" -- so then Molly looks over at me and says, 'Your turn!'" O'Brien's broad face was wreathed in paternal smiles as he proudly recounted the latest accomplishment of his daughter. "Isn't that amazing? And at her age, too!"
Sisko blinked, realizing that the story was finally over. "Yes, yes, it certainly is, Chief. Isn't she precocious!"
O'Brien came perilously close to simpering. "I mean, I realize I'm prejudiced, but I have to say, I don't know many kids who can think ahead like that!"
Sisko tried to edge away. As much as he liked and respected his Chief of Operations, there was a limit to the number of Molly stories he could endure at any one time. "I'm sure you're right, Chief..."
"Keiko and I try to predict what Molly will do next, but since she's our first, we're not very good at it. When did your Jake start showing an interest in such things?"
Sisko stopped. Now
the conversation might become interesting. "Well, Jake did
everything ahead of schedule too," he began, a dreamy look
entering his eye as he cast his mind back more than a dozen years. "Jennifer -- my wife -- always said --
Safely to one side, Kira rolled her eyes at Dax. "Here we go again!" she whispered.
Dax grinned. "Wait until you have children of your own. You'll be every bit as bad as they are."
Kira snorted. "Not likely!"
Dax simply gave her a knowing look which bespoke seven lifetimes of experience. Kira sighed in exasperation.
"How can anyone win an argument with you when you always invoke your age!"
"I never said a word!" Dax said in tones of hurt surprise, but her eyes twinkled with mischief.
"Jadzia -- " Kira began threateningly, but a beeping at both consoles interrupted their good-natured banter. "Are you picking up the same distress signal I am? Can the sensors locate the source?"
"Working... Ah! There it is. How odd!"
"Commander!" Kira called Sisko over. "We're picking up a distress call from the edge of this sector."
Sisko stepped over just as Dax looked up. "It's from a single escape pod. Life signs are present, but they're very faint. I can't even tell what species it is at this distance."
Sisko glanced over her shoulder. "What about the pod design? Does that tell us anything?"
"It's neither Star Fleet nor Cardassian, but the design is a standard one within the Federation. Benjamin, life signs are very low; they may be running out of power."
Sisko nodded once, decisively. "Understood. Major, will you take a runabout and fetch the pod aboard?"
She immediately started for the lift. "Of course. It's small enough to be beamed aboard the runabout, and then, if necessary, I can unseal the pod."
"You'd better take Dr. Bashir along, just in case he's needed."
Kira paused, looking unenthusiastic, but finally nodded in resignation. "Right."
"Dax," Sisko turned to Dax as Kira left Ops. "Can you determine where the pod came from?"
She frowned, tapping at her console's keys. "Assuming no change in its course, it looks like it originated in Cardassian territory."
A tingle worked its way down Sisko's spine. "It could be from Cardassia?"
She considered, frowning at the readouts. "It's possible," she finally allowed. "I'm sorry I can't be more definite, Benjamin; it only just entered sensor range. If it hadn't been for its distress beacon, I doubt I would have even noticed it at this point."
Sisko's mind was working furiously, sifting through the various unpleasant possibilities. "Any evidence it survived a battle?"
Another moment, then she shook her head. "I don't think so. I'm not picking up any traces of ionizing radiation on its hull."
Sisko frowned. "Still, it's better to be safe than sorry. Let's keep an eye on that region of space, just in case the Cardassians come looking for the pod."
"Commander, do you think it could be another ship of Cardassian dissidents?" O'Brien had naturally been listening to the exchange, and his mind had traveled down the same paths as Sisko's.
"It may be nothing more than a survivor of some kind of shipboard emergency," Sisko acknowledged. "But let's not take any chances."
Two hours later, Kira and Bashir were back with the pod. They beamed it directly to Sickbay, where Bashir could work on the pod's occupant. Sisko met Kira in Bashir's outer office, and she filled him in on what they had learned. "Once we got it aboard the runabout, I was able to determine that the pod's power supply was holding steady. The reason Dax read the life signs as faint was because the sole occupant was in a state of suspended animation. The doctor decided that it would be safer to wait until we were back on the station before reviving him, just in case something went wrong. We were able to tap into the pod's computer through an external port, but I wasn't able to dig out anything more than the fact that the pod was launched over two months ago. He's been drifting for quite a while."
"And the occupant?" Sisko inquired pointedly. "Is he Cardassian?"
"No," Kira quelled his worst fears. "Human, and in good health so far as Bashir could tell."
"Thanks!" a new voice boomed from behind them. They turned around to find Bashir and a stranger grinning at them from the doorway.
"I didn't have to do a thing!" Bashir announced cheerfully. "As soon as I opened the pod, the resuscitory gas was activated, and here we are! Not even a hint of dizziness!"
"I was always a fast healer," the newcomer remarked with an infectious smile. "Remind me, and I'll tell you about the time I was spaced."
Sisko stepped forward, a tiny frown creasing his brow. Something about the man's attitude had set off an alarm bell in his mind. As Kira had reported, he was Terran, with fair skin and blond hair plaited in two braids, but he wore the costume of an Orion free trader. Bottle green trousers were tucked into knee-high boots, and over a white shirt he wore a harness for two throwing knives. Twin Rigellian blasters were holstered at his hips and his billowing sleeves could easily conceal other armaments. Sisko decided to lay out station rules at once.
"I am Commander Benjamin Sisko. You're presently aboard the station Deep Space Nine, in orbit around Bajor. I'll have to ask you to relinquish your weapons during your stay here. They'll be returned to you when you leave."
The man's grin widened. "Wow. Even for me, that's a new record. Usually they don't ask for my guns until I've been conscious for at least five minutes."
Kira glanced at Sisko, but he kept his voice even. "Your weapons."
With a shrug, the man drew his blasters and handed them to Bashir. The doctor examined them with undisguised fascination until Kira, directing a look of irritation at Bashir, stepped forward and confiscated them.
"Well, hello!" Bennet said, running an admiring eye over her form. "And you are... who?"
"Major Kira Nerys," she replied forbiddingly. "Bajoran liason."
"Then this is a Bajoran station? Not a Federation one?"
She straightened proudly. "That is correct. Star Fleet is here at our invitation."
"I see. And to which branch of the Bajoran government do you report?"
The question took her completely aback, and it was a moment before she recovered enough to demand, "Why?"
"Because," he said, his eyes twinkling, "I want to register a formal thank you with them for providing such a beautiful woman to greet me." Sisko choked, and Kira's jaw dropped. "But," the man quickly continued, "I wager your talents aren't restricted merely to your appearance. I'd be willing to bet that it was you who spotted my pod."
"Well, uh, I ..." Kira trailed off in confusion.
"Come on, now," he coaxed. "Admit it. It was you, wasn't it?"
"Both Lt. Dax and I noticed -- " she stammered, utterly flustered. How was she supposed to respond to someone like this?
"Ah, I knew it!" He snatched her hand (the one that was not holding his blasters), and pressed it to his lips. "A thousand thanks, Major! And if I weren't married, I'd express my gratitude in a more tangible way."
"You're welcome!" Scarlet, Kira tore her hand free. She couldn't bring herself to meet Sisko's gaze.
"Mind you, as beautiful as Bajor -- and its people -- are, no place can hold a candle to Rubicun IV. Do you know how they greet visitors there? You might suggest it to your superiors. It would make Bajor the tourist mecca of the galaxy!"
"What do they do?" Kira asked, her curiosity getting the better of her.
"Well, first off, are you familiar with the concept of a full body massage?"
"Wait a minute!" Sisko interrupted crossly, driven beyond the limits of endurance. "That planet is under a Federation interdiction! Only one ship has ever visited it and that was the En--"
"I didn't say I had visited the world, Commander," the stranger reproved. "But I have friends who did, and the stories they told make Ryza look like a retreat for the devoutly celibate!" He turned his attention back to Kira. "Not that Ryza isn't a lovely place too. Have you ever been there? You'd love it, and they'd love you."
"Ahem." Sisko had had enough of the man's nauseating flattery, and he cast a disapproving glance at Kira. Why did she let herself be influenced by such drivel? The man was an obvious liar; how could he know Star Fleet personnel? "I said all weapons."
"Oh, of course," the man nodded obediently and handed his knives over to Kira.
"Everything." Sisko didn't take his eyes off the man.
"Okay." He reached into his boot and withdrew an energy blade. "That's all."
Sisko's gaze didn't waver, and Kira held her ground, glancing from him to the stranger. After a moment, the man chuckled. "Damn, you're good at this. Okay, here." He rolled up his left sleeve and unfastened a small disruptor from its forearm holster. "That really is it. Trust me. You can even have the doctor scan me if you want."
"An excellent idea." Sisko glanced at Bashir, and after a moment of blankness, the doctor exclaimed, "Oh! Of course!" He vanished into his office, returning a moment later with a tricorder.
"He's telling the truth. No other weapons," Bashir reported after scanning the man.
"Commander, you shouldn't be so mistrustful," the stranger clucked reprovingly. "Don't you know that worrying makes your hair fall out?"
Kira's laugh was quickly converted into a cough, and she made a hasty exit, muttering something about turning the weapons over to Odo.
"Goodbye, Major!" the man called after her. "I hope to see you again."
"I don't believe I caught your name," Sisko remarked. Now that he knew the stranger was unarmed, he could afford to relax.
"I don't believe I offered it," the stranger replied cheerfully, swinging one leg over the nearest chair and seating himself. "Jake Bennet. Thanks for towing me in."
"Perhaps you'd be good enough to explain why the rescue was necessary?" Sisko prompted.
Bennet shrugged sadly. "My ship and I were forced to part company."
"Why were you in Cardassian territory?"
"Who? Me?" Bennet asked innocently. "Whatever gave you that idea?"
"Your escape pod. We projected back along its course and -- "
"Oh, that. Don't you know that method is notoriously inaccurate?" Bennet waved a deprecatory hand. "All it takes is one meteor or a dense cloud of space dust, the automatic pilot shifts course, and zip! All your lovely theories go out the window!"
"Is that what you propose? Your automatic pilot changed course so that it only appeared that you were coming from Cardassian space?"
Bennet spread his hands. "If you say so."
"Hm." Sisko couldn't disprove Bennet's claim, but he didn't have to accept it either. "Then what was your course?"
Bennet's brow creased in thought. "You know, I can't recall. I guess the time in stasis has had some effects after all."
"Really?" Bashir asked in concern, redirecting the scanner at Bennet. "Does your head hurt?"
"Doctor," Sisko ground out. He would have expected even Bashir to see through the obvious falsehood. "Mr. Bennet, do you remember what you were doing when you had to abandon your ship?"
"I'm a free trader," Bennet supplied, confirming Sisko's guess. "I work out of the Orion colonies mostly, but I travel wherever business takes me. Luckily, I had empty holds when I -- er -- had to evacuate, so the loss isn't as damaging as it might have been. My wife's going to kill me though," he added with a sigh. "If the doctor's chronometer is right, I've slept through our anniversary and the birthday of one of our kids."
Sisko's reserve softened somewhat at the last comment. "Would you like to send a message to your wife? She must be very concerned."
Bennet grinned. "She knows better than to give me up for dead until she sees my body, but yes, thank you, I'd love to contact her. With her help, I'll also be able to arrange for my passage off your station." He tugged at his ear, and one emerald earring glinted at Sisko. "I wouldn't want to overstay my welcome."
"You're free to stay as long as you like," Sisko said formally, if unenthusiastically. "We only require that you observe the local laws."
Bennet's grin widened for a moment, then he firmly quashed whatever he found risible. "Thank you, Commander. I'm most grateful."