Garak finished his soup and returned the spoon to the bowl. "I'm sorry, Julian, but I still don't see it."

Bashir put his drink down, a bit more forcefully than he'd intended. "Garak, The Stranger is one of the greatest works of early absurdist literature in the human canon. You truly felt nothing while reading it?"

"Why should I feel anything?" Garak scoffed, leaning back and allowing Quark to retrieve his empty bowl. "The protagonist certainly didn't. I had to double check that this was really a human book. At first I thought it was vulcan high literature." He pronounced this last phrase in an utterly contemptuous tone.

"That's exactly the point," countered Bashir. "It's so alien to human thinking that-"

The comm system sounded. "Bridge to Bashir," said Sisko.

Bashir tapped his badge. "Go ahead."

"The Normandy just came into dock at bay D24. Legion has suggested that you be aboard when it takes off again."

"Any particular reason?" asked Bashir.

"He said their next mission would involve medical research, but the Consensus didn't know anything else," replied Sisko. "They also seem to think Mordin will be showing up again. Under the circumstances, I'm inclined to go along with it."

"Understood," replied Bashir. "I'll grab my things and report to the transporter room at once. Bashir out."

"Well, isn't that unfortunate," said Garak.

"You could come along," suggested Bashir. "I doubt Shepard would mind one more."

Garak shook his head. "Sorry, Julian, but I just can't do those sleeper pods again. It was completely intolerable, last time."

Bashir nodded. "We may not see each other for a while."

"Or ever, if this goes poorly," added Garak.

"Aren't you cheery," said Bashir. He took Garak's hand. "We will meet again, Garak. I'm sure of it."

"Is that your Federation optimism speaking again?" said Garak in a teasing voice.

Bashir let the hand fall. "No. But you're too strong to let a little thing like death inconvenience you."

Garak arched a brow plate. "You're the one who'll be riding an Alliance frigate into battle. Or wherever Shepard ends up taking that thing."

"Then I suppose I'd better not die," replied Bashir.

Garak nodded, smiling craftily. "In that case, perhaps there's hope for us yet."

Bashir stepped onto the Defiant's transporter pad. As usual, the world whited out for a moment. When his vision recovered, he was standing in the Normandy's transporter room on deck 2.

"Julian!" said O'Brien, standing behind the control panel. "Good to see you."

"Chief," replied Bashir. "What are you still doing here? Wasn't this supposed to be a temporary assignment?"

O'Brien shrugged. "Shepard and Sisko talked it over and they decided Adams was more useful in the engine room than up here, and I'm more useful up here than over on the Defiant."

Bashir nodded. "I guess that makes sense. Where are we off to, anyway?"

O'Brien shrugged. "Supposedly it's some kind of boring war summit between the turians, the krogan, and the salarians."

Bashir made a face. It baffled him that O'Brien could care so little about the politics of the universe they had entered. But the Chief had always been a very practical person, more focused on his job and family than on the world around him. "Boring? Do you have any idea how those races see each other? We'll be lucky if everyone walks out of that conference room alive."

"All hands," announced EDI, "we are shoving off in ten minutes. Final warning."

"Does she make that announcement every time?" asked Bashir. The Defiant generally took off when Sisko said so, and not a moment later. Missing the boat was simply not done.

"You get used to it," replied O'Brien.

"It is necessary," said EDI. "If someone misses our departure window, we cannot afford the energy expenditure to beam them ashore. Most vessels are not equipped with transporters at all. Standard protocol dictates a reasonable level of effort to avoid such situations."

"Is the Council still aboard?" asked Bashir.

"Mostly," replied O'Brien. "Shepard was concerned about Cerberus trying something again, so she advised them to stay. But Sparatus blew her off."

Bashir nodded. "I imagine she was rather put out by that?"

"You could say that," said O'Brien. "I wouldn't bring it up, if you see her."

"Noted. See you, Chief." Bashir walked forward to the CIC. As the door slid open, he realized the Normandy had undergone extensive redecoration while in the Alliance's custody. The room was far less bright than its previous appearance. Paradoxically, it felt warmer and more human. The old Cerberus design had been almost clinical in its lighting and coloration.

"Dr. Bashir, I presume?" said a woman. She offered her hand, which he took. "Communication Specialist Samantha Traynor."

"A pleasure," replied Bashir. "Are you the new Yeoman?"

"Why does everyone keep assuming I'm a yeoman?" she snapped.

"Well, you've got the same bridge station as Yeoman Chambers," said Bashir, "and 'Comm Specialist' does sound a lot like Yeoman to me."

"Sorry," said Traynor. "I shouldn't have yelled at you. It's just frustrating. I spent years at Oxford studying signal processing and electrical engineering. I'm nobody's secretary... but sometimes it feels like people think of me as one."

"That must be difficult for you," replied Bashir, uncertain of what to say. Should I apologize? It feels like we're already past that bit of the conversation.

"You're a valued member of this crew, Specialist," added EDI. "If anyone wrongly believes otherwise, I will gladly correct them."

"Thank you," said Trayonr. "Both of you. I suppose I just need a little more confidence in myself." She shook her head as if to clear it. "Anyway, Doctor, I'm told you'll be joining us for a while. Might want to check in with Dr. Chakwas and see where you'll be working."

Bashir nodded. "Thank you, I was just about to go find her and ask."

"She is in the medical bay on deck three," said EDI. "The layout of the ship is largely identical to its previous state. Do you require directions?"

"No, I think I can remember," said Bashir. He nodded to Traynor and called the elevator.

The medical bay door chimed and opened. Dr. Chakwas nodded to him. "Good to see you again, Doctor."

Bashir returned the nod. "Likewise. Have I missed anything important?"

She shrugged. "Oh, nothing too serious. I was told we might get Tali back at some point, but I think the Migrant Fleet is still figuring a few things out."

"All hands, brace for relay jump in thirty seconds," announced EDI. Bashir took a seat and started counting off seconds in his head. When he got to twenty-nine, he felt a slight jolt, far less violent than anything he'd felt on the Defiant while in battle. "Relay jump complete," said EDI. "Welcome to the Pranas system."

Bashir and Chakwas chatted for a while, discussing the medical status of crewmembers they had both treated. The conversation took a brief detour into the psychological impact of the Collector attacks on both Normandys, but Chakwas was visibly uncomfortable with this line of inquiry, so Bashir allowed it to drop. He began to cast about for a new topic of discussion.

The door opened again, and Garrus walked in. "Hey, doc, can I grab Bashir for a moment?"

"Sure," replied Chakwas. "I'll see you later, Julian."

Bashir followed Garrus to the elevator. As the doors closed and it began its ascent, Bashir wondered what was going on. "Where are we going?" he asked.

"You'll see," replied Garrus. "But do me a favor: don't tell anyone about this."

"All right," said Bashir, as the doors slid open. Don't tell anyone about what? They crossed the CIC and passed into the War Room. A muscular human and a lithe salarian were arrayed around a monitor. He recognized neither of them.

"Dr. Bashir, this is Lieutenant James Vega and Commander Kirrahe," introduced Garrus.

Kirrahe's deep black eyes gazed into Bashir's. "Should you be here?" he asked.

"I don't know," said Bashir. "Should I?"

"Probably not," replied Garrus, "but Shepard wants him here, and that's good enough for me."

Kirrahe closed his eyes for a moment. "I should probably report this, but I doubt there's anything my government can do about it now."

"May I ask just what it is we're doing here?" said Bashir.

"That's easy," said Vega. "We're spying on the summit."

"You mean observing," corrected Kirrahe. "My people think Urdnot Wrex might suddenly get violent and wanted a bodyguard. From what I saw of him on Virmire, I think that risk is overblown, but I go where I'm told."

"Then, some busybodies in the Hierarchy got the same idea," added Garrus.

"And the humans didn't want to be left out," finished Vega. "But fitting us all in that tiny little conference room would be kinda hard, so they put us here instead. We're supposed to rush in if anything happens."

"What about the krogan?" asked Bashir. "Don't they have someone, too?"

Garrus let out a guffaw. "Can you really imagine Wrex with a bodyguard?"

"It's not unreasonable," replied Kirrahe. "I was actually more concerned about the krogan bodyguard than Wrex himself."

"Then I guess it's a good thing he didn't bring one," observed Vega.

"So, when does it begin?" asked Bashir.

"A few minutes ago," replied Kirrahe, adjusting the monitor's volume.

"The krogan is in no position to make demands!" relayed the monitor.

James snorted in disbelief. "Your people actually believe that, Kirrahe?"

The Major shook his head. "Posturing, nothing more."

This surprised Bashir. He had been conceptualizing the salarians as funny-looking vulcans, but a vulcan wouldn't behave that way in the negotiating room. He thought back to his first encounter with Major Kira and 'frontier medicine.' Maybe if I keep my mouth shut instead of talking about things I know little about, I won't embarrass myself this time.

"...I've got my own problems," Wrex was saying. "Reaper scouts have been spotted on Tuchanka."

Garrus shook his head. "Damn, the krogan too? This is a mess."

Kirrahe shrugged. "If the reapers want to take Tuchanka, I wish them good luck. The planet's a death trap. During the Rebellions, STG plotted at least fifteen invasions, but none of them went forward because a ground war just isn't winnable in that environment."

"Quiet, he's saying something!" hissed James.

"...a cure for the genophage," finished Wrex.

Garrus's mandibles flared in shock. "What? He can't be serious."

"A genophage cure has been the singular goal of the krogan state, such as it is, for the last fourteen centuries," replied Kirrahe. "Why change tactics now?"

"That's fourteen centuries of failure," replied Garrus. "Wrex is no fool, he wouldn't-"

Kirrahe held up a hand, and pointed to the monitor. "My information says otherwise," Wrex was saying.

The three heads of state and the Spectre looked at something out of frame. Whatever it was, it seemed to seriously upset Dalatrass Linron. "Where did you get that? It could be a fabrication," she protested weakly.

"I was about to disagree with you, Garrus," said Kirrahe, "but I think you may be right after all. Wrex is not a fool, indeed."

"Just don't tell him I said that," replied Garrus.

"So, Wrex got his hands on that info without anyone in STG knowing?" asked James.

"Failure to report such an egregious security breach would be a severe dereliction of duty," replied Kirrahe.

"That's not an answer," observed James.

"No," acknowledged Kirrahe, "it isn't. Gentlemen, excuse me, I need to accompany my principal to the planet surface."

As he pulled himself off the Normandy's cargo bay floor and into the shuttle, Bashir experienced a brief but profound bout of dizziness. He put out his arms to steady himself, but his vestibular sense was already normal.

"You okay, kid?" asked Wrex, who was already seated.

"I'm fine," he replied, sitting down next to Wrex. "I guess the shuttle's mass effect field is stronger than I expected."

Wrex jerked his head in a krogan gesture that Bashir recognized as signifying resignation. "Yeah, I remember my first time on a Kodiak. It was one of those shitty copycat models that mercs used to use, in the bad old days before the Alliance gave up and declassified the design."

"What was so bad about them?" asked Bashir.

"They had a nasty habit of falling out of the sky. When they weren't killing people, they were making new recruits lose their lunch," replied Wrex. "I think the mass effect fields were calibrated wrong, or something like that." He gestured to Garrus, who was sitting in the seat across from him. "Now, if our turian friend would've been there..."

"Har har," said Garrus mirthlessly. Shepard, in the seat next to him, put a hand on his knee, which he covered with a talon. They exchanged a look, too quickly for Bashir to identify either facial expression.

"Hey, Commander," called Cortez from the pilot's seat. "Normally I'm not too uptight about this kind of thing, but Sur'Kesh is a pretty civilized planet and we never officially filed a flight plan or anything. If they really wanted to, they could shoot us down."

"It's fine, Lieutenant," replied Shepard. "I got a green light straight from the horse's mouth, and I need boots on the ground before Linron changes her mind."

"Understood." Cortez closed the shuttle's passenger doors and goosed the throttle slightly. Without a window, Bashir could hear the engine, but had no frame of reference for what was happening outside. He felt no inertial forces whatsoever, so the lack of visual stimuli was probably a blessing. And an intentional design choice?

As they flew, Shepard briefly explained the parameters of their mission, which was useful because Bashir had missed significant portions of her conversation with Linron. They were to retrieve a small group of female krogan who were immune to the genophage. A renegade salarian scientist had developed the cure through a series of unethical medical experiments conducted on Tuchanka.

Bashir raised an eyebrow at this last part. "He was doing this right under your nose?" he asked Wrex.

"Uh-huh," replied the krogan in a surly tone.

"But didn't the krogan authorities stop him?" he asked.

Wrex had a bewildered look. "'Krogan authorities?' Tuchanka isn't... we don't have a functioning planetary government, Doctor. We barely even have municipal water supplies. If you drive out into the wasteland, you're on your own."

Bashir frowned. Something didn't make sense. "The salarians think you're a threat to the galaxy, when you scarcely have basic infrastructure on your own planet?"

"Yup," replied Wrex. "Funny how that works."

The flight itself was uneventful. The Kodiak's mass effect fields maintained total isolation between the Keplerian forces acting on the exterior hull, and the artificial gravity acting within the cabin. As the atmosphere thickened, the turbulence started to affect the cabin, and the shuttle felt more like a vehicle. I guess turbulence is too hard to predict, so the field can't adjust for it in advance.

"Commander, salarian ground control says we don't have clearance to land," said Cortez as they neared the compound.

"Can you raise Linron?" asked Shepard.

"I'm trying, ma'am," he replied. "The salarians want us in a holding pattern for now."

"I knew we'd have a problem," growled Wrex. He opened the exterior door. The landing pad was several meters below and beginning to recede as Cortez pulled away. "Let's see them stop a krogan air drop!" He leaped out of the shuttle.

Bashir disembarked the shuttle, relieved that Shepard had defused the argument with the salarians. He spotted a pair of guards leading Wrex away. One was carrying a shotgun that looked entirely too big for its wielder.

Shepard had started speaking with the base commander again. As Bashir approached, he could hear the salarian apologizing for the incident.

"Dr. Bashir, this is Padok Wiks," said Shepard. "Wiks, Dr. Bashir is an Alliance scientist we picked up at the Citadel. He's here to observe and assist."

Wiks offered his hand and they shook. "Good to meet you, Doctor," said Wiks.

"Likewise," replied Bashir.

"Now, to business," said Shepard. "Wiks, where are the females, and how did they get here anyway?"

"Commander, as you might imagine," he replied, "weeks of inhumane medical experimentation will take a toll on any organism's health, sapient or otherwise. Given the state of Tuchanka, we did not believe it appropriate to attempt treatment in situ. So we relocated them. They're now in treatment on the lower levels."

Shepard nodded skeptically. "Was that before or after you decided to use them as bargaining chips?"

"I assure you, Shepard, I have nothing but their best interests at heart." Wiks lowered his voice a bit. "I can't necessarily say the same for my government. I believe curing the krogan will bring closure to a lengthy and unpleasant chapter in both our history and theirs. Most of my colleagues would not agree." His volume returned to normal. "You're cleared for the lower levels, Commander. Proceed into the elevator when ready."

[I wonder how many different kinds of literature Bashir and Garak can spar over before it gets old. Just remember, in cardassian culture, arguing is flirting.

I originally envisioned Wrex and Worf talking about the latter's voice resembling Gatatog Uvenk during the shuttle ride down to Sur'Kesh. However, as it turns out, Worf wasn't there, so the scene just didn't happen.

And if you're wondering how Shepard "defused the argument with the salarians," go watch the original cutscene. Bashir's presence didn't change anything.]