"Move back. Out of the way." A pause. "Sir? Can you hear me? Can you tell me your name? Don't worry now - just lie still. We'll get you to hospital. You're going to be fine."
Nobody's going to die, Yana…
I'll look after the children. I promise…
But the truth is, I'm a fraud…
Around him were walls. Textured, narrow, and instantly familiar in multiple shades of grey and brown. He turned to face the medicine cabinet, with its even rows of variegated bottles. Deep Space Nine's Infirmary. Running a careful hand over the shelf, Julian sighed. He was back. He was a doctor again - the thick-shouldered Starfleet uniform snug around his chest. Then what about the past two months? Had it really all been just a dream?
"No," said a voice from behind him, answering before he had found the time to ask aloud.
He whirled towards the door, and saw a tall man enter from the Promenade. Dark-haired, just subtly tanned… whose steady brown eyes stared calmly into his own. The newcomer held both hands clasped in front of him. His hair, although slightly ruffled, was far from unkempt. And a desert red gown reached all the way from his shoulders to his ankles.
"Vedek Bareil? But I thought you were…"
"Dead? I am. So tell me, Doctor - which of us is dreaming and which one is the dream?"
Another hand reached up from somewhere unseen, and clasped the upper, cartilaginous section of the young man's left ear. He remembered being told by an eager classmate - at some point in his medical student days - that the level of stimulation to the pain receptors was not that far from having one's teeth drilled. Julian had heard the captain describe how it felt, but had not experienced it for himself. Not until he had finally journeyed down to the planet's surface.
He closed his eyes, resisting the sharp pressure as it stabbed against his nerves. It hurt, far more than it possibly should have done. Even with the reminder, he could not stop himself from trying to flinch away.
"Please," he whispered hoarsely. "Let go."
Kai Opaka stood in front of him, her own troubled face studying his, in all its detail. A quietly serene smile crept steadily across her face. But she did not release him - not yet. With her other hand, she grabbed his wrist, and placed something small and round into his palm. Behind her, Bareil still watched. "You first."
Finally, the pressure was released. The pain faded to a tolerable ache, and Julian was alone. He opened his hand to see what she had given to him.
"To be precise, magic beans," said another voice at his back. Mahton stood by one of the sloping biobeds, surrounded by three dark children.
Julian stepped backwards, shaking his head. "What?"
But instead of offering an answer, the tall Bajoran gazed upwards, allowing the contours of his Adam's Apple to show through the skin of his throat. There were voices, high above him. But there shouldn't be any sound coming from above the station, Julian thought distractedly. No sound in a vacuum. But even so, he was sure he'd heard the distant rumble of giants…
And just as suddenly, there was a distinct smell on the breeze - somewhere part way between aniseed and peppermint, but at the same time slightly more bitter than either. He was standing on a hill in the middle of a forest. Dry leaves covered the path at his feet, and somewhere nearby, he could hear the rush of a clear, flowing river. Mahton, the children, the Infirmary… All were gone.
"Where am I?"
"Tasmania," said a voice. "Don't tell me you didn't guess?"
He turned, and frowned at the new figure now standing before him. "How could I? I've never been there."
"Then you don't know what you're missing. Do you? New Boy."
Dark eyes peered from under the rim of a broad, leather hat. The man stepped forward. Stringy brown hair was arranged to hang loosely over his ears. "Surprised to see me, are you? Don't see why - this was never my dream."
"But why would you be here? That was all too long ago."
"Two years," B.C. confirmed. "Maybe three. Or over three hundred, depending on your point of view."
"Wait a minute. How could you know that? I never said…"
The other man leant back against one of the nearest paperbarks, and raised his eyebrows as though anticipating the mental process of a particularly slow young child. And even as he stumbled towards a kind of conclusion, Julian decided that it didn't really matter. One way or another, his companion was there, when neither of them should have met at all.
"I'm a Ghost," B.C. continued his challenge. "And what is a Ghost who never once comes back to haunt the living?"
He pushed himself away from the tree, and glanced at the scenery around him, mouth slightly open as if to catch the wind. "Not so bad, dying," he muttered. "If that's all I had to do to get myself here, then we really ought to do this much more often."
"You can't be serious."
Tilting his head back just a little further, Bashir's present company stared at him with level dark eyes. "Why not?"
Julian stepped backwards over the dry leaves, shaking his head. "You're insane."
"You were there," insisted B.C. "Is your own insanity really that different?"
"We were trying to save lives. There was the future to protect…"
"There always is, isn't there?" came the retort. "You have your future. We had our future. Even those people with their torches and their bombs. If you pressed them hard enough - I mean really pressed them - don't you think they would tell you exactly the same?"
Julian sensed his voice rising beyond his ability to control it. "How does murdering children…?"
"You'd be surprised."
"No." His chest was tight. Painfully so. Eyes lukewarm with a film of tears. "This is different..."
"Humanity has evolved," insisted Bashir. It was what the most important people in his life had always told him, since the moment he'd been old enough to understand - and probably long before. But even as it left him, the doctrine sounded empty. Impotent. As if he was merely producing sound, not words.
B.C. laughed, although there was little happiness in the sound. "And your friends with the noses? They haven't, is that it?"
"I never said that…"
"And what about us? Do you really believe we were all that mindless? Or wasn't that you I saw with a rifle in your hands?"
Anger was starting to boil inside him. The rage of uncertainty, he realised, but failed to prevent it. "Maybe it was," he said, keeping his voice low. "But I would never… Not like that."
"Never?" B.C. raised one challenging eyebrow. "Ever?"
An explosion rocked the scene around him, and as suddenly as it appeared, the forest was shattered. Flames billowed, spewing dark smoke into the void of space. Bashir ducked away from the harsh, flashing lights. But his was not the ship being cut through by the weapons of their enemy.
"Your future, Doctor."
It's a dream, he struggled to remind himself. But he could think of few instances where his dreams had been so real, and those he did recall would have been better off forgotten.
"Welcome to the battle zone."
The deck-plates of the unfamiliar starship were solid beneath his feet, and its even pressure was exactly as he imagined a thinly carpeted floor would feel. The cool off-white of the bulkheads was a little too bright against his eyes, interrupted on each side by a double row of dark, slanted windows.
He'd been in places like this before. It was not unlike the ship that had first delivered him and Jadzia to their new assignment on Deep Space Nine. Five years ago, he'd been far more interested in casting open glances at Dax's lovely, pearl-white face. But in the still-clear memories he held of this open room, the outside view had certainly been far more peaceful than it was right now.
Lasers continued to stream from both conflicting fleets. The unbroken red streak of plasma charges; the sporadic flash of photon torpedos… Every one of these lights was vivid enough to dim the stars behind them.
"Your training is inadequate." This was a clear baritone, with an elusively rumbling timbre just below the surface. "They teach you to feel compassion, but not to see that death is nothing more complicated than the inevitable end of life. If you do not fear it, why does it haunt you?"
"I do fear it," he told Garan'agar, turning to look into the Jem'Hadar's staring blue-grey eyes. "But I dedicated myself to the preservation of life. I made a vow."
"Because…" He paused, already faltering in his search for lost words. "Because it's all we have."
Forcing each breath, noticing the moisture return to his eyes, he gazed out at the destruction around him. "But not this. This is wrong."
"This is victory," Goran'agar insisted. "And victory is life."
"And life--" Bashir shuddered at the pressure of a heavy Cardassian arm about his shoulders. Tain was smiling at him, and he had not even detected the larger man's approach. "…Is nothing but dust."
Both grey-faced companions looked beyond him, to the darkness of space beyond. The children from his dreams had returned. They huddled together by the wall, watching with their hollow eyes.
One of the lasers surged towards them, so fast that he barely perceived its advance. Just as suddenly, all he saw was flame. It exploded outwards like a vengeful Hell-demon. Hungry, ravenous… Opening its jaws and swallowing everything in its path. Julian felt the heat on his skin. Hair burning with a painful stench as the fire passed down through dermal tissue, slicing all the way to fat and muscle underneath.
It was a small room. Dimly lit, with a cool, sterile scent all around.
He shuddered, gasped, fought with all the strength still in him to free himself from the pressure of enfolding arms. It was not enough. He fell back, helpless to cry out and give some voice to the sudden, consuming terror. But somebody held him - stopped him from falling all the way.
Whoever it was did not let go. Rocking him slowly like a frightened child. Holding him like he'd held Teyanha… Hands. Strong. Soothing and warm. And there was that voice, close but simultaneously far away. Whispering, Hush.
Wet, burning. But cold at the same time. Sweat was thick upon his brow, and strands of wet hair stuck fast to his skin. A wave of nausea forced its way upwards, ending in a weak and wordless protest - a desperate cry for release that tapered away to a barely discernable moan.
There may have been another sound. A brief, quiet hiss, and he was welcomed back into the dark embrace of sleep.
A distant, round-eyed figure waited by the track, hands wrapped tightly across her elbows. Trees painted shades across her face and shoulders. But she did not go to him. "Where's Ni-ni?"
"I don't know." Tears stung his eyes, so that he barely found the voice to reply.
He reached out to where Teyanha was standing. "Come on. Come with me - I'll take you back."
But instead of approaching, the child shook her head. "Where's Ni-ni?" she whimpered. "I can't sleep without her."
"Teyanha, I'm sorry. I never brought her with me…"
"But you did." She pointed. "Look."
He looked, and discovered that both his hands were clasped around the loose-limbed, slightly ragged doll. Where did that come from…?
"From you," whispered another voice. Startled, he looked around in every direction, but was entirely unable to pinpoint its source.
Billowing upwards in a solid, brown-grey storm, dust rose high above his head. With a blind attempt to peer beyond it, Julian opened his mouth to call. But the cloud was thick in his throat and eyes. No sound could struggle through such a sticky, overheated coat of ash.
This dust was fresh - still hot. It burned inside his hollow lungs, so viscous and pervasive that he could barely take a breath. Teyanha's arms were tight around him. He held her tighter. Tighter, until she began to squirm and he heard her pleading close to his ear.
No, he thought. Not this time.
Through half closed eyes, he finally saw a patch of blue beyond the featureless grey - someplace where the clouds had thinned. A young man waiting by the clearing turned his back to walk away.
"Wait!" Julian tried to shout, but his words were no more than a near-silent wheeze. He stumbled forward, following the colour as his only reference. "Mahton. Wait."
They stood on the edge of a precipice, dry air hot upon their skin, gazing upon a constant tawny-yellow punctuated only by hollow ruins. "What do you want from me?" he asked Ekoria, and wondered distantly if she'd always been standing at his side. Her cheeks were smooth, untouched by the blight that had claimed her in the seconds after her son was born. Her hand reached up to brush lightly against one side of his face, and Julian gasped at the feathery touch.
"We want you to let us go."
They were all together now, watching in a line before the broad-based white of the Centre walls. Each was cast dark as a shadow. But even as a series of indistinct shapes, their faces were imprinted on his memory as surely as those angry flames charred the walls behind them.
He looked down at the touch of five smaller fingers wrapping as far as they could around his own. Lightly and affectionately, he squeezed Teyanha's hand. And she smiled, gazing up at him with trusting blue eyes.
One undersized silhouette stepped away from the crowd. The Invernian girl cut a steady path toward them. She was the first - the earliest of all these shadowed spectres. They had been children, Julian recalled, trapped in the same dark shelter while colourful storms raged only metres away like warring gods. And she'd died in the night, because a ten year old boy had not known how to cure her.
He'd never even thought to learn her name.
With an encouraging smile, she held out her hand to the half-Cardassian child. "It's not so bad, really," she promised. Her voice was soft - clear and assured.
Teyanha looked into Julian's eyes. Her own face simultaneously questioned and pleaded. Aching with the pressure of unshed tears, Julian gently placed the doll into her hands. Ni-ni shifted as though dancing happily at their reunion.
"Go on," whispered Julian. "You'll be all right."
Tension stabbed into every muscle. He fell to his knees, hunched as though with a powerful weight. But the pain of it was fading, leaving him as brittle as the dry, coiled shell of a fallen leaf.
As if from nowhere, a pair of spidery arms had clasped themselves around his neck. Exhausted and tearful, barely able to raise his head, he found himself looking into Teyanha's clear blue eyes. Seeing that he had finally glanced her way, she leaned forward to kiss him lightly on the cheek, and rested her head for just a moment on his shoulder.
"Bye." Even as her childish embrace was slipping away, she waved forlornly with one tiny hand. Her other held to that of the Invernian. Side by side, gradually fading into the distance, they turned and walked to where the others still waited.
"Good bye." A single warm tear escaped from Julian's eye, and rolled slowly back into his hairline.
Years ago, it would have been the song of birds that signalled the early waking hours. On this day, it was the soft, melodious, and constant trill of a nearby computer. And yet even that unanticipated thought had amplified the ache behind his eyes, enough to make him wince.
The next thing he sensed was the air. It was warm, slightly heavy, with a weight that soon spread to his chest and limbs. Julian's lungs burned as if he had never escaped that suffocating blaze. But he forced several deep breaths against the sudden, overwhelming dizziness. His eyes were still dry - stiff, swollen lids aching even worse than his head, and watered uncomfortably as he focused on his efforts to force them open.
Someone was there, shifting at the edge of his vision - until he turned his head just slightly in the stranger's direction. Not anyone he knew, but he recognised the distinctive tan and indigo of the Bajoran medical corps. She was distracted, her attention aimed entirely on a series of adjustments to one of the nearby bedside displays. Her dark hair was cut into an even bob and brushed smoothly away from her face, and the tone of her skin was oddly reminiscent of Tarkalean tea.
Bashir said nothing - not wanting to interrupt. Barely trusting himself to speak. But it was the petite Bajoran nurse who finally noticed him instead, and smiled. Her eyes had a touch of golden at the centre. "Hi."
Rolling to one side, he channelled all his energy into an effort to push himself from the bed. But even this concerted attempt was thwarted. He collapsed back onto the mattress, grimacing, gasping heavily - closing his eyes still tighter against a newly severe attack of nausea.
"Careful," said the unfamiliar nurse. "You're still recovering from several minor fractures, second degree burns, smoke inhalation, among other things. You ought to start feeling better with time, but you really mustn't try to get up too quickly."
So that was why his hands were bandaged, fingers bound against each other like a pair of mummified paws. Momentarily silent, he recalled how the agony of hot metal had seared through the skin of his palms. There may have even been a moment when some part of him had stuck fast to the door. He reached up with one hand to brush a residual sting from across his eyes. But the nurse stopped him with a gentle but persistent grip upon his wrist.
With a glance over her shoulder, she stepped back to make way for a second Bajoran woman with slender shoulders and long hair the colour of fresh honey. I remember you, Bashir thought wearily. The newcomer was a doctor this time, one he had met at least once already. On the day when he visited Jaliya. With his elderly friend Taenor, and…
"How are you feeling?" she asked, resting the back of her hand briefly upon his forehead.
How do you think? Longing to shape his face into a sarcastic glare, the closest Bashir could manage was a vaguely queasy grimace. He tensed, curling briefly into a tight, pathetic ball. The too familiar dizzy wave swelled anew. It was slower to subside. But as it did, he became aware of the warmth of another hand at his back, and a new voice whispering in his ear.
I know you, too… This welcome, familiar sound was clear and strong, cutting through even the thickest fog even as it clenched around his thoughts.
"I was at a conference nearby," Major Kira explained as Bashir shifted tentatively to find her staring down at him. A sly grin crept up one corner of her mouth. "And you've been developing quite a reputation from what I'm told. Frontier heroics, indeed! If you could hear half the stories that have been circling around…"
She stopped, seeming to catch something in his eyes, and her smile faded. "But perhaps that's better left for another time," she conceded with a weary sigh.
"Frankly--" It was the long-haired doctor who broke the silence, shaking her head at the display on her open tricorder. "We can't say for sure how any of you made it out alive."
She's dead, Julian. Bashir wondered if he would ever be able to think about Kendra Province again, without the same three words echoing repeatedly in his memory. Bringing his hands back into view, he cupped them slightly, and imagined that they still held on to the wooden, black-eyed doll. For a moment his throat clenched as if there was still a rope around it.
"Jaliya?" His voice came out as little more than a feeble croak. "What happened… to…?"
"We kept her here overnight, and most of the next day. I suspect she'll be back eventually. I had to send her home to get some rest."
A slight tensing of the unnamed doctor's lips told him enough. She was as unhopeful as he was that Jaliya Tal would be resting. But now those hard, grey eyes were fixed on her Human patient. "Which is what you should have been doing all along. I know it's important work you've been doing, but why didn't you tell anyone that you were so sick?"
"Sick?" He coughed, aware of a distant realisation that he'd been shivering under the covers. His skin felt as hot as if the fire was still around him, but he was ice cold at his core.
Oh. Sick. "I suppose… I didn't know. Or, wasn't sure."
He hadn't thought the Mundara plague was compatible with Human physiology. Everyone had said that it was impossible, ever since the very beginning. Assumptions were always too easy to make. Which was why he'd never once thought to inoculate himself…
He looked up suddenly to stare at Kira.
"Don't worry," the Major assured him, seeing that Julian's questioning expression had quickly turned to one of horror. "I've gotten all the right shots, same as everyone else. The Militia has done quite an effective job of setting up vaccination programs."
A bit late for that, isn't it? Bashir couldn't stop himself from thinking.
"How long has it been?" Still breathless, but he had to know.
The major's face tensed briefly, an expression so subtle that it would have escaped most people's notice. He could see that she was looking for a way to evade the answer.
"Two days," she replied. "I only just found out yesterday."
Bashir closed his eyes, squeezing still more tears from the corners. He bowed his head as if to hide.
Kira's hand continued to stroke his shoulder. "Julian, I'm so sorry about the girl."
"Her name was Teyanha."
"Of course. Teyanha," she corrected herself. But words choked her, and the hurt in her voice too closely mirrored his own.
"There's been a collection," she persevered. "Here. On the station. All over Bajor. First Minister Shakaar has already condemned the actions of everyone responsible. They buried her this morning. I was there. It was… Julian?"
He sensed that she wasn't about to leave him alone. Not until he looked into her eyes. Blinking away tears, he forced himself to peer over the edge of both tightly bandaged hands.
Kira's dark eyes were wide and sincere, and sparkled a little too brightly. "I just thought you'd want to know, we've almost raised enough funds to rebuild the orphanage. No-one's going to be without a home. And you can see the entire valley from the new memorial at the top of the hill."
"But it's not enough, is it?" Bashir whispered.
Somehow, it would never be enough.
The End. For Now.
The End. For Now.