60,060-60,062 (Kurillian calendar)

"A skimmer."

"You don't like it?"

Eris, her arms crossed over her chest, leaned against the doorframe, looking out into the garage that, until today, had always been empty. "It's not that I don't like it." Casting her eye over the personal, two-seater skimmer that was now sitting, powered down, on the ground, she turned to look at him and asked, "Can you drive it?"

"No," Weyoun said brightly. "But how difficult can it be to learn?"

"Hm. Famous last words." She stepped into the garage, peering more closely at the skimmer, her arms still crossed over her chest. "Do we need a personal skimmer?"

Weyoun watched her inspection of his purchase, made, even he had to admit, somewhat impulsively. Still, the idea of owning one had appealed to him for awhile. They seemed…well, fun. "Need is such a relative term," he said.


A deep roll of thunder vibrated in the house and Weyoun's bones, and the rain drummed harder on the roof for a moment or two. "We can afford it, if you're concerned about that," he said.

Eris pursed her lips. "I'm aware of the cost of this model of skimmer, and I'm likewise aware of the state of our finances."

"So any objection you have will be of a more personal nature."

"I never said I'm objecting." Eris paused and smiled faintly. "I haven't decided yet. It's just very…extravagant. In more ways than one."

His tone dry, Weyoun remarked, "You'll be amused to know that Leto pointed out that an entire slum neighborhood could eat for a year for the cost of it."

"An exaggeration," Eris replied. "If not by that much." Then, with a shrug, she said, "Well, I certainly won't drive it, but if you will, then I can't see anything wrong with having it. And—by the way, Leto was aware of this development and I wasn't?"

This last part was added teasingly, so Weyoun gave her a half-smile and replied, "Sometimes I run things by her. She normally reacts in exactly the opposite way that you do—it can be most clarifying."

With a snort of amusement, Eris asked, "And how does she feel about this addendum to her duties as your senior aide?"

"She says she uses the same technique and that my likes are an excellent predictor of her girlfriend's aversions."

"That serves you right." She put a hand on the skimmer's raised back and glanced over at him. "You will have enough sense not to go to a disreputable holo-arcade program to learn how to drive this?"

With a slight wounded note in his voice, he said, "Eris, I'm eminently sensible." When she just raised an eyebrow, he heaved a long-suffering sigh and replied, "Of course. I'll find a qualified instructor."

"Good," she said. "Considering that we still haven't managed to have that child, I'd like you around for a little longer."

"Even if you may end up with a child genetically predisposed to be a skimmer driver?"

"I'll take my chances." She looked upwards as lightning flickered through the skylight, then moved to stand next to him, slipping an arm around his waist. "Once you learn how to drive it," she said, emphasizing this proviso with a twitch of a smile, "you'll take me for a ride?"

"Nothing would give me greater pleasure."

"You know, if this is a nascent daredevil spirit burgeoning within you, you might find yourself on an orbital if you aren't careful."

"Maybe the mining fleet."

With an amused snort, Eris said, "I can just see it."

Smiling slightly at her, he said, "Well, for the moment, I'm content with two feet on Kurill. We'll see how I feel after I take the skimmer out, though."

She turned and looped her arms around his neck. "You know, there's something appealing about the idea of you piloting an orbital. You might have missed your calling."

That made him chuckle. "I don't think so. I'm well enough suited to manipulating events from the ground, don't you think?"

She kissed him lightly. "Well enough."

The drive to explore the universe may have been Deimos's and the other astronauts motivation for going into orbit, but pragmatism and economic reality demanded that the pursuit of knowledge give way to the pursuit of natural resources—specifically, establishing mining operations on Kurill's smaller moon, Soura. When it was found that the planetside dilithium seams were even smaller than previously thought, it became imperative to get the facility built, online, and shipping Kurill's main source of energy back to the planet.

It was, to say the least, an expensive project. In addition to the facility itself, new ships would be needed, and eventually the mining fleet consisted of six purpose-built ships. The facility was mostly automated, as mining operations had been on Kurill for centuries, but a few Vorta still needed to be stationed on Soura at the facility, and so what was an expensive lunar mining station became an exorbitant lunar base. The only way to afford it without bankrupting the government was for private companies to invest, and they did—Yelar Industries led the way. There was, of course, opposition to the government's financial contribution within the ranks of the Council, but the specter of energy shortages brought about a majority vote for the funding.

With the money secured, progress was swift on the mining facility. The research and exploration that the orbitals had done, including landing on Soura and Vrilla, was put to good use, and by the time 60,061 began with the Effulgence Festival, it was ready to be put into operation. Most dilithium was coming from Soura by the monsoon, when the specially designed shuttles were able to continue landing through the rain and hail. It was well-timed, because if the new source of dilithium hadn't slowed production down at the planetside mining complexes, the dwindling supply would have—there was no longer enough pure dilithium in any of the known seams to support Kurill's infrastructure.

Weyoun and Eris discovered her second pregnancy in 60,062, in Fourthmonth, which put her due date at the beginning of the monsoon in 60,063. Tests showed her chances of another miscarriage to be lower than the average for second pregnancies—the fact that she'd carried the first fetus so long was a good sign, the obstetrician informed them as he showed them the test results. 'Cautiously optimistic' was the phrase he used, a prevarication, but one that both Weyoun and Eris welcomed, even if neither of them said it at first.

It would, in fact, be several weeks before they brought her pregnancy up at all between themselves, and Weyoun did it without preamble, announcing idly one evening, "I think the baby should have your name even if it's a boy."

"What?" Eris's voice floated in from the other room.

He sat back in the interface chair, finished clearing his personal inbox, and turned, facing her as she came into the living room. "The baby. If it's a boy he should still have your name."

Furrowing her brow, she asked, "Why? What's wrong with your name?" When he just raised an eyebrow, she scoffed. "Oh, Weyoun, please. No one cares about the caste you were born into. Your name is just a name."

"Then you shouldn't mind our possible son having yours," he replied mildly.

She dropped her shoulders in a sigh and came over to him, putting a hand on the back of the chair. He tilted his head back to gaze up at her and she said, "Of course I don't mind. I just don't like that you're so…sensitive about something that doesn't matter."

"Doesn't it?" he asked, raising his eyebrows. "I never really told you what they said about me when Soltoi was trying to get me chased out of the Complex—"

"I saw it," she interrupted gently. "And I knew you didn't want me to, so I never said anything."

He smiled, then chuckled. "Ah, so the foundation of our relationship is built on lies."

"Omissions," she corrected him, a small, crooked smile on her face. She leaned against him and kissed his forehead.

"Hm." He rested the side of his head on her stomach, which hadn't begun to swell yet, and wouldn't for another month or two. "Then you know everything that my name implies about me."

"The people that think it implies anything about you are idiots," she said crisply.

Putting an arm around her waist, he replied, "They may be idiots, but I still don't see any reason to shackle our child with a slum name."

"Weyoun." She leaned backwards so that she could look him in the eye. "You're a senator. That's what your name means."

"Your naïvety about caste is one of the reasons I love you so much." When Eris pursed her lips at him, Weyoun grinned and pulled her to him again. She draped her arms around his neck and rested her cheek on his head. "Eris, I treasure your enlightened sensibilities on this, but senator or not, my name means one thing and one thing only to some people: I'm gutter-scum, and I'll always be gutter-scum." He rubbed her back. "Besides, 'Arethon' has a perfectly fine ring to it, doesn't it?"

She made a vague noise and he knew he'd won. "I don't approve of this."

"I know."

"I think you're just feeding into the caste system."

"I know." He took one of her hands in his and kissed her palm. "But thank you for understanding."

With a quiet sniff, she straightened and put a hand on his shoulder. "I don't understand, but I know it means something to you that it doesn't to me."

"That's close enough to understanding for me." A tone sounded on the interface and he got to his feet. "You must have a message. Do you want something to drink?" he asked over his shoulder as he went into the kitchen.

"No, better save what's left of that bottle for tomorrow," she replied as she slid into the chair. "The department meeting's going to be especially tedious."

Pouring himself a glass of water, he chuckled and asked, "And why is that?"

Eris didn't respond, and Weyoun looked at her, about to repeat the question, when he noticed her staring intensely at the interface screen. "This is odd," she said after a minute.

"What?" he asked, rejoining her.

"I can't access the interface." Eris tapped at the keys of the terminal. "At all."

Weyoun stood next to her and cocked his head at the display. Then, pointing towards the top corner of the screen, he said, "The local network's still up, though."

Her eyes flicked to the network indicator. "You're right. That's…strange. I've never seen that happen before."

He reached across her and pulled up the local network information. The signal strength showed as normal, but the connection to one of the higher nodes was broken. There was no way to tell which one, or where the problem was. "I've never seen the interface go down," he said, baffled, still not quite believing that it had. "Not even during the monsoon."

Neither of them moved or spoke for a moment, and then, restlessly, Eris got to her feet and went to the window. It was open, the house flooded with the scent of damas blossoms, but Weyoun didn't think that was the reason she was waiting there. Several minutes passed, but when nothing happened, her shoulders tensed. She'd been waiting, he knew, for the faint whooshing sound of a train passing by, its sound funneled upwards through trees and along pathways. There was never more than a thirteen minute delay between them; and the sound of their passing was something any Vorta living within earshot of them became accustomed to, enough for both of them to know that it was past time for one to have gone by. "I don't think the metro's running," she said.

The metro depended on the interface for most of its operation—timetables, arrivals and departures, track changes—all of it was networked, just like almost everything on Kurill. They depended on their communications grid maybe more than anything else on their world. "So now we're hoping that this outage isn't catastrophic," Weyoun murmured. Then, with a sinking feeling, he added, "Which, if Ground Control is affected, it could be." The thought of the orbitals and the dilithium shuttles being cut off was…alarming.

"Ground Control has an internal network," Eris pointed out.

Putting his hands on the back of the chair and staring at the screen, where that indicator blinked no signal, Weyoun said, "And their own servers. But with a wide enough outage, that wouldn't matter." He turned to look at her. "And there's no way to know with the interface down."

Eris raised an eyebrow. "You could take the skimmer to Ground Control."

His lips thinned at the idea. "Every traffic signal and metro crossing will be out between here and there if the problem is widespread," he said. "It will be chaos on the roads."

Her expression didn't change. "Then make sure to wear the seat restraints."

He hesitated for a moment, trying to make up his mind. Since escaping from the slums, he'd never been disconnected from the interface—and even gutter-scum had access to it, if not all the time. But for anyone of a higher caste than the poorest of the poor, the interface was like an extension of oneself, a way to stay constantly in connection with the world. Of course anyone could choose to ignore their interface calls and messages, but in the end there remained the basic fact of that choice, and that one could reconnect at any time. The absence of that fact was becoming more and more overwhelming. "I'm not sure how I feel about leaving you here with no way for us to contact each other," he finally said.

"Weyoun." She crossed her arms over her chest. "What could possibly happen to me? You had better be careful, though." There was just enough concern in her eyes that he could tell that she didn't particularly want him to leave. But she also knew him well enough to realize that if she hadn't suggested he go, then he would have suggested it himself.

With another glance at the network indicator, he made up his mind. "I'll be back as soon as I can," he said, kissing her quickly. She just pursed her lips in a wry smile and turned back to the window as he left.

The reception desk at Ground Control was abandoned, and so after standing there for a moment, Weyoun set his mouth in a line, exhaled sharply, and ducked around the desk into the facility's main hallway.

The ambient noise level rocketed. Ground Control staff were hurrying down the hall, in and out of offices, and slamming doors. He avoided colliding with anyone and got to Deimos's office door just as Deimos himself opened it. For a second, the other man stared, but then he grabbed Weyoun's arm and bodily hauled him into the room, slamming the door shut. "Weyoun, I am not in the mood for any political grandstanding, so if that's why you're here—"

"What's going on?" Weyoun interrupted. The idea of grandstanding had fleetingly occurred to him until he'd seen the extent of the problem during the drive to Ground Control. Tira City was irrefutably disconnected from the interface for the first time in living memory. And if Tira City was disconnected, that likely meant that other cities were as well, not to mention the exurbs and the hinterlands. Ironically, of course, there was no way to know. With the interface down, there was no way to contact anyone.

The harried expression on Deimos's face only increased, and with an out-of-character expletive, he whirled, threw the door open, and stalked into the corridor. Weyoun took that as an invitation to follow him.

As they made their way down the hallway, Ground Control staff rushing around them, Deimos said in a quick, tight voice, "It's a disaster. We've completely lost contact with the orbitals up there."

"And the mining fleet?" Weyoun asked.

"The same. We had three ships en route, two inbound and one outbound, and we have no idea if the mining facility's still transmitting for the latter to dock there." Deimos reached a door and flung it open, bringing Weyoun into the control room itself. If it had been chaotic outside, then it was sheer bedlam inside. Panicked Vorta were shouting back and forth to each other across the room, running to different interface consoles and sometimes trying to man two or three at once. It didn't seem to affect Deimos, who kept striding forward, continuing in the same tone, "But we don't think the Soura facility is transmitting."

"And what makes you say that?" Weyoun asked as the two of them reached a console, which was occupied by a young man who looked just as frantic as everyone else.

Instead of answering, Deimos grabbed the young man's shoulder and said, "Seleth, what's the status on the servers?"

Seleth jumped at the contact, as though he hadn't realized anyone was there. Then, gaining a modicum of composure, he answered, "The same. Receiving—if there was anything to receive. It's like something hit all our relay satellites at once."

The idea turned Weyoun cold, and Deimos hissed, "Don't speculate about that if you can't back it up with any evidence." Duly chastised, Seleth clamped his mouth shut, and Deimos said, "Check them again. Make absolutely sure there's nothing wrong with them." The other man nodded swiftly and hurried off, and Deimos took over the console that he'd been using. His fingers flickered across the keyboard and Weyoun watched as several graphs popped up.

"What makes me say that," Deimos said, finally addressing Weyoun's question, "is that we haven't heard from Soura Mining Station in two days." He stared at the graphs but offered no explanation of what they were, so Weyoun peered more closely at them. They appeared to be a record of the communications between Ground Control and Soura Station. The top one continued until flat-lining at a timestamp about an hour and a half earlier, clearly when Tira City had gone off the communications grid. The bottom showed a similar pattern but flat-lined, as Deimos had said, two days earlier. "I've been staring at this and every other data aggregation we have for the comm ever since it happened and I don't see anything that could have caused it. No power spike, no comm spike, nothing wrong in our servers and nothing wrong in theirs until they stopped pinging back."

"So it does look like something took out the communications array," Weyoun said in a low tone.

Deimos turned to look at him. "But there's nothing that could take down the array," he said, sounding, for the first time that Weyoun could ever remember, desperate. "This is what we do. We watch these things. There are no solar storms, no solar flares, no solar wind, no ion storms, no meteor showers—as far as our intraorbital space with Soura's concerned, it's a clear, sunny day. Height of the dry season. There is literally nothing out there that could damage the communications satellite array."

"Then why," Weyoun asked bluntly, "is the communications grid down?"

Propping his elbows on the console and covering his face with his hands, Deimos said, "I don't know. I don't know, I'm not trained to know, and I have no way to get in contact with the people who do know. Not until the backup comm comes online and that could be hours or days or weeks for all I know."

"And in the meantime," Weyoun said, "there are three ships up there that can't land."

Deimos dropped his forearm down to the console and looked up at Weyoun. "Oh, they can land," he said. "They just have to do it without any uplink with us." He drew a deep breath and went on, almost to himself, "But it's not as though they're flying completely blind. All their sensors will still function."

"Deimos," Weyoun said, a note of urgency creeping into his tone, "we need those dilithium shipments to get through."

"The terrestrial facilities will have to be brought back up to full capacity," Deimos replied absently.

"If they can be. And there's no guarantee of that. In fact I think it's rather unlikely."

With an exasperated sigh, Deimos snapped, "Dilithium. I've got people up there and you're worried about dilithium."

Weyoun leaned closer to him and hissed, "For once in your life look past your academic shortsightedness. If those dilithium shipments don't get through, we're going to have power shortages. You know as well as I do that at this point we can't possibly mine and process enough of it to keep our infrastructure running."

A series of emotions flickered across Deimos's face, only one of them a quick anger. "I see your point," he said in a low tone. "But my first concern is my astronauts and their safety." He drew in a deep breath. "I can probably get a probe into orbit to check the status of the satellite array by tomorrow, but even in the best case scenario, the interface won't be restored for weeks while the probe makes its way around to all the satellites."

"You think it's that serious?" Weyoun asked quietly. The look on Deimos's face was affirmation enough, and Weyoun exhaled. "And what's the worst case scenario?"

After a long hesitation, Deimos said, "The worst case scenario is that the entire array needs to be replaced. And in that event, we'll be using the shoddy backup comm for months." He tilted his head down and pinched the bridge of his nose between two fingers before glancing up at Weyoun. "Is your house even wired?"

That was an excellent question. "I think so," he said, without much conviction.

"You'll find out soon enough." Deimos straightened up, reining in his weariness. The overwhelmed air that he'd been radiating went with it. "I'll do my best to make sure that dilithium shipments keep getting through. But without interface we can't run the fleet at full capacity. And I won't send anyone up there if there's any risk to their lives."

For a moment, Weyoun thought about arguing with him, but right now, his gut told him that he'd gotten as much of a guarantee as he was going to out of Deimos. "You'll let me know what's happening if you're able to?"

"No guarantees," Deimos replied. Then, he said, "I'd like to think you came here out of genuine concern. But you're just worried about political fallout, aren't you?"

Weyoun considered, briefly, allowing an expression of insincere hurt to slip across his face, but then reminded himself that this was Deimos. "Can't it be both?" he asked, and Deimos just waved the response away. With a last look around the chaos of the control room, he said, "I'm sure you'll find a way to get in touch with me." Then, without another word, he strode from Ground Control and back to his skimmer, preparing himself for the perilous drive home. He had a nasty feeling that it was metaphor—and insufficient metaphor at that—for the coming days.

Weyoun tossed the padd onto his desk, kneading his temple with one hand and staring at Kilana. "You know all of this is accurate?" he asked, flicking his eyes towards the padd.

"My media contacts seemed quite convinced." Kilana crossed her arms over her chest and glanced over at Leto, who was standing thoughtfully at the window, staring into the distance. "This is the information they've been given, in any case, and this is the information they'll release unless presented with something better."

Leto snorted without looking around. "Soltoi thinks that the way to stop energy shortage riots is to put a stop to the main shipments of dilithium—the disruption of which, of course, is what caused the shortages in the first place. Typical."

"Soltoi doesn't care about stopping riots," Kilana said, curling her lip. "She only cares that she lost face when Soura Station got funded."

"Personally, I think she hates that her friends over at Yelar funded so much of the project," Leto remarked. "She's become the quintessential sequestrist and yet her biggest ally in the private sector is dumping money into space exploration." After a pause, she added, "Or rather, space exploitation."

It was a week after the loss of the interface. The backup communications system had stuttered to life two days after it had gone down, and Tira City had slowly starting to function again. The city center was entirely wired to the backup system and there, at least, life returned more or less to normal. Communication with the rest of the planet was passable—bandwidth was limited on the backup system, but for most Vorta's purposes, it functioned.

Then the power started going out.

It was just in the Tira City slums at the moment—a conscious choice on the part of the power companies, who had felt that they'd face the least amount of backlash by blacking out the most destitute of Tira's residents. They were wrong, and the protests, and then riots, had begun almost immediately, and were only escalating as time went on.

"Unfortunately," Weyoun spoke up, causing both of his employees to look towards him, "those dilithium shipments aren't going to come from anywhere else. And if we disrupt the launch schedule we're going to be facing more than blackouts in Tira City slums. Pegrill, Dala, Dessa Center, Lora, Galata, the rest of Tira City—that's where the blackouts are going to hurt."

"It's going to hurt people like us," Kilana said. "It's not going to hurt Soltoi and her cronies. That compound that she calls a house probably has enough generators to power it for a year if the electric grid goes down."

"Luckily we have some time before we lose the entire grid," Weyoun said. "But we'll have to legislate rolling blackouts and no one wants to force that on their constituents."

Leto finally turned around. "Are you planning on supporting that measure?"

"There isn't much else I can do if I want to deal with the long term issues," he said heavily. "And debating Soltoi on those is a given. If she's really going to advocate moving back to terrestrial sources of dilithium, then she needs to be stopped."

The three of them lapsed into silence for several minutes, each lost in their own thoughts. Finally, though, Leto put her hands on her hips and looked at him directly. "Soltoi's right about one thing, though," she said, a certain indignation in her eyes that Weyoun had come to recognize over the years. "It's not an acceptable solution to cut power to the slums to conserve it for everyone else."

"Who do you think should make that noble sacrifice instead? Anyway, the rest of us will be there before long," Weyoun said, steepling his fingers on the desk.

"Yes, but that will be months," Leto insisted. "And in the meantime, people two kilometers away are living in the dark ages."

There was a time that Weyoun would have sniped that gutter-scum didn't live much better than that under normal circumstances, but now he didn't. "Soltoi may be right on that count," he said carefully, "even if she's only saying it as populist pandering. But what this situation underscores is that we need a hardier mining fleet, and preferably more than one source of dilithium. It was clearly a mistake to have only one main source of it."

"Isn't Senator Parnon working on legislation that says as much?" Kilana asked.

Weyoun stared at his hands, answering without looking at her, "Yes, legislation that no one but our senior aides is supposed to know about. I know," he added when she opened her mouth to respond. "You have your sources."

"I wouldn't be much of a publicity staffer if I didn't," she said with a faint smile.

There was an expression of intense thoughtfulness on Leto's face, and she chewed at her thumbnail during this exchange. "I think we need to expedite it," she said suddenly. "Beat Soltoi at her own game. We can pander just as well as she can."

"And we have a just cause," Kilana added with sarcastic grandiosity.

Weyoun glanced up, smiling slightly at Kilana, but looking towards Leto. "I think you're right. If we're going to convince people that sequestrism isn't the answer, then we need to provide them with a worthwhile alternative."

"Extraplanetary travel," Leto said.


No one said another word for a long moment, but finally, Weyoun got decisively to his feet. "Kilana—your friends in the press."

"Are always delighted to hear from me," she finished for him, flipping her hair over her shoulder in mockery of the coquettishness she used to great effect in her work. "Even more so when I have exciting news about legislation that affects the future of our entire planet."

He couldn't help grinning at her before saying, "Leto, build the case. You know what the challenges will be." Leto nodded briskly and he added, "I'll see Foros today. With any luck, the riots will get better and we'll be able to concentrate on writing legislation."

Leto glanced over her shoulder at the window again and Weyoun followed her gaze. The office faced out towards Kiyu, and a few threads of smoke were visible, rising from cooking fires. "We'll need electricity for that," she said. "And right now, that's something that no one can legislate."

The riots didn't get better. They got much, much worse, spreading from the worst of the slums to districts like Kiyu, those borderlands between the gutter and respectability. Fires were started, both by Vorta innocently trying to replace their disrupted power supply with some form of light and heat, and by arsonists, and entire neighborhoods were consumed. The governor of Tira Exarchate set up emergency shelters which were flooded with displaced people from the affected districts. Hospitals were overwhelmed by injuries—blunt trauma, lacerations, even stab wounds, as the violence escalated. There wasn't an official death toll, mostly because it was difficult to separate deaths caused by the rioting from typical slum mortality rates, but no one really doubted that people were dying.

Weyoun, when he was home, found himself developing a marked propensity for sleeplessness. He was not, by nature, a restless man, and so he would lie in bed in the darkness, trying to force himself to listen to Eris's slow breathing, but more often than not unable to hear it for the whirl of thoughts in his head. The Council was gridlocked by arguments on how to deal with the riots, how to handle the dilithium supply, how to keep the planet running effectively on the back-up comm grid for the long-term. He'd assumed his stillness would allow her to sleep undisturbed, but maybe the opposite happened—in any case, one night, her voice startled him in the darkness, as she murmured, "The riots are getting out of control."

For a long moment, he didn't say anything, debating whether or not to pretend he was asleep; loathe to talk about the subject that had been plaguing his days. But she wouldn't be fooled, and so finally, he rolled over to face her, and another problem that had been gnawing at him—her current excavation, and its proximity to the epicenter of the rioting. "Have you thought about pulling out of your site until all of this is over?" he asked, already hearing resignation in his tone.

"No," she answered promptly.

The response didn't surprise him. She'd never voluntarily leave, not even when her safety was in question. He couldn't tell if that sort of stubbornness was bravery or just bravado. "You may not have a choice if things get worse."

"I'll leave if and when the police order me to," she said. "Not before."

"And if the Council orders you to?" he asked.

She raised an eyebrow meaningfully. "Oh, I don't think the Council will do that."

"The Council might have special orders for the police," he muttered.

"Don't you dare," she said lightly. An undercurrent of steely hardness was audible. "I don't interfere with your work, and I don't want you using your political clout to interfere in mine. The university will decide when the situation is too dangerous, and I'll leave then. Not before."

At least she was relenting enough to take orders from Tira University. Still, he scoffed quietly and mumbled, "Yes, because your typical academic is really the best judge of a deteriorating situation."

"I'm sorry?" she said, though her tone made it clear that she'd heard him perfectly.

With a sigh, which he tried to keep his frustration out of, he said, "Nothing. I won't interfere." He could feel her stillness and see the sharpness of her gaze, so he smiled and reached out to touch her under the blanket. "You have my word."

Whether it was that or his hand on her hip, he felt the stiffness go out of her body, and after a minute, she said, "I won't put myself in any danger. You have my word on that." Then, she put her hand on top of his and asked, "Is the Council planning on doing anything? At the risk of sounding critical, I must say that it seems to be more interested in talking than doing anything else."

He hesitated for a moment, seeing no need to contradict her observation. "The prevailing opinion—which no one says out loud—is that we should let all the slums burn to the ground."

Moonlight from the open-curtained windows caught her eyes. "You're exaggerating."

He sniffed. "Only slightly."

"I hope that if anyone ever does suggest something so atrocious that you'll be the voice of reason."

"Rather than allow my natural inclinations free rein, you mean." When she didn't respond, he sighed a little and said, "Even my cruelty knows some limitations."

"You've displaced people before."

"For civic improvement. Besides, that wasn't Kiyu. I'm not so blinded by my hatred of the slums that I'd encourage razing Kiyu."

"Yes, it was almost getting to be respectable before the riots." She smiled wanly and slid a hand absently up his arm. "There was a time when I think you would have encouraged razing Kiyu."

True. Even if he'd never said it. "Everyone changes. I think I'm allowed that adage, as well?" When she raised an eyebrow, he looked away from her briefly, then said, "The Council is debating giving the police more military powers."

At that, Eris looked surprised, as he'd known she would. "There hasn't been a military on Kurill for four hundred years," she said.

"I know. And there still won't be a military. But police methods are proving to be…inadequate. They need more powers." He paused. "We have to be realistic—if these shortages continue, so will the riots. And not just here, all across Kurill."

"The shortages will continue." She looked at him hard. "That's the Council's opinion, isn't it?"

"The Council's, the science lobby's, all of our consultants—I'm afraid so." Reaching for her hand, he said, "This entire incident just proves that we need more than one source of dilithium. If Foros and I could only get the votes we need to authorize extraplanetary travel, we wouldn't have to deal with this anymore. There's dilithium all over half the satellite bodies in the solar system, and with a self-sufficient fleet—which it would have to be over those distances—situations like this could be avoided."

"One would almost think you arranged the riots to get those votes."

With a sardonic smile, he said, "I wish I had that kind of influence."

Eris raised her eyebrows. "Do you?"

"Of course. Unfortunately my ability to manipulate events doesn't extend nearly to the scale of what's going on in Kiyu."

"No, I don't suppose most people's does." She studied him for a moment, then leaned forward and kissed him gently. "Still ambitious," she said quietly, smoothing his hair over his ears. "And I still love that about you."

"Good, because it isn't likely to change." With another deep sigh, he said, "I suppose knowing what to do is half the battle. Now all we need to do is pass the legislation, secure funding, build the orbitals, and find someone insane enough to get into something that travels faster than any Vorta has ever imagined, millions of kilometers from Kurill."

"Most of that is your standard fare. And as for the last part, that shouldn't be a problem—you already know him."

Weyoun looked at her. The riots had frayed his nerves and concentration so much that he was missing what was right in front of his nose. Thank the Founders his wife was more clear-headed. Letting a breath of air out slowly through his nose, he said, "You're right. He even told me he wanted to be on the first ship to leave Kurill orbit."

With a slight smile, Eris kissed his cheek and pulled the blanket up to her chin. "Now that I've solved that problem for you," she said, yawning, "maybe you can finally go to sleep."

He closed his eyes, doubting it, and rolled onto his back. Only Eris, moving to lie against him, her warmth pressed to him down the length of his body, made him relax enough to make sleep a real possibility.

"Prescient of you to invite me here," Deimos said when Weyoun contacted him a few days later and he subsequently made the trip from Ground Control to the Complex. "I was planning on coming to see you today anyway."

"Prescience had nothing to do with it," Weyoun replied, gesturing towards a chair. "Sit down."

Deimos did so, saying, "Before we discuss whatever imperative thing it is that you asked to see me about, I have news for you. Good or bad first?" Judging by the expression on his face, even the good news wasn't all that good. Weyoun chose it, nonetheless, and Deimos went on, "We know what took out the communications array." In the days since the loss of the interface, various agencies had ascertained that the problem wasn't planetside and had assumed that the issue instead lay with the constellation of communications satellites orbiting Kurill. They wouldn't know for certain until the unmanned probe transmitted its data back to Ground Control.

"And that's the bad news?" Weyoun guessed.

"No." Deimos took a seat and crossed his legs, leaning back in the chair as he did so. "The bad news is that the entire array needs to be replaced."

Weyoun confined his reaction to a tightening across his forehead and a frustrated twitch near his mouth. "And how, good or bad, would you characterize whatever catastrophe destroyed our communications grid?"

"Well, that's a bit more complicated." Deimos stared across the room for a moment, his eyes looking through Weyoun rather than at him. "The transmission board in every satellite was fried by an EM pulse."

For a long moment, Weyoun just stared at him. Then, he said in an intense tone, "We have a very angry public preparing itself to spill out of the slums and begin rioting in Tir and Hellad. Stop being coy. What caused the EM pulse that took down the communications array, and how do we prevent it from happening ever again?"

Unruffled by Weyoun's tone, Deimos said, "That's the bit that's slightly more complicated."

"Deimos," Weyoun said warningly.

The other man looked as though he was enjoying himself. "So," he said, "what causes an electromagnetic pulse? There are two possibilities: a massive fluctuation in the electromagnetic field of Kurill or some nearby cosmic body. Or a weapon."

"It wasn't Kurill's electromagnetic field that fluctuated or there would have been other signs," Weyoun said. "And Soura and Vrilla's are negligible. So—"

"I didn't say I thought it was an EM field fluctuation," Deimos interrupted calmly. "I said that was a possibility. A possibility, as it turns out, that we can dismiss, because the instruments that are still functioning up in orbit didn't record anything of the sort—not, obviously, on Kurill, not on Vrilla or Soura, not from the sun, and not from any planet in the system."

Staring at the other man, Weyoun said, hardly believing the words were coming out of his mouth, "Then—you're saying it was a weapon? That this was some kind of…attack?"

"I don't know if it was an attack," Deimos replied. "I can't say why the pulse was fired. But electromagnetic pulses are definitely a result of explosives detonations. Or," he mused suddenly, "I suppose…the pulse itself could be the weapon. Since we also haven't detected any explosions, that seems the likelier possibility."

Weyoun continued staring, unblinkingly, at Deimos. "You're actually telling me that you think that someone or something is up there, firing EM pulses at our planet—"

"Not at our planet," Deimos interrupted calmly, "at our communications array."

"I fail to see that it makes much difference which it was," Weyoun snapped. "Are you certain about this? You're talking about hostile alien contact, from a—a race that we haven't actually made contact with."

"A scientist is never certain," Deimos replied. "But personally, I'm somewhat alarmed by this development. Take that how you will."

Weyoun couldn't help laughing mirthlessly. "If you don't mind my saying, you don't seem particularly alarmed."

Deimos grinned, a rare hint of sheepishness in it. "I'm also an astronomer. The idea of alien contact—even hostile alien contact—has a certain allure to it."

Furrowing his brow, Weyoun said, "This could start a panic. And with the state of Tira City's slums at the moment, that's the last thing we need."

At this, Deimos's mien became completely serious. "I know. I'm controlling who has access to the data—and I trust the people that do not to say anything. I'd like to believe that whoever's up there isn't hostile. But—do you remember, years ago, I told you I'd been looking over some readings that seemed to show something invisible orbiting Kurill?"

Weyoun was about to answer in the negative. Deimos had told him many things over the years, far too many pieces of minutiae, trivia, and unsynthesized data for him to possibly remember the vast majority of it. But then, he realized, he did remember—it had been the day before Eris had returned from Dala, the day before he had asked her to marry him. "Yes," he finally answered. "You thought it might be the Founders."

With a nod, Deimos said, "I did then. Now I don't know…but it could be whoever fired the EM pulse."

"You think they're invisible now, too?"

"They were then. Why can't they be now? Clearly their technology vastly outstrips our own. I don't think it's so farfetched to imagine that a race of aliens that can cross interstellar distances can also cloak their ships from view."

His brow still furrowed, Weyoun said, "No. I suppose it isn't." Deimos, mercifully, allowed him to think for a moment. Then, slowly, he said, "Whoever fired the pulse must not have known about our backup communications system."

Deimos opened his mouth slightly, then closed it, looking uncertain. Finally, he said, "Or they did, and they also knew that it didn't matter."

"How so?" Weyoun asked. "We're functioning more or less the way we're used to."

"True. The backup system, despite being somewhat outdated, does the job that most people require of it. But there is one thing that the backup can't do that the main system can."

"And that is?"

"It can't transmit long-wave radio signals." When Weyoun had no reaction to this, Deimos sighed and said, "We can't send a distress signal. Like that one we picked up several years ago? We can't even send something that badly garbled and useless out into the cosmos."

There was a long silence then, and when it was broken by the ping of the internal interface, Weyoun was actually startled. "Yes?" he asked, depressing the button on the interface.

"Senator Tourlon is here to see you," his personal assistant said crisply.

Weyoun put a hand to his forehead and closed his eyes briefly, saying with a sigh, "That's right, I told Tourlon I'd meet with him today." Pushing the button on the interface again, he said into it, "Tell him I'll be with him in a moment."

Deimos looked vaguely sympathetic, and, raising an eyebrow, he asked, "Anyway, what did you want to see me about?"

"Well." Weyoun sat back in his chair, feeling slightly breathless from the conversation that the two of them had just had. "I was going to ask you how you feel about manning the first extraorbital ship, but now doesn't seem like the best time."

However, a child-like delight lit Deimos's face, and he said, "I've been waiting for your legislation to go before the Council. If you're asking me you must think no one else will do it."

"I'd like to have a name attached to the project, actually." Weyoun smiled, a genuine smile, for all that it was tinged with the weariness of the past several weeks. "It helps make everyone look more on top of things. Which, if you've kept developing those plans of yours, is the case anyway."

"All we need to do is build the orbitals," Deimos replied with relish. "I've tested most of the designs in the lab at Ground Control."

"I hope they scale up."

"I do too, for my own sake." Suddenly, Deimos laughed. "If you get that legislation passed, Weyoun, you and Foros will be changing Vorta history. We won't have to be blind in our own solar system. We can be the ones visiting other planets—"

"And destroying their communications arrays?" Weyoun asked, arching an eyebrow.

"Well, I didn't have quite such a martial visit in mind." Deimos almost looked transported by his excitement. "Just think of it—we've been using dilithium to provide electricity and fuel, but I've gotten a look at some of Yelar's research and they've been pursuing some amazing ideas—faster than light travel, for one thing; it looks theoretically possible with dilithium, not that these next generation orbitals will be using anything close to that technology—"

Given the opportunity, Deimos could rhapsodize about this type of thing for quite some time, and so Weyoun, with a certain fond amusement, interrupted, "So you'll do it, then."

"Didn't I say that?" Deimos stood, the same excitement on his face that had been there the day before he'd gone into orbit for the first time. More, perhaps. "I'm your man," he added, grinning irrepressibly.

"The only man insane enough to get into something that travels faster than any Vorta has ever imagined, millions of kilometers from Kurill, was, I believe, the way I first put it," Weyoun mused.

"Accurate," Deimos said. "Put it on my grave marker if I don't make it back." Before Weyoun had a chance to respond with anything besides a roll of his eyes, Deimos said, "I should let you meet with Tourlon. We'll be in touch about these events of great magnitude that seem to be sweeping us in their path."

At the time, the comment felt vaguely inaccurate; an inaccurate label, at least, to encompass everything that was happening on Kurill. He let it go without comment, however, bid Deimos adieu with a quick nod, and tried to clear his head of the previous discussion for his meeting with his fellow senator.

If things were bad in Tira City, then the silver lining was that at least, in the next several weeks, Weyoun and Foros's co-authored legislation regarding extraorbital dilithium mining passed. It wasn't a fix for the riots, which continued unabated—though happily, they remained confined to the slums and didn't spill out into the rest of the city—but it was a psychological salve for everyone else, all the Vorta who had been worried that they'd be lighting their homes with candles and cooking on open fires if the energy shortage wasn't resolved.

Of course, the legislation did nothing to resolve the energy crisis in the short term. Only the reestablishment of the mining fleet's shipping routes could do that. A coalition of senators rammed that legislation through as well, with a divided science lobby bickering over whether it was the right thing to do or not (Deimos's successor to the head of the lobby's astronomy division didn't always get along with Ground Control, let alone the Council. She had implied, on more than one occasion, that Deimos had been far too cozy with too many senators). Communication was still patchy with the fleet, but Weyoun (and his allies in the Council), when it came right down to it, was willing to risk the lives of the small crews of those ships if it meant restoring power and order to Kurill.

Only that quieted the Kiyu riots. When the streets were finally cleared, Kiyu didn't look like the same place. Whole streets were nothing more than burned out, blackened husks of buildings. Alleys were filled with rubble where the fire-weakened structures had given out and collapsed.

Tira Exarchate's senators and governor toured the area one day once it had been deemed safe—a goodwill tour, a show of strength in a troubling time. The governor was a cheerful man, which was probably what had gotten him elected for his three terms, even if he wasn't quite in line with Tira's senators when it came to his intellectual prowess. He'd always liked Weyoun, and Weyoun, if he didn't quite share the sentiment, was certainly willing to use it to his advantage.

But even he was somber as the four of them, each accompanied by their senior aides, as well as a small escort of armed police officers and, of course, media, picked their way through the street. As they passed, a few Vorta opened the doors of the buildings lining the street, staring out at the group with, at best, wary curiosity, but more often listless resignation. No one stepped out into the street—there was no attempt to engage them, and not, from the looks of things, much interest in the idea.

"You'd think we could have stopped this sooner," Foros said sadly, surveying the deserted street. A few small, isolated oil fires still burned, and about fifty meters away, a woman with two small children clinging to her crouched over one, cooking something that smoked almost as much as the fire itself did. "And we still haven't managed to restore power to everyone."

Leto, walking at Weyoun's side, made a noise and opened her mouth slightly, then glanced at Soltoi and closed it. Under normal circumstances she'd never have hesitated to say anything to Foros or Weyoun, but between the governor, Soltoi, and Loura Thelesoi, she'd taken on a more reserved character. Weyoun raised his eyebrows at her, and she took that as an invitation to speak. "So many people have lost their homes, Senator," she said, using Foros's title in deference to the fact that the governor and Soltoi were present. "There might not be any place to restore power to."

Soltoi gave Weyoun a derisive look, clearly trying to castigate him for allowing his senior aide to address another senator in this type of setting, before saying bitingly, "And yet instead of trying to end the riots, Foros, you were focusing on the dubious goal of sending an orbital into deep space."

"Now, Ara, we're here as a show of support to a devastated area of our exarchate and our city," Foros said mildly. "Let's rise above our differences."

Weyoun cast his eyes over the slum street. It felt odd to be back in a place he hadn't set foot for decades, but it was made less so by the fact that, in its devastated state, Kiyu bore little resemblance even to the ruinous destitution he'd been raised in. "I doubt you'll find it of such dubious value if it prevents a repeat of something like this in the future," Weyoun said, finally turning to meet Soltoi's eyes, and willing to say it if Foros wasn't.

"An impressively specious argument," Soltoi sniffed.

The governor seemed utterly oblivious to the rancorous exchange. "We failed in our duty to these people," he said slowly and feelingly, as though he was the first to utter such a trite platitude. Turning in a slow circle to take in the small crowd of onlookers that they'd amassed, he continued in a voice dripping with insincere pathos, "These people—these bereft, beleaguered people—put their trust in us when they elected us to our positions. We broke faith with them, gentlemen. And woman," he added quickly.

"I think," Foros said, "that I can speak for both of my colleagues when I say that we've been tormented by the very same thought for weeks."

Soltoi smoothed her expression to one of empathetic sadness. "The Council, our staffs, and my fellow senators' families, I'm certain, can attest that we've devoted ourselves to a resolution to these riots. If we didn't do enough, and we clearly didn't, then we must work twice as hard to prevent something like this in the future."

The governor turned so that the present media would be sure to receive the full effect of his grief. "I am willing to pledge, here and now, to devote myself to improving the plight of the people of Kiyu and all its surrounding districts. They don't deserve to have their homes destroyed simply because they were unfortunate enough to be born into Kurill's lowest castes!"

"Speaking of specious arguments," Weyoun muttered, too low for the media's 'coder pickups but loudly enough for his fellow senators to hear him. Soltoi met his eyes in a rare moment of camaraderie.

"Accountability!" the governor had meanwhile gone on. "Our people will hold us accountable if we don't uphold our promises to them!"

He went on in this vein, and similar ones, for several more minutes, and then each of Tira Exarchate's senators gave remarks that had been prepared in advance. By the time they were all finished speaking, a small crowd had gathered, though nothing that they said cracked the emotionless mask that every single gutter-scum denizen wore.

When the 'coders had been turned off and their troupe of politicians, aides, police, and media had turned to leave, Weyoun found himself walking next to the governor. On a whim, Weyoun remarked lightly to the other man, "You know, Governor, I think you're right that we're going to be held accountable for this."

"Well, Foros's magic for getting the lower castes to turn out at the voting plazas notwithstanding, none of them really vote enough to hold us accountable." He shrugged. "Sad but true—but everyone needed to hear otherwise."

Weyoun echoed the shrug with one of his own. "Or the need to feel at least marginally protected from barbarism may galvanize the lower castes to oust one of us—or all of us."

With a laugh, the governor said, "I had no idea you had such a pessimistic streak, Weyoun!"

"It surfaces from time to time." Smiling thinly before going to join Foros, he added, "Consider it intuition, Governor. There will be more lasting repercussions to this than simply clearing rubble from the streets."

The governor still looked more amused than anything else, and Weyoun had more important things to do than try to make him notice his own shortsightedness.

Still, that afternoon, after he'd gone home early for the day, the moment came back to him as Eris asked, "How did the 'goodwill tour' go?"

He slouched into the more comfortable of their two living room chairs and noted the one upturned corner of her lips—not that it surprised him that she didn't take the whole production entirely seriously. "The way you would imagine it going," he answered. "Soltoi can barely contain her loathing for Foros and me—and the feeling's quite mutual—and all three of us think the governor is a buffoon. A good-natured buffoon, but—nevertheless."

She smiled. "And Soltoi sniped, Foros was somehow beneficent and contemptuous at the same time—"

"One of the most useful skills he's taught me," Weyoun mused.

Still smiling with arch amusement, she went on in a thoughtful tone, "And you…what did you do?"

Raising his eyebrows at her, he said, "Surely you know me well enough to hazard a guess."

She perched lightly on the arm of the chair and gazed down at him. "All right. You were diplomatic, smiled effusively, and made people wonder just how sincere your earnest sincerity actually was."

With a chuckle, he said, "Always your eloquence."

She brushed a hand across his shoulder. "You're the eloquent one, you only notice it in me when I hit upon a particularly delicious turn of phrase."

He took her hand and kissed it with a certain touch of gallantry. "My dear, your eloquence is peerless."

She laughed, a rich, pure sound, and leaned forward to kiss him.

Suddenly, a low rumble shuddered through the house and the two of them drew apart in surprise. Eris got to her feet, looking towards the kitchen, where two half-finished bottles of wine were rattling against each other in their carafe. There was an alarmed look on her face as she said, "An earthquake?"

Having only felt a small one once, and many years ago, Weyoun wasn't sure, and was about to say as much when the room grew dark, as though something had snuffed out the sun. He stood up and watched as she went to the window, still feeling the same deep shudder through the whole house. It was that, and a building sound at such a low frequency that it was almost painful, that made him shake his head in response to her question.

Eris didn't see him, though, because she was standing at the window, her fingers clenched around the sill and her shoulders tensed. "I think you'd better come look at this," she said in a calm tone that was clear charade.

At that moment, an ear-splitting sound cracked through the air outside, making both of them flinch. Needing no more urging than that, Weyoun joined her at the window.

Thick white clouds, flickering as though with lightning or flame, swirled across the sky, blocking the sun and turning the day dark but for the unearthly flashing. Neither of them bothered to point out the obvious fact that it couldn't be the monsoon—not a month early, and not accompanied by earth-shaking booms. Dishes rattled in the cupboards and outside, birds took to the air, darting around the house in a raucous, panicked flock. A herd of small deer flitted through the yard like shadows.

"It sounds like an orbital launch," she said in the same steady tone.

He shook his head slowly. "That's no orbital launch."

Neither of them took their eyes from the roiling clouds, even as the flashing intensified. Weyoun's eyes began to water and he realized he wasn't blinking—but if he had blinked than he may have missed the way the…the…shuttle, there was no other word for it, emerged from the mass of clouds, light flickering all around it and strands of cloud—superheated gases from its entry into the atmosphere, a small voice whispered in his head—wreathing and twining it. He heard Eris's sharp intake of breath beside him but he couldn't stop staring at what was in the sky.

It was about the size of a shuttle, and it was flying, but there the similarities ended. The ship that had just come out of the sky was a sleek metal with purple light pulsating from two protrusions on its sides. The main body of the craft was insectile, like the carapace of a beetle. For an endless instant, it hovered there, like nothing Weyoun ever could have imagined. Then the purple light flared and the ship began moving to the west, towards Weyoun and Eris's house.

"Those are its engines," he murmured in understanding as he stared at the glowing protrusions.

The engine-light reflected in Eris's wide eyes. "But what is it?" she asked. "Where did it come from?"

Despite the fact that she'd voiced the question, her tone said she already knew where it had come from, and so Weyoun didn't bother stating the obvious: the thing, the shuttle, had entered Kurill's orbit and descended through its atmosphere to the surface of the planet.

It was an alien spacecraft, unquestionably, though he knew that neither of them could say those words. Had this ship fired the EM pulse that had taken out the communications array? Then, on the heels of that thought, Weyoun remembered the radio signal of years ago, which nothing had ever come of—no study could ever decipher it or piece it back together—but he wondered now, with trepidation, if whoever had sent that signal had done so after this ship appeared in the skies over their planet. A signal that they couldn't send now, no matter how pointless it would have been.

But then excitement took over as what he was seeing started to permeate his shock, and decisively, he said, "I have to go." This was clearly alien contact; nothing on Kurill looked anything like the ship hovering above the flat, open plain, and whoever they were, he was going to be one of the first Council members to greet them. A thrill twisted through him at the thought.

Eris grabbed his wrist. "I'm coming with you."

He met her eyes, saw that under no circumstances would she be contradicted, and nodded curtly.

The two of them rushed to the garage and Weyoun threw the skimmer's power on. Thank the Founders he'd bought the thing; they would have no hope of catching up to the ship without it. And in truth, Weyoun would later remember little of the ride; Eris watched where the ship was going and called out directions to him, and he piloted the skimmer without second-guessing her. They took roads where they existed but otherwise spent most of the time skimming over the high grass of the plain that lay between Tira City and Mount Tiryn. The skimmer wasn't built for it and they felt every bump and pothole of the uneven terrain, but it kept moving forward and eventually, they crested a low hill and Weyoun braked hard, throwing both of them against their seat restraints.

Below them, sitting on a broad, flat stretch of ground, was the ship. Its engines still glowed purple but the light seemed to be fading, and now that they were closer they could hear a deep, resonant humming, filling the air at a painfully low frequency. Steam billowed outwards from it from conduits that they couldn't see. There was no sign of life from it other than its mechanical functions.

For a long minute, neither Weyoun nor Eris did anything. Then, Weyoun cut the power to the skimmer, allowing the hum from the ship to wash over them even more pervasively.

"Well," Eris said, looking at him and taking a deep breath. "Are we going to go down there?"

He stared at the shuttle for a moment longer, then gave her a brisk nod. The two of them got out of the skimmer, moving, Weyoun couldn't help thinking wryly, as though they needed to do it as fast as possible or risk losing their nerve. As they started down the hill, the sound of other skimmers drawing near reached his ears, and he glanced over his shoulder to see a number of indistinct specks making their way over the plain towards their position. Well, he hadn't expected to be the only Vorta to come here.

They didn't speak until they got about three-quarters of the way down the hillside. Then, tramping through the knee-high grass, Eris said, "This could conceivably be dangerous."

"You can wait in the skimmer if you'd like."

She snorted. "Don't count on it."

Abruptly, he stopped and turned towards her, the ship still in his peripheral vision. "Promise me that if something…happens, you'll run."

She stared at him. "What do you think is going to happen?"

"Nothing. Just promise me."

For a moment, it looked like she was going to argue, but then she pressed her lips together and nodded, and the two of them continued their approach wordlessly. When they came within thirty meters of the ship, they stopped, both of them breathing heavily. The ship's low hum had stopped, so they could hear others making their ways down the hillside.

The two of them were joined, in short order, by a small crowd, no more than fifteen other Vorta. Nobody could seem to bring themselves to go any closer, or indeed to speak. The silence was loud enough, though, and Weyoun realized why it was so deafening—the plain was devoid of the birdsong that normally filled it. The only thing that broke the quiet were the intermittent noises from the alien craft.

Those minutes seemed interminable. The ship's engines were no longer glowing but for what felt like hours, nothing happened, nothing moved, and there was no indication that there was anything living in the ship. Maybe there wasn't—and Weyoun didn't know if that disappointed or relieved him.

He was far enough away from the craft that details were difficult to make out, including where a door might be, though that didn't stop him from squinting towards it. Sunlight, now that the clouds caused by the ship's atmospheric entry had dissipated, glinted off its metal carapace, reflecting a purplish-tinted metal. The arms holding the engines angled towards the ground, but the engines themselves were kept elevated by the craft's landing gear, which stretched downwards from the main body of the ship. There were no windows that he could see.

Suddenly, a hatch on the bottom of the ship opened and there was a collective held breath from the fifteen Vorta present. Weyoun started to take a step closer but Eris's hand on his shoulder stopped him. He was glad for it in a second.

Without warning, large, dark-clothed figures began dropping to the ground from the open hatch. Startled cries rang out and several Vorta stumbled backwards in fright. No one ran, but Weyoun wouldn't have blamed them if they had.

The…creatures that had come from the ship were terrifying—large, taller than any Vorta, and muscular. Even from a distance, the alien-ness of their faces was apparent—they were gray and scaly, with horns and spikes rimming their heads. Their dark clothing looked more like armor. Every one of them was holding some kind of weapon, but once they'd landed on their feet—and that was an impossible distance that they'd jumped, it would have crippled a Vorta—they simply formed into ranks and stood silently.

Once the initial shock of the creatures' appearance had passed, the assembled Vorta had grown silent again, waiting for whatever was going to happen next. There was a moment of stillness, and then a ladder was lowered from the hatch and another form, different from the reptilian creatures, descended. This figure was smaller, clothed in a gown of some unidentifiable, orange fabric. When it reached the ground and turned towards the Vorta, it became clear that it was female.

The female—the woman?—stood for a moment and said something to one of the creatures beside her. As if following a command—was she their leader?—four of the creatures formed up behind her and followed her as she approached the Vorta. As she came closer, her features became more clear. Her face was smooth and unlined, half-formed, almost, as though someone had seen a Vorta face but hadn't been able to get any of the details quite right. Her hair was slicked back, short, and colorless, and her eyes were set deep in their sockets.

She halted several meters from them and said something to one of her guards, and this time it was perfectly audible, though gibberish. Up close, the creatures were even more terrifying, huge and dour and unquestionably violent. One of their gazes fell on Weyoun and his chest tightened in fear, but he refused to let it show. The creature the woman had spoken to nodded and barked something to the others, who shifted their weapons. Weyoun felt Eris's grip on his shoulder tighten but he didn't move.

There was a silence then, deep and broken only by the sounds of the creatures' ship creaking as it cooled. Not a single shuttle or train had passed by once it had landed, and Weyoun knew that the entire planet must have been thrown into turmoil when it had appeared in Tira Exarchate's sky as the news travelled instantly over the interface. Despite the uncertainty of the moment and the presence of the terrifying…soldiers—they had to be soldiers—a rush of triumph went through him that he was here, making first contact. He was the only Council member there, the quick glance that he'd thrown at the other assembled Vorta had been enough to confirm that. None of his colleagues had gotten here in time.

The woman held out her arms, her expression impassive, and spoke—this time in their language. "Your gods have returned to you," she said in a ringing, authoritative voice.

A murmur immediately went up from the assembled Vorta. Neither Weyoun nor Eris said anything, though he glanced back at her and met her eyes. Her hand didn't leave his shoulder, but her other hand, he noticed, was laid protectively across her stomach. He didn't know what to think. What was there to think? An alien orbital had landed on their planet, disgorged dozens of monsters and this…person, claiming to be a Founder. A tendril of disbelief snaked through him, and he could tell that the Vorta around him were feeling a similar emotion. No one knew what the Founders looked like, they were changelings; shapeshifters—there was no visual representation of them anywhere, and nor had there ever been. Kurill had encountered a Founder but he'd never described it, and would it matter if he had?

At the lack of response to her pronouncement, the corners of the woman's mouth turned upwards slightly in a thin smile. "I see that you require proof."

With that, her whole body…rippled, then began changing. The fabric of her dress, her skin, her hair, all became a golden liquid that flowed amorphously for a moment, and then, suddenly, where the woman had been standing, there was a Vorta. Someone off to the side gasped, and Weyoun glanced towards the sound—and saw the very Vorta that the woman had transformed into. Then, without warning, her form rippled into golden liquid again, and suddenly, eerily, Weyoun was staring at himself. He swallowed, unnerved by the feeling of staring into his own eyes, and then there was another transformation, into another stranger, and he felt tenseness leave him to be replaced by something else: the growing realization that what he was seeing could only mean one thing.

The woman returned to her previous form, with her partially-formed face and orange dress, and then she repeated, "Your gods have returned to you."

This time, no one hesitated, and every Vorta present dropped to his or her knees and bowed their heads.

The Founders had returned to Kurill.