Disclaimer: Neither Star Trek nor any of its characters belong to me... their all Paramount's.

When you're reading this, you are about to start with the second part of "The Darkness Within". If you haven't read the first one, this chapter will leave you with a lot of questions, so you'd better go back to the first part and start at the beginning!^^ You can find the first part of the story under my pen name. For everybody else, please enjoy the continuation of the story!

The story takes place in the 6th season, between the episodes "Inquisition" and "In the pale moonlight".

What happened so far:

In the middle of the war with the Dominion, the Defiant and her crew are sent on a secret mission to rescue the survivors of a Vulcan research vessel out of the hands of the Jem'Hadar after the ship had discovered a new Dominion cloning facility and weapons factory on a planet called Atholes III near Cardassian space and was thereupon taken prisoner by the enemy. On their mission, the crew of the Defiant is accompanied by Captain Robert Evans, a former colonist of Atholes III when the planet had still been part of the Starfleet colonization program until a war between the adjacent star systems led to the abandonment of the colony a few decades earlier. While the Defiant and her crew get ready for yet another battle with the Dominion, Dr. Julian Bashir is haunted by nightmares about events in his childhood that never seemed to have happened. In the middle of their mission on Atholes III, he discovers a startling connection to his nightmares which causes the world as he had known it to cease to exist...

The Darkness Within – Part II

"Will you catch me when I fall...?"

"Sometimes we have to make decisions where every path we take means to lose

but still we have to make our choice – and live with the decision..."

- Captain Benjamin Sisko

- Chapter 9 -

Commander Jadzia Dax' slender fingers flew in a wild dance over the the console's blinking display, the young Trill praying to the gods of a dozen of worlds that they grant her the chance to manage what she knew would be nearly impossible. Ignoring the nagging voice in the back of her mind that was trying to convince her that nothing she did would change anything about the fact that this time their mission had failed – and the bone rattling siren that had started to squeal the instant the first bomb had gone off – Jadzia Dax was desperately clinging to a smidgen of hope in the face of impossible odds.

With all her knowledge and skill she kept hacking in commands, trying to convince the piece of metal under her palms to help her work a miracle. If only she could bypass the security sub-system and get access to the control information of the force field emitter. Entering the security code had proven a complete disaster and left her with the bitter taste that there had been a reason for choosing Julian for the task after all. Their only chance lay now with getting access to the power grid controls and shunning down the field manually. The prophets knew she was no engineer, but she had to try all the same. Ever faster flew her fingers over the shiny display, her thoughts spinning back to the other teams. Benjamin was still inside the complex. And so was Worf. She could tell by the energy control readouts that the first bomb had already detonated and successfully severed the open-air grounds from the main energy supply. If everything had gone as planned, the other teams would have been on their way back home right now.

She slammed a fist down onto the panel in frustration, unable to get her thoughts together. The security siren's unnerving bleating didn't really help either. It was like back in the Kobayashi Maru. Only worse. Ensign Robinson sat numbly behind her in front of another flickering monitor, watching everything with a blank and rather detached expression. Jeffrey kept back next to the door, giving her as much room as she needed. He had his hands clasped behind his back as if he didn't know what else to do with them.

"No reaction!" Dax' voice was shaking with barely subdued anger and panic. "That damn thing doesn't work!"

Forcing herself to stay calm by calling upon her training throughout seven lifetimes, she knew that she was about the only person left on this godforsaken planet who was still able to turn the tables. And that burden weighed heavy. She couldn't allow herself to get emotional. Not with her experience. Try to think logically. Banishing every other thought out of her mind, she tried it another way, bypassing the external control, redirecting the residual energy into the life support system of the control room.

Access denied.

Her heart was racing in a futile effort to support her system with enough energy and adrenaline to fight a battle she knew she couldn't win. Sweat was running down her forehead when she threw another quick glance at the readouts above the console. About to utter another curse, her breath all at once caught in her throat. Staring at the tiny spots that kept blinking and rising up the length of the monitor, her mind needed some few seconds until it grasped the meaning of the unusual energy pattern.

"There seems to be a fluctuation in the second backdrop vent of the power grid," she stated slowly in confusion, not sure if she saw right. Her hands hovered indecisively inches above the security console. Once again she squinted at the readouts.

She could hear Ensign Robinson draw herself up behind her.

Stunned by the unexpected discovery, she tapped a few controls and called a map of the power grid onto the display. The map popped up within an instant, displayed in an eerie green on the black screen above her head.

"It seems to originate from somewhere next to the open-air grounds." Dax squinted at the red blinking spot, enveloping the green lines that were symbolizing the power conduits of the facility's energy grid. An instant later, the spot became larger, its blinking more urgent. It was exactly the place where Benjamin and the others should have exited the grounds if everything had gone as planned. Unsure what to make of it, she stared intently at the screen.

"The grid … is overloading," she exclaimed, her face drawn into a grimace of disbelief. "The energy pattern is going to burst." Her voice reverberated through the empty control room like thunder.

Ensign Robinson stepped closer. "You mean, it will erode the force field?"

Spinning round to face the young ensign, Dax drew herself up as well. She wasn't at all sure what this was about. She only knew that obviously fate had granted them another unique chance. They couldn't waste it. An instant later she had her phaser rifle back in her hands.

"It won't," she stated solemnly, shooting a quick glance back at the control panel. "It already has."

Not waiting for Robinson's and Jeffrey's reply, she urged the others to follow her. "We have to get to the others. Now!"

Captain Benjamin Sisko felt the sweat running down both sides of his temples. Staring in bewilderment at the flickering wall of energy that was blocking their way to the outside world only a few steps in front of them, he felt a jolt of horror.

"That's impossible!" His voice barely made it over the din around them. The first explosion had turned the place into hell's playground, black smoke billowing in heavy columns toward the blue morning sky. The siren that had come next was even worse. A rain of debris and soot had turned the ground to their feet into a ghostly battlefield of dirt and heaps of twisted metal. The heavy layer of smoke that was filling the air stung in the eye and made Sisko involuntarily cough for breath. He didn't even have to look back at the tattered remains that once had been the access door to the ore-stock and the rest of the facility that was ablaze in all its glory to know that the place was already doomed. There was no longer a way to stop the avalanche of events that would unfold next.

"Dammit! Something must have gone wrong. Dr. Bashir didn't get the code in in time. We're trapped in here!" Evans shouted, cursing under his breath, when he came to a slithering halt next to Sisko. His eyes were as wide and unbelieving as Sisko's.

Benjamin felt his stomach turn at the implication, a wave of nausea washing over him at the sight of another fifty men and women coming running over toward them through the haze of lightning and thunder. He could see Kira next to them, ducking and firing upon enemies beyond the thick veil of smoke – and he knew that Worf couldn't be far judging from the ugly hiss of disruptor bolts burning through the already heavy air. Another thunder from an explosion within the complex made the earth lurch in agony and the group of prisoners stagger and fall to the ground. Even from the distance, Sisko could see their sweaty and grime-covered faces, every one of them grim with the determination to fight for their freedom now that fate had granted them this unique chance. But he knew they wouldn't get far. Weeks of malnutrition and hard labor had left them with little chance to stand against an armada of trained Jem'Hadar soldiers, left alone the fact that he was dealing with a group of scientist, not a group of commissioned Starfleet officers. They only had their few phaser rifles they'd brought along with them from the Defiant, and there was nothing around aside of heavy ore stacks and steel pipes that came even close to a makeshift weapon.

"Damn!" Sisko turned in frustration, running a sweaty hand over his head. His heart was pounding heavily in his chest, his mind was racing. Evans was right next to him, for the first time as unsure and indecisive as Sisko. His perplexed expression lingered only for a moment, though, when his eyes darted toward Kira and Worf and the rest of the prisoners. His face was dark when he spun back to Sisko.

"If we can find another access panel, we might have a chance to override the security system from within," he stated calmly, obviously not willing to let panic gain the upper hand. "To the best of my recollection, they used to have external control panels to get access to the power supply in the case of an emergency. If they're still active and the Dominion hasn't replaced them, we might be able to access the power grid control from there. There used to be a mechanism to shut down the power relays directly from the outside in case of an accident within the facility. If we manage to launch the emergency program, it might cut off the open-air grounds from the rest of the energy supply. I know that they definitely had some of those control panels 25 years ago. If we're lucky, we'll be able to find one of them..."

Sisko could sense the underlying message. It's nothing more than clutching at a straw – but all they had aside from waiting for their all deaths. Try to find a solution. That was all that counted right now. He nodded.

The hiss and lightning of phaser fire behind them grew louder. They had to hurry. He had no doubt that at the same moment a file of Jem'Hadar soldiers was trying to get through to the open-air grounds to reinforce the few soldiers that had been stationed outside the complex when the explosion had gone off. Kira and Worf wouldn't be able to hold them in check forever. When the first wave of captives arrived next to them, panting heavily for breath in the thin and smoke-laden air, Sisko knew they had to act. It was now or never.

"Stay here and don't move!" he commanded, beckoning a security officer to help keep the people together.

"We need to find one of those access panels," he nodded toward Evans, his phaser rifle in both hands, already about to head back for the ore-processing facility, when he felt a firm touch on his arm. Startled, he spun around, ignoring another rumble that translated through the dusty and cracked ground and nearly shook him off his feet.

"You are the captain?" A tall and grim-looking man with dark, trimmed hair had appeared out of the crowd. The man's uniform was dirty and tattered like those of all captives, though besides that he seemed unharmed. Even now in the midst of battle he carried himself with a calm grace that left no doubt to his position within the group. His eyes were of a piercing blue, fixed on Sisko with their unyielding stare.

"Captain Benjamin Sisko from the space station Deep Space Nine," Sisko introduced himself curtly, not willing to lose precious time with unnecessary formalities.

The Vulcan squared his shoulders. "Captain T'Lhan, former commanding officer of the research vessel T'Hekal. I take it you were sent by Starfleet?" he said in a cool voice that betrayed nothing of the Vulcan's real emotions.

Sisko eyed him with slight suspicion. "We were sent to rescue your crew and destroy the Dominion cloning facility, Captain. But I'm afraid the rest of the story will have to wait." Lowering his voice to a level that made it impossible for the others to hear his words, he added through gritted teeth: "This place will blow up every second now. We have to find a way to take down the force field. It should have been severed from the energy grid by now but we weren't able to override the security backup system in time. We need to find an access panel to shut down the power grid manually." He doubted that it would be this easy. For their both sake he kept his worries to himself, though.

Holding Sisko's gaze for a short moment, the Vulcan suddenly nodded. T'Lhan's deep blue eyes radiated a startling calmness and self confidence. His face remained as unreadable and expressionless as a mask of wax when he beckoned toward the group of captives. Another tall and slim man stepped forth, hurrying toward them. When he came to a halt next to Evans and Sisko, he acknowledged them with a slight nod.

"You know what to do," T'Lhan addressed his officer in a strangely flat voice. He didn't elaborate on his words, but Sisko couldn't shake the feeling that the situation was running more and more out of control – in many ways. He wasn't sure what the other man's words meant, but something about the Vulcan's behavior told him that the whole situation came not as unexpected for them as it definitely should have.

T'Lhan's crew member set off toward the ore-processing facility. Within seconds he was swallowed up by the thick black smoke that was crawling over the ground like a giant sluggish Horta.

"Captain T'Lhan, what is this about?" Sisko demanded in confusion, glancing over to Evans whose expression hovered somewhere between grim determination and a dark glare.

The Vulcan captain cocked up one brow. "One month is a long time, Captain Sisko," he only said.

Sisko didn't have time to dwell on T'Lhan's words. An ugly hiss, like air rushing out of a cargo bay into space, seared through the heavy air. The next moment he heard someone exclaim: "The force field's down!"

Whirling round to see it with his own eyes, his first reaction was one of disbelief. The flickering of the force field had stopped, the energy barrier dissolved within a moment's notice. Stunned about the sudden turn in events, he shot a short and unbelieving glance toward the Vulcan captain.

"I believe you told me we ought to hurry, Captain Sisko," T'Lhan said calmly. "As soon as the Jem'Hadar get through to us, we won't stand a chance against them. Not even with you on our side. Believe me. Where is your ship?"

Even before Sisko could form a reply, Evans had already taken action. Beckoning the rest of the group to follow him, he urged them to keep their heads down as he sent them out into the streets of Northport. "Keep together. We'll give you cover!" Evans shouted over the din, waving for the prisoners and crew members to move. And no moment to soon.

Another disruptor bolt hit the ground next to Sisko, making him whirl round and open fire at the scaly alien that had emerged out of the smoke like a silent ghost of wrath. A moment later, Kira was at his side, giving him and the group rear cover while she took out one enemy after another. Staggering and stumbling through the field of knee-high grass that was separating the open-air grounds from the rim of the settlement, Sisko tried to keep their backs free the best he could. He panted for breath the time they finally crossed the last ridge to the dusty streets of Northport.

Stumbling onto the cobblestone street that was running the length around the former ore-processing facility, he whirled back at the heavy smoke that still rose from the core of the complex. He could see another thick black-red column erupting in the distance, followed by another roaring thunder that shook the ground to their feet. Lucky enough, the Jem'Hadar had obviously not yet managed to swarm out into the settlement. Apart from the phaser fire that had died down some minutes earlier, there was no sign of any pursuit...

Rising his tempo, he mentally counted their numbers, searching for the familiar black, blue-trimmed uniforms of his crew, then for the black-haired figures stumbling like a flood wave through the narrow street of the old settlement. His thoughts involuntarily spun back to the other teams. Worf and Kira were with them, Chief O'Brien and Nog had sent the signal that they were on their way retreating to the landing coordinates. That only left the team of Dax and Doctor Bashir. He felt an unpleasant twitch in the pit of his stomach at the thought. They still didn't know what had happened to team four.

"Robert," he called out while running with the stream of prisoners through the empty veins of the old settlement. On his call, Evans lowered his tempo until he fell back to the end of their group. "Captain T'Lhan reported that all of his crew members are with us. Major Kira is taking the lead. It seems that her team is complete," Evans reported quickly. His face lost some of its color when he finally added: "That only leaves Commander Dax and Doctor Bashir."

Sisko didn't like the idea. They hadn't received any signal from team four. So they practically didn't know if they had ever made it to the control room in the first place.


At the sudden voice they both stopped. When Sisko turned perplexed in the direction where the call had come from, he felt a sudden surge of relief.

"Dax!" he exclaimed.

The young Trill skidded to a halt next to them, propping herself on her knees while she panted heavily for breath. She must have run over all the way from the control room. And behind here, he saw Ensign Robinson and Lieutenant Jeffrey following in her wake. His face drew into a dark grimace when he realized that half of the team was not with them.

"Where's the rest?" The captain asked in alarm.

"We got separated. Williams is dead. Julian and Fernandez have been missing ever since." She cut the information to a minimum. Loose strands of her dark hair tumbled about her face when she lifted her gaze to meet the captain's.

Somehow he had known that something would happen. Somehow he had known that victory was bought at its price... Squinting back at the smoke and ash billowing out over the rooftops of Northport, he tried to get an overview over their current situation. Retreating back to the landing coordinates had top priority. They needed to get the crew of T'Hekal back to the Defiant, to say nothing of the trouble they would get into if they didn't make it off the planet before another Dominion strike ship made its way to Atholes III. They couldn't be sure that there hadn't been other troups patrolling the city when the bomb in the cloning facility had gone off. If there still were any living Jem'Hadar soldiers around, they'd be already on their way by now, led by the blazing fire that was towering over Northport like a beacon of death...

Evans face grew dark. "Can we locate them?"

The young Trill shook her head, her face drawn into a painful grimace. "The tricorder doesn't give any clear readouts. The sensor range is too small and the interferences too high..." She threw an anxious glance at both captains. "We've already tried to find them but..."

"If we cut down the sensor range to a minimum, would we be able to scan through the radiation?" Evans asked calmly.

Dax nodded. "I guess that should work. But we still would have to search for them. The scan radius wouldn't be more than some 100 meters..."

Sisko drew in a long breath. 100 meters wasn't really much. Not considering the area they would have to search. They didn't even know where to start...

"If we go back to the point where we first got separated...," Dax suddenly suggested as if having read his thoughts. "...we might be able to find them there..." She knew how much was at stake.

Evans nodded. "She's right, Benjamin. It's our only chance. If we don't find them now, no one ever will."

Without further comment, Sisko beckoned toward the group of prisoners who were almost out of sight. "Good. Get back to the others and tell Major Kira and Mr. Worf. I'll go and search for Fernandez and Bashir. As soon as I've found them, we'll come after you." Already about to leave, Sisko was suddenly held back by Evans.

"We'll come with you, Ben," Evans said decisively with a firm hand on his shoulder.

Bending over the mutilated remains of the young woman, he felt nausea threatening to take over. She was already dead, that much was clear. Killed by the ugly, fist-thick hole burned through her slender chest. The blood oozing from her lifeless body and pooling to both sides in the cobblestone racks had already begun to dry. At least they'd found one missing crew member – though he would have rather not found her in a state like this. The only consolation, even though a poor one, was the sight of the sunken down alien figure, sprawled motionless on the far end of the street.

"No sign of Julian," Dax stated with another scan of their surroundings. The sun stood still high in the cloudless sky above the streets of Northport, the quiet around them betraying nothing of what had happened only a stone's throw away from their current position. "It's not far from where we got separated, Benjamin. Julian must have followed her and..." she knit her brow, trying hard to reconstruct what could have happened after their separation.

"Where the hell has he gone?" Sisko muttered under his breath and turned once again into the direction they had just come from, scanning their surroundings for any hint as to Julian's whereabouts. One dusty street of the town looked like the other. It was like looking for a needle in a haystack. Sweat was running down his back. Sisko drew in a deep breath to calm himself and organize his thoughts. At least Bashir wasn't lying on the street next to Ensign Fernandez. So there still was a chance that he had made it out of the attack alive...

But still, they'd already run out of time. If they didn't find Bashir very soon, they'd have to go on without him – an option Sisko preferred not to consider as long as there was still hope.

"Commander, what is the shortest way from here to the control room? Can you put the map on the display?" Evans suddenly frowned. "I'm sure that Julian had the map memorized. He'd have known where the shortest route to the control room was and probably tried to get there. If he's hurt, we might find him somewhere on that way."

"Acknowledged." Dax activated the screen with a few taps, calling up a small map of the northern area of the city. "It's not far. There's a street running parallel to ours that is one of the main streets leading toward the center of the settlement. It seems to be the shortest route from here."

Evans took a quick look at the readouts before he tightened his grip around the phaser rifle. "We have exactly twenty minutes," he stated grimly. "That's the absolute limit that leaves us enough time to get back to the landing coordinates. If we haven't found him till then, we have to get back to the Defiant without him."

Evans' voice was hard and commanding, though he didn't quite succeed in hiding the pain in his gray eyes. Sisko knew Robert would be the first to do anything to find their missing doctor, but also that he had learned to put his personal feelings back behind the figure of authority he had grown to impersonate over all the past years. He was the commanding officer after all.

"Then we shouldn't waste any more time," Sisko said as he flipped open his own tricorder.

Scanning the vast area of the main street took them far longer than Sisko would have liked. The area was way too large, the radius of their tricorders far too small to work as efficiently as they needed to. Every now and then one of them stopped – but it all turned out as dead ends. Apart from their own footsteps echoing loudly in the deserted streets, the place was drowned in an eerie silence. It set Sisko's nerves on edge, making him jump at the smallest unusual sound around them. After ten long minutes they hadn't come any farther as they had been at the beginning. He clamped down on the feeling of frustration as he kept scanning the hallways to both sides for any traces of life.

And suddenly, it was Evans who came to an abrupt halt, staring with a mixture of hope and anxiety at his beeping tricorder. Following the readouts, he hurried over to the place where his tricorder was picking up a weak signal. Only a few seconds later, Sisko and Dax were at his side. Together they lifted their gazes to the old deserted building in front of their eyes.

The small, two story building was standing slightly aloof from the rest of the houses along the street. Its ocher paint was coming off at some places and the small garden lining the side of the house was almost completely overgrown with weed and big tufts of fern. Moss-covered stairs were leading up to a dark brown wooden door that stood ajar, its inside only visible in the few rays of sunlight that spilled in through the gap in the door.

"The signal... It's coming from inside," Evans whispered reluctantly under his breath. A dark shadow was crossing his handsome features when he absently stared at the sight in front of their eyes. His lips were drawn into a tight line when he once again checked his tricorder readouts. He suddenly looked so much older, like if the years had finally caught up on him. But Sisko couldn't blame him. Whatever was waiting for them inside the old building's crumbling walls, it would be anything but pleasant for Evans. Seeing his old home town rotten and decayed in the bright sunlight, running through its dying streets with the purpose of a mission was one thing. Taking a closer look at what his old home had become after all these years was a totally different one.

"I get a weak signal as well," Dax stated, waving her tricorder about the place. A faint smile of relief spread across her lips. "It's weak, but it's stable," she added in an afterthought.

"Are there any other life signs?" Sisko shot her a short look of alarm. He didn't exactly want to run into a trap now that they had made it this far.

Dax shook her head. "It's only one."

"Okay, let's get inside," Sisko decided, heading for the broad stair flight. Dax was following in his wake when he climbed the few steps to the door.

It was Evans, however, who suddenly hesitated, casting a quick look to both sides of the street. His face had lost some of its color, and his voice was strangely flat and emotionless when he finally said: "You two go ahead. I'll stay here and keep watch till you're back. I don't want any bad surprises."

With a subtle nod Sisko turned to push the weathered door aside and entered the dark staircase. The room behind was pitch black, making his stomach painfully tighten. He awkwardly tapped on his wrist beacon, before he took another step further into the darkness. He more felt his way up to the first landing than he actually saw anything but as soon as he had reached another door leading to an apartment on the second floor, he stopped, waiting for Dax to catch up. He ran his lights along the old door in front of them. It too was standing ajar.

"The tricorder is picking up one life sign," the young Trill stated again. "It's definitely from inside." She pocketed her tricorder when Sisko pushed against the open door. With a loud squeal it gave way.

Cautiously Sisko entered the room. At first he squinted against the golden twilight the room was filled with until his eyes slowly began to adjust. Though what he saw at last only furthered the unpleasant feeling in his stomach. The apartment looked exactly like back in the days when there was still life pulsing through the veins of Northport. Everything was still on its place. Furniture, the inhabitant's belongings – everything lay untouched since the day when Northport had died. Standing in the midst of a dream long gone by, Sisko felt a cold shiver run down his spine. Seeing the place so deserted, the traces of time and decay painted all over the scenery, he felt like intruding into secrets that were never meant to be revealed. Hidden and forgotten by the human soul, preserved like an insect in ember, the city kept on living though its inhabitants had long ago ceased to exist. It was an oppressive sight.

"Benjamin!" He felt a soft touch on his arm and followed Dax' gesture to the heavy layer of dust that was covering the whole floor in a dull gray. At some places, though, the ash-like carpet was disturbed by footprints, barely visible but there nonetheless. They were leading through the room and back again before they vanished into the door next to their right. They definitely didn't look like those of Jem'Hadar.


When there was no response, the young Trill ventured deeper into the desolate apartment.

"Dr. Bashir?" Sisko's firm voice echoed along the corridor in an intensity that startled himself.

Crossing the threshold to the adjacent room to their right, they found it as deserted as the rest of the apartment. It wasn't very big. A narrow bed stood at one side, its blue bed cover drawn neatly over once-white sheets. Directly above it, faint light filtered in through gaps in the dirty and grime-covered window. A fluffy brown teddy bear was lying next to the bed on the floor. Judging from the colorful furniture and the old and broken toys, it must have been a child's room.

Slowly, Dax took an intent look around, finally turning to the old desk next to the door. Some stationary lay still scattered about its dusty surface, a stack of crumbled paper piled on one side. A crunching sound made her all at once flinch, when she realized that she had just stepped onto something hard, giving way beneath her boots. Slightly surprised, she bent down to the floor and retrieved the worn and old picture from its broken frame. Sisko curiously stepped next to her until he could see what it was she was holding.

It was a child's picture, that much was clear. But what it was that it should portrait he couldn't tell. The colors had faded almost completely off the paper, the frame's shadow burned forever around the shakily drawn landscape. Something on its right side reminded him of a tree – or a person, though the forms and lines where too unsteady and blurred to make out anything further.

Carefully, Dax lay it back on the table and once again reached for her tricorder. Looking at the readouts, she frowned – and suddenly held her breath. Sisko, already about to search again out in the corridor, involuntarily stopped. Without another word she hunkered down on her heels. Perplexed by her strange behavior, Sisko bent down as well – and felt his heart skip a beat.

The young doctor sat crouching in the narrow space under the old desk, pressed as far into its dark shadow as his grown-up size would allow him. He'd drawn both knees up to his chest, arms folded around and his face buried between them. He looked unhurt – as far as Sisko could assess. No blood or other bruises. Apart from his dark rumpled hair, only a layer of dust was covering the shoulder part of his uniform that must have most likely come from his encounter with the Jem'Hadar. Either oblivious to their presence or unconscious, the young man didn't move.

"Julian?" Sisko tried slightly unsure in the heavy silence that was filling the small room.

The young man didn't react. Weren't it for his barely rising shoulders, Sisko wouldn't have been able to tell if Bashir was still alive. The short feeling of relief about having found his missing officer was almost immediately replaced by worry. Something was wrong. What was Julian doing here? He couldn't imagine why he would take cover in a secluded place like this. Even if he had been on the run, it didn't exactly strike Sisko as the first choice of retreat...

He cast an unsure glance at Dax at his side before he tried again, this time more persistent. "Julian?"

It wasn't until Sisko cautiously reached for his arm, repeating the young man's name once more, that Bashir suddenly startled and lifted his head. When his fearful gaze caught the two persons kneeling on the dusty floor next to him, the young man's eyes all of a sudden widened, an expression of sheer terror crossing his pale features. It was only now that Sisko realized that he had cried. His eyes were red and swollen, his face blushed and the remains of the tears still sticking to his cheeks. Julian's arms tightened awkwardly around his drawn-up knees when he stared terrified back at them as if they had just come out of his darkest nightmare.

"Julian, what... what happened?" Startled by the doctor's more than unexpected sight, Sisko's frown deepened when he tried to assess if his first impression hadn't been wrong and Bashir wasn't injured after all. The mere expression on the young man's face took him completely off guard, and made a cold chill pierce through him at the same time. There was so much longing and despair in those eyes, yet not a spark of recognition. Sisko had been prepared for much – but surely not this. What on earth had happened? Already about to reach for his tricorder to run a proper medical scan, Julian's sudden and fearful cringe made his hand involuntarily stop in midair.

The young man had ducked his head as if to make himself as small as possible, his face contorted into a painful grimace. "Please... " he finally stammered feebly under his breath, "...don't… don't hurt me." New tears were beginning to form in the corner of his shimmering eyes when he fearfully lifted his pleading gaze to Sisko.

Huddled in the darkness of his tiny cover, with his hunched shoulders and quivering lips, he reminded Sisko more of a frightened child than the first medical officer he'd been working with for the last six years. In all the time he had know Bashir now, he'd never seen him in such a battered, miserable condition. Not after his and Kira's severe episode in the mirror universe, not after his capture in a Dominion prison camp last year, not even after what had happened with Sloan. Seeing the once bright doctor with his usual self-confidence and passion huddled now so scared and distraught in front of him came like a sudden and painful blow. He found it hard to believe that the young man staring now back at him with those terrified eyes should be the same person they had separated from only hours before. What had happened? Not in the least sure what to make of – say nothing of how to respond to – Julian's fearful plea, he shot an alarmed glance at the young Trill next to him. The shock on her face told him that she, too, didn't have the merest clue as to what this was about.

Turning back to Bashir, he slowly raised his hands in a – what he hoped – calming gesture. He didn't even need to have a look at his tricorder to know that the young man was hovering on the brink of panic.

"Julian, you're safe. We won't hurt you," he intently said with still upraised hands. The words felt strange in his own ears, and the situation that made him utter them felt even stranger. Trying to muster as much sympathy as possible, he once again pushed: "Julian, can you tell me what happened? Are you hurt?"

He didn't seem to understand his words. Sisko wasn't even sure if he had any idea of who they were and where he was. Julian just kept staring at them in silent horror, his breath growing more and more chopped. Even in the room's dim twilight, it was obvious that he was shaking badly, his dark disheveled hair framing a face that had gone as white as chalk. He's in shock, that much is clear. Though Sisko didn't have the slightest idea what this shock could be due to. They hadn't encountered any Jem'Hadar on the way here – and there had been no traces of a fight. Julian didn't seem to be hurt and apart from Fernandez' and Julian's encounter with some Jem'Hadar that had cost the young ensign her life, there was practically nothing that would shed some light on why his first medical officer was cowering so frightened in the dark, shaking as if he had seen hell itself...

He bit back a curse when his thoughts spun back to the attack, his inner voice reminding him that they were slowly but surely running out of time. In this very moment, a file of Jem'Hadar soldiers might be on their way down here, surging through the lifeless streets of Northport to prevent the prisoners from escaping. Kira and Worf were already on their way back to the landing coordinates and would be safely back on board the Defiant in only a few more minutes. That only left them – and an army of furious Jem'Hadar soldiers set on the loose – in the elsewise deserted streets of Northport. The mere thought of it set free a rush of adrenaline. They had no time to waste. They had to get out of here. Now.

"Julian, listen to me. You're safe. No one will hurt you. But we have to get away from here. Do you understand me?" Sisko urged emphatically, not sure how much Bashir was able to grasp of the situation in his current condition. "The Defiant's waiting for us. Can you walk?" When he offered a helping hand, the young man shied away from the touch, panic slowly gaining the upper hand.

"No… no, I…" Bashir blurted out, trying to shove himself farther away from the captain's hand. For a moment, Sisko even feared that Bashir might lash out at him in a reflex of self defense.

"Julian, everything's okay. We're here to bring you home. No one is going to hurt you," now also Dax tried to get through to him, her voice soft and sympathetic when she locked her eyes with his. She, too, must have sensed that the situation out in the streets of Northport was not the only one that was running out of control.

Utterly unsure what to do, but at the same time painfully aware that they weren't getting anywhere, Sisko finally drew in a deep breath and made a decision. Their first priority was getting them all safely back to the Defiant. That was all that counted right now. With a short beckon toward the young Trill, he bent forward to take gentle hold of Julian's arm. A moment later, Dax was at his side, lending him a helping hand in his attempt to get the young man out of his cover. "It's okay, Julian. We won't hurt you. Everything's going to be alright," she once again tried to calm him when she felt him stiffen under her touch.

Eyes wide with fear, Bashir just stared at them, new tears suddenly rushing to the fore. "No… Mum…Dad... please," he desperately begged with trembling shoulders when he seemed to realized that they wouldn't just leave him alone. His unexpected words made Sisko halt for a moment, and elicited a confused look from the young Trill, though there was no time to dwell on it when Bashir suddenly tried to squirm free of their hold. His fighting them, however, was barely more than helpless suffering in the face of defeat. In the end, his weak resistance was anything but enough to defend himself against both of them, giving Dax and Sisko finally the opportunity to bring him out of his cover completely. Even when Sisko braced him to bring him up to his feet, Julian didn't dare face them, his features twisted into a painful grimace, tears uncontrollably streaming down his pallid cheeks. Interrupted by sporadic sobs he constantly babbled about being sorry, about never having wanted to do anything wrong.

"Julian, look at me. You're safe. No one is going to hurt you. Do you understand me?" Swallowing hard against the tightness in her throat, Jadzia tried to ignore the queasiness in her own stomach when she softly took his ashen face between her hands and forced his gaze to meet her's. When her eyes met his, it was as if he didn't realize that she was there at all. He kept staring through her, though behind those clouded eyes she could sense the terror that held his mind captured, making him see things no one else could.

And then, his legs all of a sudden and without forewarning gave way, making him double over and sag to the floor hadn't Sisko reacted in time to catch his falling body, easing him cautiously to the floor. Julian had lost consciousness. He barely seemed to breath at all, his exhausted body only braced by the captain who shot an alarmed look at Dax.

"Go ahead and tell Evans. I'll follow in a minute."

Nodding, the young Trill reluctantly drew herself up. "You sure you can handle him?" she asked in concern, when she tapped on her wrist beacon.

Placing an arm around Julian's unconscious body and draping one of the young man's arms over his shoulders, Sisko dragged him slowly up from the dusty ground. Despite his slender form, Julian was heavier than he'd first expected. He'd manage, though. He'd have rather not moved him as long as they couldn't be sure it was safe to do so but staying here any minute longer was out of the question. Unconscious, Bashir at least couldn't put up a fight. With a short nod, he beckoned Dax to take the lead and without another look back he followed her out into the darker corridor.

Bringing them both down the endless stairs from the second floor seemed like half an eternity to Sisko, each step through the darkness increasing his worry, each step making him wonder what could have happened to Julian and Fernandez' after their separation from the others. No matter how he thought about it, he wouldn't come up with a plausible explanation. Dragging Julian with him at his side, recalling the young man's utter look of despair, he had the bad feeling that after all what had happened during the last years, this time it had been too much. One blow to much – and even Bashir had finally shattered. He didn't know what this blow had been – and he refused to believe that he had lost his first medical officer and friend for good. But still, with Fernandez and Williams dead and Bashir obviously not himself, Sisko felt the bitter taste that again victory had been bought at its price.

When he finally stepped down the last few moss-covered stairs into the bright and warm sunlight of Atholes III, Evans and Dax were already anxiously waiting for him. The older captain's usually gentle features were drawn into a worried frown when he saw them emerge from the building. Slinging his phaser rifle onto his back, he came hurrying over to help Sisko brace Bashir. "What happened?" Evans glanced in alarm at Dax and Sisko, then at the unconscious young man in their middle. "Is he okay?"

Slightly out of breath, Sisko just shook his head. He was literally lost for words. "We don't know yet. We found him inside on the second floor. He doesn't seem to be injured but..." he let the rest of the sentence taper off. They could discuss everything as soon as they were on safe ground. "He'll need medical attention. First we have to get back to the Defiant, I will explain everything later," he simply said.

Scowling, the elder captain nodded and without a further word, he stepped decisively forward and lifted Julian up in his arms. Even though he held the weight of a grown up man in his arms, Evans didn't so much as blink. His face had a sorrowful tint to it, like a man who had seen all too many of his comrades getting lost along the way. "Got you, Julian. Just hang on, you hear me," he commanded under his breath. And with a quick glance at the others, he said: "Let's get the hell out of here."

Unsure, Sisko turned one last time toward the old house, an unpleasant chill gripping his guts at the sight. Then he nodded. Somehow he had the bad feeling that this was just the beginning… He tried to shake it off. They were finally going home. For the time being he was just glad to turn his back on all of this.

"Signal to the Defiant that we're on our way."