A/N: OK, I couldn't get the whole final showdown in one chapter without making you guys wait even longer than you have already, so here's some of it. Draws heavily on Chimaera, Sacrifice of Angels and What You Leave Behind, without being remotely related to any of them. Also, this chapter is kind of sad... at least it was sad to write. Let me know what you think.
A/N Supplemental: The opening quotation is from The Pilgrim's Progress and later became the text of a motet by Vaughan Williams, also called Valiant For Truth (which, incidentally, was sung at the memorial service for Sir Laurence Olivier in 1989.) It is a very lovely piece of music and definitely worth a listen.
24: MR VALIANT-FOR-TRUTH
And when he understood it
He called to his friends and told them of it
Then said he: I am going to my father
And though in great difficulty I have got hither
Yet now I do not repent of all the trouble I have been at
To arrive where I am
– John Bunyan
'What do we do now, then?' Dukat asked as they approached DS9 and the minefield and Kira slowed them down. Back here, the battle seemed somehow very small and far away, though there were a few Jem'Hadar destroyers intent on giving the station itself something to remember them by. How Kira wished she could just ditch the whole thing, steer them back to docking bay whatever and go home – it was so close, so devastatingly near, yet she knew that none of them had much chance of ever setting foot there again. It was like being slapped in the face by your best friend.
'We wait for Sloan to show his face, I suppose,' Sisko answered, though he didn't sound very convinced. 'They've got a cloak, we've got a cloak, it's just a waiting game now. Odo, see if you can recalibrate those sensors, screen out some of the interference.'
'Got it,' Odo answered, already concentrating on the sensor console. 'What am I looking for?'
'I'm not quite sure. But sooner or later he'll do something that'll show up.'
'Like sneaking up behind us while we're sat here like idiots?' Dukat remarked snidely. 'Come on, Sisko, that's not much of a plan! I've got a much better idea. Arming forward phaser banks...'
'Now hang on just one second – '
Too late; Dukat had already brought the phaser banks round to bear, taken aim and blasted a mine on the edge of the field, though how he knew where it was, Kira could only guess. Sisko scowled as the shock-wave juddered through the Defiant, and when Dukat sighted again, he jumped up and knocked the Cardassian's hands away from the console.
'What the hell do you think you're doing? You just un-cloaked us! Look for him on the sensors, for God's sake, instead of just taking pot shots at any damn thing!'
'What, you have sensors that can detect a cloaked Jem'Hadar ship even through all that interference from the mines? Federation technology must be more advanced than I thought,' Dukat sneered. 'Look, if I don't do this, we'll be sat here forever while Sloan finishes his task and has time for a good laugh at us – now I don't know about your dignity, but that's well beneath mine!'
'Dukat, you fire that phaser again and I'll – '
'Do you want to finish this now or not?'
As Sisko sat there open-mouthed and Dukat fired off the second phaser round, the mine he'd hit produced a flare – a flare which showed up the faintest shadow on its far edge, the shadow of a ship jolting on a shockwave and starting to move further out of range, heading away from the wormhole and back towards the battlefield. Dukat turned to Sisko with a triumphant grin.
'There, see, what did I tell you? We've got him on the run now – let's get after him before he can call for help!'
'Yes, and he could still sneak round the back of us, which he's more likely to do now he knows where we are! Major, get after him, quick,' Sisko snapped, glaring at Dukat. 'And next time you fire phasers without being ordered, Dukat, I shall have you escorted off the bridge!'
'By whom? In case you haven't noticed, there are five people in your crew and they're all busy!'
Trying to ignore Sisko and Dukat's bickering, Kira fired up to full thrusters and crept back along the side of the minefield as fast as she dared, praying she wouldn't accidentally get too close.
'How the hell did you know what you were aiming at?' she asked Dukat distractedly as she held the course, sweating. One false move, one degree off course and they'd be little better than space dust. Dukat grinned nastily.
'I didn't. But I spent weeks pretending to work on disabling them, so I've got a rough idea of the area. However, if Weyoun's with Sloan, then so has he – probably much better than me. We'll have to be careful.'
'No shit,' Kira snorted. 'Odo, is there any way we can get the mines to show up on sensors?'
'Not that I can see,' Odo muttered, still fiddling with the console. 'There's far too much interference, and all those stray ion trails from the battle aren't helping. I'll keep trying...'
'You know,' Dukat interrupted loudly, 'if Mister Sisko would kindly allow me to use the phaser banks without it being signed in triplicate, I could light the way for you, so to speak.'
'Dukat...!' Sisko began furiously, then sighed. 'Well, I suppose it's better than nothing. Just don't get us blown up!'
Kira found it somewhat easier once she could see the shadows of the mines in the phaser beams, but what was much more troubling was that Sloan's ship had now completely disappeared. Could he have got round the back of them somehow? With the sensors so snowed out, they were little better than blind, creeping along at a snail's pace where one well-placed torpedo would knock them right into the minefield – she didn't like it at all. And what the hell was the changeling planning, anyway? The only sure-fire way to disable the mines was by using the deflector array on DS9, and he couldn't be there, because he was in that ship. Unless that was yet another trick? Maybe that ship contained nothing but Jem'Hadar, or dead bodies, or nobody at all.
'Captain, what if Sloan isn't on that ship? What if he's – '
She didn't get a chance to finish, because Odo shouted out a warning as a disruptor bolt smashed into them from behind, and in all the confusion it was sheer luck that she managed to point the Defiant's nose downwards as they veered off course, rather than into the mines.
'They're behind us!' Sisko exclaimed. 'Kira, loop round for another pass! Dukat, return fire!'
'Oh, typical! Now you actually want me to fire, there's no power left!' Dukat shouted back. 'Engineering, can you send anything my way?'
'There's nothing to send, unless you want the shields to collapse!' Dax's crackly voice answered over the comm. 'Captain, we're in trouble; that shot ruptured a plasma cell – I've got to dump the whole thing or it'll blow!'
'Go ahead, Old Man,' Sisko replied, voice heavy with lack of hope; Kira could tell that even he didn't think they had much of a chance. 'Just be quick, or they'll come back round.'
'Never mind them,' Odo broke in hoarsely, pointing at the viewscreen. 'Look out there!'
The deflector dish.
The arcs of blue.
The winking, fading dissolution of their last barrier against the might of the Gamma Quadrant, as easy as flipping a switch. They'd got themselves crippled while chasing a shadow, and Sloan had crept round behind them and taken one more step ahead – the last step, the only one that really mattered. They'd got it wrong, and the Dominion were going to win.
'How?' Dukat said faintly. 'How did he do it? What did we miss?'
'Who cares how he did it? We've got to do something about it!' Kira exploded. She refused to let it end like this; she hadn't gone through all that on Cardassia, and succeeded, just to have it destroyed by the Jem'Hadar ten minutes later. Prophets, where are you? she thought desperately. Why aren't you listening to us when we need you most? Why aren't you stopping this from happening to Bajor?
'Damn you! I know you're listening!' Sisko was shouting, looking out at where he knew the wormhole was, the wormhole that in a few seconds would yawn open for the first time in months, spitting out the end of everything recognisable as the Alpha Quadrant. 'I know you know what's happening, so why don't you do something about it!'
'Sisko, even if these Prophets of yours do exist, it's abundantly clear that they couldn't care less about anything that's going on here, even if it involves their precious Emissary!' Dukat snapped, and even Kira was too far gone in horror to feel angry with him, though the believer in her was shocked at such blasphemy so close to the Celestial Temple. 'There's one way left to stop those ships from coming through, and it doesn't involve gods or demons. It involves just this ship and a lot of explosives...' Dukat continued, with the iron-hard set to his jaw that only a Cardassian who'd made his choice could have, '… and we've got to do it.'
'Collapse the wormhole,' Odo finished for him in a stricken voice. Kira and Sisko's jaws dropped.
'You don't mean it,' Sisko said slowly. 'We... we can't do that!'
The look in his eyes said otherwise, though, and Kira could see how much it hurt him to admit to it. She simply couldn't imagine doing such a thing – it was like killing a god. In fact, it was killing a god. But the Prophets couldn't be killed.
'We can do it, or we can lose the war,' Dukat told him, 'though it won't make much difference to us in here, because we're going to be blown to hell whatever happens. You're the captain, you decide.'
'No. It's not up to us to decide this,' Kira said as she realised – of course the Prophets couldn't be killed, because they didn't exist within mortal parameters. They were beyond life and death: they were life and death. They had brought her here on this day with these people, they had taken her everywhere she'd been and showed her everything she'd seen – all of it, bad or good, had happened for a reason, and if they were to meet their ends here, then that was what had to happen. It couldn't be any other way, and it never had been.
'What d'you mean? Of course it is! We're the ones flying in there, aren't we?' Dukat retorted, but Kira wasn't listening; it was like someone else had control of her mind as she locked eyes with Sisko, her Emissary, the mouthpiece of the Prophets. He knew.
'We've got to look into the eyes of our own gods,' he said. He sounded like more than he was, and Kira knew that it was not really him speaking, any more than it was her thinking.
'We've got to meet this head on,' Sisko continued in that heavy, resonant voice that was his own but so much more. 'If that means destroying the Celestial Temple, then that's what we'll do.'
'And what about Sloan?' Odo interjected in the second or two of silence that followed, two seconds that felt like two years, in which Sisko's eyes glowed with something like holy fire and even Dukat, cynical, un-shockable, coldly logical Cardassian that he was, looked a little stunned, as if he was already staring a god in the face and wasn't at all sure what he saw there. In fact, Odo was the only one who seemed unaffected by Sisko's speech. Kira shook her head.
'I guess we just have to hope that someone else catches up with him once he realises his fleets have left him high and dry. The Prophets will deal with him, just as they'll deal with us.'
'No. That's not good enough.'
Odo had stood up, and he looked very tall in amongst the cramped consoles. His eyes were as cold and unfathomable as Kira had ever seen them, and she knew then that it was only him who could ever face Sloan. They were one and the same, and polar opposites, two drops of ocean borne on different currents which could mingle and combine but never flow in the same direction. The drop is the ocean is the drop. And she knew then, too, that this was where he left them. She'd never see him again. He tapped the comm and said, very calmly,
'Odo to Dax and Nog, could one of you come up here and take over on comms please?'
'Coming right away,' Dax answered, and even in a situation like this, the fact that it wasn't her usual cheery, breezy we-can-get-through-this voice was achingly significant. She knew, too, and as she came through the door, her normally sparkling eyes were wide and horrified.
'We're going in there, aren't we? We're going to blow up the wormhole,' she said softly.
'How did you know?' Dukat asked her, recovering a little composure, though he still avoided Sisko's incendiary, faraway gaze. Dax sighed, a sound with three hundred years of wisdom in it.
'It's the only option left, isn't it? All those people on the other side... all those planets...'
'It's the planets on this side we have to worry about.'
And that was the fundamental difference in the way the Federation and the Cardassians saw the world, summed up in one exchange. Dax looked down at her hands, and Kira knew she was thinking about the symbiont. About how it wouldn't survive, any more than the body that was Jadzia Idaris. The planets on both sides were what they had to worry about, only they couldn't. There was no more time. There were no more half-measures, no more sidestepping or clever plans: just six people from six planets with one thing to do. They all knew it. As Odo stepped away from the comm panel for Dax to take over, Kira's heart lurched painfully.
'Odo, you're not really going to – '
His face stopped her from saying anything else, that calm, smooth face which was so open and so closed at the same time, and those ice-crystal eyes which looked at everything and really saw it as it was.
'It was always going to end like this, Nerys,' he said quietly, gruffly, his gentlest voice that conveyed more in its dry resignation than the loudest of anguished wails. 'This isn't my world, however much I try to pretend I'm at home here. It can't be any other way. I've known that for a long, long time, and so have you.'
She bit down on all of it, everything he'd meant to her over the years, and swallowed hard.
'I'll help you.'
She had to turn her head away from his gaze as she armed the outer airlock door, but, for the first and last time in their lives, he turned it back with his hand and looked her in the eyes. She let him.
'This is for you, Nerys. For all Solids, but most of all for you.'
And, for the last time, she couldn't take what he was offering her. It hurt too much when their fates had been sealed long before they even met each other, because of what they were and what they weren't, and yet he'd still spent all these years offering anyway. She looked past him, to the place where the minefield once was, and saw something small, a cloudy, shimmering haze, moving towards them.
'He's coming,' she said. 'Odo...'
'I'll follow you in. I'll bring him with me.'
His eyes met hers one more time as he sealed the inner door between them, and then he was gone, spinning out into space as the airlock door swung shut, drifting away into nothing. As she watched for a moment, vision blurred with tears, she saw what he really, really was.
'Odo, you're beautiful,' she said softly to the shimmering golden light that got smaller as the whitish-cold one got bigger. She didn't watch them collide. She went back to the bridge, sat down at the helm, shrugged all their concern and their sadness off, and steered the Defiant towards the wormhole once more. She was going to look into the eyes of her own gods.
She was going home.