"I think I could get used to life here," Major Kira Nerys said as she climbed over a few stones that served as a makeshift bridge over a small creek that wound its way through the settlement. The sun was already climbing the eastern sky and even though it was still early in the morning, it promised to become a warm and sunny day.
Captain Sisko followed in her wake, careful not to slip on the wet stone.
They had left their quarters where one had accommodated them for the night and were now taking a stroll through the already busy streets of the settlement to get a better idea of what Heral had spoken of the other day. Even though Heral had been adamant to show them around and had insisted on them staying at least until this evening so that there was enough time to give them a complete tour around, he'd been unexpectedly called away this morning, having him reschedule their little sightseeing tour to the afternoon. Sisko breathed in the clean and crisp air. And for once, even the dark thoughts of the last days were driven from his mind. At least since the day three days ago when Admiral Rand had informed him about the impending trial of Kasidy Yates…
"I'm glad you took Heral's offer to stay overnight. We would have missed this beautiful scenery if you hadn't." Kira turned and grinned in his direction with an unusual impish smile. Even though the sun had risen not more than one hour ago, she seemed fully awake, eager to explore their surroundings as if she was a child ready to embark on an adventure. Sisko arched one brow.
"You make it sound as if we're on vacation," he said in a reprimanding tone, though he didn't really mean it. "If I may remind you, Major, we are guests of this planet following an official invitation from the central government of their home world."
"You make it sound like a diplomatic mission," Kira observed, equally arching one brow.
"It is," Sisko reminded her as he followed her along the cobble stone path that led through the settlement. The streets were lined with one- or two-story houses some of which had a small garden attached to it where some of the citizens were already busy working and cleaning. An old man next to them looked up when they passed him. He nodded a short greeting before he turned back to weeding his garden, wiping sweat from his forehead.
Sisko reciprocated the greeting.
"Oh, I wouldn't be so sure. Just ask Dr. Bashir or Chief O'Brien. I bet they will give you plenty of reasons to stay for at least another week."
Sisko couldn't help a chuckle. There was no doubt his crewmen were enjoying themselves. He had only briefly seen them this morning upon waking but both had looked like they were ready to grab their backpacks and march off into the wilderness, ready to continue whatever adventure they were enjoying in the holosuite in real life.
A few intersections later, they came to a broader road, lined with small houses to both sides. It continued into the distance and lead up to a round building which was by far bigger than the others he'd seen so far. It was standing slightly aloof, a small patch of green, probably some grass or garden, running around it in a circle. High above the ground, almost under the roof, a series of narrow windows was set into the wall. A plain wooden door seemed to be the only entrance into it.
"Looks like the temple Heral spoke of," Kira commented as she followed his gaze. "I wonder what it looks like from the inside…"
"Why don't you ask Heral? I'm sure he'd be thrilled to show you around." Sisko simply said as he started down the path, toward the monument in the distance. "The Defiant's departure is scheduled for this evening. It still leaves you plenty of time to talk to Heral."
"He said something about a village festival. Why don't we stay until then? I don't see any reason to rush back to DS9. There isn't really anything waiting for our attention back home and I'm sure Lt. Commander Worf has everything under control," Kira said casually as she threw quick glances in every direction, as if she was searching for something.
"I'm not sure if this is a good idea," Sisko said with a frown. "I don't want to spend more time here than necessary."
Kira stopped. "Why not?" She looked as if she doubted his sanity. "When was the last time you were in a place like this? When was the last time you were on holiday? The only thing that's missing is the laughter of children to make the scenery complete! The place here is like something out of a vacation advert."
Sisko chuckled humorlessly. But she had a point. Sighing, he continued his way down the path. Kira was right. It really was idyllic a place. The thought only now crossed his mind that they really hadn't seen any children around. They had passed older people working in their little gardens, or met young men and women passing by. But he hadn't seen any small children, playing in the streets. Now that he came to think of it, the fact that he hadn't seen any children around did strike him as odd. He shook his head. Even if they obviously didn't have any medical facilities or trained medical personnel here, they surely did have schools of some sort. He made a mental note to ask Heral when they met again.
"You're still thinking of her," Kira suddenly stated, surprising him with the sudden change in topics.
For a moment, he thought about denying the truth. But then, what good would it do? And it hadn't really been a secret that Kasidy Yates and he had been dating. And that he had been in a foul mood ever since he had had to arrest her for smuggling weapons to the Maquis.
"Is it that obvious?" he asked with a sigh, though he didn't really expect an answer. Instead, he said: "She did what she thought was the right thing. And I did what I thought was the right thing. That's all."
Kira walked silently next to him. "Do you know when the trial will be held?" she finally asked, facing ahead.
"Admiral Rand said something about next week, though I don't really know any details."
Kira shot him an incredulous look. "You're not interested?"
"She did what she believed to be the right thing. She chose her life. And it didn't include me," he simply said. "It doesn't really matter when her trial is held because it doesn't change anything. Kasidy will be held responsible for smuggling weapons to the enemy. We both know what the outcome of this trial will look like. As will Kasidy." He swallowed against the bitter taste in his mouth. Why was talking about her still upsetting him so much? He'd done what had to be done. It had been his duty as a Starfleet Captain to put an end to her smuggling activities. They had both known the risks involved.
"But you still might want to hear what she has to say?"
Sisko pressed his lips into a tight line. "Perhaps I will. Some day." Not willing to dwell any longer on this subject, he shook his head. "Let's get back to the others and see if Heral has already sent word about our little sightseeing tour."
With that he took the lead, ignoring the Major's skeptical gaze that followed him down the cobble stone path.
"I can't believe they don't have any proper medical equipment!"
Julian said with frustration as they sat down at the long wooden table for breakfast. "I mean, what if they get sick? Even if it is just a cold, or a sprained ankle, or a broken arm? How can you found a colony without seeing to that its citizens' basic needs are met?"
"Julian," Chief O'Brien across from him admonished. "They've done quite well without us. If Heral says that they are okay we should leave it at that. It's not as if they don't have the opportunity to receive proper medical care. They just don't want it, that's all. If they are happy that way, who cares?" the chief said before he spooned some porridge into his mouth.
"But they don't even have an infirmary!" Julian gave back vehemently, venting some of his disbelief.
"And that's none of our business. We don't even know these people. We've been here for one night. Even if you don't approve of their way of doing things you shouldn't interfere. After all, they seem to know what they're doing."
Julian sighed. "I'm just saying that I'm worried. The emergency last night wasn't exactly that." He lowered his voice. He didn't want anyone to take his words as an insult. He just didn't understand. "I'm not even sure if there really is a healer. They were overwhelmed by the situation. You should have seen them. Every medical student in his first year would have known what to do."
O'Brien looked up at him, with his special hard-to-interpret face Julian knew he always donned when he wanted to tell him to keep his nose out of business that would bring him into trouble if he didn't. But Julian didn't really care at that moment. He wasn't in any particularly good mood today. In fact, he felt terrible. He had a headache and his stomach felt as if he was barely able to get his breakfast down – least of all keep it there. So he decided on some tea, politely declining the porridge one was serving for breakfast here. Staring at the tea, he idly wondered if his miserable physical condition had anything to do with yesterday's emergency.
After he'd come back to the others in the common room, they'd spent some more time together, chatting about everything that came to their minds. Another hour later, Heral had called it a night and showed them to their guest quarters though Julian had been unable to find rest for the better half of the night. And even when he had finally drifted off to sleep, he would start awake with nightmares. Some dealing with his days at the Academy, some with the Dominion and the Jem'Hadar. And some with his friends and family.
When morning had come, he'd felt barely rested. Worst of all, his stomach had been a mess upon waking. He chalked it up to yesterday's dinner and that perhaps he didn't tolerate the foreign food as well as he'd thought. He rubbed his tired eyes, wondering if that was the only thing what was wrong with him.
"Why don't we go for a walk after breakfast? Do some sightseeing? You've got your hands full on DS9, Julian. Whatever these people want to do here, it's not your problem. On the contrary, you saved that boy's life. But there's only so much you can do here as a guest," O'Brien said meaningfully.
"I know but…"
"I thought I would find you here," a cheerful voice suddenly interrupted, cutting of Julian's reply. They both turned to see Heral walking toward them. He looked confident as always, the shadow of yesterday's incident completely gone from his face.
"Good morning," Julian said with a polite nod.
"Doctor, Chief," Heral smiled, then turned toward Julian and added: "I know that you're just about to have breakfast, and I'm sorry to disturb you, but may I have a word with you?"
Chief O'Brien shot him a meaningful look. Julian ignored it and almost immediately drew himself up. "Of course," he said. Whatever Heral wanted from him, it most likely had to do with yesterday's emergency. He was sure of it. Something about the boy again?
As if Heral had read his thoughts, he smiled amicably. "The boy is fine if that's what is on your mind. There is something else I would like to hear your opinion on."
Julian shot an unsure look at O'Brien who just arched one brow. But then he nodded. "Chief, if you would excuse me." He didn't wait for another of O'Brien's quips and followed Heral. As soon as they were out of earshot, the older man came slowly to a halt. His smile had somewhat vanished, a blank expression on his face.
"I wasn't sure if I should address you," Heral began slowly, as if he had spent a great deal on selecting the right words. "I'm aware that you are only a stranger to us. But after all, I think it is safe for me to assume that you don't wish us any harm. We are still indebted to you for what you did yesterday."
"I just did what I could," Julian offered hesitantly. He wasn't sure what the earnestness in the other man's voice was so suddenly about.
Heral nodded. "Well, there is something else I would like to hear your opinion on. If you don't mind, I mean." The other man was watching him expectantly with scrutinizing eyes, as if he was trying to read Julian's face.
"I would be glad to be of help," Julian heard himself say before he was even aware of it.
"Could you spare some minutes then? There is something I want to show you…"
Julian nodded, beckoning for Heral to take the lead. The other man flashed a quick, grateful smile before he turned and went out into the corridor, waiting for Julian to follow. With a last look back at O'Brien who was still sitting over his breakfast in the distance, Julian turned and headed after him.
Julian followed Heral in silence. After they left the common room where still a lot of Heral's people were having breakfast and enjoying themselves over a good strong cup of coffee, Heral strode purposefully through the long hallways. Julian tried to remember the way and keep his bearings on the way but in the end the corridors would branch off in different directions every now and then, making him wonder how big the administrative building really was. Judging from the time it took them to reach their destination, the complex must be larger than its outer appearance suggested. Every now and then, Heral would exchange a short greeting with other passers-by and every single of those times the other person's eyes would stray over to Julian and as quickly back to Heral before they went on pursuing whatever duty had brought them here. Julian couldn't shake the feeling that he was being scrutinized by every person they met.
Another intersection later, Heral suddenly stopped.
When he turned, a seriousness lay on his features Julian had never seen there before. It took him slightly off guard.
"Doctor Bashir, what I am now going to show you has to remain between you and me. It doesn't happen often that we trust outsiders and usually we don't trust anyone we have just met the other day."
Julian felt a flutter of excitement. But he only nodded, eager to hear in spite of himself what the older man had to say.
"I would appreciate it… if you didn't tell your Captain. Or any other of your comrades for that."
Julian shot him a puzzled look but didn't press for further information.
"I won't tell anybody. I'm a doctor. And from where I come from a doctor is bound by his oath to keep silent and not talk about anything that transpires between himself and his patients." Julian hoped that it would be enough for Heral. He somehow couldn't shake the feeling that he was so close to finally getting some answers.
"I take your word," Heral said solemnly but nodded. Slowly he resumed walking, waiting for Julian to follow.
"When I told you that we usually don't have any greater medical emergencies, it was no lie. I know that you don't quite believe me, Doctor. For you it must sound nothing short of extraordinary. But to be honest, it isn't. On the contrary. We barely need medical attention, not due to sickness or a weak body. I have to admit that sometimes accidents happen. Some broken bone or some wound during work on the fields. But fortunately, we have been spared the calamity brought upon us by sickness. At least until recently."
They had reached a double winged door, obviously leading outside. Through the window next to it, he saw a lot of green, so it probably must lead out into some kind of garden. Heral pushed it open and another moment later they were standing in dazzling sunlight. Julian squeezed his eyes shut at the sudden brightness. He blinked several times till his eyes adjusted. It was a small garden, fenced with a large wooden wall. Bushes were perched along the wall and from somewhere in the distance he could hear the familiar lapping of water.
Until something suddenly crashed into him. Julian jerked around.
"I told you that someone was coming outside! Now you shot him. Look at what you've done!"
A boy with short brown hair stood frozen to the ground a few meters away, his eyes darting from Julian to the ball that was now rolling on the grass – and back. Next to him a girl with equally brown hair in two long braids and an expression on her young face as if she feared Julian would launch himself at her any moment now. She must have uttered the last words as she quickly ducked around the boy, hiding behind his back. Eventually she would peek over the boy's shoulder and her eyes would grow wide when she saw that Julian was still there, staring at her.
Heral arched one brow. "Doctor Bashir, may I introduce you to Seara and Max." And if in answer to his unspoken question he added: "They're twins."
Julian shot a surprised look at Heral. He didn't know what he had expected but somehow not this. He couldn't quite follow.
"Hey," Julian offered nonetheless and retrieved the ball he'd been shot with from the ground. With his best bedside manner, he brought it over to the kids, kneeling down before them so that his eyes were level with theirs. "I think you lost this."
The girl's eyes grew even wider, and the boy still stood ramrod stiff. They couldn't be more than nine or ten years old. The boy's hair was tousled, and he looked small for his age. The girl had a mischievous sparkle in her dark eyes as she peeked curiously over her brother's shoulder at Julian.
He'd first seen her that morning in the classroom. The tall girl with the brown braids and the warm and mischievous grin on her face. He'd noticed her even before his teacher had introduced his new classmates to him. Standing in front of his new class, he'd shyly reciprocated the greeting, quickly moving over to where his new seat was waiting for him. He'd mostly kept his eyes on their teacher, trying to keep his mind busy and ignore the curious gazes from the boys and girls around him. Now the girl he'd already noticed before was standing right in front of him. She looked a little younger than him, her long brown hair still in braids, and the same open and genuine smile on her speckled face when she looked him straight in the eye.
"Hey, you're Jules, aren't you! I saw you in today's class. You're new here, aren't you? I'm Sira and this is my brother Evin. They say that you and your father will be staying with us for a while. I bet everything is new and unsettling for you. But don't worry! You'll soon get used to everything. We'll have a great time! I promise! Let me show you around! Come on."
She extended her long, slender arm toward him and took his hand. Without waiting for his reply, she pulled him with her. He stumbled behind her, his heart pounding with nervousness and excitement.
When the girl and the boy wouldn't move, Julian offered a broad smile. "Hi. I'm Julian. And you are…?"
"Max," the boy said sheepishly. And behind his back the girl whispered: "Seara."
"Why don't you two play another round while Doctor Bashir and I have a talk among adults," Heral said and pointed to the far side of the garden.
"You're a doctor?" Seara exclaimed excitedly, her nervousness suddenly forgotten.
"Yes," Julian replied hesitantly, already running a diagnosis of the young girl in his mind. "Are you hurt?"
But before the girl could say another word, Heral had already sent them off playing.
"I'm sorry, Doctor, they're not really used to seeing others." And having seen the puzzled look on Julian's face he added: "They're orphans. They're mother died some months ago and they have been with us ever since."
Julian nodded. "I see."
"It is why I wanted to talk to you." Heral took a deep breath, clasping his hands behind his back. "We've never been victim to any threatening disease… not until recently."
"What happened?" Julian frowned.
"An unknown sickness that spreads among our population. Something we haven't found any cure to yet," Heral spoke softly. "You see, Doctor, I would have never asked for your help if it weren't so urgent. But as things are we're facing a dead end. And time is running against us."
"What kind of sickness?"
Heral looked him straight into the eye. "Something that kills. Slowly. And the problem is that it only befalls our children. Adults seem to be safe. At least until now."
Julian swallowed. "And you haven't found any explanation yet?" It wasn't really a question.
Heral crossed his arms over his chest. His mouth twisted. "No," he said and there was so much bitterness and defeat in that single word. "No one knows where it came from, and no one knows how to cure it. Fact is, my people are dying. And I don't know how to help them."
"I will do what I can," Julian said, almost in spite of himself. His gaze strayed over to where the twins were playing. Their laughter filled the little garden, as if they didn't have a care in the world.
"I'm glad to hear that. But let me make you promise one thing. Don't tell your Captain Sisko," Heral said seriously. "It's not that I don't trust him. But he is your commanding officer and if he gets word of the problems we're facing here, he's bound to report it back to our home world. We don't want them to know. When we came over from Dolos V, we were ready to leave everything behind. We've been living autonomously ever since, and I want to keep it that way. Besides, I know about their medical knowledge. Believe me, Doctor, they would be as helpless as we are now."
Julian frowned. He didn't really agree with Heral, but he also knew that he was in no position to argue with the man. If Heral had decided to trust him enough to turn to him for help, Julian would do everything in his power to help the colonists.
"I won't. I promise," he said solemnly. "But I will need access to the data you already collected."
Heral seemed relieved about the outcome of their conversation. "I will prepare everything necessary," he said with a nod. "In the meantime, let's get you back to your comrades. I will inform you as soon as we're ready."
When Julian followed Heral back toward the building, Seara stopped playing with her brother and came running over to him. She shyly came to a halt some meters in front of him. But finally, she found enough courage to ask: "Will you come back to us?"
Julian offered the most reassuring smile: "I will, I promise."
She smiled back. And then, she turned on her heels and ran back to the far side of the garden, where her brother was already waiting for her.
Heral's gaze also followed the girl. But something in his face gave Julian pause. He couldn't pin down the strange feeling but the look with which Heral observed the children gave Julian goose bumps. A moment later, and it was gone. With a quick smile, Heral just said: "I think we should go back inside."
On their way back, they met again some passers-by every now and then. But this time, Julian didn't really pay attention. He suddenly felt dizzy and light-headed but couldn't explain the sudden feeling. Perhaps it was still the food which was troubling him. He felt short of breath and shook his head several times to banish the haze out of his mind. It had to be the food. He was sure that it was the reason…
"Are you sure this is the right way?"
The man standing next to the big window slightly tilted his head to have a better look out the large window that overlooked the green in the distance. His eyes were constantly moving, as if they were searching for something – or someone.
"You've seen the boy, Klyn," the other man at the small desk in the middle of the room said as he finished the document he had been writing and leaned back. He sighed. It was a heavy sigh, full of resignation and lost hope. "There is no other way. You know it. You've seen what happened."
"He's too old."
The man at the desk snorted. "He's a boy. He's barely older than Evest."
"And Evest didn't survive the procedure," the other man said without turning.
"He wasn't fit for it. It was my fault. But you've seen this one. He's got passion. It'll work."
"What guarantees you that your intuition is right? We still have the twins. I would say let's do as we planned. Everything's as good as ready. If something goes wrong, we can still think of another solution."
The man at the desk briskly rose from his chair, the vein in his throat pulsing. "There is no other solution, Klyn. We've run out of options," he said vigorously. He let out a heavy sigh and walked over to stand next to the other man at the window. "It's the only chance we have. If we don't seize it now, we'll be doomed. We don't have much time left."
"But what will you do about Captain Sisko and his crew?"
"I will think of something."
"That's not good enough. He's bound to notice that something's wrong. They're already suspicious as things are now. We can't risk letting them interfere."
"Klyn, as I said, leave it to me. Please." The last words almost sounded like a plea.
"You are sure that it'll work, aren't you?"
"I took a quick sample and carried out a test shot. The test results are fine. His physiology is compatible to ours. It will work."
The man at the window sighed and folded both arms in front of his broad chest.
"It better will…"