Author: Anthony Butler
“It has been said that democracy is the worst form of
government…except all the others that have been tried.”
Sir Winston Churchill
Stardate 58619.4. We’ve just put in at Deep Space Nine to attend a conference on the peace process between the Federation and the Dominion. I’m particularly proud of this because for one thing…hey, free food…and also, our own Chaka’kan is giving a seminar on Jem’Hadar living among humans. On the downside, we haven’t really made any friends among the folks at DS-Nine, much like many of the other starbases we visit, oddly enough.
“It’s a bit dark,” Counselor Kelly Peterman said, stepping out of the rolling airlock door and strolling out onto the promenade, her little golden retriever Charlotte trotting behind her.
“Could use a splash of color,” Captain Baxter agreed, leading Steffie by the hand through the airlock . “What do you think?” he asked, looking over his shoulder at Chaka’kan.
“It’s fantastic,” Chaka’kan said. “This is the site of so much history. The discovery of the wormhole, the first encounter between the Dominion and Federation…”
“A LOT of stuff blowing up,” Peterman said. “What a violent, chaotic time the war was.”
“Yes,” Baxter said. “Violent and chaotic.” He blinked. “What were we doing during the war, again?”
“For much of it we were in the Delta Quadrant,” Peterman said. “And then there was our wedding, and all THAT drama…”
“Right. I feel bad about that. Not one skirmish to our credit. Not even a little dust-up.”
“It has been my experience that the Explorer has had her share of skirmishes,” said Chaka.
“Quite right,” Baxter said, patting Chaka’kan on the back. “Way to stay positive.”
“Where would you like all the matched luggage?” a small voice asked from behind them.
Peterman turned. “Ah, Cadet Mathers. Thanks so much for helping. We have some…meetings to get to.”
“Guest quarters. Habitat ring, Section Baker,” Baxter said.
“I hope I get internship credit for this,” Mathers muttered.
“Ooh! Jewels!” Peterman said, pointing at one of the stores and dashing off, Charlotte in tow.
“Right. Jewels,” Baxter muttered, and looked over his shoulder, shrugging at Janice Browning, who stepped out of the airlock with Plato, looking around curiously.
“We’ll be checking out the restaurants,” Browning said. “It’s a three day conference. I want to case the joint before I commit to a particular place.”
“Have fun,” Baxter said with a grin and tugged Steffie along to follow Peterman.
“I want to see some Changelings,” Plato said, picking up step next to Browning.
“I’m sure we’ll see one or two at the conference,” Browning said a tad nervously. “The conference is all about the Dominion, after all.”
“He’s awful excited,” Cadet Nat Sparks observed, stepping out of the airlock with Cadet Ethan Piper, watching Plato and Browning walk off from a safe distance.
“He’s awful young,” said Piper.
“His chronological age might be four, but his mental age is right up around ours. We’ve been over this,” Sparks said with a sigh.
“So why are you two in a…what did you call it? Awkward phase?”
“You’re the Assistant Ship’s Counselor. You tell me.”
Piper shrugged. “Maybe you just need some time apart.”
“Maybe things are changing,” Sparks said thoughtfully.
“Well, he is a changeling.”
“That’s not even funny.”
“The ship is quiet,” Lt. Commander J’hana said, leaning against the tactical station on the bridge.
Commander Chris Richards turned in the command chair. “What?”
“Weren’t you listening?”
“Obviously.” J’hana harrumphed. “The ship is quiet.”
“What’s your point?”
“Most of our senior staff have disembarked for shore leave on Deep Space Nine. If you can even call that a shore. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Commander Tilleran has been increasingly… distant of late. She spends most of her off-time in her quarters now, and I cannot fathom what she is up to.”
“You’ve got me. You know Tilleran better than anyone.”
“Indeed, and yet still I have no idea what is going on with her.”
“You could just ask her what’s wrong,” Richards offered.
“That is…not our way. When she is ready, she’ll tell me.” She looked around. “It occurs to me, Commander, that with the rest of the senior staff otherwise engaged…”
“Still not getting your point,” Richards said, standing, and turning fully to face J’hana.
J’hana gave a toothy grin. “This may be our only chance to have sex on the bridge.”
Richards’s eyes widened. “J’hana! You could at least wait till we’re alone!”
“I’m out of here…” Lt. Howie Sefelt said, and leapt from his seat, heading to the foreward lift.
“I’m right behind you,” Lt. Susan Madera intoned.
“I think we are alone now,” J’hana said in a low voice.
Plato peered over the railing down into Quark’s bar. “What’s Dabo, Mom?”
“Don’t worry about it. You’re not old enough to play.”
“Sure I am. Nat and Ethan are down there playing right now.” Plato turned and sat in the chair opposite Browning. “I want to go play with them.”
“We’ve got piping hot yakaba bread coming our way,” Browning said. “Can we at least finish lunch before you invade the station?”
Plato shrugged. “I suppose.”
“I haven’t seen a lot of you lately, Plato,” Browning said, staring across the table at her half-changeling son. “You’ve been spending an awful lot of time with Cadet Sparks.”
“I like her,” Plato said.
“And she seems to like you.”
“Seems to.” Plato quietly slid a foot around behind him, and extended it beneath the railing. Once the foot was dangling below the railing, he formed an eye at the end of the foot, and an ear on the side. Now he could hear everything going on down in Quark’s, and see it too.
Browning gazed at the people walking by the second level of Quark’s. With the conference kicking off with an evening keynote, foot traffic was picking up considerably. Baxter told her that as the Explorer arrived, three other Federation starships and two Dominion cruisers were likewise arriving. Soon the station would be alive with activity, Federation and Dominion alike.
Probably not the one Dominion citizen I want to see, though, Browning thought.
Suddenly the Ferengi bar owner, a fellow named Quark, ambled by with a tray of steaming bread. “Here’s your…” he began, then fell face- forward, tripping over Plato’s leg.
The bread went flying, clattering on the floor, and Quark did too, landing in a heap.
Browning rushed to the Ferengi bartender’s side and patted his back. “Oh, sir, I’m so sorry. You seem to have tripped over my son’s…leg…” She glared at Plato. “How many times have I told you not to grow eyes and ears out of your foot!”
“Sorry, mom,” Plato said sheepishly, pulling his leg back into its normal shape and straightening in his seat.
Quark stood up and dusted himself off. “You’re still paying for that bread, of course. Plus a…” He dusted his vest. “Cleaning charge.”
“Of course,” Browning said, taking Quark’s padd and thumbing it. “I’m very sorry.”
“Would you like some bread that doesn’t taste like the floor?” Quark asked.
“Please,” Browning said, and glared at Plato as Quark scuttled off.
“Sorry, Mom,” Plato said. “I just wanted to see what was going on down in the bar.”
“My son, in a bar,” Browning said, covering her face with both hands. “I thought it could at least wait until you were five.”
“I go to the Constellation Club all the time…”
“Yes, but that’s a controlled environment.” Browning tapped her bottom lip thoughtfully. “Do you promise not to drink any synthehol or so much as touch a Dabo girl?”
“Sure!” Plato grinned. “Does that mean I can go down there?”
Browning nodded. “Go ahead. And grab something to eat when you get a chance. Unlike most changelings, you do need to ingest food.”
“I know, Mom,” Plato said, and leaned forward, kissing Browning on the forehead. “You’re the best.”
“That’s what they tell me,” Browning said with a small smile, and watched as Plato headed for the spiral staircase down into the bar.
As Browning watched him, she got the distinct feeling that she was being watched herself. She turned quickly, as if to catch the person watching her. She saw nothing, other than the crowds on the upper level going about their business.
“You’re getting crazier with every passing year, Janice,” Browning said to herself, and turned her thoughts to the soon-to-arrive yakaba bread.
“So then I said, ‘no, THIS is hitting a nerve,’” General Kira Nerys said, cranking her hands together for emphasis. “And of course, that put the Cardassian idiot in his place.”
“Fascinating,” the conference guest, a Benzite, said, with a polite nod. “And you didn’t kill him?”
“The mood just wasn’t quite right, frankly,” Kira said, giving a grin. “But, if I had it to do over again, who knows?”
“Excuse me, sir,” Captain Baxter said, elbowing past the inquisitive Benzite, approaching from the other end of the seminar room . “I’ve just got to see General Kira.”
“You do?” Kira asked with a grimace. She narrowed her eyes at him, as if searching her recollections. “Captain Baxter. I thought you weren’t cleared for the higher-level workshops.”
“Oops, I must’ve forgot,” Baxter said sheepishly. “Anyway, I thought your presentation was great.”
“Good,” Kira said. “I trust your people are going to behave themselves on my station.”
“They’d never think of doing otherwise.”
“I’ve heard different,” Kira said curtly.
“Well, I think it’s high time for a fresh start. That’s one of the reasons the Explorer is here for this conference. I want us to mend fences.”
“Fine. They’re mended. Enjoy the rest of the conference. Remember to only attend sessions designated Gamma or below.”
“Gamma! Ironic, isn’t it, that your lower workshops are designated ‘gamma.’”
“It’s just a code phrase.” Kira shook her head. “Are we finished here?”
“No, I thought we could speak candidly, Captain to…well, whatever a general is. You know, about the strains of command…the strange mysteries of the universe…crew who fight over their socks…”
“Yes. We can talk about him too…”
Kira pushed past Baxter and threw her arms around the man behind him, who Baxter identified as former Constable Odo, dressed in dark green civilian garb, but bearing the same unmistakable visage that only Founders possessed.
As they hugged, and whispered gently to each other, Baxter stepped up.
“Hi, Odo. Remember me?”
Odo stared at Baxter, still embracing Kira. “Yes. Now please excuse us….”
“I want to thank you so much for loaning us Chaka’kan,” Baxter continued. “He’s been a real delight. He’s presenting at this conference, as you probably know. He’s excited for the opportunity. I’m really pleased with his progress, you know, being a ‘nice’ Jem’Hadar and all. He’s only really been not nice a couple times, but I think we’ve ironed all that out.”
Odo blew heavily through his clenched teeth. “Captain, I do not care about you or your Jem’Hadar at the moment. I am trying to have a conversation with General Kira. Now, if you’ll kindly GO SOMEWHERE ELSE!”
“Wow. Touchy.” Baxter shook his head. “Get command of the Dominion and suddenly a guy changes.”
“You didn’t know me before I took command of the Dominion.”
“Hey, I’m walking away. Obviously, you need your space. Have fun,” Baxter said, giving Kira and the changeling a dismissive wave.
“Numbskull,” Kira said, shaking her head.
“He did help us avert a rebel uprising a few years ago,” Odo admitted.
“But he’s still a numbskull.”
“True. The Gamma Quadrant seems much calmer since his ship left.”
“Do we have to talk about that guy?” Kira said, and leaned in close to Odo. “I want to talk about you. And me. And a hot bubbling pool of…”
“Karotch’agard, at your service,” a tall, barrel-chested Jem’Hadar said, looming over Kira. “Reporting as requested.”
“They’re growing them bigger now,” Kira observed.
“The Jem’Hadar are a sentient race,” Odo said. “As diverse and wonderful as humans, or changelings.”
Kira nodded. “Of course.” She gave a small smile to Karotch’agard. “I meant no disrespect.”
“That’s actually why I came to talk to you,” Odo said. “I wanted you to be the first to know. The Great Link has made some decisions regarding the Jem’Hadar, and we plan to share them with the Federation at the conference.”
“Understood,” Kira said, staring at Karotch’agard.
“Can we speak somewhere in private?” Odo asked, taking Kira’s hand.
“I’d like nothing more,” Kira said, nodding politely at the Jem’Hadar, who escorted her and Odo out of the meeting room.
Janice Browning stood on the upper level of the Promenade and stared out the large oval viewport, as the wormhole opened and closed, admitting another ship through to the Alpha Quadrant.
She took a deep breath, thinking about the Dominion, Jem’Hadar, and…changelings. All manner of changelings.
She’d walked around the Promenade several times, taking in the sites, staring out the many large oval windows. Perhaps tomorrow she’d attend one of the workshops. But for the moment, her heart just wasn’t in it.
“Boo!” a voice called out behind Browning, causing her to jump.
She whirled to face the voice, and frowned as she saw it was Kelly Peterman. “Oh. Hi, Kelly.”
“Glad to see me?” Peterman quipped, and stood next to Browning as she looked out the viewport.
“No, I mean…sure, I guess, I mean…I don’t know.”
Peterman looked Browning in the eyes. “Are you all right?”
“Not so much,” Browning said. “Being here, with all these people from the Dominion. It brings back memories. Them trying to take Plato away, then Jelo stealing him, and that whole fight. And…” Browning sighed. “Then there’s Pogo.”
“Yes, then there’s Pogo,” Peterman said. “You’ve been talking with him a lot lately on subspace, haven’t you?”
Browning looked away. “I guess.”
“You’re enjoying those conversations quite a bit, aren’t you?”
“And how are things going on that front?”
“I don’t know. He sort of dropped off the map recently. I haven’t spoken to him in a couple weeks.”
“Does that concern you?”
Browning gave Peterman a patient look. “Could we not do the counseling thing right now?”
“Well, if you want to talk about it later, you’ll know where to find me. Andy and I are heading to the welcome reception at Quark’s.”
“I think I’ll probably turn in early,” Browning said. “You guys have fun though.”
Peterman smiled warmly. “I mean it…any time you want to talk…”
“I know. Thanks.”
“And I’m not saying that because I’m a busybody,” Peterman called over her shoulder as she walked off. “I really do care!”
“I genuinely do care, AND I’m a busybody, but that’s beside the point!”
“I know!” Browning laughed and watched Peterman descend the spiral staircase to the Promenade’s lower level.
“That was close,” a voice said from beside Browning. “It’s nice to know you still speak fondly of me, though.”
Browning turned. “Pogo?”
Browning stared down at the carpet, which had, oddly-enough, grown a mouth. “POGO?”
“SHHHHHHHHHHHH!” the carpet hissed, as Browning squatted down. “Do you want the whole Federation to know I’m here?”
“What are you doing…in the rug?”
“Trying to be inconspicuous, which would be decidedly easier if you would not shout my name on a crowded Promenade.”
“Let me rephrase my question. What are you doing HERE?”
“Can we go somewhere a little more private?” the rug asked.
“We can go back to my room.”
“Thought you’d never ask. Now lean over so I can turn into a purse.”
Browning leaned over, as the rug literally came out from underneath her, and oozed into a glowing golden ball.
“Do you prefer navy or green?”
“Decide now! Navy or green?”
“Good choice.” And, on command, the golden ball morphed into a snazzy green handbag, which Browning took up quickly and carried to the nearest lift.
“We’ve got a lot to talk about,” she said into her bag, drawing some odd looks from the Bajorans stepping off the lift.
“I know,” her purse replied.
“Is this what passes for a vacation these days?” Peterman asked, running her tooth brush lazily in her mouth as she crossed the bedroom in her and Baxter’s temporary cabin on Deep Space Nine. “A room on a crowded space station, with our ship parked just outside?”
“At least they let us stay on the station,” Baxter said. “That means we can sleep in till the last possible minute before the morning session tomorrow.”
“There is that,” Peterman said, and resumed brushing her teeth.
“You look thoughtful,” Baxter said, fluffing the annoyingly small triangular pillow and stuffing it behind his head as he laid back on the Cardassian bed. The Federation installed new weapons systems, a new fusion core, and about a thousand other things on the Cardassian station over the years…why couldn’t they include some decent beds?
“What gave it away?” Peterman asked, moving to the small bathroom to spit and rinse.
“Well, that’s the third time you brushed your teeth since we got back from the welcome reception.”
“Could it be because the welcome reception wasn’t very welcoming?” Peterman offered.
“Kira was certainly…cold. Of course she spent most of the time talking to Odo…”
“It wasn’t just Kira. Most of the Starfleet people avoided us.”
“They look down on us because we didn’t fight in the war,” Baxter muttered. “What nerve.”
“We had important things to do, too. We were stuck in the Gamma Quadrant. And, after that…”
“We spent a lot of time on our relationship,” Baxter admitted.
“I’m sure there were other things.”
Baxter reached over to his night stand and grabbed a padd. “Not really. I made a list. See? I’ve only got four things so far.”
“Were we really attacked by little purple dinosaurs?”
“There is so much about our life on the Explorer that I’ve just plain blocked out.”
Baxter nodded. “Probably for the best.” He watched Peterman climb into bed next to him and rolled to face her.
Peterman looked down into Baxter’s eyes and momentarily forgot her concerns. “You know, sweetie…we have a chance tonight to cross Deep Space Nine off our list of space stations…”
Baxter smiled impishly. “You think our little list has anything to do with the fact that we’re not welcomed at half the starbases we’ve visited?”
“I highly doubt it. There are plenty other reasons for them to hate us.” She slid deeper under the covers and edged toward Baxter. “Anyway, how would they know about our list?”
“That’s true. The paranoid Changeling security officer doesn’t work here anymore.”
“But then again, there’s always a chance that we could be found out.”
Baxter narrowed his eyes. “You think?”
“Almost certain,” Peterman said with a playful smile.
“Well, then we’d better hide under the covers…” Baxter giggled softly and drew the covers over him and Peterman.
“Can I ask you a question?” Pogo asked as he oozed from purse- shaped to his more familiar changeling visage.
“Sure,” Browning said, pacing circles in her small guest cabin on DS9, occasionally glancing at the placid shapeshifter. “As long as I can ask you a whole bunch of questions right after that.”
“Of course,” Pogo said, then took a moment to frame his thoughts. “Why have a cabin on the station when your ship is parked right outside?”
“So I can sleep in until the last possible minute before tomorrow morning’s session.”
“I see,” Pogo said. “Is that how humans conduct themselves at these sorts of events?”
“It is when those humans are me,” Browning said.
“Ah.” Pogo watched Browning quizzically. “Did you enjoy today’s sessions?”
Browning stopped and looked up at Pogo. “I didn’t really go. I spent some time…reflecting.”
“And that is also how humans conduct themselves at these sorts of…”
“I thought it was my turn to ask questions.”
“What are you doing here? And why haven’t you contacted me in the last two weeks? Where have you been? What’s going on? And do you know how ticked off Odo will be if he finds you here? Aren’t you, like, an enemy of the state…or whatever it is that the Dominion calls itself?”
“They call themselves the Dominion,” Pogo said helpfully.
“And aren’t you an enemy of the Dominion?”
“I prefer to think of myself as a jaunty agitator, actually,” Pogo said.
“Cute,” Browning said, folding her arms. “So how about the other questions?”
“Of course.” Pogo thought a moment.
“Just a moment. I want to make sure I get the answers in the right order. One: I am here to tell you that you and the Explorer delegation must leave this station before tomorrow’s plenary session. Two: For the last two weeks, I have been conducting silent and watchful reconnaissance close to the Changeling homeworld and thus have been unable to establish a subspace link. Three: Odo is planning to announce a controversial new initiative that will have a direct and unpleasant impact on your crew. Four: Yes, I am aware that Odo would be displeased at my presence here and…I think I answered the last question already. I consider myself a jaunty agitator.”
Browning opened and closed her mouth a few times, then stepped closer to Pogo, lowering her voice. “What…is Odo going to announce?”
“You need not whisper. If the Dominion or DS-Nine security personnel are monitoring our conversation, a sotto voce response will not help.”
Browning scrubbed a hand over her face. “WHAT is ODO going to ANNOUNCE?”
Pogo blinked. “You seem agitated.”
Browning grabbed Pogo’s shoulders and pulled him toward her. “Are they going to take my son away?”
“What? Oh, Great Link, no. No, nothing like that.” Pogo shook his head. “No wonder you are agitated.”
“You ARE an agitator,” Browning said, shaking her head. “So what is Odo going to announce?”
“I’m not sure.”
“So how do you know they’re not going to take my son?”
“Because I have it on good authority that the announcement has something to do with the Jem’Hadar.”
“The Jem’Hadar? Chaka?”
“Most likely. As I said, the entire Explorer delegation must leave…especially Chaka’kan.”
“I have to talk to Andy.”
“Don’t disturb his sleep. Odo’s announcement will not come until tomorrow afternoon. There is little we can do now to improve the situation, and any move we make will likely raise suspicion and bring matters to a climax before we are ready.”
Browning nodded. “So…what would you suggest…”
Pogo looked deeply in Browning’s eyes, and took her hands. “I suggest we picked up where we left off in our last conversation…”
Browning stared long and hard at Pogo, and leaned in, catching her breath as her lips touched his and…
Browning pushed Pogo bodily aside and looked at the door, where Plato stood shoulder to shoulder with Cadet Sparks. “PLATO!”
“Plato?” Pogo queried, catching himself as Browning tossed him aside.
“Doctor?” Cadet Sparks asked, standing beside Plato.
“Sparks!” Browning exclaimed.
“Pogo,” Pogo said, extending a hand to Cadet Sparks.
“Pogo?” Sparks asked, looking to Plato. “Plato?”
“Mom?” Plato asked, looking at Browning.
“Plato…” Browning began.
“Nat,” the Cadet said by way of introduction, shaking Pogo’s hand.
“Pogo!” Plato said, looking at Pogo.
“Plato,” Pogo said, turning to Plato.
“Plato…” Browning began, stepping toward her son.
“Doctor,” Sparks said, turning to Browning.
“Cadet,” Browning said tightly, raising a finger at Sparks.
“Mom…” Plato said, turning to Browning, stepping in front of Sparks.
“Security!” Pogo called out, and threw himself at Browning, shimmering and reforming into a lavish, fluffy, lavender, cable-knit sweater.
Browning tugged at the slightly tight garment that had suddenly wrapped itself around her, gasping shock, as she, Plato, and Sparks turned to see a Starfleet security officer poke his head in their still-opened door.
“Evening, folks,” the ensign said. “Is everything okay in here?”
“What?” Browning asked, a bit dazed. “Yes. Oh, everything is fine.”
“More than fine,” Plato said, edging toward his mother. “Outstanding.”
“I thought I heard shouting.”
“Oh…well, we were just rehearsing a scene,” Browning said, looking at Plato. “Right, son?”
“Yes. An acting scene. We’re performing at, um, lunch time tomorrow, as a part of the conference.”
The security guard nodded, looked around the cabin. “I thought I heard four distinct voices.”
“I do impressions,” Plato said, without skipping a beat.
“Really?” the ensign asked. “Nice. Do you have a Sisko impression?”
Plato rubbed his chin. “Who’s Sisko?”
“You know…‘it’s all been BUILDING up to this.’ And…‘We’ve got to end this war…’ and, um…hey…this is kind of fun,” the ensign said. “Ah, what about ‘I’ve got to find out what all these messages from the prophets mean…’”
“Yes, that’s very nice,” Browning said, patting the officer on the shoulder and leading him out of her cabin. “Why don’t you keep practicing, and maybe you can audition for a performance at the dinner session?”
The ensign brightened. “Okay. I will! Have a great evening!”
“You too!” Browning said, waving enthusiastically. As soon as her door closed, once again sealing the room, her face immediately fell. “Pogo, you’ve got to get off me, you’re squeezing my…” She glanced at Plato and Sparks. “Orbs.”
Plato covered his face as Pogo oozed off Browning and reformed between them. “I’m sorry for causing all this trouble.”
“So this is that Pogo guy your mom is dating,” Sparks said thoughtfully.
“You told him…we’re dating?” Pogo asked, looking at Browning.
“I haven’t told him anything,” Browning said, turning to Plato.
“No kidding,” Plato said, folding his arms. “But sometimes I’d wake up and hear you talking on subspace. I’d stand by my door and listen. I….guess I told Nat because I got excited, because I thought maybe you finally found someone, and…and if he’s a Changeling too then that means maybe I’d have a…” He looked from Pogo to Browning. “Um, a happy mom.”
“Plato…” Browning said softly.
“I should go,” Sparks said.
“I should too,” Plato said, backing to the door.
“No. Stay. Talk to your…” Sparks looked around the room. “Family…” She quickly stepped out and disappeared down the corridor.
“Great,” Plato said, and turned to Browning and Pogo. “So could one of you tell me what the heck is going on?”
“Well..” Browning began.
“Nothing,” Pogo said quickly. “Just sneaking aboard for a visit with your mom. I was in the area, after all, and it seemed like as good a time as any. Certainly nothing going on here…”
“Well…have fun,” Plato said. “I’ve got to go find Nat…”
Browning opened her mouth to say something as Plato walked out but couldn’t find the words as he ducked out of the cabin.
Browning and Pogo stood there in silence a moment.
“I regret any trouble I may have caused you,” Pogo said.
“It’s not your fault. I can’t believe I didn’t tell my own son about you. That’s a sure sign something is just…not right.” Browning turned and paced to the other side of her cabin.
“Or perhaps it’s a sign you simply cannot articulate your feelings, and that you are afraid of giving a name to this…whatever this is…because you are afraid of getting hurt.”
“Hmph?” Browning asked, turning around from the food replicator, a Reuben sandwich nearly the size of her head halfway in her mouth, dripping Thousand Island sauce and sauerkraut.
“Or perhaps you just want to eat,” Pogo said flatly.
“Don’t get in the way of my coping mechanism,” Browning said, pointing at Pogo with her sandwich.
“I’m afraid this isn’t much of a first night together,” Pogo observed.
Browning took another huge bite of her sandwich. “I have to admit, it could have happened under better circumstances.”
“Perhaps I should leave. We can find a more convenient time to discuss our relationship after the current crisis is resolved.”
“You’re probably right,” Browning said, taking another bite of her sandwich and stepping closer to Pogo. “But I don’t want you to leave, and I’m almost done with my sandwich…”
“Have you seen my hair thing?”
Captain Baxter stood in the bathroom door, brushing his teeth as his wife rooted through her carry-on bag and shrugged. “Be more specific. Which hair thing?” His words were a bit muffled as he tried to talk around the toothbrush.
“The cute little silver Federation emblem. I thought I’d ware that one in case we ran into any dignitaries today.”
Baxter returned to the bathroom and spit out the toothpaste, then quickly rinsed. “Any emblem that doesn’t identify you as being from the Explorer should be just fine.”
“Very funny. I’m sure there are a few noteworthy people left in the galaxy who don’t hate us.”
“Let’s investigate that further,” Baxter said, pulling on his tunic and zipping it up, grabbing his comm badge. “Now let’s get down to the ward room before they shut down the breakfast line.”
“I’m on my w–” Peterman said, sifting through her bag, catching herself as her fingers ran across a small cylindrical object. Her hypospray. Didn’t she take it last night before…
“C’mon, Kelly!” Baxter called out from the outer room. “I heard they were going to have an omelette station and I don’t want to miss it!”
“Be right there,” Peterman said, dismissing her thoughts and putting the hypo back into her bag. So what if she’d forgotten it? Baxter was taking his, probably, and anyway, the thing always gave her a rash. She’d been thinking about stopping the shots anyway.
“Any reports from the station?” Lt. Commander Hartley asked, standing in the doorway to the readyroom.
“Not a peep. Guess everything is fine over there,” Richards said, from behind the desk, staring at a padd. “Do you know why Andy keeps padds with recaps of old Cowboys games here on his desk?”
“He’s got to have something to look at when he sits in here meeting with people,” Hartley said, easing onto the couch. “He’ll tell you they’re engine status reports. Trust me, he’s never read an engine status report in his life.”
“You don’t have to tell me,” Richards chuckled.
“You look tired,” Hartley said, eying Richards.
“I had…a long night last night.”
Hartley wrinkled her nose. “I bet. Madera told me. Really, Commander. On the bridge?”
“She’s adventurous,” Richards said with a weak shrug.
“That much is true,” Hartley said. She sighed. “Well, I’ve spent the last twelve hours re-tooling the warp core and I think I’ve finally got it just right. It’s amazing how much work I can get done with fewer people around.”
“No kidding,” Richards said. “The bridge has been a ghost town.”
“It’s kind of weird without everyone else around. Baxter, Peterman, Janice, the cadets. Tilleran’s been all withdrawn lately, and you and J’hana have been…scrubbing the bridge carpet…”
Richards stared at Browning. “You actually miss the rest of the senior staff,” Richards said with a smile. “You’re bored here without them, huh?”
“Am not,” Hartley said, leaning up and looking around aimlessly.
“I had no idea you were such an old softie.”
Hartley glared at Richards, narrowing her eyes. “Keep it up. I’ll show you how not soft I am.”
“Don’t even try to hide it. Wait until I tell everyone else what a sap you are.”
“They’ll never believe it,” Hartley said defiantly, standing up.
“I feel the same way,” Richards said, standing and moving around the desk. “You want to get a drink?”
“Do I ever.”
“Are they even serving in the Constellation Club this early?”
“I can get us a couple drinks.” Hartley winked. “I know the manager.”
Richards smiled. “Good, let’s get out of here then–before J’hana comes back demanding round two.”
“Wow…you give a whole new meaning to the word ‘whipped.’”
“You have no idea.”
“No omelette station?” Baxter asked, standing at the end of the breakfast bar, as one of Quark’s Ferengi waiters shrugged. “That’s not what it said in the conference guide.”
“Let’s just eat,” Peterman said distractedly, pressing past Baxter.
“This is an historic gathering of galactic super powers,” Baxter muttered. “How can they NOT have an omelette station?”
“You could stand to have one breakfast that doesn’t include six food groups,” Peterman mumbled, picking up a muffin. “How about some fruit?”
“Continental my butt. On what continent do they eat fruit and muffins?”
“Healthy continents,” Peterman shot back, grabbing a container of yogurt for Steffie, who stood patiently beside her holding her hand.
“Good morning, Counselor,” Chaka’kan said, appearing with a shimmer right in front of Peterman.
“AHHH!” Peterman shrieked, tossing her muffin into the air, causing the conference goers in the ward room to turn in her direction.
“Do not worry. It was a simple case of premature deshrouding,” Chaka said. “Please, return to your breakfast.”
“Breakfast my butt. It’s barely a snack,” Baxter muttered, turning to Chaka. “What did we tell you about deshrouding in public places?”
“My apologies,” Chaka said. “My intent was to be inconspicuous. I’ve found some personnel on DS-Nine are still uncomfortable with Jem’Hadar walking among them.”
“Perish the thought,” Peterman said. “I find your presence…comforting.” She caught herself. “At least when it isn’t shimmering into existence suddenly in front of me.”
“Point taken,” said Chaka. “Well, since you have an early session on the psychological impacts of the war, and my session isn’t until eleven hundred, perhaps I should take Steffie while you attend your session.”
Peterman grinned. “That would be wonderful. And Steffie would enjoy that. Isn’t that right sweetie?”
“Sure! I love Chaka!” Steffie giggled and jumped into Chaka’kan’s arms.
Just then, Browning and Plato ducked into the ward room, searching the visitors until they came upon Baxter and Peterman, then immediately jogging over.
Peterman took note of Browning’s stylish green hand bag. “Nice purse, Janice.”
“It’s…complicated,” Browning said, which confused Peterman a bit. “We need to talk.”
“You can skip the morning session if you want,” Baxter said. “There really isn’t anything interesting in any of the breakouts.”
“I skipped both of yesterday’s sessions already,” Browning pointed out.
“Well, attend at least one. Maybe you can write up a paper on the nutritional aspects of ketracel white, or come up with some new kind of field ration. Actually, there’s a session at thirteen hundred hours about…”
“Can we talk?” Browning said insistently.
“Sure,” Peterman said. “Let’s just find an out-of-the way spot…” She glanced at Chaka. “Could you watch Plato and Steph for us? And get Steph some O.J. and a banana.”
Chaka bowed. “Of course. Breakfast is life!”
“Do you want the rest of my sliced cava?” Baxter asked, shifting in the maintenance tube just down the hall from the wardroom.
Peterman rolled over on her stomach, glancing over her shoulder at Baxter. “You’d have to slide it to me. It would get messy. Just finish it. You need the vitamins.”
“Now what’s going on,” Peterman asked, squirming to face Browning. “And why is it so secretive that you had to drag us into a maintenance tube?”
“I had to be sure we wouldn’t be followed or spied on,” Browning said, looking over her shoulder. “I’m still not sure.”
“Well, I’m not sure anyone else can fit in here, so you should be fine,” Baxter said, popping another piece of cava into his mouth. “Now what the hell is going on?”
“Well. I’ll let my purse explain.” Browning pulled her purse off her shoulder and set it in front of Peterman. It promptly grew a mouth and eyes.
“AAHHH!” Peterman shrieked, backing toward Baxter. “Why is your purse talking to me?”
“It’s not my purse,” Browning said. “It’s Pogo.”
“This is a hell of a way to announce that you two are dating now,” Peterman scolded.
Baxter looked at the purse with suspicion. “You’re not kidnaping her again, are you? Or us, for that matter? Because if you are, I’ve got to say I have a big problem with that.”
“No. I’m not kidnaping anyone,” the purse said tightly. “I’m trying to help you all avoid a major galactic incident.”
“I’m having a hard time taking this guy seriously,” Baxter said, looking to Browning.
“There isn’t room for me to assume my full form, but…” The purse suddenly morphed until it was just Pogo’s flat, changeling head. It was more rounded and a bit friendlier than Odo’s or Jelo’s….and, unlike Jelo, Pogo’s face did not in any way resemble a monkey.
“Yeah, that’s much better,” Baxter deadpanned.
“Do you want to avert a disaster or not?”
“Definitely the first one,” Peterman said.
“Excellent,” Pogo said. “If my information is correct, then we have until later this afternoon. Plenty of time to get you and your people back onto the Explorer and a safe distance from here.”
“Why do we need to get away from DS-Nine?” Baxter asked. “Is there going to be an attack? Because, let me tell you, saving this station would go a long way toward getting back in General Kira’s good graces.”
“I’m thinking you’d have to save it several times,” Peterman said.
“Whatever. It’s a step in the right direction.”
“It’s not the station that’s in jeopardy,” Pogo’s head said. “It’s your crew. Chaka’kan, in particular.”
“What do you mean?” Baxter asked, quickly shifting into professional mode (as much as was possible in the cramped tube).
“I’m not sure. I don’t have complete information. Just that at this afternoon’s address, Odo will make an announcement that will drastically affect Jem’Hadar everywhere. I’m thinking that will include those Jem’Hadar who aren’t serving as part of the Dominion’s armed forces, such as Chaka’kan and the Jem’Hadar who choose to accompany me.”
“Where are they anyway?” Baxter asked.
“On my ship, hiding for the moment in the Denorious Belt.”
“Well, then it’s clear we have to leave,” Peterman said. “We can figure out exactly what Odo is announcing on our way out of this system.”
“Wait, wait, wait,” Baxter said. “I’m trying to repair years of damage after the Explorer had no part in the Dominion war, then proceeded to piss of General Kira on multiple occasions. I’m not going to pull out of this conference suddenly and for no apparent reason just because Janice’s boyfriend told me to!”
“He’s not exactly my boyfriend,” Browning said, biting her fingernail.
“Captain, it’s for good reason,” Pogo corrected.
“We’ll see about that,” Baxter said, backing out of the maintenance shaft.
“Where are you going?” Browning asked.
“To talk to Odo.”
“I would advise against that,” Pogo said.
“Believe me, I’ve got this one under control,” Baxter said, turning to duck out of the maintenance hatch, and in doing so, slammed his head on the ceiling of the tube. He staggered on his knees. “I still have this under control!” he said, crawling out of the hatch on hands and knees, clutching his head.
“You cannot talk to Odo,” the Jem’Hadar, who had identified himself as Karotch’agard, said flatly as Baxter faced him outside the cabin occupied by the Founder.
“Just for a moment? I promise it’ll be quick,” Baxter said eagerly.
Karotch’agard took Baxter in for a moment, considered it, and flatly replied: “No visitors. Especially not Starfleet visitors.” He narrowed his eyes at Baxter. “Especially not from the Explorer. Will there be anything else?”
Baxter rolled that thought around a moment and shook his head. “Nope. That about does it.”
He turned and walked away, moving a little faster than he normally would have. That was one big Jem’Hadar.
“Peterman to Baxter. Any progress?”
“I couldn’t get past the massive Jem’Hadar at Odo’s door, so, no,” Baxter said.
“Chaka needs to start setting up for his workshop soon. We have to decide what to do.”
“We’re going to let this thing develop before we do anything rash. Pogo was just being alarmist, and we can’t just up and pull out of this conference. It would prove to Odo, Kira, and all those other people who look down on us for not fighting in the Dominion war that the Explorer people are a bunch of cowards!”
“You’re taking this awfully personal.”
Baxter sighed. “Just get Steffie and get back to the ship. I’ll take care of the rest.”
“So you do think something’s going to happen?”
“It’s just a precaution. Now go.”
Peterman sighed. “Fine. But can you get me a copy of Ezri Dax’s book? Counseling Behind the Lines?”
“I’m sure the line will be very short,” Baxter said tersely, and tapped his combadge, closing the channel.
“Your captain is making a huge mistake,” Pogo said, standing in the back of the seminar room as Chaka’kan addressed the crowd (if you can call fifteen people a crowd) about the finer points of Jem’Hadar serving on Federation starships. He had taken the form of a generic, red-collared Starfleet officer, although Browning had tried to talk him out of it based on some antiquated notion that these officers were always the first to die in a firefight.
“You may be right, but he is my captain, so we’re going to let him,” Browning said. “We’re also going to stand here watching just in case anything does happen to Chaka in the meantime.”
Browning felt sorry for Chaka, wishing there were more people at his session. She figured the topic appealed to a general audience, but not so much the diplomats and high-level military personnel that were attending the conference. It just wasn’t his crowd. Plus, the description in the conference guide heavily mentioned Chaka’s babysitting experience. That kind of thing was not so endearing to most Admirals.
“A prudent move,” Pogo said. “I can see your captain has taken an interest as well, inasmuch as he is attending the session.”
Browning glanced up at the third row, where Baxter was leaning back, his head nodding, nearly asleep. “Yes, he definitely seems interested.”
“There is nothing to do now but wait.”
“…which is when I picked up the vase of geraniums and smashed it on the guy’s head. No alien was about to take over my starship!” Chaka exhorted, and four people clapped. Baxter’s head bobbed all the way forward and he fell asleep.
“Yes, I’m glad we’re where the action is,” Browning sighed, leaning her head on Pogo’s shoulder.
“Believe me, I’m hopeful that I am wrong about this,” Pogo said, watching Chaka with great interest.
“I thought I’d find you here,” Plato said, walking up to join Sparks, who was looking out the window at the wormhole opening up, on the promenade’s second level.
“Beautiful sight,” Sparks said, as the blue anomaly plumed open, emitted several ships, and then winked closed. “Is everything all right with the conference?”
“That remains to be seen,” Plato said. “But Uncle…I mean Captain Baxter is taking necessary precautions. Even now, he’s planning strategies…I mean I just know he is.”
“I’m sure he is,” Sparks said, smiling and taking Plato’s hand. “You love Chaka, don’t you?”
“Well, yeah, I mean he’s been with me ever since I was a little kid…which, admittedly is only like two and a half years. Still…”
“He spent a lot of time with you while your mom and the others were gone back in time, didn’t he?” Sparks said.
“How did you know about that?”
“Word gets around during late nights at Mirk’s.”
“He’s always been there for me. I want to be there for him.”
“That’s sweet. But isn’t his session right now? Aren’t you missing it?”
Plato sat beside Sparks. “I left early to come find you.”
“That’s sweet, Plato.”
“Do you want to take a walk?”
“Yeah,” Sparks said, and took Plato’s hand, as he led her down along the promenade.
“…so as they say, when in Rome, do as they do in the Federation,” Chaka said, leaning on the podium and pointing at the slide up on the viewscreen. “If you have any questions, there’s my Federnet information. You can visit me on the Federnet at ‘Gardens by Chaka.’ You’ll see some very nice tips about how to get those pesky azaleas to bloom in an artificially oxygenated environment. Also, some fine tips on babysitting during an intergalactic crisis.”
The small crowd clapped semi-enthusiastically and Baxter snapped awake, joining in the clapping. In the back, Chaka noted that Browning looked on in concern, standing next to an equally concerned-looking redshirt ensign.
Baxter had quickly filled Chaka in as he prepped for his session, explaining that Odo was planning on making some sort of announcement about the Jem’Hadar during the afternoon plenary. Chaka wasn’t concerned. Odo was a good leader, and certainly anything he had in mind for the Dominion was all right with him.
As Chaka stepped down from the presentation dais, a tall, broad- bodied Jem’Hadar walked up to address him.
“Chaka’kan. What is your designation?”
“I am First Krotch’agard. And you are?”
“Well, I believe my session was the third session of this particular conference.”
The Jem’Hadar let out a long, measured breath. “I was referring to your rank in the Jem’Hadar guard.”
Chaka thought about that. “Well, I haven’t been part of the Jem’Hadar guard for some years now. As you may know, I was part of an experimental pod of good-tempered Jem’Hadar. Not long after I reached maturity, I was assigned to detached duty aboard USS Explorer. During my brief time in the guard, my rank was Fifteenth.”
“Fifteenth.” Karotch’agard shook his head. “Well, Fifteenth Chaka’kan, I too am part of an experimental breed of Jem’Hadar.”
“Really?” Chaka asked. “That’s excellent. Are you…‘nice’…too?”
Karotch’agard narrowed his eyes. “No.”
“I will see you soon.” The Jem’Hadar bowed and turned, walking out of the session room.
“What was that all about?” Baxter said, rubbing his eyes and walking up to Chaka.
“I’m uncertain,” Chaka’kan said, pursing his lips with concern. “Did you enjoy the session?”
“Oh, yeah,” Baxter said. “It was a real eye-opener.”
Plato and Sparks found Mathers and Piper sitting at one of the tables in the converted cargo bay, which was the main gathering place for the conference. Attendees filtered in from both entrances, taking their seats for the lunch plenary.
“Have fun at the sessions?” Piper asked as Sparks and Plato sat down.
“We had a walk,” Plato said, looking to Sparks. “This station’s even bigger than it looks from the outside.”
“Indeed,” Piper said, not taking his eyes off Plato. “How about you, Nat? Did you enjoy yourself?”
“Yes,” Sparks said, smiling at Plato. “I’m learning a lot about the Dominion.”
“I got to try some Ketracel White at the nutritional session,” Mathers said. “It’s kind of chalky, flavorless…and I…” He looked down shamefully. “I threw up on Admiral Ross.”
“Well, we’re all having a good time then,” Piper said, staring at his plate. “I hear they’re serving New Orleans cuisine in honor of Captain Sisko. Jambalaya!”
Mathers leaned back and rubbed his stomach. “Not sure I can handle that.”
Plato tapped his foot nervously. “I have a bad feeling about this.”
“Relax,” Sparks said. “Pogo said the announcement wouldn’t come until the afternoon plenary.”
“Save us a seat?” Captain Baxter asked, approaching with Chaka and Browning, who was carrying a very stylish purse.
“Of course, Captain,” Piper said, standing. “Please join us.”
“Oh, now, don’t make a fuss. I’m just like all of you. Just with a lot more rank, experience, and a ship of my own to command.”
“And a propensity for sleeping in workshops,” Browning said, nudging Baxter’s side as the two sat. “Did anyone attend the nutritional session?”
“Mathers did. He threw up,” Piper said with a laugh.
“Some assistant counselor you are,” Mathers muttered, laying his head down on the table.
“Speaking of counselors, where’s Counselor Peterman?” Sparks asked.
“She had to go back to the Explorer on some…business…” Baxter said, glancing at the padd on the table that listed the lunch menu. “So what’s good…ooh, etouffee!”
“Really?” Browning asked, her eyes widening excitedly. Suddenly, her purse tightened on her shoulder. “What? Would you stop being so…grabby? I thought we talked about this last night.”
Baxter looked at her. “Janice?”
“Nothing. Pogo’s just…” Browning turned and saw Odo and the Jem’Hadar, Karotch’agard, stepping onto the dais at the front of the room. “Trying to tell me something, apparently.”
“This is it,” Baxter said. “Isn’t it?”
“Not necessarily,” Browning said. “This could just be an agenda update.”
“Friends, allies,” Odo said, looking out at the gathered crowd. “Diplomats, military officers, scientists. Humans, Vulcans, Vorta, and yes…” He looked at Karotch’agard. “Jem’Hadar.”
He had everyone’s attention now, and he continued. “Thank you for joining us at this unprecedented gathering. You all represent the best intentions and best potential of the Federation and the Dominion. We have an opportunity here to begin to heal all of the wounds incurred by each of us during the long and arduous conflict of six years ago.”
“Boy he knows how to rub it in,” Baxter said. “If I could go back in time, I’d gladly take the Explorer into battle and face the…”
“Please don’t talk about going back in time,” Browning sighed.
“It’s fitting that we have this occasion to make an important announcement about a time of great change in the Dominion. It’s clear to me that, in order to move forward into a prosperous future, we must rethink the role of the Jem’Hadar in our society. We have to give them the same chance to divine their future that we all take for granted.”
“So far so good,” Chaka offered.
“Maybe I’ll just have a little jambalaya,” Mathers mused, looking over the menu. “And perhaps some sausage…”
“To that end,” Odo continued. “We have selected one Jem’Hadar to represent his kind and help us govern. Along with our Vorta spokesperson, this individual will help us make decisions for the betterment of all Jem’Hadar, and the Dominion in general. This represents our first attempt at…” He paused for emphasis. “Democracy.”
The crowd, Dominion and Federation alike, erupted into applause.
The only quiet table was that of the Explorer crew.
“That’s it?” Baxter asked.
“Not so bad,” Browning said.
“I’ll now give our Jem’Hadar representative, Karotch’agard, a moment to outline his goals for the future of his people.”
“Thank you, Odo,” Karotch’agard said, taking the podium. “Ladies, gentlemen, assorted species. It gives me great pleasure to be selected to help the Jem’Hadar determine their future. Together, we can be a useful part of the Dominion. For the first time in literally thousands of years, the Jem’Hadar will now decide their own destiny.”
“Finally,” Chaka said. “How exciting!”
“The Dominion has endured much tumult in recent years. It’s my duty to reverse some of that tumult. To heal the Jem’Hadar and make them whole again. Stronger, united, and alike in purpose.”
Watching from just offstage, Odo cocked his head at that, and turned to face Karotch’agard.
“Some have tried to divide us. Some have sought to create impure, weak and misguided creatures that call themselves Jem’Hadar, but resemble no Jem’Hadar I know.”
“I had no idea,” Chaka said. “Who is he talking about?”
“I think I know,” Browning said softly, hoping she was wrong.
“As my first order of business,” Karotch-agard continued, “effective immediately, I hearby recall all of the so-called ‘nice’ Jem’Hadar, for immediate neuro-stabilization treatments to reverse the damage done by reckless and savage experimentation.” He glowered from the podium, and pointed out at the audience like death itself. “Starting with…him.”
A chorus of murmurs filled the room, as all heads turned to face Chaka’kan, whose eyes widened with shock.
Captain Baxter stood up. “Baxter to Explorer. Prepare for immediate departure. Lock on to all of our people on DS-Nine and transport when ready.”
After a short pause, Richards responded. “Come again?”
“You heard me. We’ve outworn our welcome here and there’s a crazy Jem’Hadar who wants to brainwash Chaka.”
Admiral Ross made his way to the podium. Odo approached Karotch’agard, and gently nudged him from the podium.
“Uh, I think what Karotch’agard means is that we will carefully consider all viewpoints, and make a collective decision that benefits all..”
“NO!” Karotch’agard bellowed. “We will be made whole again! We will remove the awful and destructive influence of this garderner…this…BABYSITTER!”
Chaka backed toward the door. “Perhaps this is a good time for me to leave…”
“I knew it!” Browning’s purse screamed, and leapt from her shoulder, shimmering and oozing into the form of Pogo. “You have unleashed a radical and unstable force of Jem’Hadar on the entire Dominion, maybe the whole
“You are not on our registration list,” Odo said curtly. “Why must you always go where you’re not invited, Pogo?”
Starfleet officers began to take their places around the room. Likewise, a battalion of Jem’Hadar swarmed in front of the stage, weapons out.
“Everyone stop!” General Kira said, rushing the podium, as Admiral Ross held up his hands and barked instructions at the Starfleet security force. “This is not the idea of this conference. We’re supposed to be exchanging ideas, not weapons fire!”
“Richards to Baxter,” chirped the Captain’s combadge.
“Tell me you’re ready for transport,” Baxter said eagerly, surveying the situation.
“Um, no. They’ve erected a jamming field around the station.”
“It’s coming from one of the Jem’Hadar ships. Should we try to break through it?”
“Yeah,” Baxter said, backing toward the door. He looked at his officers. “Meanwhile, let’s find a place to be that’s anywhere but here.”
“This wasn’t my intention!” Odo called out, but could barely be heard over the din of the crowd. Karotch’agard meanwhile moved through the audience toward Chaka, his jaw set grimly.
“Surrender yourself, Fifteenth Chaka’kan.”
“Never,” Chaka said. “I will babysit until I take my last breath.”
“Don’t make this difficult,” Karotch’agard said. “Do not dishonor yourself further by groveling.”
“Stop!” Plato said, moving in front of Chaka. “I’m a Founder and I order you to stop!”
Karotch’agard stopped and looked at Plato. “Historically, the Jem’Hadar have served the Founders in all things.”
“Darn right,” Plato said, smiling.
He shoved Plato aside like he weighed nothing, knocking him to the floor. “Not anymore.” He turned to Chaka. “Now surrender yourself, or die.”
“Get out of here, Chaka!” Plato called from the floor, as Browning and Sparks both rushed to his side.
Chaka looked from Plato, to Baxter, and glowered at Karotch’agard. “You don’t want them. You want me. So come,” he said, and turned to the exit, quickly shrouding.
“A chase. Excellent,” Karotch’agard said, and bolted toward the door, likewise shrouding.
“Not this again,” General Kira said, jogging toward Baxter.
“This has actually happened before?” Baxter asked, rubbing his head and looking to Plato to be sure he was all right.
“Nevermind,” Kira said. She turned to a Bajoran officer. “Lieutenant, I want you to canvass the station. If they’re going to fight, they’ll have to deshroud, and I want them neutralized before they do any damage…to themselves, or anyone else.”
“And by neutralize, you mean…a gentle stun, right?” Baxter asked, moving next to Kira.
“Of course,” Kira said.
“You can do whatever you want to the other guy,” Plato said, pushing Browning and Sparks aside and stalking up to Kira. “But don’t…hurt…Chaka.”
“We’ll, uh, do what we can.”
The crowd milled around, shouting amongst themselves, as Odo emerged, glowering at Pogo, who was quickly surrounded by Jem’Hadar.
“Nobody invited you,” Odo said. “Nobody ever does, but you come anyway.”
“I’m the one who warned the Explorer people that this was about to happen, while you sat by and LET it happen,” Pogo said, staring derisively at the Jem’Hadar surrounding him.
“Don’t touch him!” Browning said, looking to Baxter. “Pogo requests asylum aboard the Explorer. Doesn’t he?” She looked to Pogo. “Don’t you?”
Pogo silently moved his mouth, looking from the Jem’Hadar, to Odo, to Baxter and Browning.
“Sure, I…” Baxter said, looking peaked as Admiral Ross jogged up.
“Don’t say a thing,” Ross said. “We need to sort this out. The last thing we need is a diplomatic incident between…”
“Does anyone care that those two Jem’Hadar are out there trying to kill each other?” Plato asked, pointing. “Isn’t someone going to do something?”
“They are,” Baxter said, putting a hand on Plato’s shoulder. “Meanwhile, the adults have to sort some things out.”
“I am an adult.”
He glanced up at Kira, Odo, and Ross. “Plato, I’m not sure even I qualify as an adult in this particular conversation.”
Quark dusted off one of the upper-level tables in his bar, whistling to himself. War was good for business, yes, but so was peace. So far, this conference was proving very profitable. The Vorta had absolutely no instincts for gambling.
He was calculating his profit margins when a stiff breeze blew by him.
Then another one.
“That’s odd,” he said, glancing around. “Broik? Fej?”
Just then, two Jem’Hadar deshrouded right in the middle of his upper level and glowered at each other, hands raised in a traditional battle stance.
“Boys…let’s not do anything rash here…” Quark said, holding up his hands. “We don’t want any trouble.”
“You will not have any trouble,” Karotch’agard said, advancing on Chaka’kan. “Will he?”
“I suppose that is up to you,” Chaka said. “Mister Quark, you should depart the premises immediately.”
“This is my bar,” Quark said. “I’m not going anywhere. The two of you, on the other hand…”
Karotch’agard took advantage of Chaka’s momentarily split concentration and launched himself at the ‘nice’ Jem’Hadar, knocking him against the upper level railing.
“Stop!” Quark ordered.
“I don’t think he’s listening,” Chaka groaned as Karotch’agard drew his blade and slashed at him. Chaka reached up, planted a foot in Karotch’agard’s midsection and flipped him end-over-end, and he fell down to the first level, landing with a huge thud, in a heap on top of the Dabo table.
“Does this turn count?” Doctor Julian Bashir asked quizzically, backing away.
“Excuse me,” Chaka said politely, planting a hand on the railing and leaping over it, landing next to the Dabo table. “Pardon me, Doctor,” he said to Bashir as Quark looked down on the action and the other patrons of his bar scattered for the exit.
Chaka grabbed Karotch’agard by the leg, yanking him off the table. Karotch’agard, for his part, planted his other foot in Chaka’s face, knocking him backwards against the bar and leaping on him. “Surrender yourself! Be one with the Jem’Hadar once more!”
“Never! I like babysitting!” Chaka protested, grabbing a glass and smashing it against Karotch’agard’s head.
“You are weak!” Karotch’agard replied, planting his forearm against Chaka’s throat.
“I…am…not…” Chaka growled, flipping Karotch’agard over his head and behind the bar, where he crashed into a shelf full of glasses. “I am the finest gardener in all the quadrant!”
“That…is…not…a worthy goal!” Karotch’agard shouted, grabbing Chaka by the neck and pulling him onto the bar, running him along its surface, smashing him into glasses and dishes.
Chaka flipped himself up over the bar and leapt on Karotch’agard. “You’d be surprised how pulling weeds comes in handy!” Chaka said, and ripped the white tubes right out of Karotch’agard’s neck.
“You’d be surprised how battle tactics come in handy,” Karotch’agard snarled as the white spurted out of his suddenly detached tubes. He jabbed a hand up into Chaka’s side. “Fall before me!”
“Acknowledge the honor of babysitting!” Chaka responded, and rolled Karotch’agard back over the bar, splaying him out on his back on the floor on the other side. He then leapt onto the bar and launched himself at the other Jem’Hadar, who quickly put a foot up, planting it in Chaka’s midsection.
“Relent,” Karotch’agard shouted, kicking Chaka over him and onto the floor beside him.
“Never!” Chaka said. “Babysitting is life!”
“You are absurd!”
“You are a tyrant!”
Chaka kicked Karotch’agard in the face and bolted up the spiral staircase toward the holosuites, shrouding on the way.
Karotch’agard wiped the blood from his mouth and snarled. “End game,” he muttered, and dashed up the staircase.
“Obviously, I’ve made a mistake,” Odo said, stairing out at the stars beyond the ward room window.
“Ya think?” Baxter asked.
“Why is he even at this meeting?” Kira asked, looking to Admiral Ross.
“This involves his crewman,” Ross said grudgingly.
“I’ve picked the wrong spokesman to represent the Jem’Hadar,” Odo said.
“Odo is doing the best that he can,” Kira said.
“You’re awfully eager to defend him,” said Baxter
“And what’s THAT supposed to mean?”
“Please,” Pogo said, stepping forward. He stopped immediately as his Jem’Hadar guards leveled their weapons at him. “Let’s not escalate this.”
“It’s already escalated,” Baxter said. “And it’s up to MY babysitter to stop it.”
“You really let a Jem’Hadar babysit your child?” Admiral Ross asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Jem’Hadar are capable of completing any task, no matter how idiotic,” one of the Jem’Hadar guarding Pogo barked.
“Let’s not argue the finer points of babysitting,” Odo said, shaking his head. “This was never my intention.”
“Ya…” Baxter began, but got a glare from Ross. “Ya know, I can see what you’re saying. I understand…and think we really have an opportunity to grow from this.”
Ross rolled his eyes.
Karotch’agard stalked down the hallway of holosuites. “Come out, Chaka! It does no one any good for you to cower for your life. You will not die; rather, you’ll be reborn, a new, proper Jem’Hadar.” He reared back and slammed into the first holosuite door, smashing it open, to reveal an empty swuite.
“Isn’t that what’s best for all of us?”
He continued down the hall, busting open the next two doors. Nothing but empty suites.
At the last door, he breathed heavily. “This is my last offer. Surrender yourself now, or forfeit your life. I will have no problem killing you, Chaka’kan.”
He punched the door, digging his fingers into its seam and shoving it open, stalking into…
…a living room.
Sunlight poured in through the windows. The room included a couch, chair, holoscreen. It appeared to be a domestic human household.
“How pathetic. Hiding within a computer program.” Karotch’agard shook his head. “I underestimated the extent to which your mind was altered. Obviously you and your ‘nice’ brethren are in need of even more help than I thought. Fear not, we’ll get you that…”
Karotch’agard looked down to see he’d stepped on something. A miniature Earth vehicle of some kind. He bent down and studied the vehicle. It was some sort of truck, but it was now smashed, its cargo section and passenger space completely caved in by his foot.
Before he could register surprise, a scream sounded throughout the house.
“You broke my toy! Why’d you break my toy? Huh?”
Karotch’agard turned, and came face to face with a small, brown- haired boy who launched himself at him, tackling him to the floor.
“Bad man breaks toys!” a pair of little girls called out from the door on the other side of the room, and they ran at Karotch’agard, tackling him.
“Let’s watch Blue Andorie and the Andorites!” another little girl called out, twirling into the room in a ballerina outfit. “That’ll be fun!”
The holoscreen came to life with a Andorian music trio, who seemed hell-bent on singing about sharing and caring. The lyrics of the song pierced Karotch’agard’s ears, as pairs of hands pummeled him, and more kids poured in. There were at least a dozen of the little creatures now!
Karotch’agard struggled to stand, but the kids kept piling on as the music of Andorie and the Andorites roared on like an extended spaceship implosion:
“Sharing is caring, and caring is why
We share and share, and share till we die
Yes and while we die with honor
We also humbly believe
That sharing is caring
And when you share, you share with glee!
Share with glee!
Share with glee!
Share with glee!”
“Andorie!” the kids shouted, dancing and singing, and kicking pretty much every square inch of Karotch’agard’s hide.
“Oh, there you are,” Chaka’kan said, emerging from the kitchen. He was sporting an apron and holding a frying pan. “I was just making some fried plantains for the kids. A little afternoon snack.”
He walked up to Karotch’agard, who just groaned as the kids mauled him.
“Will you be joining us?” Chaka asked, then reared back and slammed the frying pan down on Karotch’agard’s head, knocking him blissfully unconscious. “Guess that’s a ‘no.’”
“That’s one hell of a babysitter,” Admiral Ross surmised, looking at Chaka’kan’s after-action report, as Odo stood at the other end of the table in the ward room, Kira sitting beside him.
“The Jem’Hadar are…bred to be resourceful,” Odo said flatly, his eyes distant. “Even the ‘nice’ ones.”
“You should see Quark’s bill for the damage to his bar,” Kira said.
“The fact remains, you have some decisions to make about the direction of the Dominion,” Ross said, looking up to Odo. “The Jem’Hadar are a potentially deadly element that could rise up against you. It would seem, in this case, that the Jem’Hadar could stand to, uh, try a little tenderness.”
“Do not make this any worse than it has to be,” Odo said, glowering at the floor.
“He makes a good point, Odo,” Kira said. “You need some help repairing divisions among the Jem’Hadar. Teach them that there are other ways to channel their aggression.”
Captain Baxter turned from his spot next to the long row of windows, overlooking the space outside the station. “Might I make a suggestion?”
“Who let him into this meeting?” Ross asked one of his aides in a low voice.
“A few bumps and bruises, but he’ll be fine,” Dr. Julian Bashir said, stepping into the waiting room in the Infirmary, as Peterman, Browning, and Plato, and Sparks paced outside. As soon as the crisis was over, Peterman and Steffie had returned to DS-Nine, taking Mathers and Piper with them.
Chaka stepped up behind Bashir. “It will take more than one nasty Jem’Hadar to knock me down,” he said. “Although, truthfully, two would probably do the trick.”
“Chaka!” Plato said, running to the Jem’Hadar and wrapping him in a tight hug.
“Someone else wants to see you,” Peterman said with a smile, as Steffie ducked out from behind her legs and charged Chaka’kan, leaping into his arms.
“Chaka! Let’s go plant flowers!” she squealed.
“In a bit,” Chaka said, as Steffie nuzzled him.
“Good to see you again, Counselor,” Dr. Bashir said, nodding at Peterman.
Peterman’s eyes brightened and she felt color flood to her cheeks. “Well, Julian, er, Doctor, it’s nice to see you again too…”
“We HAVE to get going,” Browning said, taking Peterman by the arm and tugging her out of the Infirmary. She gave a little squeak as she glanced back at Bashir one more time.
As soon as they exited the Infirmary, they came face to face with Baxter, who looked immediately to Chaka. “Can we talk for a minute?”
“You can see the Explorer from here,” Chaka said, stepping out to the upper Promenade, with Baxter behind him. This time of day it was a quiet spot, with very few of DS9’s denizens passing by.
“Yes, it looks almost small up there on the upper pylon,” Baxter said, moving up next to Chaka and staring out the window. “But she’s a hell of a ship.”
“A graceful beauty,” Chaka said. “It’s a pleasure to call her home.”
“She’s not really your home though, is she?” Baxter asked, turning to face Chaka. “You belong in the Gamma Quadrant.”
“At one time that may have been true, but much has changed,” Chaka said. “Today’s events prove that. The Dominion does not want me, or any of the other misfit Jem’Hadar in its ranks.”
“Funny you should mention that,” Baxter said, resting his hands on the railing. “Because I just spoke with Odo, and he wants you to be the new Jem’Hadar representative.”
Chaka turned. “What?”
Baxter nodded. “He’s convinced the old ways aren’t working anymore, and that as long as the Jem’Hadar are deadset on battle and conquest, they’ll continue to lose pace with a Dominion that’s changing fast. He wants you to help them find a new way. He wants you to be their…” Baxter shrugged. “Emissary.”
“That’s…” Chaka turned away. “The job of a diplomat. A politician. Someone else. I’m merely a babysitter, Captain.”
“Yes, but you weren’t a babysitter until you became one for us. You can do the same back in the Dominion. You can redefine yourself. And you can save your people.”
Several silent moments passed. The wormhole blossomed open, a few ships went in, and it closed. Chaka turned to Baxter. “You need a good babysitter, sir,” Chaka said.
Baxter nodded. “Yes, I do.” He worked his jaw back and forth thoughtfully. “But the Dominion needs you more.”
Chaka took all that in, and looked back again out the oval window. “Do you think…do you think it’s possible?”
Baxter smiled. “In my time on the Explorer, I’ve learned that just about anything is possible.”
“It’s the accent,” Peterman standing with Baxter, Browning, Plato, Sparks and Steffie outside of the airlock leading to the docking ring. “It gets me every time. That guy could read an excerpt from Memory Alpha, and I’d listen.”
“So I’ve heard,” Baxter said. “Numerous times.”
“Every woman deserves a little fantasy,” Peterman said with an impish grin.
“You can say that again,” Browning said thoughtfully.
Sparks just reached out and took Plato’s hand. “You know, Plato, I think I understand you a little better, now.”
“Really?” Plato asked. “How’s that?”
“I honestly don’t know.” She squeezed his hand tighter, and it melted a bit against her own hand as he held on. “Chaka was with you during your formative years, and the way you stood up for him today, the way you stood on your own…”
“I’d stand up for you that way too,” Plato said softly.
“Yes. That’s it,” Sparks said, and leaned in, kissing Plato on the cheek, catching a gaze of extreme interest from Browning.
“I still can’t believe this is happening,” Peterman said, and stroked Steffie’s hair. “What are we going to do for a babysitter?”
“I’d love to chat about it, but then we’d have to interrupt the Julian Bashir love-fest,” Baxter muttered. “You know, you’re married to him in a parallel universe. That should be good enough. In this universe, you’re all mine, and Doctor Bashir can kiss my…”
“Captain,” Pogo said, picking up step next to Baxter, with Chaka’kan at his side.
“Why, Pogo…it’s nice to see you, well, anywhere outside a brig,” Baxter said. “And not disguised as a purse.”
“Pogo?” Browning asked, walking up to join the Changeling, as Chaka knelt down to hug Steffie, and Plato came over to pat him on the back.
“Special Adviser for Alpha Quadrant Affairs,” Pogo said to Browning, raising his chin. “Sounds…important, doesn’t it?”
“Andy, did you know about this?” Browning asked, looking back at Baxter.
“It’s better than a Dominion prison colony,” Baxter said.
“I’d think after all this time fighting the establishment, you’d be reluctant to join it,” Peterman said.
“Most agitators are just cabinet members who haven’t been hired yet, Counselor,” Pogo said. “I have a real chance to make a difference with Odo’s administration, along with the other ‘nice’ Jem’Hadar, and, of course, their Representative.” He smiled at Chaka, then turned to Browning. “And I get to rejoin the Great Link, too, which will be nice, after so many years…”
“Yeah. Nice,” Browning mumbled, leaning on Pogo’s shoulder.
As the group chatted in low tones about recent events, Baxter caught a glance of a petite, waifish looking woman with short-clipped hair, walking by. “Hey…who’s that?”
“I think that’s Ezri Dax,” Peterman said. “I hear she and Julian have quite a…hey…quit looking!” she snapped, popping Baxter on the back of his head.
Baxter rubbed his head. “Well, now you know how I feel.”
Just then, Odo stepped up, flanked by Admiral Ross and General Kira.
“It’s done,” Odo said. “The details have been worked out. Pogo and Chaka’kan, along with the other ‘nice’ Jem’Hadar, will join us in creating a new future for the Jem’Hadar, and for all of the Dominion.”
“And I don’t suppose there’s any way for Chaka to do that from his cabin on the Explorer?” Peterman asked, looking to Baxter.
Baxter looked at Chaka and took a deep breath. “I’m afraid not.”
“I’ll…just get my things,” Chaka said, ducking toward the airlock.
“I’ll contact the other ‘nice’ Jem’Hadar,” Pogo said. “Let them know they can come out of hiding.”
“I’ll show you to a comm terminal,” General Kira said.
“Oh, General,” Baxter said, waving to Kira.
The Bajoran fixed a glare on him. “What.”
“Well, we helped solidify relations with the Dominion, and came up with a way for Odo to improve his government. Seems to me like the Explorer has finally played a significant role in this whole Dominion thing.”
Kira sighed. “And?”
“Oh, nothing. Just…you’re welcome!” he smiled and waved.
“Make sure your ship doesn’t leave without you,” Kira said, and turned. “Mister Pogo…”
“Thank you, General,” Pogo said. “And while I have you for a moment…I understand Odo was Constable for many years here. Perhaps you can tell me a bit about what that’s like…a Changeling serving as security chief on a distant outpost like this. It sounds…intriguing.”
Browning watched Pogo go, shaking her head. “So much for…that.”
“That?” Baxter asked. “What do you mean?”
“Just thinking about how far away the Gamma Quadrant is,” Browning said with a sigh, watching as Plato and Sparks walked ahead of her, arm in arm.
“I was thinking the same thing,” Plato said, looking up at Chaka, as he and Sparks followed him into the airlock.
“Any ideas on a new babysitter?” Baxter asked.
“I’ve been thinking about that,” Peterman said.
“How do you like that,” Mirk said, stepping up behind the bar in the Constellation Club, tossing a towel over his shoulder and pulling out a padd of drink specials.
Hartley was sitting at the bar, waiting for him, as she always did after her shift. “What?” she asked, absently looking over his shoulder at the specials. “Ew…Avocado Margarita? Really?”
“I just talked to Counselor Peterman. She asked if I would babysit Steffie. Apparently, we got good reviews from the time when we took care of Plato, when the captain and the others were tossed back in time.”
“He ended up having a crush on me and I ended up wanting to get pregnant.”
“Well, he came through it in one piece…and he passed triognometry,” Mirk said. “So…I accepted. I’m free during the days anyway.”
“You really want to do this?”
“It’ll be fun. You know, practice for when we…um…”
“So we’re talking about that again?” Hartley asked, smiling up at Mirk.
“Possibilities are endless,” Mirk said, leaning on the bar toward Hartley.
“And how am I supposed to know my kid won’t end up being able to fly and bend metal objects with his mind?”
“I expect our kid to be able to bend all kinds of objects with his mind…” He kissed Hartley on the forehead. “Or her mind…”
Hartley smiled and moved up to kiss Mirk on the lips. “I love you, you know.”
“I love you too, fruit basket.”
Hartley slid her arms around Mirk and hugged him, then glanced at the chronometer. “We’d better get going. We have a date, buster…”
“It’s funny what we’re calling a date nowadays,” Mirk said with a grin, stepping out from behind the bar.
“Imhala, there are three more containers…” Browning said, pointing to her head (and really, only) server, who scooped up the three small containers from the table and carried them out of Space Tastes as Browning punched a control, dimming the lights in the restaurant.
“Busy day?” a voice asked from the doorway as Imhala pushed past.
“I’m afraid we’re closed today,” Browning said, turning. “You can come back tomor…” She blinked. “Pogo. I almost didn’t recognize you without the…purse straps.”
“You didn’t think I’d leave things like that, did you?” Pogo asked, raising a non-existent eyebrow.
“Honestly, I don’t know you well enough to know for sure,” Browning said. “But I guess we’ll never get the chance to get to know each other any better, will we?”
Pogo crossed the distance between him and Browning and took her hands. “You know, Janice, there’s this wonderful thing, hanging in space beside Deep Space Nine, in the Denorious Belt. It’s called a wormhole, you see. It connects the Alpha and Gamma Quadrants. Dozens of ships pass through it every day. They even have a transmitter set up, so signals can pass back and forth…”
Browning rolled her eyes self-consciously. “I knew all that, Pogo.”
“Well then you know this is not goodbye for good,” Pogo said. “We’ll stay in touch.”
“You sure about that?”
“As sure as I am of anything,” he said, and kissed her gently on the lips. “I promise, this isn’t the end of our story. Just…the beginning of a new chapter.”
“I’m going to hold you to that,” Browning said softly. She sighed. “I guess it’s some consolation that my son has perhaps found the first love of his life.”
“You just never know,” Browning said with an optimistic glint in her eye as she smiled at Pogo. They stood in silence for a good, long minute.
“I’ve got to go now,” Pogo said.
“Me too,” Browning said.
“But one more kiss won’t hurt, will it?”
“‘Spose not…” Browning said, and leaned forward, kissing Pogo again. She slipped an arm around him and held him tight. “Don’t ever change, okay?”
“I’m a Changeling.”
“I know,” Browning said, and hugged him tighter.
“Thank you for making this a simple departure, Captain,” Chaka said, emerging from the turbolift with Baxter, a small duffel on his shoulder. Nearly four years on the Explorer, and he’d barely filled one bag. Then again, Jem’Hadar weren’t much for keepsakes.
“I knew you wouldn’t want any pomp…whatever pomp is,” Baxter said, putting a hand on Chaka’s shoulder. “I can’t tell you how much we’ll miss you. And I know my daughter will miss you even more.”
“You have a fine child, Captain,” Chaka said. “It has been a pleasure babysitting Steffie, and Plato.”
“You’re a fine babysitter, Chaka.”
“And the Explorer, and her crew, are…”
“Fine,” Baxter said, with a laugh. “We’re all fine.”
“Oh,” Baxter said, stopping short and turning to a set of double doors. “I wanted to check on something in the arboretum before we leave. Do you have a moment?”
He keyed the doors open, and led Chaka in.
The arboretum lit up as fireworks shot into the air, illuminating the huge room’s high ceiling.
More lights came on, and Chaka saw that the massive chamber was ringed with tiki torches, and filled with what had to be half the Explorer crew, eating and talking as a rich mix of island-style music played in the background.
“I may have lied a bit about the simple departure,” Baxter said with a laugh, and ushered Chaka’kan in. “You can thank Janice for the catering…”
Chaka walked into the midst of the crowd, his mouth gaping, and turned to Baxter. “What is this, Captain?”
“Welcome to the Chaka’kan Horticultural Center and Arboretum,” Baxter said with a broad smile. “Although we’ll probably end up just calling it the…Chaka.”
Chaka nodded a greeting at the senior staff, who came up to join Baxter.
“You’ll be missed,” Browning said, and Baxter noted she seemed especially choked up. Was that all about Chaka? She leaned up and kissed the Jem’Hadar on the cheek.
“Try the crab balls,” she whispered. “They’re great.”
“To the best babysitter in all the quadrant,” Peterman said, and clapped. “Or any other quadrant for that matter!”
Baxter, Browning, Richards, Hartley, Tilleran, J’hana and Mirk, along with Sparks, Mathers and Piper, all joined in the applause, as Steffie and Plato rushed up to hug the Jem’Hadar goodbye. Chaka looked around at the crew, overcome with an emotion that did not immediately make sense to him.
Pretty soon, everyone was clapping, until the applause drowned out everything else, even the music. To be sure, no other Jem’Hadar had ever felt what Chaka’kan was feeling now.
But that would change.
When the Explorer sets course for a distant resort world, all seems sunny and bright, but we know that can’t last for long. So what secret does this cushy vacation spot hold, and why is Mirk so interested in its proprietors?