"Are you ready?" Richard waited patiently by the exit, as his son hoisted a moss-green bag over one shoulder and paused for a final nervous glance behind him.
He had kept it packed for several days, hopeful for the moment when Doctor Larkin's tests would finally indicate that his stay could end. He had sat very still through every procedure, and listened to all he could glean from the nurses' hushed exchanges. His wide hazel eyes had followed their activities with a potent intensity, tracked the blinking lights of Larkin's scanners, and stared as if he too could see the answers spread across each hidden screen.
Julian nodded in response, but Richard could not help but share the six year old's tense anticipation. They would see Amsha again, not to mention Earth. The possibility of a reunion with his wife was reason enough to cause his heart to pound.
"What will our new place be like?" Julian had inquired on the previous day, but Richard could only respond that he did not know for sure.
The boy had promised in a soft, contemplative whisper, never to reveal that he had ever been to the Adigeon system. "Do you understand why?" Doctor Larkin asked from her position by the exit. Standing in the empty ward, with the bed stripped down to its mattress as thought it had never been slept in at all, he chewed momentarily on his bottom lip, and gazed at a point just in front of himself.
Julian looked up. "I…" Even on this single word, he stumbled. But finally, reluctantly, he returned his attention to the doctor's eyes. "Something to do with Father?"
"That's right, Jules," said Doctor Larkin.
Richard felt his son's scrutiny as, for a seeming eternity, the boy targeted his father with a long, conflicted stare. His eyes seemed even larger than was usual on his small, dark face, sparkling brightly in the pale light of the room.
"I won't tell," he swore.
As he made his way towards the arch of the doorway, Julian bounced a short way off the floor until the heavy travel bag was hoisted more securely over his shoulder.
"I can do it," he insisted, dodging away from Richard's attempt at assistance even though the bag and its contents were heavy enough to dwarf his tiny frame. Stopping briefly, he looked up into the Human doctor's clear blue eyes.
"Quickly," she told him, nodding towards the open door. "You wouldn't want to miss your shuttle home."
Athena Nikos found the man she had been looking for, beneath the shadow of the old hospital, and with a padd clasped loosely in the fingers of one half-open hand. He made no objection to the woman's approach, but Nikos was no less hesitant. She did not doubt that he knew she was there - he must have heard even the quietest footsteps. But he remained unresponsive as she positioned herself at his left hand side and pushed a wisp of stray dark hair from across her eyes. Now was not the time to force a conversation.
Squinting Bashir looked straight ahead. His eyes located a distant horizon between two edifices of the Adigeon city.
Nikos watched him, and paused a moment before replying. "It's for the best. And what about you?"
"Oh, I'm just splendid." He flexed his empty left hand for good measure. "Completely cured. Never better."
The response from Nikos was a tacit nod - but she was sure that the weight of concern was showing in her eyes. She had heard many things about this planet - about its people, their sophisticated use of genetic manipulation, and about the extensive and oppressive daytime heat. All she had been told was true. Adigeon Prime was significantly warmer than many other inhabitable planets. The air was thick and heavy, and added to the effect of higher gravity on everything around her. Including her mood.
"Naron told me what happened," she prompted, gently.
The corners of Bashir's mouth twitched upward slightly - taking on the shape, although somehow not the true likeness, of an equally heavy smile. Even this vanished just as quickly. "It was Larkin." He spoke in a barely audible monotone, and looked up to find Athena Nikos' grey-green eyes. "Did you know that the Purity Front would be coming after her?"
As earnestly as she could manage, the green-eyed doctor shook her head. "No."
But Bashir was frowning, watching her closely. "And everything I did was precisely what they wanted… You see? I had to escape, for the plan to work. I had to believe that no-one knew I'd come. The Purity Front could never have reached Doctor Larkin if my coming to Adigeon had been sanctioned by Starfleet. It had to be a secret, to leave her unguarded, and…"
A long, wordless glance passed between them, extending to the moment when, finally, he looked away again.
"The ones behind all of this could never have allowed you to come with me." His subsequent words were close to silence, barely distinguished by a string of half-whispered consonants which Nikos strained to hear. "They'd planned it all from the very beginning."
Frowning, the young man shook his head. "Don't," he told her. "I know how it sounds - but just… Please don't."
As Nikos watched, Julian raked his fingers through his hair. He lifted the padd in his hand, directing her attention towards it. "A letter," he explained. "It was in one of those old rooms. I wrote it to my mother the first time I was here."
Nikos' shoulders carried her forward until she had moved just a little closer, careful not to allow her presence to intrude.
Turning to examine the older woman's face, and finding only a frown of close attention, Bashir forced a small, dry cough.
"I'm tired of this." He spoke more to a transitory breeze than to his still attentive audience. "Even if… To give up. To stay where I was and wait for the inevitable - that was never an option. But if I'd known here was a chance that anybody else might have been hurt because of me… I never would have… If only it were possible to take it all back. Even just thinking about it, I can't help but feel so…"
He stared at the padd in a moment of tangible silence, and finally closed his eyes. "…Tired."
He could have opened his eyes again. He could have lifted his head to look upon the sunbaked city - the metallic reflections which seconds ago had pierced his vision. But he sat for several seconds, moving very little. To have come to this planet, placing Larkin and the others in such danger… It was such a clear violation of all that he had ever valued.
"What will you do now?" Athena's voice was subdued, guiding his thoughts to a distant conclusion.
Bashir leaned forward, tangled strands of dark brown hair now threaded between his fingers, and held back a weary sigh.
Somehow, his lips, his breath - his mind - would have to find a way to speak again.
"I don't know."
His hands were stiff, still difficult to move, and he wondered if they would ever fully regain their lost dexterity. And the thoughts in his head were as far from expression as when Miles O'Brien had inadvertently triggered the Bajoran aphasia virus on Deep Space Nine. Not entirely inappropriate, he supposed. Perhaps he should accept this permanent reminder; perhaps he didn't deserve to forget what he had done.
Oh, shut up. He scowled at himself, and fought to quell these egocentric musings. Things happened in the universe - good, and bad - and not all were happening because of him.
"Something I was wondering-" But then he coughed, his throat still dry. "The others had nothing to gain by bringing me here. So, why…?"
"I expect they just wanted another chance to thumb their noses at the Institute," said Athena with a quietly knowing smile. "It won't be the last time."
Bashir discovered that he was nodding slowly. Not quite in agreement… But understanding. "Lucky me," he muttered. A touch of irony clouded his response.
But whatever the reason, I owe them my life.
He was shaking a little, spine curled forward and aching dully at its base. He felt tears gather in his eyes, catching between his lashes before they fell, and wondered if he could be starting to cry. But then he heard a sporadic unexpected sound. He realised that the voice was his own, and noted with some distant astonishment-
He was laughing.
Nikos continued to watch as the young man looked up towards her. A lopsided, melancholy smile spread gradually over his face when he saw her frown of anxious perplexity. "I'll tell you something else," he added. "With all that's been happening in the Federation, there might even be a place for the likes of me. I'm sure that Starfleet could use all the help it can get. After all, didn't I used to be a doctor?"
His attention shifted to a pair of Security officers who had only now come into view. He sighed.
"Don't worry." It took him a greater effort than usual to haul himself to his feet, but he was getting a little stronger. "I won't resist. It's probably time we left this place behind."
The guards beyond his cell were content on most days to leave Prisoner 0974 Delta to his own devices. He had never given them a reason not to trust him on his own, and had gained a reputation since his arrival at the isolated colony as a congenial and unassuming man. His sentence would end, given time, and as the seasons passed, he was content to spend each day in relative solitude, undisturbed by either prisoners or guards.
Light shone directly through a transparent aluminium pane, filling the tiny space with natural warmth and illumination. But the prisoner inside squinted in mild annoyance as it shone directly into his eyes.
"Nice morning we're having today," the warden had called in the early hours of that day, with Sol already risen but the air still moderately cold. Prisoner 0974 Delta stepped back a little from his patch of garden, scratched his head with his free left hand, and gazed upward at the high, almost too-bright star. "It certainly is."
That had been the extent of their brief exchange, like two neighbours meeting on a sunlit avenue - the only words that anyone had said to him since dawn.
A wistful smile touched the prisoner's lips as he tapped a finger against the hard outer casing of his padd. Without knowing it, he had grown a little hunched in the thin, stiff chair.
He sat at an equally utilitarian desk with his gaze drifting indiscriminately towards the view outside the window. A broad green expanse of cultivated gardens and gently sloping walkways, enclosed within four conjoined blocks, was almost enough to give the inmates an illusion of freedom. A casual observer might not even notice the transport scramblers lining the rooftops, or the inward facing doors all easily lockable from outside. They would not have seen the shields above the complex, or the proximity sensors attached to every possible exit. But they may still have noticed the uniformed guards who regularly patrolled the grounds.
"Jules," he started to dictate, but immediately stopped. Old habits were hard to break. He lifted the padd to glance more directly at the words transcribing themselves across its screen. As the afterimage of sunshine faded from the back of his eyes, he chuckled unhappily. "Sorry. Julian. I've been trying to remember. But sometimes it's much too easy to get carried away. Especially with so many things - important things this time, I promise - that I really have to say."
He paused, troubled by the momentary uncertainty that clouded the path before him. He had always been a fluent speaker. But his words - like his life - had lacked direction, a sense of purpose, and in particular, the eloquence needed to communicate those things that mattered most.
"And now," he continued. "I don't know how to say them. What if I said that I was sorry? I might have chosen differently if I'd known where this would lead…"
The monologue continued in his head. Or you might try to explain exactly why you had to make these choices. You could tell him how much you worry about him now. If anything happens… The old man swallowed hard. He had to force this thought to its conclusion. If anything happens, there might not be any more chances to start again.
"Start again?" He could picture Julian standing in the room beside him. The words of his adult son ran continuously through his head, almost as if the voice had been real, as if he knew precisely what the other man would say.
"I'm sure you would love for it to be that easy," came the apparition's imagined response. "But is that really what you think is best? To erase our past as if it never even happened? I'm sorry - but I just don't think that's possible any more."
Richard Bashir glanced once again at the small collection of family pictures - all that adorned the surface of his desk. Each held a captured happy moment trapped inside a thin gilded frame. He thought of his son, as anxious as he would have been for a missing six year old boy. Still no news? But of course there wasn't. He rarely spoke to his family any more. And most of all, he still missed Amsha.
"No," he muttered, scowling as he tossed the padd back down onto the desk. It slid to a halt beside his family portraits. "Delete that rubbish. Delete it all."