"Patrol ships," Miro said. "Damn, I could have sworn I could avoid them."
The ships looked like nothing Eeris had ever seen before, though that wasn't saying much. They didn't bear any resemblance to a Cardassian ship or the Challenger. They looked a bit better kept than the Challenger—no offense to Miro—and definitely less rugged than the one Cardassian ship she'd seen. They did, however, look like they had a few battle scars. They seemed a bit spindly for patrol ships, but then, Eeris wasn't an expert.
"Well, it's not as if they pose a threat, is it?" Odo asked, having joined them in the cockpit. "We're not doing anything wrong."
Miro didn't answer, stabbing at the dashboard.
"Miro?" Odo asked. "We're not doing anything wrong, are we?"
Another ship's interior appeared on the viewscreen, cutting him off. It looked to Eeris like some sort of cockpit, but a fair bit bigger than the Challenger's, and with much more open space. In the center stood a man who looked almost like a Bajoran—or a Trill, for that matter—except there was no sign of any nose ridges. She wondered if he was from Earth's native species. Or was this some other alien, one she had yet to learn about?
"Miro Dax," the man said, after checking something on the flat screen he held in one hand. "I have a warrant for your arrest, if you'll please—"
"Oh, shut up," Miro said. "Look, I'll pay you to look the other way, if that's what it takes. Well, what'll it be? What's your price?"
"It's Miro," he snapped. Rolling his eyes at Eeris, he asked, "Why doesn't anyone ever remember that?"
"Miro," the man on the screen said, "you're in Federation territory. If you expect me to forget I ever saw you like some Ferengi looking to make a bar or two, you're mistaken. I'm authorized to fire if necessary."
"You shouldn't have even seen me," Miro said. "What are you doing off your designated patrol route?"
"That's none of your concern. Now, Miro—"
"Oh, for the love of fate, don't they ever teach you not to warn your enemies first?" Miro asked. "See ya 'round, Federation."
With that, he cut the channel, and Eeris felt the deck plating rumble beneath her as the engines shifted. The distant stars panned across the viewscreen as he changed course, the little oddly-shaped patrol ships slipping out of sight.
"Miro?" Odo asked. "What are you doing?"
"I'll just come in from a different angle," he said, already plotting a course. "Really, this shouldn't have happened. I'd hoped to avoid this sort of hassle, but…oh well."
"He said he had a warrant for your arrest," Odo said.
"Oh, please," Miro groaned, "are you really gonna go all security chief on me?"
"I simply think—"
"…I should just surrender and turn myself over to the authorities?" Miro jabbed a few final buttons. "Yeah, think again."
The words had barely left his mouth when the cockpit shuddered. Eeris stiffened in her seat, eyes darting from Miro to the trembling bulkheads and back.
"Miro…?" she asked.
"Don't worry, kid, I can fight them off," he said. He gripped the joystick in the center of the dashboard and swung them around. "Alright, you two, hold on tight—arming phasers—"
Another rumble shook the cockpit, and a light on the dashboard blinked.
Miro reopened the channel. "What now?"
"Surrender immediately," the Earth man said. "Cut your engines and disarm your weapons or we will open fire."
"You've already opened fire," Miro said. "Care to think of a better threat?"
"Disarm your weapons," the man said. "You have one minute."
Miro rolled his eyes and cut the channel again. "This is ridiculous. Come on, you two, lemme get us outta here."
"You'll do no such thing," Odo said.
"Ya think?" Miro punched something into the dashboard.
"Miro, stop," Odo said. "Whatever you're wanted for, I doubt you want to compound the charges by resisting arrest."
"Figures you'd be on their side," Miro said. "Look, they just want me for a couple petty crimes. Nothing drastic. Honestly, what kind of guy do you think I am? Just because I'm a bit of a galactic troublemaker—"
"Exactly," Odo said. "I have no doubt you're somewhat…shall we say…downplaying the things you did."
"I can't believe I'm listening to this."
Miro gripped the joystick and altered course again, but this time, they'd barely moved at all when a more violent shudder wracked the cockpit. Eeris froze, grateful when Odo's hands grasped her shoulders to steady her. Miro cursed under his breath and punched at the controls, but another blast rocked the ship and Eeris heard something in the back blow out in a flurry of sparks.
"Damn!" Miro cursed. "They've dropped my shields. How did they even…?"
The comm light on the dashboard blinked again.
Miro glared up at Odo. "Just to be clear, I'm blaming you for this."
"Go right ahead," Odo said. "But during your trial, just remember who it was these patrol ships had a warrant to arrest."
Sighing, Miro opened the comm again.
"Disarm your weapons," the man said. "This is your final warning."
"Or you'll what?" Miro snapped. "Blow my ship apart? Nothing I did warrants a death sentence! And how'd you drop my shields, anyway? The Challenger is tougher than this!"
"I'm authorized to apprehend you using any force necessary," the man said, ignoring the last of Miro's questions. "If that means beaming you out just as your warp core blows? So be it."
"Fine," Miro growled. "But I still want to know how you found me—and how you got past my shields! This part of the patrol grid should have been open, I know the patterns! Well? Answer me!"
"Disarm your weapons and cut your engines," the man said.
Miro let out a grunt of frustration and tapped in a command. "Done."
"Good." The man smiled. "Come quietly, and you'll be afforded every courtesy."
Miro rolled his eyes. "That's sure comforting. What does that mean, anyway? Full room service in my holding cell?"
"We'll lock onto your ship with a tractor beam," the man said. "Enjoy the ride."
"Don't count on it," Miro said, and cut the channel just as a low rumble reverberated through the Challenger's hull. He checked his instruments and grimaced. "Well, they've got us. No fighting back now."
"Glad to hear it," Odo said, leaning against a bulkhead and folding his arms.
"Oh, stop it." Miro slumped in his seat.
"Miro?" Eeris asked. "What exactly did you do?"
He shrugged. "Nothing huge."
"Rather not talk about it."
"About a couple of minor crimes?" Eeris asked incredulously. "After everything you've told me about your time in this galaxy, I would have thought—"
"I just don't want to talk about it, okay?" Miro said, frowning. "They shouldn't have found me in the first place—I know the patrol routes, there shouldn't have been anyone here. And how'd they get through my shields, anyway? The Challenger wasn't made yesterday!"
"This is why you were so eager to avoid the patrol routes, isn't it?" Odo asked.
Miro shrugged. "Can you blame me? Picture it. Me, trapped in a holding cell. Standing trial. Manacled, answering to ordinary, commonplace, boring charges. It's ridiculous. I should be out there, stopping Viresa, keeping the galaxy in one piece, not stuck in a tractor beam on my way to…" He trailed off, shaking his head. "Never mind. Just gonna have to deal with it, I guess."
Eeris didn't miss Odo's smirk."
"So what's the plan now?" she asked. "You think the justice system will tie you up for long?"
Miro snorted, and only then did Eeris notice her choice of words.
"Who knows," he said, gaze drifting off into the middle distance. "No telling what they'll try to blame me for."
Odo frowned. "Miro?"
"Never mind," Miro said. "Look, you two, I know this isn't much to go on…but you've got to try everything you can to get me out. This isn't just about me not wanting to be cooped up in a holding cell, though that's part of it. There's more important things at stake. Viresa. The galaxy." He looked them each in the eye. "That won't matter to them. I'm nobody to them. I"m the guy who flew the coop when they tried to clamp down on security 'cause I couldn't stand to sit in one place. They look at me, and they'll just see the vagabond troublemaker who slipped through their fingers not so long ago. It'll be lock me up, try me in court, case closed, move on. We don't have time for that—the galaxy needs me, now more than ever."
Odo nodded. "We'll certainly do what we can, Miro, but I'm not about to circumvent the law."
"Course not," Miro scoffed. "Forgot who I was talking to for a second there."
"So," Eeris said, "who was that? Were those humans?"
Immediately, Miro softened, features creasing into a smile. "Yeah, humans. It's kind of funny, the way everyone calls bipeds like us 'humanoid,' as if Earth's natives are at the center of the universe. And what's more—early in their history, they even used to think that! They even have the nerve to call themselves humans. Not Earthans, not Terrans—though the mirror universe humans were smart enough to go with that—humans. I'm not even entirely sure where the word comes from. But somehow, the whole galaxy gets saddled with it. Next thing you know, it'll be Romulanoids, what with Viresa's thirst for power. I'm surprised she hasn't spread that one around by now."
Eeris smiled. "What about 'Terrans'? Where does that come from?"
"Just another name for the Earth," Miro said. "On a planet with hundreds of languages, it's a wonder anyone calls it the same thing. They mostly just use Federation Standard these days, have since long before all these border wars, but…" He shrugged.
His mention of Federation Standard pricked at Eeris's curiosity. "Hold on a second. Federation Standard? They were speaking Bajoran on the comm just a second ago."
"Nah, you just heard Bajoran. That's the universal translator for ya!"
"So…what did you hear? Trill?"
He shook his head. "No, I heard Standard. Grew up in the Federation, after all. Though if they spoke in Trill—which no one does, honestly—I'd understand it."
"So let me get this straight," Eeris said. "What if I spoke in…I don't know…Romulan? You'd still hear Standard?"
"And Odo?" Eeris turned to him. "What are you hearing?"
"Bajoran," Odo said, though everything about his stance suggested he'd rather not say any more on the subject.
Eeris nodded. "Right…okay. That's kinda weird. Makes sense, though. It never occurred to me to wonder how anyone in this galaxy understood each other…"
Miro grinned at her.
"Hold on a second, though," Eeris said. "We don't have this 'universal translator,' as you call it, on Bajor. What if you spoke to me there?"
"Not that I'd ever be on Bajor," Miro said, "but I've got an implant for that kind of thing. We'd still understand each other."
"This is absolutely fascinating," Odo said dryly, "but I believe we can expect to reach Earth soon."
Eeris looked up at the viewscreen. Sure enough, a bright blue planet with swirls of white was drawing closer.
"Earth," Miro said, shaking his head. "Sure never thought I'd end up coming back here."
"You mentioned something about steering clear of the Federation," Eeris said, remembering their conversation when they had first met.
"That's right," Miro said. "Though it sure wasn't because they'd arrest me on sight. I've got other reasons to avoid them."
"Such as?" Odo asked.
"Oh, nothing hugely important," Miro said, leaning back in his chair and lacing his fingers behind his head. "The Federation's shrunk down a lot since you last saw them. Reached their prime a couple hundred years ago, then Viresa struck out from the shadows and…well, they're about as weak as they've ever been. Not important, in the grand scheme of things. Can't get along with the Klingons, had to withdraw most of their ships from deep space…it's not a pretty situation. At least they don't have the strength they did when they wanted Bajor to join. If they did, I'll bet they'd be annexing worlds left and right." He rolled his eyes. "Borg threat all over again."
"That's an…interesting way of looking at it," Odo said.
"Anyway, that's why I avoid them," Miro said. "They're not interesting, not worth my while, and a bunch of idiotic do-gooders besides. Funny, how far they've fallen. And to think, the Federation used to be a vast empire, spanning light-years and thousands of civilizations. Probably shouldn't have expanded farther into the Beta Quadrant—I imagine the Klingon threat wouldn't be so bad." He scoffed. "Their borders are so close it's unbelievable. You can't make a warp jump without running into a bird of prey."
"And yet somehow, we managed to make it here in one piece," Odo said.
"Lucky you, you've got me on board," Miro smirked. "I know my way around. Don't cross the path of a wandering bird of prey if I can help it. Like I said before, Odo, I stay out of the little skirmishes—no sense seeking out the wrong sort of trouble when I could be mediating conflict elsewhere."
Despite her best efforts to stay focused on the conversation, Eeris found her attention drifting. It was irritating, how easily that happened. The only way to learn more about the galaxy and ease her enforced isolation was to listen to Miro talk about things like this, and yet here she was, zoning out entirely. She supposed she should at least be grateful Miro and Odo seemed to be getting along a bit better than before.
Earth, she found, as the planet drifted ever closer, was a sharp contrast to the last planet they'd visited. Where Nebez had been all ruddy colors and swirling storms, Earth looked like a humanoid's paradise, with its generally fair-looking weather and expansive blue oceans. Eeris marveled that tow planets could be so different and yet still be home to humanoids. Even Bajor, she reflected, was worlds apart from this planet, with its hazy skies and dying farmland. And that difference was even more astounding—Bajor and Earth may have had little in common, but their people differed only by a few nose ridges.
They drew in so close that Earth's gibbous fraction loomed below them, the curved line of the horizon encroaching across the viewscreen until it obscured the space beyond. The tractor beam released them with a jolt, and the comm blinked again.
Miro opened it with a tired sigh and rested his chin on his palm as the patrol ship addressed him.
"Our records indicate your craft can land on the surface," the human man said. "Please proceed to Federation Headquarters. Transmitting landing instructions now."
"Received," Miro said. "Thanks, Federation."
He cut the comm before taking the Challenger on a steep dive toward one of the continents in the northern hemisphere. He leveled them out just as they entered the atmosphere, and Eers felt a familiar warmth envelope the ship. She remembered the feeling from their landing on Nebez, but something was missing. She sat quietly, musing, trying to figure out what was different this time. When Miro silently inputted a command, she realized what it was—all of the excitement Miro had shown before, the exhilarating thrill as they crashed in through the atmosphere and skimmed low over Nebez's land, was completely absent. Miro was following the patrol ship's instructions to the letter, and Eeris found she missed his exuberance.
Whatever they were walking into, she had a feeling Miro wasn't going to enjoy it.
He silently piloted the ship down to the join between two great landmasses. Barely a tremor wracked the Challenger's cockpit. They set down in a wide open area next to a tall marble building. To their left stretched fields of bright green grass of the likes Eeris had never seen before; to their right, an entourage of what appeared to be humans approached, marching over bare soil.
"Look at that," Miro grumbled, nodding at the building. "Perfect condition. Never can admit they're falling apart at the borders."
A light flashed on the dashboard, and Miro sighed. "Looks like someone's come to meet us."
Resigned, he got up from the pilot's seat and headed for the airlock. He tapped the code into the panel next to it and it rolled aside; just as had happened on Nebez, the gangplank descended until it touched the planet's soil.
Outside, footsteps approached. Odo joined Miro at the airlock and Eeris followed, keeping the other metamorph's body between hers and the outside.
"Miro Dax," said the man in front. He wore a uniform that was mostly black save for the gold swath across the tunic, and an oddly shaped insignia glittered on his breast. "You're under arrest. I assume you're familiar with the charges?"
Miro didn't answer. Eeris followed his gaze to a woman who stood near the front of the group, calculating eyes watching him. To Eeris's surprise, she looked about Miro's age—maybe a little younger—and even had a pattern of Trill spots sprinkled down either side of her forehead, unlike the humans standing with her. Her brown hair was pulled back over her shoulders and her eyes had an intensity about them that set Eeris on edge.
"Naral," Miro whispered.
If Eeris had thought she'd seen Miro vulnerable before, every time she'd inquired about his past and he'd closed up on her, it paled in comparison to this. His jaw had gone slack, his eyes locked on the woman—Naral—as if they were the only two present. Absently, his hand fumbled for the doorway, and his fingers curled around the frame, knuckles white as he gripped it like a lifeline.
"Miro?" Eeris asked, edging towards him.
He didn't seem to hear her. His mouth opened and closed a few times before he finally settled on silence.
Naral walked toward him with singleminded determination that frightened Eeris. When she brushed past the leader of the entourage, he tried to hold her back, but she turned on him with a glare that quickly put him in his place. She continued across the dirt expanse that separated her from the Challenger, finally reaching the gangplank and doggedly climbing it, the metal rattling beneath her thundering footsteps.
"Miro," Eeris tried again, hoping to at least help him face down this particular foe with dignity. She'd never seen him like this, not even when that alien Iz'ork on Nebez had threatened him.
But Miro didn't so much as acknowledge her, lost in his own world.
Naral finally reached them at the top of the gangplank. One hand on her hip, she cocked her head, and Eeris would have thought her posture somewhat cocky and defiant if not for the darkness brewing in her eyes.
"Miro," she said. "It's been a while."
Miro blinked. His throat worked as he swallowed. "Uh…yeah."
"Really," Naral said, "too long."
He gulped. Nodded.
"Miro," Eeris whispered, nudging him gently with her shoulder.
At last, he looked at her, his eyes startled, as if he hadn't expected her to still be standing there. Whatever he saw in her, it seemed to knock him out of his daze. His fingers slowly unclamped from the airlock frame and dropped to his side, his eyes tracking back to Naral.
"Naral," he croaked. He cleared his throat and tried again. "Naral."
She smiled coldly. "The one and only."
He cleared his throat again, eyes darting everywhere at once. "I didn't expect to see you here."
"How did you, um…"
"Get off Ebenen?" Her eyes drilled into him. "Oh, I found a way."
His throat worked.
"Took me a couple months to put a distress beacon together," she said. "But I managed."
She took a step closer, crowding him. Eeris inched closer reflexively. "I've spent eight months tracking you down, waiting to spring my trap. You're a fool if you think I'm going to let you go now."
"Right." Miro cleared his throat. He addressed his next words to the security entourage, leaning around Naral's shoulder. "So, I guess I'd better hurry up and face the music?"
Just like that, the moment shattered. Naral stepped back and air rushed in to fill the gap between her and Miro. Miro blinked dazedly, as if just now being released from a spell. The leader of the security contingent marched across the dirt expanse and up the gangplank to handcuff Miro, which was done briskly and with minimal resistance. Miro barely spared Eeris a comforting glance before allowing himself to be led down the gangplank and across to the other security officers. They moved off, and Eeris cringed as Naral fell into step behind them, just a few paces behind Miro.
"Well," she said to Odo, "that was intense."
"Somehow," Odo said, "I don't think she's part of the trouble he was expecting."
Eeris shivered, remembering the way Naral had looked at Miro. There was something not quite right about that woman. Something Eeris intended to find out.