It wasn’t often that Odo spent his time on the Challenger anywhere but in the galley in the back. 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. But the Challenger’s computers were up front in the cockpit, and besides, neither Eeris nor Miro were on board right now. He wouldn’t have to brave their looks of derision this time.
He waited until he was far out of sight of any Starfleet security officers before melting off the gangplank and assuming humanoid form in the archway of the still-open airlock. He then slipped inside to the cockpit, and had just entered the galley out of sheer habit when he remembered his mission with the Challenger’s computer.
Before he could step back out into the corridor, though, 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 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 hearings in store for you.”
Odo rolled his eyes—he was used to this from the wormhole aliens, but Sisko had never been this cryptic. Maybe it was part of his initiation process.
“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…but I have confidence in you, Odo. As one hearing 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 flickered from side to side as he tried to get his bearings. He was inside the Challenger, near the replicator…
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 tilted 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 had come back on board, he would have noticed? Her altered balance from losing both arms had changed her gait, just enough to be noticeable. 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?” he 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.
“You’re a Founder,” she whispered.
“I’m not a Founder.” The words were beginning to seem like a hopeless mantra, but still Odo repeated them. Maybe someday, people would actually believe him.
“What do you take me for, an idiot?” Naral said. “Of course you’re a Founder. No one else looks like that.” She frowned. “Wait, Miro mentioned the Dominion was coming. I didn’t believe him.”
Odo sighed. He had no hope of convincing her that his presence didn’t herald the arrival of the Dominion. Instead, he said, “Those don’t sound like the words of someone who professed her love for Miro not even an hour ago.”
“Well, can you blame me?” Naral asked. “The wormhole’s been closed for nine hundred years! And besides, I’m certain that man’s half mad, gallivanting about the galaxy and diving headfirst into danger the way he does. I swear, he’s got a death wish or something. I wouldn’t be surprised if he makes up all the threats to galactic peace just to give himself a reason to do it.”
Odo frowned. “You don’t have much respect for him, do you?”
“Respect?” Naral repeated, gawping at him. “You’re kidding me, right? He’s a complete idiot with no respect for his own life! I’m trying to save him! But never mind that. What the hell are you doing on board? Miro would never allow an enemy on board 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.”
“Well, I wouldn’t know,” Naral said. “Considering how completely he changed after he got joined. By the dead Prophets themselves, I hardly knew him after that. He was so driven. So convinced all of a sudden that the galaxy needed him.”
Odo sighed and shook his head in disbelief. That cleared up whatever lingering questions he’d had about Miro’s relationship with Naral. Clearly, Naral had no respect for the man she claimed to love, and given Miro’s reaction to her earlier, Odo doubted they had parted on good terms. And she seemed disturbingly eager to talk about Miro with someone she perceived as his enemy.
He folded his arms and 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 her 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 was completely absorbed in piloting the ship. But Odo had observed humanoid behavior for far too long to be that naïve, 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 I can convince you to fly us back to Earth?”
Naral laughed. “Are you kidding me? I’ve got to get back to Earth for Miro’s hearing. But I’ve got time now, so I’m not gonna waste it.”
“To do what?”
“To visit home, of course,” Naral said. “I haven’t been back in forever.”
Odo frowned. There was tension in her voice, probably unnoticeable to the average humanoid but unmistakable to him, that told him this was about more than a nostalgia tour. And he doubted that after all the years she’d been apart from Miro, she would choose now, right before his hearing, to “visit home.” There was something she wasn’t telling him, but Odo had no idea how to find out what. He had no more business prying into her past than he did Miro’s, no reason to ask her directly.
Odo had never been particularly adept at conversation, but he was trapped on the Challengerwith her for the time being. He figured he might as well take the opportunity to get to know her as best he could. “So, Naral, how long have you known Miro?”
“Oh, since the beginning.” She smiled. “We’ve been friends basically forever. We grew up together—we lived just a couple houses apart. It was us against the world, partners in crime. He’s the one who taught me to be a renegade, you know. Only reason I’ve survived in the galaxy this long without him. Turns out rule-following doesn’t work out here.” She chuckled. “If only young me could see me now. She’d never believe it.”
“How long has it been since you saw each other?”
“Two years.” Naral swallowed hard, the line of her jaw stiff. “Far too long.”
“He doesn’t seem to feel the same way,” Odo said.
Naral brushed her fingers across her eyes, wiping away tears. “He never has. Doesn’t change anything. I’ll always keep loving him. I’ll always keep saving him from himself.”
“What exactly does that entail?”
She shrugged. “What I’m doing now. I gave the border patrol the Challenger’s schematics so they’d know what to look for. I don’t have a ship, it would be too hard to go chasing him around the galaxy, and Starfleet doesn’t have the resources to send a starship out looking for him…but I could at least wait for him on Earth and make sure he couldn’t leave.”
Odo frowned. “You planned this?”
She nodded, a proud smile dawning over her features as her shoulders straightened. “That’s right.”
“Are you aware of what Miro’s trying to do for the galaxy?” Odo asked. “I’d be the last person to argue with the law, and Miro’s wanted for a legitimate offence, but even I have to admit he’s needed elsewhere. A prison sentence is the last thing he needs.”
Naral snorted. “Is that what he’s told you?”
“He didn’t need to,” Odo said.
“Then you’re just as crazy as he is.” Naral shook her head in amazement. “Seriously, I don’t know where he gets these ideas of grandeur. One of these days, I’ll get him to see that he’s a civilian, not a hero. It’s not his job to save the galaxy. The sooner he realizes that, the better off he’ll be.”
“And what about everyone in this galaxy he’s trying to save?” Odo asked. “You don’t think his cause is noble at all?”
“I think it’s foolhardy,” Naral said. “We’ve already got Starfleet out there. What good’s one more little ship gonna do? The Challenger isn’t even equipped with the phaser power for a battle. He’s gonna get himself ripped to shreds.”
“That’s not entirely true,” Odo said. “Miro mentioned to me earlier that he’d upgraded the Challenger’s defenses.”
Naral shrugged. “Whatever. You gonna hang out in the cockpit this whole ride? It’s gonna be a few hours, and I’d rather not have a Founder leaning over my shoulder.”
Odo sighed. He didn’t even bother to correct her this time, but he didn’t give her the satisfaction of seeing him leave. Instead, he slipped into the copilot’s seat and turned on the Challenger’s computer interface. He had promised Miro he’d be back as soon as he could, and maybe he couldn’t control when that would be, but he could at least get his research done in the meantime.
Naral looked at him mildly. “Really? That’s not much better.”
“Sorry to be such an imposition, but I have work to do,” Odo said. “I don’t have time for your prejudice.”
Naral blinked. “You say that as if you’re used to it.”
Odo rolled his eyes, a slight growl rumbling in his throat as he said, “Entirely too much.”
Naral didn’t seem to have anything to say to that, and Odo didn’t care. He ignored her completely, focusing on the computer screen as he called up the Federation’s public records of high-profile hearings. Once he had ascertained that Miro’s hearing would be held at noon the next day, relative to Federation Headquarters, he started looking deeper into Federation law. He had gleaned the basics before sneaking in to speak to Miro earlier, but Odo was a firm believer that one could never be too prepared. For the first time since he’d come on board the Challenger, he actually felt needed, beyond just a vague impression that Sisko had a job for him to do. He wasn’t about to let Miro down. And maybe, just maybe, Miro would trust him more after this.
Odo was so wrapped up in his research that he barely noticed the passage of time until he felt the shift in the deck plating as the Challenger dropped into orbit around Trill. He looked up at the viewscreen, and realized to his surprise that he’d never actually been to this region of Federation space before, let alone Trill itself. The oceans were a bit greener than what he remembered from Bajor—and, obviously, a far cry from the “ocean” he knew on his homeworld. The land had scattered continents similar to Bajor, but they were a good deal 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. Most of the continent was still sheathed in darkness, so he couldn’t tell how far the devastation had spread.
Odo looked over at Naral, suddenly realizing. “That’s why you wanted to come back here, isn’t it?”
Naral followed his gaze to the region out the viewscreen and didn’t answer, her eyes crinkling with profound sadness. Odo wondered if she had 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, I heard something about them being 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.”
“Was that where you and Miro lived?” Odo asked.
Odo looked again at the burnt region. He wanted to ask Naral how many had died, but couldn’t bring himself to prod what was undoubtedly a sensitive subject. They waited in silence as Trill turned slowly into daylight, revealing more and more charred blackness. Naral seemed too lost in her memories of the event to hound him any more for being a Founder. It was some time before she finally spoke up, after daylight had spread across more than half of the burnt continent.
“Alright,” she said softly. “Should be close enough to morning where I want to land. I’ll take us in.”
Odo nodded distantly, distracted by the sight of the burnt expanse drifting closer. He was almost convinced now that it spanned the entire continent. What he could see so far stretched from coast to coast, with no end in sight.
Naral didn’t manually fly the Challenger in toward the planet like Miro had when they’d landed on Nebez, instead letting autopilot do all the work for them 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 headed for the airlock. She tapped in the code and the gangplank drew down as the doors slid open, letting Trill’s weak morning light come filtering in.
“You coming?” Naral called from atop the gangplank.
Odo stood and followed her. He stopped when he reached the ground, Naral standing just a short distance away. She turned slowly in place, taking in the vast expanse of the charred landscape. It was nothing like what he had expected. Where he had imagined the charred remains of houses, maybe a rogue brick chimney or two, only the most basic foundations remained. 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.”
“Well, you’d know,” Naral said.
“Of course I would,” Odo said. “My friends fought in the Dominion War. I saw what my people did to others, not because I was a Founder, but because I was trying to stop them.”
Naral looked down at the ground, seeming properly abashed for once. But she gathered her composure quickly. “The Dominion hasn’t been around for nine hundred years. 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. At least, I think they did. It’s all recorded in the Federation’s database, if you know where to look. You can still find stories of the days when they were actually allied to the Federation. But if any of that’s true, it was years ago. Decades, centuries even. 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.”
Odo frowned. “And yet somehow, you think Starfleet can make a better difference than Miro Dax?”
“Of course I do,” Naral said. “That’s how I know his ‘cause’ is nothing but a death wish—if Starfleet doesn’t have the power to do anything, then he definitely doesn’t.”
Odo had to admit she had a point. The Challenger was only one ship, and hardly had the defensive and offensive capabilities of an entire fleet. But still, there was no sense trying to stop Miro from doing what was obviously very important to him. The galaxy mattered to Miro, and he was willing to risk his life to save it from Viresa’s rule and anyone else who dared to threaten it. Odo could stand behind that kind of determination and courage. He couldn’t stand for Naral’s blatant disrespect of the man she claimed to love.
“Are you ready to go back to Earth?” Odo asked. “We both intend to be at Miro’s hearing, and I’m fairly certain it’s only hours from now.”
Naral nodded. She took a deep, fortifying breath and drew her shoulders back before marching back up the gangplank and into the Challenger. Odo followed her and slid into the copilot’s seat, intending to use the time to continue his research into Federation law. Naral woke the Challenger’s controls and swept them up into the air, and before long they were trundling gently through space, silence stretching between them.