Sam Lavelle strode onto the bridge of the Orb of Peace, hardly able to believe that he had given up a spacious Cardassian antimatter tanker for this austere Bajoran transport. He was sure he had gotten the worst of the deal, especially considering that he thought he was going to be rescued and sent home. His last voyage had been a perfect example of Murphy's Law, and this one promised to send him from the frying pan into the fire.
The cramped bridge had a strange viewscreen with Bajoran writing all around it. He was able to translate two phrases: "The devout will enter the Celestial Temple," and "The Kai holds the lantern of Bajor." Even without the platitudes, the stars glimmered enticingly on the screen, making him wish that he were going home.
But Sam knew there was no escape from this war -- not until the Dominion was driven back to their part of the galaxy.
He spotted the slim Bajoran, Ro Laren, seated at the conn. Both Captain Picard and Geordi La Forge looked Bajoran -- with nose ridges and earrings -- but Ro was the real thing. Sam remembered hearing stories about her on the Enterprise, but he had only seen her once, in Ten-Forward, just before her ill-fated mission to infiltrate the Maquis. Now she was captain of this Bajoran vessel.
"I'm your relief, Captain," he said, keeping his voice low in the dimly lit bridge.
"Thank you." Ro Laren rose from her seat and stretched like a willowy lioness, shaking her short-cropped mane of dark brown hair. She was wearing a Bajoran uniform which hugged the lanky contours of her body, and Sam looked longer and harder than he should have. Ro caught him staring at her, and her eyes drilled into his. Sam knew he should look away, but it had been a long time since he had gazed lustfully at a woman, and he wasn't anxious to stop.
"I'm sorry," he said, managing a shy smile. "I don't know what got into me. It's funny what even a small taste of freedom will do to a man."
Her face softened, and she looked sympathetic if still annoyed. "How long were you a prisoner of the Dominion?"
"About two months, I guess," answered Sam. "It's hard to say, because we were never allowed to see any chronometers, except when we were on work detail, building that damn collider. And then, we only saw shift timers. We were kept segregated from the women. I saw them every now and then on the worker transports, but that was it."
"I know the Cardassians -- it must have been bad."
He nodded slowly. "Yes, it was, and a lot of good people are still there. I wish we could do something to help them."
"There's no chance for a mass escape?"
"I don't see how," Sam answered glumly. "The complex where the prisoners are housed is near the collider, but each pod of prisoners is isolated. There's no way to get hold of a ship like we did -- that was a fluke. No matter when you do this, thousands of prisoners will be working. If your mission is to destroy the artificial wormhole, your mission is to destroy them, too."
Ro crossed her arms and wrinkled her ridged nose. "You know, that's exactly what I've been telling Captain Picard. And it sounds even worse coming from you, because you've been there."
"Yes, I've been there, and I can't believe I'm thinking about going back. This isn't exactly the way I envisioned my escape -- going back to that place, on purpose." Shivering, Sam sunk into the chair at the conn and studied the unfamiliar instruments.
"I'm sure Captain Picard would offer you a chance not to go, if he could," said Ro. "But we only have this craft, and no way to split up."
Sam snorted a laugh. "Yeah, if you don't mind me saying so, your demolition squad is a little shorthanded."
"We had a whole crew and more than one torpedo. But we lost five torpedoes fighting our way through the Dominion border patrol, then we got shanghaied by pirates in the Badlands, and hijacked by Romulans -- "
"Pirates and Romulans?" asked Sam with boyish curiosity. The smile faded from his lips when we saw how upset Ro was about these incidents. "Hey, I'm sorry if we lost more good people, but I'm sort of burned-out on death. I can't even think about it, if you know what I mean."
"I know what you mean," admitted Ro, staring down at the deck. "The Enterprise is supposed to take us home, but only if we alert them with a subspace beacon."
"But how quickly could they get here?"
"That's a good question." The Bajoran hovered over Sam's shoulder and pointed at his console. "You'll want to watch the hull pressure -- right there."
"Okay, thanks." Sam took some time to scan all the readouts, finding them fairly easy to understand. It wasn't nearly as complex as the antimatter tanker. He tried to concentrate on his duties, but the Bajoran's presence was bringing back memories and emotions he had tried to push away, without much success.
"I had a good friend who was Bajoran, Ensign Sito Jaxa," he said with a wistful smile. "Her death was the first casualty I really experienced in Starfleet, and it hit me pretty hard. She was killed by the Cardassians, and that act started the war for me a couple of years early. I was gung-ho to get at them."
"I followed Sito's career," said Ro, "but I never got a chance to meet her. I think I was away at Tactical Training while you and your friends were serving aboard the Enterprise."
Sam chuckled. "You couldn't help but to follow Sito's career -- she was full of zip. She got into a lot of trouble at the Academy."
"Along with Wesley Crusher," said Ro with a smile.
While they shared an unexpected moment of nostalgia, Sam glanced at the striking Bajoran. It was too bad that his life expectancy was so short, or he would have been tempted to pursue the former Starfleet officer. Of course it was wartime, and anything could happen.
Returning his mind to his duty, Sam adjusted the viewscreen, and a brown-magenta cloud coalesced into view, still some distance away. Pulses of light blinked on and off within its murky depths, which gave it an oddly cheerful glow, like a surreal Christmas wreath.
"The Badlands," he mused. "Is it all that bad?"
"Worse," muttered Ro. "I wouldn't go back there, except there's no other place to hide."
"Well, if it's any consolation, you're within striking distance of the artificial wormhole from here. It's just that there's a fleet guarding it, and it's ten kilometers long."
"So I gather," replied Ro solemnly.
They heard footsteps, and Sam turned to see Captain Picard come striding onto the cramped bridge. He looked odd with his Bajoran earring, nose ridges, and tufts of white hair; but his voice, bearing, and stern demeanor left no doubt who was in charge. Immediately, Sam stiffened in his seat and studied his readouts until he was caught up.
"Status?" asked Picard as he consulted the small padd in his hands.
"Estimated arrival time at the Badlands: one hour," reported Sam. "No sign of enemy craft."
"Thank you, Lieutenant. I haven't had an opportunity to say how good it is to see you again, although I wish it were under better circumstances."
"Me, too, sir."
The captain looked somber. "I've talked to your crew. I realize that we ruined your escape attempt. I'm sorry. I'm sure you expected to get farther away than the Badlands -- "
"I wasn't really expecting to escape," replied Sam honestly. "I just wanted to die like a Starfleet officer, not a slave. I don't want to go back to that place -- and I doubt if this mission will work -- but it's still a good chance to die as a Starfleet officer."
The captain's lips thinned. "I wish there was an alternative, but there isn't. We can't allow the Dominion to ever use that artificial wormhole."
"I know, sir," admitted Sam. "I thought the same thing every day, even while I was building it."
Picard consulted his padd and looked around to make sure they were alone. "I need an honest evaluation of every member of your crew. You know what we have ahead of us -- a major sabotage mission with a high degree of risk."
Sam frowned thoughtfully. "The only member of the crew I really know is Thurik, and I would trust him with my life. As for Woil, Shonsui, Horik, and Maserelli -- they're all career Starfleet officers, who ought to be fine in a crisis. But they've been through some rough times lately, and they may be close to cracking. I'm sure you could say that about all of us, except for Thurik, of course. Many times during our imprisonment, I wished I were a Vulcan."
"I've often wished that I were a certain android," said Picard with a wistful smile. "What about the scientist, Enrak Grof?"
Sam winced, trying not to show his doubts. "Until today, I would've said he was a traitor and a collaborator -- and an unpleasant one at that. He could've stopped us but didn't, so I guess he's on our side. As I'm sure he'll tell you, he's basically in it for the science and the glory. Grof knows that artificial wormhole backwards and forwards -- he helped design it."
"So he told me," said Picard. "None of the rest of you have any in-depth knowledge of its workings?"
"No," answered Sam. "Thurik knows some of the theory, but we were grunt labor, only told what was needed. Grof was right in there with the Vorta engineers, on a buddy-buddy basis with our resident changeling."
"You saw a changeling?" asked Picard with interest.
"Only once, when they put me in charge of the tanker." Sam smiled nostalgically. "To tell you the truth, Captain, I remember more about the food than anything else. It was the first decent food I'd had in weeks."
Captain Picard allowed him a slight smile. "I know this has been difficult for you, Lieutenant, and I wish I could relieve you of further burden. But you know our situation."
"Not really," answered Sam. "Taurik and I were captured early on, defending the outer colonies. We volunteered for that service, if you can believe it. I've heard rumors -- if this ship is any indication of what Starfleet can spare, I guess we're in a lot of trouble."
The captain looked grave as he explained, "If the Dominion manages to bring through reinforcements from the Gamma Quadrant -- either by clearing the mines fr...