Hey guys! Here's another chapter. This one is my absolute favorite!:)



Chapter 11

The tension in the room was palpable.

Sisko sat in front of the broad desk in Heral's study, Bashir and Dax at his side. While Dax seemed to be at least as alert as he was, the young doctor just sat there, hands folded in his lap, staring ahead out the broad window behind Heral with a face as if he were waiting for a sentence to be spoken. Sisko couldn't blame him. Julian hadn't uttered a word since their arrival here, just followed them in silence when Heral had led them to his office. Even though Sisko doubted that the place meant anything to Julian, the young man seemed taut as a bow.

"I never thought, I would see you again," Heral finally broke the leaden silence. His countenance didn't betray much, his emotions well hidden behind the mask he had worn ever since their first arrival here on Dolos V. They were alone. Against his expectation, Heral had preferred to meet them in private, without Klyn or any of his men.

"Neither did I," Sisko replied slowly. "Nevertheless, we're here now. And as I already told you before, we have a problem and we need your help."

The other man sighed. It was a laborious sigh, full of sadness and resignation. Heral leaned back in his chair, fixing Sisko with his gaze. "You know what you did when you broke into the Temple, don't you? You almost destroyed what we have built up here. You have no idea what you've done…"

Sisko took a deep breath. "I could say the same to you. You've not only kidnapped one of my officers, you were even ready to send him to his death. I think this is reason enough for anyone to intervene."

A sudden flicker of defiance crossed Heral's face. "Don't get me wrong, Captain. We didn't force Dr. Bashir to cooperate. He volunteered. Otherwise it wouldn't have been possible to have him undertake the necessary preparation. He helped us out of his own will. Don't forget that."

"I won't forget that you're quite skilled at twisting the truth. If he had known what all this would come to in the end, he would have never agreed to help you. I don't know what you told him or how you made him cooperate but as things are we have a problem now. As I already told you before, something's not right with him. Our doctor cannot help him but I'm sure you know what could have gone wrong."

Heral chuckled humorlessly. "You forcefully ripped him out of the connection to the energy web. That's what went wrong. And while you were at it, you almost destroyed the whole web. We were barely able to keep it up and repair it. We're still trying to salvage what we can and it's not even sure if we will succeed."

Sisko didn't rise to the bait. "I need you to help him. There has to be a way to reverse what happened – what you did to him."

"Forgive me my frankness, Captain, but we never had a case like this. We never had to 'reverse' the procedure. The procedure was designed as one way only. Once an individual is connected to the web, there is no turning back. The person's self, his whole being will merge with our energy matrix. So, I'm sorry to disappoint you but we don't have much experience with 'reversing' the procedure."

"But when you first came up with it, you needed to think of something in the case of an emergency," Sisko held. "I can imagine that you're not thrilled to see us again now that your little secret experiment here has been revealed. But I spoke to the government of your home world. They were shocked to say the least. And they asserted us their full assistance in this case. So, if you like it or not, you will help us." Sisko's tone had become a nuance more menacing.

For a long time, Heral just stared at him, as if he was weighing his options. He must know that Sisko was not making empty threats. He'd probably already received word from their home world Dolos V. Sisko had made sure to give them enough time to contact Heral and confront him. But still, Heral shook his head as if he was talking to a stubborn child. "I've already risked too much. The energy web is weakened. And if the web breaks completely, my people will die. I cannot take such a risk."

Sisko felt his patience dwindle. He couldn't tell if Heral was telling the truth or not. But he couldn't accept no as an answer. There was too much at stake. "You not only put Dr. Bashir into danger, you also intended to harm the rest of my crew. You'll understand that I will do everything in my power to protect them. So, either you help us, or I will talk to your government about your plans on that night and believe me, when I'm through with you there won't be much left of your precious colony and their energy web."

Heral glared at him. For a long moment neither of them spoke. They both knew that Heral didn't have much choice.

"Very well, Captain," Heral finally said with a glance at Bashir. "But I'm not sure you'll like it."

When Sisko arched a questioning brow, the other man straightened in his seat. "I'm not even sure if it will work. The procedure is very old and as I said there never was a case when we needed to bring the person in question back from the world beyond." Heral held his gaze, defiantly, obviously mustering as much dignity as he could. "But we'll try."

"What are you going to do?" Jadzia at his side frowned.

"We'll reestablish the connection. And then we'll sever it properly. It's the only way I can think of."

"You're going to do the same thing to him all over again?" Sisko wasn't sure if he liked the idea. He didn't know what he had expected but it was not exactly what he had hoped for.

Julian at his side seemed thunderstruck. He might have been passive and silent before but at Heral's words, open horror was written all over his face. Jadzia must have noticed as well because she silently reached out for his hand and squeezed it.

"There is no other way, Captain. Either that or Dr. Bashir will remain as he is now. And I can't even guarantee you that it will work. It's nothing more than a lucky try. As I said, it's the first time we try something like this."

Sisko looked once again over to Bashir – and felt unspeakably sorry. The last thing he wanted to do was put him through everything again. But he also knew that Heral was probably right. They couldn't leave Julian like he was. He would die if they did. So there was no other way. And from the look on Julian's face he knew that the young man was most likely aware of it. Still, he would have given anything to spare him the ordeal.

"Alright. But I want to be present during the whole procedure," Sisko finally agreed, not taking his eyes off Julian.

"Very well, Captain."

"Julian?" he gently probed.

The young man swallowed. But then reluctantly nodded. "I-I just want it to end…"

"We'll need some time to prepare everything," Heral said, drawing himself up. "Let's meet again this afternoon. We'll be ready until then."

Julian lay on the only bed in the elsewise empty chamber. Around him, candles were illuminating the room with their soft ember glow, probably an attempt to put him at ease.

But he didn't feel at ease.

Even in the warmth of the room, he felt cold. He shivered slightly, the thin blanket one had tugged around his body not enough to keep his teeth from chattering. His left arm lay outstretched outside the blanket. There were people milling around him. Things were being pushed around and every now and then some unfamiliar person would cross his field of vision.

He tried to clamp down on the flutter of panic. His heart was racing in his chest, and his palms were damp with sweat. He didn't know what was going to come, but he dreaded the moment he would find out.

Someone squeezed his hand. He looked over to see Jadzia sitting next to him, holding his other hand in hers. Her touch was warm and reassuring and he was grateful that she was there by his side.

After they had him change into a short sleeved white robe and led him into the "preparation room", Heral had one of his assistants bring him a cup of tea. He'd instructed Julian to drink the tea to help him relax and prepare his body for the procedure that lay ahead. Julian had reluctantly taken a short sip – and subsequently felt the urge to vomit.

He'd coughed and retched and hadn't been able to bring down any more of it.

It wasn't that the tea had a particularly unpleasant taste. It was just that his body wouldn't accept it. No matter how much Heral had been adamant that the tea was necessary for the preparation or Ben and Jadzia had pleaded with him that he needed to try to drink it, it had been useless.

In the end, they had to give up and Heral had suggested they try another way. Julian hadn't understood what the other man had in mind, but it didn't sound any better than the tea. Lying now so helpless and unprotected on a bed, he wished he'd never come down here in the first place. He was inches away from begging Jadzia and Ben to stop all this.

"We've got everything ready," one of Heral's assistants said, a middle-aged woman whom he'd called Myra. She came over to him and gently took hold of his one bare arm. She positioned it a certain way before she produced something from outside his field of vision, a thin glass tube with an even thinner needle attached to it. She urged him to look at her. Her face was gentle, and in contrast to Heral, she seemed genuinely worried about him.

"It's okay, Julian. You don't need to be afraid. Heral would have preferred you take the tea as its contents are absorbed more slowly into your system and it takes effect more gradually. But as it doesn't seem possible to give you any of it, we'll try to give you an injection instead." She looked over to Jadzia. "The effect should be the same, but it will set in a little faster."

He felt his body tense. Myra placed the tip of the needle against the crook of his arm – and pricked. He involuntarily gripped Jadzia's hand. His heart was hammering in his chest.

He saw Myra empty the contents of the tube into his arm – and suddenly he felt as if his head was being ripped off his body. His neck hurt and his head felt as if it was going to explode. He opened his mouth to speak but no words came out. The sensation left as quickly as it had come. A few seconds later the pressure on his neck was gone. He felt lightheaded.

"Is everything okay, Julian?" Jadzia's alarmed voice. She'd bent closer, studying his face with concern.

He couldn't answer. Instead, he kept his eyes trained on the ceiling. Everything suddenly spun around him, and he had the terrifying feeling that he was falling. Even trying to close his eyes wasn't doing much good.

"How long will it take?" Another voice. Ben. He couldn't see him.

"We've got everything ready. If you could help me bring him over to the other room," Myra said. Her voice, too, was strained.

Strong arms were helping him up into a sitting position. He barely managed to sit on his own. His world would just launch from one wild spin into the next. His fingertips were tingling, and his muscles wouldn't obey. He felt like a puppet.

"Julian, can you walk?"

Ben was placing one of Julian's arms over his shoulders, slowly pulling him up and steadying him. Julian tried not to fall over but found it just impossible to stay on his own feet. When Ben moved forward, he tried to set one foot in front of the other. He barely managed. He felt himself being more dragged across the room than walking but somehow they managed to get through the door into the adjacent room. He felt so utterly exhausted that he only wanted to sleep.

"Hang on, Julian, only a little further…"

"Bring him over here, Captain, into the water."

He stumbled forward, leaning against Ben who was the only steady thing in a world that had suddenly spiraled out of control. Until something wet suddenly touched his feet. A terrifying fear gripped him. It shot through his body like a bolt of lightning. He'd have shouted for Ben to stay where they were, had he been able to bring up enough strength. But he could barely keep his eyes open. Every nerve in his battered body was screaming at him that this here was wrong. But he was powerless, driven forward by a force beyond his control.

"I know that you don't trust me but let me give you one advice. I'm not sure if this here is something you want to witness. You can wait outside, and I will call you when it is over."

In his mind he was begging Ben to stay, to not leave him alone.

And to his great relief, Ben must have heard him.

"We will stay."

Julian was swaying dangerously when Captain Sisko led him into the water. He almost looked as if he was about to pass out. Eyes half closed, he was only held in an upright position by Sisko, who had Julian's arm hefted over his shoulders.

"We'll stay," Jadzia heard him say and felt a dead weight drop from her chest.

She was standing with Myra in some distance, giving Heral and Sisko enough room to maneuver the young man into the right position. Klyn was moving over to the three men, as if he was ready to give them a helping hand if needed.

"Very well, Captain," Heral said with a sigh. "But I warn you not to interfere. You must give me your word. We know what we are doing, and every interference might cost your crewman his life. Please keep that in mind."

Sisko gave a wordless nod.

"Okay, then let him down now."

Cautiously, Sisko let the young man down. Julian's knees just buckled until he more or less sat in the shallow water, soaking the white garment he wore. The captain took a reluctant step back, and it almost seemed as if he was struggling with himself if it was really safe to leave Julian in the hands of Heral and his men. But then he turned his back on the scene and stepped out of the pool, moving over to her side.

Heral gave a short nod – and Klyn moved over to Julian.

The young man was sitting hunched over in the water. He didn't move, though Jadzia could see his shoulders tremble. And a second later, Klyn was next to him. He grasped the young man by his shoulders, pushing him without preamble forward into the water. Caught off guard, Julian fell. Water splashed as he hit the surface. Even through his fatigue something must have shocked him back to his senses because he flailed out with his arms, trying to push himself up again. Though Klyn was already there, pushing his head back under water. He didn't so much as blink as he held the struggling young man down, stoic as he always was.

She couldn't watch. She felt her stomach tighten at Julian's desperate struggle. He was going to drown. Klyn was going to drown him. They all were doing this to him. She felt sick.

"Benjamin…" she pleaded.

Next to her, Sisko was watching the scene with a glare. She could see the muscles of his jawline moving, saw the barely tempered anger that was reflected in his eyes. He almost gave the impression as if he was ready to jump at Klyn and punch him in the face.

"It's over soon," Heral said with a sad look at the scene unfolding in front of them.

Julian was still lashing out wildly, trying to get out from under Klyn's hands. But to no avail. Klyn was stronger than he was and held him down with a force that made it impossible for the young man to free himself. And then his struggle finally ceased as he had most likely run out of oxygen. His movements stopped, as if his resistance was suddenly broken. A second later his body was still. Klyn kept him in the same position for another few moments. Probably to make sure Julian would no longer put up a fight. Then he slowly stood up and said something in a language she didn't understand. The universal translator didn't pick it up and after Heral had uttered the same words, whatever happening she had just witnessed was over.

"He needs to rest now," Heral said, his tone gentle as if he was telling them to let Julian sleep. "After a few hours, the connection will be reestablished. Until then, there is nothing else we can do but wait."

"Was that really necessary?" Sisko finally said through gritted teeth.

Heral frowned. "Yes, it was. The injection we gave him shut down his body's defense function so that the liquid could enter his lungs to establish the connection to the energy web. He needed to be aware of what was going on. It doesn't work if the person in question is unconscious or asleep. That's why we give them the tea, to help them relax."

Sisko shook his head, obviously disgusted. "What did you do to Julian that night? How did you get him to cooperate in the first place?" Sisko narrowed his eyes. "He might be young and naïve but he's not that naïve."

"As I said, we didn't force him in the first place," Heral emphasized. "He volunteered to help us."

"But you had it all planned out, hadn't you? Ever since you heard that we were coming to your planet. You planned to use one of us for your little experiment. Why Doctor Bashir?"

Heral's face took on a faraway look. He seemed almost wistful.

"Because he had passion for what he was doing. He was enthusiastic. We thought he might have a high potential to fit for the procedure. And in the end he did. He connected to our energy web as one of our kind would have. There weren't really any difficulties."

"And you just told him that? You just told him your little story and he went along?" Sisko said with sarcasm.

When Heral kept silent, Sisko snorted. "Of course, you did not. How did you trick him into helping you?"

"He was adamant to help. We were about to try the procedure on two kids, Seara and Max. We were running out of time and they were the only possible candidates. I didn't tell him what we were going to do. I just said that we were going to perform some scans. Seara said that she was afraid of taking the scan and that was when Dr. Bashir suggested he take the scan first. He'd somehow grown quite fond of the girl. He wanted to show her that there was nothing to be afraid of. So he offered his help. He went along. But as you can understand, Captain, there is a point which once crossed doesn't allow you to return."

"So you've used him," Sisko stated. "You deliberately deceived him, tricking him into helping you and when he finally realized what you had in mind it was already too late. You couldn't even be sure that your procedure worked on him and you tried it all the same. He could have simply drowned on that evening!"

Heral didn't meet his eyes. "We couldn't be completely sure. But don't take me for a fool. Of course, we knew of the possibility that his physiology might not be compatible with ours which is why we carried out some test. But as it turned out during his stay here, it was."

Sisko shook his head, uncomprehending. "But how did you do it? What did you do to him?"

The other man didn't face him. "We made sure that he didn't tolerate our food as well as he should have so that he was literally living on an empty stomach. Then we gave him some of the preparation tea, and some small amount of the energy liquid to check its effect on him. We needed to see how he reacted."

"You poisoned him?" Sisko turned to Heral, appalled.

"No, we just made sure that he was ready when the time came. We kept him in a state where we could begin with the procedure whenever we got the chance. We only had to wait for the right time."

Sisko looked as if it took him a great deal of effort to stay calm.

"But in the end, it was all worthless," Heral said bitterly. "I'm truly sorry about the outcome of all this. I wish things had turned out differently. For both of us."

"As do I," Sisko said darkly. "I can only hope that you know what you're doing this time." There was obviously more he wanted to say but the words seemed to be stuck in his throat, the heated fire in his chest obviously preventing him from arguing with Heral any further.

Jadzia cleared her throat. Even though it hurt hearing what Heral had done to Julian, she needed to ask Heral something, now that she had the opportunity.

"Heral, you told us that Julian had grown quite fond of the twins you worked with during his stay. As far as I understand, they underwent the same procedure but unlike Julian, they are now a constant part of your energy web. If you don't mind, can you tell us more about them? The girl, what was her name? Seara?"

Heral shot her a strange look, as if he weren't sure about the sudden change of topic. He reluctantly nodded. "Yes… Dr. Bashir only met them on a few occasions but after all I saw he oddly seemed to care about them, especially the girl. Why do you ask?"

"Can you describe her to me? Is there any picture of how she looked?"

Heral shook his head. "I'm afraid, there are no pictures. She was one of our youngest."

Sisko turned a questioning look at Jadzia. She ignored it as she produced the padd she'd brought along with her out of her bag, calling up the image of the little girl out of Julian's private database.

"Did she resemble this little girl?"

Heral studied the padd for a long moment. Until he finally shook his head. "Not really. They look about the same age, and there's something about her eyes that reminds me of Seara. But no, they don't really look alike. Why do you ask?"

Jadzia again shook her head. "When he'd lost his memory, he seemed to remember her. But never mind."

"I will walk you back to the common room. Please feel free to stay there until we're ready. The preparations will take some hours. I will inform you as soon as we're ready." With that Heral gestured for them to follow him out of the room.

Almost against her will, her eyes strayed back toward the pool – with Julian's lifeless body inside. He was lying face down in the water, his body slack and unmoving. She felt her heart break at the sight.

"I will see you in a few hours."

"And? How did it go?"

Chief O'Brien looked up expectantly, waiting for Dax to take a seat. The young Trill set her steaming mug of Raktajino on the table and sat down next to him. She wrapped both hands around the mug as if she were cold. Her face was somber, and the usual serenity gone.

"Well…" she started, "I guess according to the circumstances. They put him back to sleep and reestablished the connection to their energy web. Now we have to wait until Heral sends word. Once Julian is reconnected to their energy web, they are going to sever the link again. But this time properly." It was clear that she wasn't telling him everything and O'Brien decided to not ask for details. But from the little he knew about what Elra had told them, it couldn't have been a pleasant experience for Julian.

"So, is there anything you were able to find out?" the young Trill changed topics. Luckily, the mess hall was mostly empty, ensuring them a little privacy. While Dax and the captain had been down on the planet with Julian, he'd promised to see if he could find out something more about the picture of the girl in Julian's personal database. It had been quite complicated, but he'd managed. What he had found out, however, wasn't quite what he had expected. In fact, he wished they'd never downloaded the picture in the first place…

O'Brien nodded and produced the padd he'd been carrying with him. He lay it onto the table and pushed it toward her. He wasn't sure how to start.

"It was a little tricky, but I was able to trace its origin back to a planet called Invernia II…" he began.

Dax took the padd and activated the screen. The first thing that came into view was the picture of a little girl. It was the same girl. The same girl like in Julian's personal database. The holophoto was different, showing her together with an older boy at her side. But there was no mistaking her.

"It's a class M planet in the Calmar System with a quite warm and dry climate," O'Brien elaborated when he saw her questioning frown, "and the girl's name is Sirarrthka Drknarda Karrndra."

"Sirarrthak…" a voice behind them sounded even as Dax arched one brow at the long and unfamiliar name.

When O'Brien looked up, the captain was suddenly behind them, a steaming cup of coffee in his hand. He hadn't noticed the captain enter. There was a puzzled expression on the captain's face, as if he was thinking hard about something.

"Sira," he finally mused. "That's the name Julian shouted in the temple…" he said more to himself when he sat down at their table. "Who is she, Chief? Could you find out more about her?"

"A girl from Invernia II." Dax showed him the padd with the picture.

"And what does she have to do with Julian?" Sisko frowned as he took the padd and studied the picture.

"That's a good question…" Dax said. "But I guess there is only one person beside Julian who can tell us. Chief, is there any way to get in contact with her? Were you able to find out more about her whereabouts?"

O'Brien grimaced. Now they were nearing the part, he'd pretty much liked to avoid. But there was no turning back now. "I'm afraid there's not." And if in response to their unspoken question, he added: "She died 20 years ago."

Sisko and Dax exchanged glances.

"So, you're telling me that she died 20 years ago. And Julian stores her picture in his personal database? How old was he then?" Sisko frowned.

O'Brien averted his gaze. He all at once felt quite uncomfortable. He hesitated a long moment, not sure if he should go on.

"Chief?" Dax gently probed, obviously having noticed his sudden reluctance.

The Irishman shook his head. "There's something else… But I'm not sure if I had the right to poke my nose into it. I just feel as if I… crossed a line."

"What did you find out?" Sisko was watching him with concern.

"He was ten when she died," O'Brien reluctantly admitted. "I looked it up in his personal file. I was just curious, and the information wasn't actually classified. I just wanted to see if there was any connection between the two."

"And?" Dax bent forward.

"He was on Invernia II with his father when the girl died. His father was on a diplomatic mission at that time. He'd brought Julian along and he spent half a year with his father on the planet."

"So, she and Julian had known each other?" Sisko mused.

"There's more to it," O'Brien conceded. "When I looked her up in the database and tried to find out more about her, I stumbled about some kind of newspaper article how she died." The Chief took a sip of his coffee, stalling.

"Chief? Whatever you found out might be important to help Julian. We can only tell for sure when we know, though."

"I know, Sir, but it's quite a private matter. I'm not sure if Julian would want anyone to know…" He sighed but finally shook his head.

"The article said that she was bitten by a snake while being caught in an iron storm. She was found by a Federation diplomat and his son. While the father went for help, the son stayed with her but unfortunately she died while help was under way. They found her in a nearby cave where they had taken shelter. When they searched for the son, they found him at the foot of a nearby slope. He'd presumably lost footing on the rocky ground while he was trying to get help. He was brought to hospital with severe internal bleeding."

Dax was staring at O'Brien. Next to her, the captain blew out a long breath.

"And that boy… was Julian…" Sisko concluded, closing both hand around his mug.

"I just wish we'd never found that picture," O'Brien said miserably. "'We had no right to access his personal files. Everyone has things they don't want to talk about. Some things just ought to remain private."

Dax cast him a sympathetic smile. Then she frowned as if something had suddenly come to her mind.

"Wait," she said. "If I remember correctly, Julian has told this story to another person before." She looked up, suddenly excited. "You remember Melora Pazlar, the Elaysian Starfleet officer who came to the station three years ago? Julian was in a short-term relationship with her. While she was on the station, she told me about something Julian had said to her, about the reason for becoming a doctor. She seemed to be quite impressed by it. She didn't say much, only that when she'd asked him for the reason why he'd become a doctor, he'd said that he'd once been caught in an ion storm with his father when he was a kid. They'd found a sick girl. The girl died before the storm was over and they'd later learned that she could have been saved with an ordinary plant that grew in the area. It was an event that made him choose his career as a doctor."

"So he didn't really keep it a secret…" Sisko stroke his beard. "Even though that version of the story didn't include him being seriously injured."

"What do you make of it, Benjamin?"

The captain leaned back, his eyes fixed on the stars outside the viewport. He thought for a long moment before he spoke. "I don't know. For a ten-year-old, the event must have been quite traumatizing."

"It's been twenty years already," Dax said thoughtfully, "It's hard to tell how much it still affects him."

"Obviously a lot," Sisko arched one brow. "He mistook the girl in the Sanctum for that girl from Invernia II. He was desperate to save her, even if it meant hurting himself. And when he'd lost his memory after the incident, she was the only person he somewhat seemed to remember. You told me that he literally cried his heart out. If you ask me, the event from twenty years ago still seems to cast its shadow over him."

O'Brien inhaled deeply. "But the question is, do we have any right to interfere? It's not exactly as if he is in any immediate danger. If we hadn't found the picture in the first place, no one would have ever known about his feelings for her…"

Sisko nodded. There was a difficult expression on his face, as if he was pondering O'Brien's words. And making a decision.

"I'm afraid, I have to agree," he said at length. "There's only one thing we can do."

Dax shot him an expectant look.

"You said that he's told Melora Pazlar before. So we'll just ask him. And see what he has to say."

It was getting dark outside when Heral finally sent word for them.

They followed him silently through the corridors, back toward where they had left Julian in his care several hours earlier. Though the room they were let into was different from the first. It looked about the same but instead of a shallow pool in the middle it had now one of the tanks, Sisko had already seen in the temple.

When he stepped closer, he felt his heartbeat quicken.

Julian was lying inside the pinkish water, face facing upwards, hands unmoving at his side. It almost seemed as if he were fast asleep. When they came closer, Sisko noticed that the color of the water had changed. When it was a thick pink at the beginning, it was now almost transparent, like real water.

"We're almost ready," he heard Heral say. "We're going to do the last step to sever the connection now."

Myra came toward the tank. She pressed some button on the other side – and a moment later the water level began to fall. Ever so slowly, the water retreated, until Julian was lying soaking wet in the empty transparent tank. He lay as still as if he were dead. His chest didn't move. Even before Sisko had the chance to ask if his crewman was alright, Myra produced an old-fashioned syringe.

"We're going to wake him up now," she said as she took Bashir's right arm and injected him with whatever was in that syringe.

Sisko moved closer to the tank. For a dreadful second, nothing happened. Until the young man's body suddenly convulsed. He coughed, water gushing from his mouth. Julian gasped audibly for breath, and for a moment it almost looked as if he was going to throw up. Sisko was quick to help him into a sitting position, while Julian coughed up more water. Once his lungs were free of it, he started to suck in desperate gulps of air.

"Easy now, everything's okay." Sisko didn't release his hold on him.

When his erratic breathing gradually eased, Julian lifted his gaze. "Captain…?" he said in utter confusion but the expression in his eyes left no doubt that he knew who was at his side. Then the young man's eyes obviously fell on another familiar person. "Dax! I'm… so glad to see you," he panted, looking about him with eyes wide with disbelief.

"Julian, what is the last thing you remember?" Sisko gently urged, not yet ready to believe that it was finally over. He slowly released his hold on Julian's arm.

The young man thought for a moment, then his face drew into a slight grimace. He frowned. "We were running some tests... I volunteered to submit myself to a scan. I had to change and they brought me some tea and I suddenly felt lightheaded and my body didn't work properly and then I was led to some kind of pool and they wanted me to go in…" he blurted, suddenly a look of apprehension on his face. He turned and startled when his eyes fell on Heral and Klyn, who stood in some distance.

"You… drowned me…." he whispered in disbelief. There was profound hurt in his eyes when he searched Heral's face.

"Is there anything else you remember? Like what happened after you were drowned in that liquid?" Dax at his side gently tried.

Julian looked at her, as if he were completely lost.

"I… I'm not sure… it's like in a dream…" he stuttered. "I was on a starship… and there were people I didn't know. It was like a nightmare."

Sisko nodded. "I know it doesn't make much sense right now, but I'll explain everything later. It's good to have you back."

"Let's get you out of there and into something dry," Myra said as she came over with a blanket. Dax and one of Heral's men helped the young man climb out of the tank and Myra quickly placed the blanket around Julian's shoulders. The young man accepted it gratefully, letting her lead him to where he could change into something dry. Sisko watched them leave. Then he turned to Heral. "Am I right to assume that the link was severed properly now?"

Heral nodded, a hard-to-interpret expression on his face. He seemed worn, too tired to argue with the captain. Klyn at his side was watching everything with a sour expression. He kept his mouth shut, though, even though it was clear that he would have pretty much liked to say something.

"Yes," Heral crossed his arms over his chest. "I'm afraid but this is as much as I can do for you."

A long silence.

"I wish things had turned out differently…" Heral finally said almost wistfully.

"As do I," Sisko retorted. "As do I."

"It's time…"

Julian Bashir was kneeling in front of one of the tanks, one hand gently placed on its lit. He seemed deeply absorbed. Instead of the white robe, he was back into his uniform, a fresh combadge pinned to his chest and he almost seemed back to his old self weren't it for that special look in his eyes that spoke of powerlessness and utter defeat. It was the same look when he'd been forced against his will to take out her symbiont. The same look when he'd been powerless against what had been done to the people in the Sanctuary District A in San Francisco when a transporter accident had catapulted them back in time to 21st century earth. It hurt her to see him like this, but she knew that it was probably only natural after all he'd been through.

"They were planning on letting them undergo the procedure," he whispered. "They were scared and refused to take part in it. I told them that there was nothing to be afraid of. I volunteered to do it first. I promised them that it would be painless and that I should know because I was a doctor. I told them that everything was going to be fine…" His voice broke and he took a deep breath as if to gather himself.

Jadzia Dax slowly walked to stand next to him, to have a better look of what was inside the tank. It was a girl, curled up into a fetal position. She was wearing the same white robe Julian had. She didn't need to ask him to know who she was.

"What happened that night was not your fault, Julian." She gently lay a hand on his shoulder and squeezed it in comfort. "Heral would have done the same to them if you hadn't been there. There's nothing you could have done for them. If anything, it was a tragic event that you got involved in the first place. If there's anyone to blame, it's Heral and the elders. I'm so sorry for what they did to you."

Julian looked up and tried in vain to offer a smile.

"He told me that a strange sickness had befallen their colony. A sickness that only killed their children. I promised to help them find a remedy…" Julian's eyes took on a faraway look, as if he was deeply absorbed in his memory. "He lied... And I believed him."

"Julian…" she said. It broke her heart to see him like this.

"Captain Sisko was right. I shouldn't have interfered. I'm so sorry for everything that happened." He did not only look beaten, he probably was exhausted beyond words. Even though everything in her urged her to ask him about Sira, the little girl from Invernia II, she just couldn't. Not yet. He'd gone through so much already.

"I just wish nothing of this had ever happened." Julian slowly took his hand away and took a deep breath. Then he stood.

"It's time," Jadzia went to his side. "Captain Sisko is done speaking to Heral and the elders. We'll get back to the Defiant and leave orbit as soon as you're ready. Dr. Thompson is already waiting for you."

Julian nodded, casting a last look back at the tanks. It was utterly unlike him not to argue that he didn't need any medical attention. Or perhaps he was just too tired to care. "Then let's go," Julian finally said and tore his gaze away. "There's nothing we can do here anymore."

Dax quietly reached over to take his hand. She squeezed it softly before they both went back into the bright sunlight and the young Trill slapped her combadge.

"Dax to Defiant. Two to beam up!"



No, we're not finished yet XD There's still more to come!