Once Eeris had left the Challenger once again, determinedly swiping her shoulders across her eyes to banish her tears, Odo headed directly to the back of the ship. He generally avoided the cockpit, since he knew neither Eeris nor Miro were fully comfortable with his presence, and acceptance would only come with time. Of course, neither of them were on board right now, but retreating to tieback was beginning to be a habit.
He'd barely set foot in the galley when his surroundings undulated.
"Captain!" he called, recognizing the signs of a so-called "vision" by now.
Sisko appeared before him as if stepping out from a halo of light. Odo might have snorted at the ridiculousness of his entrance, but he was more preoccupied with worry—what could the captain need to tell him now? Had something happened to Eeris or Miro?
"You've done well, Odo," Sisko said. "All is proceeding according to plan."
Well, there went that theory. "Captain, I'm getting tired of this. If you have something to say to me, just say it!"
Sisko smiled. "I believe Nerys would remind you that the Prophets work in mysterious ways."
"First of all, Nerys isn't here," Odo growled. "As much as I wish she were, she isn't! And second, you're not a Prophet. You're my former commanding officer, and I would have thought that after all the time we served together, you'd recognize that I have little patience for this prophetic nonsense."
Sisko sighed. "Still the skeptic, I see."
"That's not changing anytime soon," Odo said.
"Well." Sisko composed himself. "I suppose I can make an effort to speak to you as a human."
A strange look flickered over his features.
Odo frowned. "Is something wrong, Captain?"
"No, not as such," Sisko said. His smile was self-deprecating, and looked odd amid the vision's hazy light. "It's just, I never thought I'd say this, but I'm not sure I remember how to be a corporeal being anymore."
Odo harrumphed. "You are corporeal, just suspended from my reality in some kind of pocket of space-time. And as soon as I see Miro again, I'm going to ask him what could possibly be going on here. None of this can possibly be real."
"I'm afraid it is," Sisko said. "And I"m afraid that means there are still trials in store for you."
"Enough with the cryptic messages, Captain! Just tell me what you want me to know and get it over with!"
"There isn't much I can say," Sisko said. "Time itself balances on a precipice; there's no telling which direction it will fall. Everything depends on you, Odo. Remember that."
Odo rolled his eyes. "That really doesn't make it any more clear."
"I'm sorry, Constable," Sisko said. "Sometimes it isn't clear, even to me. I'm not a full Prophet, you know."
"Oh," Odo said, "isn't that surprising."
"And one more thing," Sisko said.
Odo sighed, shaking his head. "I'm listening."
"There are trying times ahead," Sisko said. "Even I can't see what the outcome will be…though I have confidence in you, Odo. But as one trial begins, another ends. Be prepared, Constable."
"And how would you suggest I do that?"
"You'll find that out in time," Sisko said.
"That's what you said the first time I spoke to you!" Odo said. "And I still haven't found out what you meant for me to do!"
Sisko smiled. "Are you sure about that?"
Odo faltered, jaw opening slightly.
"Good luck, Constable," Sisko said, and before Odo could protest, he was gone.
The light flashed bright and dissolved, and Odo's breath hitched as he came back to himself. His eyes flicked from side to side as he tried to get his bearings. He was inside the Challenger, near the replicator. Yes, of course, now he remembered. He'd made this little cranny of Miro's ship his temporary home, since Miro and Eeris spent most of their time up front. He'd retreated back here after the Starfleet security officers had refused him entry to Federation Headquarters…
Odo stilled, his Changeling senses suddenly coming on high alert. Something was different…the sensation was dulled, since he was in humanoid form, but the vibrations of the Challenger's hull plating definitely felt wrong. They didn't feel like those of a ship safely landed on the edge of Federation premises. He titled his head, concentrating, and was surprised to hear the faint hum of the engine…and then he realized the entire hull was shuddering, just slightly, as if the ship was in motion.
He crept up front, slowly. Surely if Eeris or Miro had come on board, he would have noticed? Miro wasn't exactly known for being quiet, and Eeris…well…let's just say, her altered balance from losing both arms and changed her gait, just a bit. But no, he hadn't heard a thing, lost as he'd been in Sisko's imposed "vision."
Odo cautiously peeked around the corner that joined the cockpit with the corridor, and was shocked to see the female Trill from earlier—Naral—sitting in the Challenger's pilot seat like she owned the place.
"What are you doing here?" she demanded.
She jumped clear out of her seat and whirled around to face him, body pressing back against the dashboard as if to put as much distance between them as possible. Her eyes widened as she took him in.
"Wait," she said, pointing. "I know your face."
Odo tilted his head. "Do you?"
"You're him," she whispered. "You're actually him!"
"It might help if you clarified," Odo said.
"You're Odo! The shape-shifter!"
"Changeling, if you don't mind," he said. "How did you recognize me? I haven't been around here in nine hundred years."
"Oh, come on," Naral said. "Only the Founders look like you. And there's only one Founder Miro ever knew. You and the Challenger in the same place? It's too much of a coincidence."
Odo sighed. "I'm not a Founder."
She huffed impatiently. "Yeah, whatever. Do you have any idea how much Miro used to talk about you?"
"Really?" Odo stepped forward, curious despite himself. "What did he say?"
"Oh, it was always something or other about the way you'd betrayed Nerys and it was all your fault Bajor had plunged into chaos," Naral said, waving a dismissive hand. "But never mind that. What are you doing on board? Miro would never allow an enemy on the Challenger!"
"I'll have you know, I'm not an enemy," Odo said. "But I could ask you the same question."
"I'm not an enemy, either," Naral said.
"Oh? Then I suppose Miro's reaction upon seeing you was…purely shock?" Odo said. "Miro doesn't strike me as the type who's easily rattled."
Naral laughed. "Oh, if only you could've seen him before! By the dead Prophets themselves, he really has changed, hasn't he?"
"Well, he's certainly not the Dax I knew," Odo said, folding his arms. He leaned against the aft wall of the cockpit. "So, Naral—it is Naral, isn't it?"
"Mind telling me where you're taking Miro's ship?"
"It's not just Miro's ship," Naral said, shooting him a glare. "I own the Challenger too, fair and square. I can do whatever I want with her."
With that, she plopped back into the pilot's seat, looking for all intents and purposes as if she were completely absorbed in piloting the ship. But Odo had observed humanoid behavior for far too long to be that naďve, and he knew better.
"Don't think you can evade me forever," Odo said. "I can be very persistent when I want to be. Now, how about you tell me where we're going?"
She glared at him over her shoulder. "Trill, if you must know."
"Oh? And why would we go there?"
"That," Naral snapped, "is none of your concern."
"I don't suppose there's any chance I can convince you to fly us back to Earth?"
Naral laughed. "Are you kidding me? I'm due to testify at Miro's trial in twenty-four hours. I'm not gonna miss the time I've got."
"To do what?"
"Why, to visit home, of course." She stiffened. "What's left of it."
Odo frowned, not missing the significance of her words. "Trill hasn't been destroyed, has it?"
"Oh, no. Not as such." Naral shook her head in vehement denial. "Why would I return to a destroyed plant? No, it's just my hometown that's gone. Well, our hometown."
"You mean yours and Miro's," Odo said.
She shrugged. "It's obvious enough, I suppose."
"At least to me," Odo said.
"You know, he was right about you," she mused. "You're just as annoying as he described you."
Odo shook his head, exasperated. "He just doesn't let up, does he."
"Oh, he's been getting after you, has he?"
"Nonstop," Odo said. "Except he does seem to have accepted my presence as of late."
Naral raised her eyebrows. "Has he?"
"It would seem I'm part of his plan to save the galaxy," Odo said.
"That's what it's always about, huh?" Naral laughed. "Mind you, he didn't do so well at that when I knew him, but I've kept tabs on him these past few months—I know he's been everywhere. And I know he never leaves a conflict unresolved."
"I'm not surprised," Odo said. "I only wish the galaxy had others like him."
Naral snorted. "This galaxy has far too many Miros, as far as I'm concerned."
Odo favored her with a curious look—just one Miro in the galaxy, and she thought that was too many? What did she mean, she wasn't an enemy of his? She certainly didn't seem like a friend—not a single word out of her mouth since they'd first started speaking had been supportive in the least. Even if Kira had done something awful to him, which she never would, Odo knew he would never allow himself to succumb to any resentment toward her. He would always have loved her, no matter how she treated him. But then, he allowed, it was entirely possible Naral's relationship with Miro had been…far less devoted.
"Naral…what exactly was your relationship with Miro?" Odo asked.
She glanced up at him. "We were friends. That's all."
"That's all it ever could be," she said, occupying herself with a course adjustment.
Odo sighed. "Unreciprocated?"
She scoffed. "That's an understatement."
"Ah." Odo nodded, no longer comfortable meeting her eyes. "I…know how that feels."
Her eyes flicked up to meet his. "You mean Kira Nerys, don't you?"
"I—how did you know?"
She shrugged. "Miro used to talk to me, you know. I knew him before he closed off completely. He told me a lot about the two of you. Except…to hear him talk about it back then, you'd almost think he was talking about old friends."
"He was," Odo said. "What made you think he was referring to enemies?"
"The look in his eyes," Naral said. "Like he would trade it all for never having met you. Both of you."
"I don't know what I did wrong," Odo said.
Naral squinted at him. "You know, you're as annoying as he said, but you don't seem worth hating."
"If only Miro agreed with you," Odo said.
She gave him a tiny smile. "Forget about Miro for a bit. I've spent over a year thinking about nothing but revenge. That's why I'm visiting Trill, you know. We can have our respite together."
Odo wanted to ask her what Miro had done to deserve her revenge—whether he truly had marooned her—but decided it was best to accept the olive branch she'd offered. He'd find another time to get the answers he and Eeris both wanted.
They passed the trip to Trill in relative silence. The only sounds were the slight vibrations of the ship as the engine shifted, the changes in pitch and frequency as its instruments traded off duty hours. These were sounds Odo hadn't noticed nearly so much during his years on Deep Space Nine, but ever since he'd returned from the Great Link and had some time to get accustomed to his humanoid form again, it seemed his senses were heightened. He'd tuned it all out at first, focusing instead on his shock at seeing the promenade in such disarray—and then, later, on the intricacies of galactic conflict he'd somehow gotten himself involved with—but he noticed it all now, especially since he had nothing else to do. Nothing but stand around inside the Challenger as he waited for Naral to bring them to their destination.
At last, they reached Trill, and Naral dropped out of warp and into orbit around the greenish planet. Odo realized, to his surprise, that he'd never actually been to this region of Federation space before, let alone Trill itself. The oceans, he noticed, were a bit greener than what he remembered from Bajor—and, obviously, a far cry from the "ocean" he knew on his homeward. The land had scattered continents similar to Bajor, but they were a bit larger on Trill, close to the size of Earth's major landmasses. As they drew closer, easing into a geosynchronous orbit, Odo noticed something strange. There was an enormous swath of land on one of the northern continents that looked to have been completely blackened.
Naral had said her hometown was destroyed. She hadn't mentioned just how much farther than that the devastation had spread.
"I take it that's our destination?" he asked.
Naral didn't answer as she glanced at the region out the viewscreen, her eyes crinkling with a profound sadness. Odo wandered if she'd even been back here since the event. She looked as though she'd never seen the devastation here before.
"Who was responsible for this?" Odo murmured.
"The Klingons, if you must know."
"Ah." Odo nodded. "Yes, Miro mentioned they were at odds with the Federation these days…"
"Oh, not just these days," Naral said. "They've been at each other's throats for years. It's what Miro and I grew up with."
"I don't blame you for wanting to escape," Odo said.
"I still wonder, though. I was never told what exactly Miro was charged with…was leaving home his only crime? And if so, did you face trial as well?"
"Yes and no," Naral said. "No, leaving home wasn't all he did, but martial law was in place, so yes, that was part of it—and yes, I stood trial after they rescued me from Ebenen. Couldn't get around it, I suppose. And I promised them I'd drag Miro back to face the music. Really, it was only fair. He maroons me, takes off and makes a name for himself in the galaxy, makes the galaxy need him, and what do I get for it? A prison sentence? A lost friend?"
Odo frowned. "So he did maroon you? That doesn't sound like Dax."
"Then I guess you don't know him as well as you think you do," Naral said. "It's exactly like Dax. It's what he did, and he's Dax."
"Yes, I know, I believe you," Odo said. "But still…the Dax I knew would never have done something like that."
"Did it ever occur to you that maybe he changed? That maybe it's been nine hundred years since he was the Dax you knew?"
Odo sighed. "The thought had crossed my mind. I've already noticed more differences than similarities.
"Then you have noticed similarities."
"Of course," Odo said. "I knew Dax as three different hosts—it would be difficult not to notice what they had in common."
"You know…" Naral paused, shook her head, then plunged on. "I'm curious now. What similarities? What makes him like the Dax he used to be?"
Odo shrugged. "There's his daredevil nature, for one. Never hesitating to put himself in the line of fire if it'll engineer the best outcome for everyone involved. That's very Dax. I remember the time Ezri tracked down her friend Worf after he had already been presumed a casualty of the Dominion War…and even put herself at the mercy of the Breen in the process. And Jadzia—the host I knew the best—even risked her life to help a few Klingon friends avenge the deaths of their sons. She tried to ensure that they all returned safely." He frowned. "Not that they did."
"Huh." Naral set her chin on her folded hands, watching as the night slipped slowly around Trill, revealing more of the charred expanse. "Dax, friends with Klingons. Miro never even got a chance to do that. We were powerless when the Klingons struck. Powerless. And then he had Dax to deal with. Never quite could, as long as I knew him."
"I think," Odo said, "that I may not know Dax very well anymore, but you don't know the full picture, either."
"How can anyone?" Naral asked. "He's lived for twelve hundred years. I think that's the way he sees it, even. He takes the whole galaxy upon himself because he believes he's the only one who can."
"Not anymore," Odo said quietly.
Naral glanced at him, clearly not understanding, but Odo didn't elaborate. She didn't need to know that his former commanding officer was hounding him with so-called visions of lightning storms and troubled Bajoran girls and trials yet to come. He wasn't even entirely sure he should have told her as much as he already had. But there was no taking it back now.
"Alright," Naral said softly. "Should be close enough to morning where I want to land. Shall I take us in?"
"You're the pilot," Odo said, wondering why she was making the effort to ask in the first place.
Naral shrugged and plotted something into the Challenger's dashboard. The first thing Odo noticed was that she didn't manually fly the ship in toward the planet like Miro had when they'd landed on Nebez. He wondered if flying on autopilot was just a personal preference of hers, or if she hadn't had time to learn manual before Miro had allegedly marooned her on Ebenen. Either way, she didn't touch the controls even once as they flew in. It wasn't until they descended onto a flat, burnt patch of ground that she swept her hand over the control panel, powering the ship down all across the board and leaving them standing in darkness.
"I have to say," Odo said, looking around and finding himself unable to see even a few feet in front of him, "Miro never powered her down quite this far."
"I'm not Miro," Naral said. "He always did have sort of…renegade tendencies. This is actually standard procedure."
"Are you sure?" Odo asked.
But when he next heard her voice, it came from the direction of the airlock, and he turned to find her silhouetted in the light that pulsed from its outer rim. She reached up and tapped a code into the panel on the bulkhead—a panel whose numbers were helpfully backlit—and the gangplank drew down as the airlock slid open, letting Trill's weak morning light come filtering in.
"Well?" Naral called from atop the gangplank. "You coming?"
Shaking his head in something akin to disbelief, Odo followed her. He wondered if she'd picked that particular line up from Miro; it was almost a direct quote.
He stopped when he reached the ground, and found Naral standing a short distance away. She turned slowly in place, taking in the vast expanse of the charred landscape. It was nothing like what Odo had expected. Where he had imagined the charred remains of houses, maybe a rogue brick chimney or two, only the most basic foundations remained. There wasn't even a sign that this had been a recent devastation—everything was gone, as if the lack of houses or trees or other buildings had let the wind sweep through and wash the rest away, leaving the area a barren wasteland.
"The Klingons did this?" he asked, breath hitching on a gasp. "Seems more like the Dominion's caliber."
"The Dominion hasn't been around for nine hundred years," Naral said. "And the Klingons are a warrior race. Is this honestly so surprising?"
"They're not just a warrior race," Odo said. "They—when I knew them, at least—they placed honor above all else. Is that what this struck them as—as honorable?"
Naral laughed, the sound out of place in this bleak landscape. "The Klingons? Honorable? Where have you been living, under a rock?"
Odo blinked. "Well, not exactly."
She huffed. "They used to be better, Miro told me once. But ever since the Prophets died, they haven't been quite the same—and when Viresa swallowed up the galaxy with her power, the last vestiges of their honor went right along with the rest. It's like everyone's lost their aim these days. There's no honor to fight for 'cause we all know Viresa'll win in the end. No use fighting for a better tomorrow 'cause we all know it's not gonna happen. The Klingons have entirely forgotten what peace means, and the Federation…well…we just don't have the might to make any difference. Fat chance of that changing, the way Miro hates us."
Odo frowned. "You sound almost as if…you'd want him to step in and make a difference."
"Well, yeah, you'd blame me?" Naral sighed, brushing a stray wisp of hair out of her face. "He's all the hope we've got. And I don't even have him. We've got too much history together, he'd never save me if it came to it."
"And you're certain of that?" Odo asked.
She shrugged. "Well, who knows, maybe he'd see me as just one more of the millions he takes upon his shoulders every day, and maybe, just maybe, I'll get lucky and be one of the couple hundred actually manages to save. Guess I'd better just keep myself out of trouble, then. Never know when it might matter."
There was something curious about her tone…something strangely resolute. Odo peered at her, wishing he could make out her features better in the soft morning light. As it was, he had only her voice to go on. But nevertheless, he sensed something, even if she hadn't said it outright.
"You care for him," he whispered. "Don't you?"
"Me? No. Never, I—"
She froze, her jaw snapping shut, as if she'd caught herself on her own lie.
Odo nodded. "I through so. He's done something unforgivable, hasn't he? Something you can't move past, and whatever it is, I'm sure you're well within your right. But at the same time…I think you want to stay out of trouble, not because you don't believe he'd help you if you needed it, but because you don't want even the slightest chance that you might lure him into trouble. That when he gets hurt, as is bound to happen with the life he leads, it'll be even the slightest bit your fault."
Naral gaped at him. "How did you—?"
"I've observed humanoids for quite some time," Odo said. "And let me tell you something, Naral. He may be different, and he may not be the same person either of us once knew…but he's still Dax. Every Dax is really the same, at heart. It's not just his daredevil spirit and rambunctious mentality—it's the way he takes the entire galaxy upon his shoulders. Don't you see? That's Dax, right until the very end. Compassionate to a fault, never able to let others take the fall when he can instead. And if he's still Dax, Naral, if he has enough heart to care for the entire galaxy—then I have no doubt that he still cares for you. Even if whatever happened between the two of you is too…raw…for him to admit it."
Naral sighed. "If only. But he's a free spirit, Odo. He has a habit of flying the coop. What does caring matter when he can never commit?"
"Is that what one wrong?" Odo asked.
"I'll never know," Naral sighed, and her distant eyes spoke of little hope.
Odo let the moment rest, sensing that Naral needed time to process the loss of her home—and he also knew it was the first time since she'd made her appearance that she'd seemed anything short of angry at Miro. Maybe her anger had just needed to run its course, and they could all get back to their lives.
"So," he finally said, breaking the silence, "is there anything else you wanted to see here, or shall we head back to Earth?"
Naral's eyes flicked guiltily to meet his. "Yeah…I should be going."
"Is something wrong?" Odo asked.
"No," she said. "Well, yes. I just…I just don't want you to come with me."
"I've already come this far," Odo said. "I'm miles away from any form of civilization—possibly farther. I don't think I have much of a choice but to come back with you."
She bit her lip. "I know."
"Naral, I was under the impression we had an understanding," Odo said. "I thought we had formed a truce, of sorts. And now you want to leave me in the middle of this devastation?"
Naral sighed. "It's not you, Odo. I wouldn't even leave you here if I didn't know you were a Changeling, insusceptible to the survival problems we humanoids have to worry about. Goodness knows I know what it's like to be left behind. But…you're Miro's friend, aren't you?"
"I'd like to think so," Odo said.
Her eyes crinkled sadly. "He's back on Earth right now, getting what he deserves after more than a year. It's probably one of the most gut-wrenching moments of this new, shining life he's built for himself, and he's earned every minute of it. When I planned this, I didn't count on him having an old friend from nine hundred years ago to stand by in his defense…and I'm sure as hell not gonna let you be there for him now."
"So what's your plan?" Odo demanded. "Take off, leave me here, and hope Miro will decide to come after me, after all I've apparently done to him?"
Naral grimaced. "Sorry, Odo. But trust me, it's not the end of the world. I had it better than you—Miro at least had the heart to drop me off amongst civilization. This isn't the most welcoming place in the galaxy, but you're a Changeling. You can handle it."
"Naral, I don't like this—"
"And I'm not asking you to," she said.
He sighed. "Naral, you realize you don't have to do this, don't you? Recrimination isn't always the answer."
She chuckled. "Funny, coming from a former security officer. Isn't it your job to recriminate?"
"Not anymore," Odo said. "And you don't have to, either."
She sighed. "Did that Did that Kira Nerys of yours ever betray you?"
Odo paused, uncertain how much he should reveal to her. She had proven herself to be more than just a vengeful enemy, but she was still a person who intended to hurt Miro…and who was willing to essentially maroon him in the ruins of her hometown to do it.
"Once," he finally said, "a long time ago. But I wouldn't have done anything like this."
"Because she loved you," Naral said. "In the end, she was able to love you back, wasn't she?"
Odo frowned. "Your point being?"
"Miro never could," Naral said. "And somehow he still thinks he holds the high ground in this friendship—in everything he does in life, for that matter. He needs to remember he can fall."
"I could just climb back onto the Challenger, morph into a bulkhead, and come with you back to Earth," Odo said.
"Please," Naral said. "Don't. I know he's your friend, and I know all you've got to go on is my word, but I deserve some justice too, don't I? Don't you care about that?"
Her hand moved purposefully to her pocket, and Odo's eyes followed the motion. They narrowed when he saw the shape of a Federation-style phaser outlined there.
"Naral," he said, "do you have a phaser in your pocket?"
"And to think you used to be a security chief," she said. "You're getting slow."
"Not slow enough," Odo said, tensing. "If you expect me to just stand here while you walk back up that gangplank and leave me here alone—"
"Actually," Naral said, "I expect you to count on my inability to shoot."
Odo said nothing, eyes on her hand near her pocket, wary of her every move. It had been some time since he last had to dispel a violent situation, but he was confident he still knew how to do it. Even nine hundred years in the future.
But he next thing he knew, the phaser was in her hand, aimed straight at him.
"You forgot to watch my eyes," she said, and his eyes widened minutely at her smirk. "Don't worry, it's not set to kill."
"Naral—" he tried.
But a millisecond later, he felt the burn of the phaser's energy spread through his cells, and his facsimile legs gave out beneath him. Seconds later, he felt the rest of his form crumple to the ground The last thing he saw before darkness descended was Naral's feet walking across the ground and out of sight.