"The U.S.S. Morning Star was exploring a nebula along the Cardassian border when they found this." Sisko gestured to the monitor, which now displayed a damaged Jem'Hadar warship. "It appears that they suffered an engine overload. The Morning Star sent a team over to investigate, but there was no sign of the crew and all the critical equipment was missing."
Kira interrupted. "You think the Jem'Hadar got off the ship when it was disabled and took anything important with them."
"Exactly, and they had to go somewhere, and someone had to take them there. Starfleet Command thinks there may still be Jem'Hadar hiding in the nebula, and they want us to take the Defiant to investigate."
Julian frowned. "The Cardassian border isn't exactly next door. Couldn't the Morning Star look into it?"
"The Morning Star is a research vessel; if there are Jem'Hadar in the nebula, it wouldn't stand a chance. Starfleet is spread too thin to send other ships in unless there is a definite threat, and the Defiant is available." Sisko's face darkened. "If there are Jem'Hadar in that nebula, then they are a threat to all life in the Alpha Quadrant. They have to be removed. Colonel, you're in command of the station. The rest of you be ready to leave within four hours. Dismissed."
As everyone headed for the door, Ezri approached Sisko. "Do you have a minute, Benjamin?"
"Of course." Sisko waited until the rest had left. "What's on your mind, old man?"
"You don't need a Counselor to track down some Jem'Hadar."
"No, but I do need someone with a background in engineering and science."
"You already have the Chief, and you could take Ensign ch'Thane with you. He is your new science officer."
"Ensign ch'Thane isn't familiar with the Defiant yet. Besides, he doesn't have your experience."
"Jadzia's experience." Ezri corrected.
Sisko shrugged. "I suppose." Seeing the look on Ezri's face, he asked, "Is something wrong?"
"I'm not comfortable going on a mission just so you can have access to my previous hosts. I'm not Jadzia, I'm not Curzon, I'm Ezri."
"I don't have much of a choice. We're shorthanded, and I need your help. I need you on the Defiant, along with Jadzia, Curzon, and all the others. I need you to be Dax."
Ezri sighed. "Is that an order?"
"If it has to be." Sisko looked at his friend, concerned. "Is everything alright? You don't seem like yourself."
"I'm fine, Ben. Just a lot on my mind right now."
"If there's anything I can do…"
"I appreciate it, but this is something I need to figure out on my own. Now if you'll excuse me, I better get ready to leave." She headed for the door.
"Ezri." She turned back to Sisko. "Thank you."
Ezri smiled at her oldest friend. "Anytime, Ben." She meant it, too. Ben was there for her when she needed him, and she would do everything she could in order to help him, even if it meant being someone she wasn't.
News of the Jem'Hadar ship spread quickly. Aria was amazed by how fast people could fall into a panic. She could see it in their eyes, the way they were rushing around the station, trying to make sure things were in order before the Defiant left. The fear of war was a powerful thing and, in Aria's opinion, an unnecessary one. All this fuss over a lone Jem'Hadar ship; for all anyone knew, it could have been floating around in that nebula since the Dominion entered the Alpha Quadrant. There was no solid proof that the Dominion still had forces in the Alpha Quadrant, and Aria wasn't going to be reduced to panic until that proof was found.
She saw Odo moving through the crowd. Cutting through the throngs of people, Aria caught up to him and matched his pace. Odo didn't even glance at her. "What is it, Lieutenant?"
"I hear you're taking the Defiant to investigate the Jem'Hadar ship."
And where did you hear that?"
"It's not exactly a secret, sir. I also heard that Lieutenant Malloy's sick, and that he won't be able to go on the mission."
"I want to take his place, sir."
Odo stopped walking and turned to face Aria. "Do you really expect me to assign a new security officer to such an important mission, especially one with your history? Not a chance."
Aria refused to back down. "You told me I need to do better if I want to serve on this station. How can I do that if you won't give me a chance? Besides, I fought plenty of Jem'Hadar during the War. If you leave me behind, you'll only be hurting yourselves."
Odo and Aria stared each other down for several moments. Finally, Odo nodded. "Alright, Lieutenant. You can join the mission, but understand this: you are to follow my orders completely and without question. Disobey me, and I'll have you shipped out on the next transport. Do I make myself clear?"
"The Defiant leaves in 30 minutes. I suggest you get onboard." Odo continued on his way, leaving Aria alone but triumphant. She would do what Odo told her, but she would make sure he realized what she could really do in the process.
The atmosphere on the bridge of the Defiant was subdued; it was the first time they had taken the ship out since the end of the war. The only person who had any kind of energy was Ensign Prynn Tenmei, the new helmsman. She arrived on the station a few days earlier along with security officer Lieutenant Aria Mahoney and Ensign Thirishar ch'Thane, the new Andorian science officer. Prynn hadn't expected to go on a mission so soon, and she was bursting with nerves and excitement, Chief O'Brien couldn't help but smile at her enthusiasm. He remembered feeling the same way on his first mission. He saw Lieutenant Mahoney when he came onboard, but she didn't seem to share any of Ensign Tenmei's enthusiasm. She had more experience than the Ensign, and Miles knew that after a few missions, Tenmei would conduct herself with the same level of seriousness as Mahoney. For some reason, that saddened Miles.
Pushing the Ensign out of his mind, Miles redirected his attention back to the problem at hand. He knew the Defiant inside and out, but Nog had made several repairs and upgrades in his absence. He was a smart kid, but still young, and Miles hadn't gotten the chance to familiarize himself with all the changes. Julian wasn't helping his concentration, either. The Doctor was sitting at his station next to Miles, but he kept letting out long sighs and glancing over his shoulder at Ezri. Without looking away from his console, Miles said, "Staring at her isn't going to make her forgive you."
Julian turned to his friend, his face anxious. "She's acting like I don't even exist! What am I supposed to do?"
"Look, I get you're going through a rough time right now, but you've got to focus. Your problems with Ezri are gonna have to wait until we get back."
Miles wasn't the only one who noticed Julian's distress. Worf was growing curious about the constant glances Julian was throwing Ezri's way and why she was ignoring him. Finally, he asked, "Has Doctor Bashir done something to make you angry?"
"You could say that."
"Would you like me to speak with him?"
Ezri smiled despite herself. "I don't think that's necessary." Sisko entered the bridge. "We're ready to leave when you are, Captain."
Sisko nodded at her and took his place in the Captain's chair. "Disengage docking clamps. Ensign, take her out, and set course for the Cardassian border."
Reaching the nebula was no problem; the challenge was searching it for the Jem'Hadar. The nebula was interfering with long range sensors, so they wouldn't know the Jem'Hadar were there until they got into visual range. Everyone was on edge, but Aria was enjoying herself. Going on missions like this was one of the reasons she joined Starfleet, not for research expeditions or diplomatic relations. The threat of danger excited her in ways she couldn't describe, and she was longing to see some action. Aria decided to go up to the bridge. If anything was going to happen, it would be there.
No one paid much attention to Aria as she entered the bridge, which suited her just fine. She gazed at the faces of the bridge officers; they were all tense and serious. Captain Sisko and Odo were in the back, talking quietly. Aria managed to tune in to their conversation.
"What I want to know is why there are still Jem'Hadar in the Alpha Quadrant." Sisko was saying. "They were supposed to leave with the others when the Dominion withdrew."
"I don't believe it was an accident, Captain." Odo remarked dryly.
"You think they were left behind on purpose?"
"That or they got lost on the way home. Very lost."
"There's something else on your mind, Constable."
Odo snorted. "I doubt a group of Jem'Hadar would be trusted to carry out a covert operation on their own. Someone has to be commanding them."
"Or a Vorta, at least. This isn't going to be a simple scouting mission, Captain. If we do encounter any Jem'Hadar, we'll have a fight on our hands."
"Captain!" Everyone started at Ensign Tenmei's sudden cry. She pointed to the viewscreen, where a dark mass was growing larger and larger.
"Red alert." Sisko moved behind Tenmei. "Move us in closer, Ensign. Nice and slow."
All eyes were fixed on the viewscreen as the dark mass grew more defined, revealing it to be a space station. Aria was the first to speak. "It's a Jem'Hadar breeding facility. They were supposed to be destroyed."
"Dax, are there any Jem'Hadar ships in the area?" Sisko asked.
Ezri checked the sensors. "Nothing close by, Captain."
"Scan the station. Are there any life signs aboard?"
Ezri shook her head. "None. The station does have an atmosphere, though."
Sisko took a deep breath. "Chief, Doctor, Odo, you're with me." He turned to Aria. "Do you know the layout of these facilities?" She nodded. "Then I want you to come, too. Commander Worf, you have the bridge."
As Julian followed Sisko and the others, he tried one final time to get Ezri's attention. For a moment, their eyes met, but then she turned away. Julian tried to put his hurt feeling aside, but it was hard. Miles was right, though; he had to stay focused. After this mission, he could concentrate on getting Ezri to forgive him, but right now, his priority was getting in and out of a Jem'Hadar base alive.
Ezri turned to face Worf. "They've beamed over."
The Klingon nodded in acknowledgement. "Keep the comm open. I want to know if they encounter any difficulties. Be sure that you maintain a constant transporter lock as well." Worf addressed Sisko over the comm. "Is there anyone over there, Captain?"
Sisko's voice replied. "There doesn't appear to be."
Aria's voice sounded over the comm. "Captain, we should try to locate the station's reactor. If we have to destroy it, it would be more effective to place charges there."
"Alright. Bashir, go with her. Chief, see if you can get anything from the computer system."
The commline fell silent as the away team attended to their duties. Prynn began tapping her fingers against the helm as they waited for an update. Worf glared at her. "Stop that."
Tenmei jumped guiltily. "Sorry."
"Be nice, Worf." Ezri chided. She smiled at Prynn. "Is this your first assignment?"
"Third, actually. Guess I still haven't gotten the hang of waiting around."
Suddenly, a shout from Doctor Bashir interrupted their conversation. Sisko immediately hailed him. "What happened, Doctor? Are you alright?"
Ezri anxiously waited for Julian to reply. As angry as she was with him, she didn't want to see him hurt.
Aria's amused voice answered Sisko. "Everything's fine, Captain. The Doctor just wasn't paying attention to where he was going."
Julian's grumbles sounded over the comm. "You think the Jem'Hadar would be more concerned with cleaning up after themselves." Suddenly, his voice changed. "Captain, I think I found something."
"What is it, Doctor?"
Aria took in a sharp breath. "There's a room just across the hall, Captain. It's being used to produce Ketracel White."
Julian continued. "It doesn't seem to be of the same nutritional value as what the Jem'Hadar used during the War, but it's definitely White, and someone's been using it."
There was a long silence, and then Sisko asked, "Is there anything on the computer that we can use, Chief?"
"Negative, sir. Someone wiped the memory core."
"Mahoney, get to the reactor and plant your charges. Whoever's using this facility isn't going to have something to come back to. Defiant, prepare to beam us out on my signal. Sisko out."
Ezri shared a look with Worf. It looked like there were still Jem'Hadar in the Alpha Quadrant. Whether they were left behind by accident or on purpose didn't matter, they were a threat to the fragile peace that the Federation was trying to uphold. The threat of a new war was beginning to rear its ugly head, and no one could predict what would happen next.
After the Jem'Hadar facility was destroyed, the Defiant began the trip back to Deep Space 9. Sisko had contacted Starfleet Command to inform them of their discovery, and they would assign ships to patrol the nebula in case there were still Jem'Hadar in the area. Ezri was worried about how this was going to affect the station's morale. After the Dominion's surrender, her office had been full of people who needed her help. Some had lost friends, others their families, and some were just trying to come to terms with what they had done on the battlefield. She had done her best to help them, but in the end, only time could heal their wounds. Now they would be forced to abandon their healing process in order to respond to the Jem'Hadar threat. Ezri entered the turbo lift. Hopefully this was just an isolated incident, and they wouldn't have to go back to war.
The lift doors were about to close when Julian caught them. When he saw Ezri, he hesitated, but entered anyway. Ezri refused to acknowledge him; she wasn't ready to forgive him. For several moments, they rode the lift in silence. Julian was the first to speak. "How long are you going to avoid me?"
Ezri didn't even look at him as she answered. "I'm not ignoring you. I just don't feel like talking to you."
"But I need to talk to you."
"Well, that's too bad!"
"Why won't you let me explain?"
"I don't have time for this." Ezri turned away, but Julian grabbed her arm. "Let go of me!"
"Ezri, I swear I didn't mean to call you Jadzia. Try to understand-."
"I understand better than you think." She hissed. "You still love Jadzia, and you never loved me. The only reason you're with me is because I gave you the chance she never did!"
Julian's voice was cold. "Is that what you think? That I would stoop that low?"
"I don't know what to think." The lift doors slid open. "Now let me go." Julian released her, but the hurt look on his face almost made Ezri feel guilty. Almost. "Just leave me alone."
"I can't." He whispered.
"Try." Ezri stormed off. How dare he try to make her feel guilty; make it seem like he was the victim. He hurt her, and she wanted him to feel as awful as she did. Ezri was surprised by the vicious thought. Just a few days ago, she couldn't imagine not having Julian Bashir in her life. Now…
Ezri stopped in the middle of the hall. Did she really want to end her relationship with Julian? Was she willing to throw away all the happiness they had shared together? If Julian really was still in love with Jadzia, then the choice was obvious. But what if he did love her? What if calling her Jadzia was simply an accident? And there was also the fact that Ezri loved Julian with all her heart. If this was just a misunderstanding, then leaving him would be a mistake. Ezri shook her head, trying to clear it. Right now, she needed some time to think. One thing that remained constant through the lives of the Dax hosts is that love was never easy.
Aria could sense that something was wrong. She couldn't put her finger on it, but something was out of place, and she was determined to figure out what it was. She roamed the halls, trying to locate the source of her discomfort. Aria went around the corner, and ran right in Ezri.
"Sorry, Counselor. Excuse me."
"Where are you going?"
"I'm going…" Further down the hall, Aria heard a door open and close. "There!" She tore down the corridor, Ezri following her. There was only one door in that area, and it led to the weapons locker. Aria slid to a halt in front of it, and knelt to examine the console.
Ezri caught up to her. "Do you mind telling me what this is all about?"
"Just following a hunch."
"A hunch? You're running around the ship based on a hunch?"
"Yup." Aria pried off the console casing and tossed it aside, examining the wiring inside.
Ezri knelt down as well. "What is it?"
Aria allowed herself a grim smile. "You see these relays? Someone fused them to get access to the weapons locker. Since they didn't use their security code…"
"They probably didn't have one to begin with." Ezri finished.
Aria nodded. "Which means they shouldn't be on this ship in the first place. Console's useless, but I think I can still get in. Give me a second."
"Don't you think we should call for help?"
"Trust me, Counselor; I can handle whatever's in there." The door slid open, revealing two Jem'Hadar soldiers.
For a second, both groups stared at each other. Then the Jem'Hadar started firing. Aria managed to duck and roll out of the way, but Ezri wasn't fast enough. A blast from one of their rifles hit her in the stomach, and she fell to the ground. She didn't get back up.
Aria took cover on the other side of the door. She hit her commbadge, yelling, "This is Mahoney. Jem'Hadar are onboard! I repeat, there are Jem'Hadar on the ship!" Without waiting to confirm if anyone heard her, Aria grabbed her phaser and returned fire. Most of her shots missed, but she managed to hit one in the face, and he went down. Unfortunately, Aria had to expose herself in order to shoot him, and his companion shot her in the shoulder. Gritting her teeth through the pain, Aria managed to hit him in the chest. The corridor fell silent. Aria's shoulder burned as she crawled over to Ezri. She shook her gently, but she didn't wake up. Aria's world was growing dark. Security officers suddenly filled the hall, and the last thing Aria remembered seeing was Odo's face before she passed out.
Woohoohoo! That was exciting, wasn't it? If you're confused as to how the Jem'Hadar got onboard (magic, duh!), don't worry; I'll explain it next chapter. Until then, you're just going to have to deal with yet another cliffy. Fun fact: I actually did not create Prynn Tenmei or Thirishar ch'Thane. They're characters from the DS9 relaunch novels. I strongly recommend reading them; they're very good. Review and I'll update faster!