection of their own minds' focus - and by extension, their love of the Prophets that had allowed them this expression.
A series of pagodas and tidily curved pathways connected the four main buildings to a temple at its centre, where the monks - and anyone else - could visit any time they felt the need. Every room was clean and spacious, far more than the cramped and dusty boxes that marked the monasteries of medieval Earth. Uncluttered surroundings made for uncluttered thoughts, and the men and women who passed their lives here were dedicated to keeping them that way.
And it was in one of these rooms that Vedek Taenor had insisted his new friend stay at least a night. And if he could manage it, possibly even two. After all they had been through together, Julian told himself, it would hardly have been politic to refuse.
The old man's laughter was deep, and contagious. "Listen," said Bashir. "Thankyou again, for your hospitality."
"You found us that vaccine - it's the least we could do." Whatever else might have been said, his host waved it away and the words vanished into the breeze. "So, where are you off to today?"
"North, I suppose. Away from the coast. There's still a lot of places left to visit, but…"
Taenor's smile did not disappear entirely, but Bashir could not help but notice some tension at the corner of his lips. Trepidation crept into his reply, which faded into silence, accompanied by a gradual frown. "What is it?"
"Probably nothing." The old man shook his head. "It's just, with some of the news I've been getting from out that way… When you're lucky enough to live to my age, you do begin to sense certain things…"
He chuckled, leaving Bashir feeling vaguely uneasy - even more than he had upon waking. "Oh, don't listen to this foolish old man," he said. "Take care of yourself, won't you? And stay in touch. I did enjoy our conversations."
Scurrying close to the edge of their run-down home, each hand wrapped tightly around the arm of a startled child, Jaliya Tal's pace did not slow until she was well past the threshold and safely indoors. Vali was there, and glanced her way with curious dark eyes. But as soon as she saw their expressions, she put down the stylus she'd been holding thoughtfully against her mouth, and rose to her feet with an unspoken query already forming on her lips.
No time to explain, Jaliya wanted to tell her, but suspected that it was desire she lacked far more than opportunity. As the eldest of the ten grey skinned children now still living at the Centre, with maturity and self-control that went well beyond her thirteen years, it was sometimes easy to forget that Vali was barely more than a child herself.
And the same question had been in Teyanha's eyes from the moment she'd first been called away. Guilt pierced Jaliya's heart as the six year old hurried to escape from her too-tight grip. Lerin was slower, determined to keep his dignity intact, but it was clear that he was equally unnerved.
The oldest of them wrapped slender grey arms around the shoulders of the youngest. But her silent gaze still questioned. Jaliya was not at all sure that she had a proper answer.
"I'm going to need you to help me watch the others, just for a few minutes," she told Vali. "And whatever you do, don't go outside. That goes for all of you."
She pointed to the younger ones, who nodded mutely. Teyanha wrapped her hands even more tightly around the shoulders of her doll.
As long as she's not out there. Of course, it was no bad thing that the girl was probably too young to understand exactly what it meant. But Jaliya would still have to do something about that bright blue graffiti before somebody got it into their head to tell her.
At the edge of one of the nearby glades, sunbeams bright against their eyes, a cluster of children watched the stranger's approach.
"Human," whispered one. "Aliens from across the galaxy. Rayla saw them on that old station. They say he knows the Emissary."
They stared. It was not uncommon to see aliens in their system, but unusual that they should venture into their obscure little valley. The tall man turned to them, and smiled.
Laughing and squealing, they span around and half ran, half slid away between the trees.
Bashir shook his head and smirked quietly to himself as he continued to cut a path across the smooth grass of the hill.
He could have used a transport station - or even boarded one of the smooth-moving vehicles that regularly left for the inland regions. But the previous night's dreams had left him restless, agitated. He needed to walk.
He thought about the stark, textured cliffs of Dakhur Province, where even the most determined grasses struggled to maintain a hold. Kira's home, he reminded himself, and his quiet smile broadened still further. It suits her. Secretly, he was surprised at how little he'd considered the station in the past few days, or even his friends. Although he supposed what people said was truer than he'd imagined. Time always moved rapidly for those whose hands were busy, with barely a moment to pause and catch a breath.
The group of scientists had taken just over a week to document some of the planet's hidden ecosystems, many concealed by steep-walled fractures in the ground. Bashir had begun to wonder if any of the plants they found could have some medicinal value, and had taken very little time to convince Keiko O'Brien to help him set up a research station.
Kendra was so different, it could have been a different world. Fields of constant green, illuminated by the golden light of mid-morning, stretched from horizon to horizon into gently upward hills. Almost like something out of a fairy tale. And there you go, romanticising again. It was romantic notions of heroism and adventure that brought you this far in the first place, or is it that long ago that you've forgotten already?
It was an exile, of sorts. He would never practise medicine in the Federation again. But while this world remained outside of the Federation, its people had little concern for what had led him this far. People still got sick, and Bajor needed doctors.
The first thing to do would be to find somebody who knew the surrounding area, who could help him make absolutely certain that not a single farm was missed. It would have been easier simply to put up a notice in the nearest central location. But farmers, he had discovered increasingly during his time on the planet, were notoriously difficult to locate. He'd found himself wondering - on more occasions than one - if they didn't deliberately seek out the remotest, darkest, muck filled corner they could find and remain there throughout the day, just to avoid a visit from a travelling medicine man.
It certainly wasn't where he would have guessed he'd be five years ago. Still, there was a cheerful wind on his face, which carried the smell of sweet, fresh leaves. His shoulder bag was a little heavy across his chest, but not so much that it mattered. And the air around him was pleasantly warm. If his task had not been so important, he could just about believe that he was simply out for a morning stroll.
But for the lingering memory of his dreams.
The woman had little to say as far as he could tell. Her eyes looking into his own were swollen and bloodshot, so much that there was hardly any white to see. Their lids were stained an inky violet, reminding him of a baby bird he'd once seen lying dead upon the ground, and strands of smooth, brown hair were stuck to her forehead and darkened with sweat. But she sought his face. Pleaded, begged, eyes showing all the pain that she could no longer express in words.
Slender, trembling fingers brushed weakly against his forearm, as the woman reached forward with a hand so emaciated that the bones of her wrist and knuckles were sharp beneath her skin. Her slitted gaze shifted weakly to her right, where another bed had been set up parallel to her own. It was barely visible, blanketed in shadow, and the shape of a man was stretched all the way along its mattress.
"I'll take care of your father," Julian promised in a close, hushed whisper, clutching her hand in both of his own. "It's your turn to rest now."
Her lips parted into a faint smile, and quivered as though in an attempt to speak. Finally, she closed her eyes.
The young man turned his weary face to where Taenor had been watching by the door. The priest's eyes were mirrors, echoing the pain that Julian still felt deep within his heart. "How could I tell her?" he whispered. "What would be the point?"
Taenor nodded. At least he seemed to understand. They doubted anyone would ever figure out the answer, not with any degree of satisfaction: How to tell a dying young woman that her father was already dead?
A strange apparition leant against the largest of three heavy, thick-limbed trees, dressed in a loose fitting tunic and mud-brown trousers that didn't quite reach his ankles. It was something of a surprise to see a boy on the deserted road. Even more to note that same child's smooth, black hair and skin partly covered by shallow grey scales. Bashir's first instinct was to stop, and he was ashamed to find that he was staring.
"Hello," he said.
Standing upright, the boy was tall, a little stocky, but not yet fully grown. His eyes were striking, dark and clear like two river-washed pebbles. They narrowed warily, and he approached a few steps. Julian noted an alarmingly pronounced limp - but some instinct still held him back. This was not the first time he had seen such clear distrust on the face of a Cardassian child.
After a moment's tense silence, the boy turned and hobbled away. Bashir made no attempt to catch up, instead allowing him to disappear into the surrounding forest. But he still chose to follow on the same winding course. The path circled around rocks and trees, and over tiny, dry brown hills. It was so thin in places that it might have been missed by a less observant man, and in others it looked like nothing more than the trails of foraging animals. After a minute or two spent weaving his way along the narrow, leaf-strewn track, he saw that the surroundings were finally starting to clear. The ground beneath his feet was becoming grainy - turning gradually to a fine, yellow dust.
But he had not expected to find a tall and whitewashed building on the other side.
More children watched from the entrance. There were four that he could see - all with varying degrees of the same grey hue across their skin. "Hello," he said again, scratching the back of his head. "I was wondering, could somebody tell me…?"
His voice trailed away, suddenly uncertain of exactly what he could have been meaning to ask.
One of the children stepped forward. Another boy, although a little younger than the first. "My name is Odal. May I take your bag?"
"Oh. Well… Thankyou." Bashir replied, caught slightly off guard by the unexpected formality.
"Odal!" shouted a sudden voice, clear and sharp enough to startle the boy. He spun around, frozen, and Bashir looked once more towards the entrance.
The woman in the doorway was tall and slender, with a thin, hourglass waist and tight-fitting jumpsuit that might have marked her as Bajoran Militia - except that it was the wrong colour and lacked the distinctive shoulder pads and long, stiff sleeves. Glancing nervously behind him, Odal walked to where she stood, and she placed a protective arm around his shoulders.
"This isn't some place for you to come and stare," she told Bashir in the same hard tone.
"I'm sure it isn't." His thoughts raced - how to put her at ease without appearing to condescend? "Although I didn't even think there would be any buildings so close by."
The woman's eyes narrowed, assessing him thoughtfully, and Bashir noted that none of the other children were attempting to approach. They trust her judgement, he thought. That's something, at least.
"Well then," she said eventually. "If that's the case, who are you, and what are you doing here?"
They were alone. One of the older children had been charged with the task of bringing the others inside, and now at least they could talk without being heard by too many anxious ears.
"You've heard of the plague at Mundara Village?"
"Course I have," she told him. "I also heard it's just a ploy - rumours fed to us by governments, to make us all afraid."
"Why would they do that?"
The woman cast him a stone cold glare. "Easy enough. Haven't you heard, there's been talk of war?"
"It doesn't necessarily…"
She passed him by, so close that he could smell a touch of pollen upon her skin. "Sure? You keep enough people afraid, all at once - they'll be willing to accept just about anything."
"I really do - strongly - suggest that you take this offer," said Bashir, in a firm enough voice to make her hesitate. "Trust me, the alternative is far worse."
"Listen, Mister… Doctor… Whatever your name is. This isn't the first time I've dealt with threats. We already got more than our share of problems, so whatever it is you're selling, I'm not interested."
"Of course I'm not…" Her visitor frowned. "Wait - just one moment. I'm not making any threats…"
"And you're not out to sell anything?"
"And I'm not out to sell anything. I swear it."
She paused, narrowing her eyes, and studied him closely before she finally leaned back with a deep sigh. "Then I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be rude."
"Not at all." His frown was strangely persistent.
"It's just with everything that's been happening…"
Bashir allowed a moment for her words to settle. But he'd already caught something in her voice - a hint of weariness, perhaps. Possibly even exhaustion. "What do you mean?" he asked her.
The woman's jaw tightened. Hard determination returned to her eyes. "Come with me."
The loose hair escaping from the woman's braid rocked in time to every agitated footstep, as she led her visitor up a dusty yellow-brown path and around to where part of the wall was already starting to wear away with age. The space on this side was narrower between the building and the forest, and Bashir had to dodge several protruding branches on the way. But the path soon widened, and he and his companion were able to shift away for a clearer view.
This was where they finally stopped. "Look." the Bajoran woman pointed.
It was fading slightly and streaked in places - perhaps from an unsuccessful attempt to scrub it from the wall. But Julian recognised the writing in an instant. He'd put in a concerted effort to brush up on his Bajoran ever since first making the decision to follow Keiko on one of her ecology expeditions. It had been a welcome distraction, he remembered - to find himself a purely intellectual challenge. Something to take his mind off recent events. And these words were so familiar, he could have painted them in his sleep.
Cardassians. Dominion Scum.