So you call this your free country;
Tell me why it costs so much to live.
-- Three Doors Down, "I'm Already Here"
"He'll be all right," the doctor assured her. "He'll be a little weak until he recovers, but there was no damage done to him or to the Symbiont." Then he gave her a stern glance. "Luckily."
Dax ignored the jab and met the Unjoined Trill's gaze squarely. "May I see him?"
The man pursed his lips, looking nervous but trying to hide it. "I don't know if that's a good idea. Seeing you after what he experienced.... I don't know how a Human would react. The strain might...."
"He's not that fragile," Ezri said. "Seeing me won't send him into a relapse."
"You can't know that for sure."
"Actually," she said slowly, "I can."
The doctor couldn't quite argue with that, but he didn't relent either. Dax sighed. She hated doing this, but she was running out of options and patience. "Look," she muttered. "I'm a Joined, you're an Unjoined. I know that shouldn't give me any particular power over you, but I don't want you to get in trouble for disobeying me either. Let me see him. I promise we won't be long."
He sighed heavily. Then, finally, he nodded. Ezri didn't wait for him to lead the way; she walked past him through the wide doors of the ICU and glanced around until she located Julian, who was sleeping on a biobed in a shadowed corner, partially concealed from the rest of the room by a curtain. She moved swiftly across the chamber, pulling a stool with her so she could sit next to him.
The subdued rush of memories at seeing him again was a bit confusing. Equally as strange as it felt to have Joran separate from the rest of her Joined mind after performing the Rite of Emergence, seeing Julian lying there made her feel like a part of her was misplaced. Only now, the memories held nothing but warmth and affection, and she wished she could recapture that moment of incredible closeness between them. She settled for reaching out and touching his face.
Julian stirred. She could see he was still a bit disoriented, and she made a soothing noise as his eyes fluttered open. His gaze darted about the strange room before finally meeting with hers.
Ezri pressed his hand. "Hey."
He didn't answer at first; for a while, he simply laid there, holding her hand and gazing into her eyes. Dax briefly wondered how much he remembered, how much of her he'd seen before the connection had broken. Whatever it was, he seemed to search for it in her face for a long moment. Then a slight smile crossed his expression, and he swallowed to clear his throat. "I was... just thinking of you."
She laughed a little, suddenly sheepish. "That's funny - I was just thinking of you."
Julian gave her a tired grin. Then his brow creased. "What happened?" he asked. It wasn't the question of a confused, incoherent patient; there was honest curiosity in his eyes.
"I pushed too far," Dax said. "I never meant to Join that completely. It was going all right, but then I guess I was ... caught up in the moment...."
"I see," he replied, teasing. "So you took advantage of my blushing symbiosis virginity."
The image of herself as a devious seductress made her laugh, just as Julian knew it would. But her guilty expression returned quickly. "I'm so sorry about this. I didn't mean to hurt you."
"You didn't," Julian said gently. "I'm all right."
"I know, but ...."
"Ezri." He pressed her hand tighter, waited for her to meet his eyes. There was amazing tenderness there. "What happened between us... it was incredible. No one has ever trusted me - loved me that much before. Whatever wrong you think you've done, believe me, it was worth it."
Seeing the way he looked at her, Dax felt better in spite of herself. She leaned forward and kissed him softly, then rested her head next to his on the flimsy hospital pillow and let out a resigned sigh. "You do realize that Kira's going to have a fit when you tell her."
Julian made a thoughtful noise. "Actually, I was hoping you'd tell her."
Tallis Krafor wanted to run. Already, the echo of his footsteps clattered frantically along the empty corridor; his long ceremonial robes billowed and tangled around his legs. But his head whirled, and he felt unsteady. If he ran, he might fall and injure himself. He had to be careful.
Somewhere inside him, Krafor's thoughts whispered. Apprehension, discomfort. I'm not well. Something's wrong.
"But there might be a way," Tallis spoke aloud. His voice echoed with the footsteps. He took comfort in hearing the words. "It's not too late!"
His hands trembled slightly as he lifted the padd he held and read the message there for the hundredth time. He hadn't been able to believe it at first sight, he could barely believe it now as he studied the words carefully. Surely he'd misinterpreted a sentence, missed some detail.
But no. It was clear.
A Joined woman and a Human man have been brought to Korrigan Provincial Hospital. The woman gave her name as Ezri Tigan, and identified the Human as her traveling companion, Julian Bashir.
Ezri Tigan Dax was noted as showing signs of strong neural activity during her examinations nine days ago. We have managed to access Korrigan's medical files; Bashir suffered from mild neural shock. A scan shows brain waves that are an unmistakable match to those of the Dax Symbiont. The patterns are faint but amazingly stable. Evidence strongly suggests that full Joining was somehow achieved between Bashir and Dax, although we are not sure how long the connection may have lasted.
We consider this a matter of great importance to our current objective, and have declared it highest priority. Enclosed are fully documented biographical and medical records for Tigan and Bashir, as well as relevant access codes and classified files....
Tallis reached the door of his private antechamber and locked himself inside. He had to pause a moment, leaning against the wall for support. "A success," he whispered. His heart pounded. "I don't understand... someone like her - and a Human...! But Winds, a success! There might be a way!"
The adrenaline following the thought made him tremble. He took several deep breaths and passed the fabric of his sleeve over his brow. After a moment, he slowly straightened and squared his shoulders, gathering the control he demanded of himself. Calm passed over him in a cooling wave, although it was harder to summon than it should have been.
"It's all right," he murmured. "I will be well."
Krafor's motion was graceful, unhurried as he walked to his desk. Taking a seat, he arranged his robes around him and smoothed his expression. He activated the comm unit and opened a private channel to the Charoula Monastery.
"I wish to speak to Mother Guardian Paela," he told the young novice who answered. His voice was saddened. "I'm afraid I have bad news."
A slap on the wrist. The repercussions from the Trill Symbiosis Commission ended up being little more than a slap on the wrist.
"I just don't get it," Dax said blankly, stepping off the transporter platform of the Niabrara. "These are the same Commissioners that faint at the slightest breach of protocol, and all we get is a written reprimand? It doesn't make any sense."
Behind her, Julian gave a subdued laugh and tugged at the collar of his Starfleet uniform. "Well, don't worry. Kira has plenty of grief to hand us when we get back."
Ezri grimaced. Judging from the speed with which the Colonel had ordered them back home, they were in more than a little trouble. And as Dax's superior officer, Julian had to shoulder most of the blame. "Wow. I hope she didn't flay you alive too badly."
"Oh, she did. But she won't kill me. New doctors are too expensive these days." Julian paused for a second, thoughtful. "Maybe the Commission just decided to go easy on us. You know how much they hate to attract negative attention - maybe what happened just wasn't worth the effort. I mean, a kal'thai with a non-Trill isn't exactly illegal, is it?"
"No, but it's frowned upon quite sternly," Dax muttered. "Particularly when it's performed without proper authorization. And then there's our case...."
"I know." Despite his chagrin, Julian couldn't hide a still-disbelieving smile. "That... isn't exactly the way kal'thais tend to go. Even between two Trill."
Dax released a breath as they walked up to the controls. "We owe Jethral a huge favor, that's for sure. Things could have gone a lot worse without his discretion."
"I'll be sure to thank him, if Kira ever allows me within a thousand light-years of Trillian again." Julian placed a hand on Ezri's back and got her seated at the helm before taking his place beside her. Exhaling briskly, he tapped the controls awake. "Activating impulse engines. Let me know when we're clear to leave orbit."
She didn't answer right away. She looked down at her seat, then out the viewport, then back at Julian. After a while, he seemed to feel her staring and glanced at her quizzically.
Full realization dawned a moment later. Almost without thought, Julian had made sure to give her the starboard side.
Dax smiled softly. "Still worth it?"
He grinned back. "What do you think?"
She didn't know what to say. And even more than that, she knew that as far as he was concerned, she didn't have to say anything. Still smiling, Ezri returned her attention to the displays in front of her and tapped in a query. "We're clear. Traffic's dead at the moment, oddly enough."
"All right. Setting course for Bajor, one-quarter impulse."
The runabout pulled into motion, swinging back toward Trillian as it sped up to break orbit. Ezri looked at the continents rimmed with dark water and said her last goodbye to the sprawl of the capitol city below.
Then a thread of movement caught her attention, and she leaned forward. "Well, that's strange...."
Julian glanced idly in her direction. "Hm?"
Dax reconfigured the scanners and checked her equipment again. The results made her turn a concerned glance toward the vessel that was now easy to recognize. "There's a ship approaching from the surface on an intercept course. Either I missed the notification, or they didn't get proper clearance."
"What? We should have picked them up on our scanners before this." He leaned over to read her display, frowning slightly. "Were we expecting an escort, Ezri?"
"If they were an escort, they would have informed us before we left," she muttered, darting her fingers across the board. "And they wouldn't be trying to mask their signature, either. We'd better hail the-"
Without warning, the runabout bucked violently, and sparks burst from the circuitry behind Ezri, knocking her to the deck. She shielded her head with her arms; points of pain burned into her exposed hands.
"What the hell...!" Julian flailed for balance against the helm, then stabbed at the controls. Shields went up just as the second shot rocked them even harder than before. "They're attacking us! Who are they?!"
Somehow, she managed to pull herself back into the chair. Her eyes scanned reflexively over the diagnostics, and her stomach clenched. "Direct hit to our weapons array - phasers are offline. Julian, it's a military vessel!"
He only hissed in reply, struggling to pull the runabout out of range and go to warp. But the larger ship was too fast, the shots battering them in all directions. The displays flickered and threatened to fail. Ezri worked frantically to open a communications link and call for help. If they could just get a message to Deep Space Nine before....
The panel beeped ominously. Subspace block. They couldn't get through. Damn it, why are they doing this?!
The runabout shuddered at the next volley, and for an instant the lights of the control panel went out entirely. Julian cursed. "We've lost shields!"
Ezri whirled back toward the viewscreen in time to see the ship pull into position directly in front of them, its Commission Guard insignia clearly visible. Her hands balled into fists. "They're firing...!"
Three shots in rapid succession slammed into the Niabrara, penetrated the warp engine as if the hull were made of plywood. Anger and despair burned through her as white-hot energy burst outward, engulfing them both, clenching every muscle in her body....
...then cresting with a familiar tingle and ebbing away to abrupt stillness.
Everything was happening at once by the time her vision had cleared. The first people she laid eyes on were rushing toward her, grabbing her roughly. Somewhere behind her and to her left, she heard Julian's cry of alarm.
The Trills' faces were grim, impassive. Dax writhed to escape, her breath tearing her throat. One of the men stepped in front of her and pinned her wrists to her sides in an attempt to force her still. Her knee snapped up, found its mark. The guard wheezed in intense pain and doubled over. Somehow, in the fray, she managed to wrestle free for one instant and whirl toward the sound of Julian's voice. He was fighting desperately, struggling toward her.
A phaser rang out - Julian convulsed. Another shot jerked him forward, spun him to the right. He fell heavily at her feet.
He didn't move.
"No!" Hands gripped her and forced her back. Ezri screamed in rage. "Let go of me! Let me go!"
"Careful," a guard said. "Dax is not to be harmed." Assessing her coolly, he added "The Host, however...."
One of the grips on her arm let go. Barely a heartbeat later, a hand chopped savagely downward at the side of her neck. Bright pain flashed, and she staggered and went limp, her vision blurring.
"She's out," she heard one of them say. "We'll take care of him. Beam her to Gi'Penna."
Darkness remained close around her as the transporter's whine rose again. A moment later, the ship, Julian, and any hope of safety dissolved away into nothing.
End of Book One
To be continued in Book Two: The Disease