“Look like you got something on your mind, Laren.”
The apartment door closed behind me. I threw my dusty work clothes on the floor, ignoring as always my roommate Jessil’s disapproving frown at my crude disturbance of the harmonious flow of vital creative energies throughout the apartment. Then I headed for the shower.
Jessil, who would never in a million years learn when to quit, trailed along behind me. “There’s this look you get from time to time, like you ain’t here, but somewhere far away. Like remembering the war, maybe.”
I bit back a curse as I stepped into the shower. Although Jessil liked to think of herself as Maquis, too, the truth was that she was barely old enough to remember anything about the war. She’d been a teenage recruit in one of our training camps when the Cardassians blasted our main base, effectively destroying the Maquis. She hadn’t been on anyone’s wanted list, and there had been no reason for her to go into hiding, other than that she thoroughly enjoyed the drama of it.
The colony where we were living, an independent miners’ camp on Denebia Four, had a profitable sideline business of selling Denebian citizenship and passports with no questions asked. About as good a place as any for a former Maquis terrorist to disappear. I worked off my debt to the miners’ guild in a few months and ended up staying almost five years. It was a reasonably good life, for those who didn’t mind suiting up for an occasional stroll in the murky, frigid depths of the planet’s thick methane atmosphere.
Jessil hadn’t become a miner; instead, she dabbled in dreadful sculpture and composed even worse poetry, and she proudly justified her lack of productive employment by declaring that the life of an artist was her d’jara. As if anyone with half a brain paid even the slightest attention to the antiquated Bajoran caste system.
“So, you want to know what I did during the war,” I said in a rough tone, as I stepped out of the shower and toweled myself dry. I hadn’t said a word about my Maquis experiences to her before, mainly because I knew that Jessil was completely incapable of keeping her huge yap shut. But I had just about made up my mind to leave, with no regrets and no looking back, so it wasn’t going to matter at all.
“You remember when the Maquis blew up the Cardassian Defense Ministry,” I went on, without waiting for Jessil to reply. Of course she knew about it. That operation had been the greatest triumph the Maquis had ever enjoyed, a highly visible blow struck against the hated enemy on their own home planet.
“I was there when it happened,” I told her, closing my eyes as the memories came back with a vengeance. “I was the one who carried the bomb.”
Cardassia Prime’s midday sun felt beastly hot against my artificial scales as I waited beside the guard station, the small package held nonchalantly in my right hand. Just an ordinary Cardassian courier, that’s what the security officers would have seen, a very bored courier who was accustomed to spending most of her time standing idly at various checkpoints. In keeping with my character, I yawned widely, scratching one of my neck ridges as yet another guard scanned my identity chip.
Although the plan hadn’t been described to me — well, not in so many words — as a suicide mission, I had enough sense to know that no self-respecting gambler would have given odds on my coming out of it alive. Which was all right with me; it had been quite a long time since I’d even cared whether I lived or died. A few days ago, a gaunt Vedek in frayed robes, who spent most of his days assembling plasma rifles in a secret chamber beneath his small room at the monastery, had chanted the ancient prayers over me as I prepared for my journey. Commending my brave soul to the Prophets, and so on. I had my doubts as to whether they’d want it.
The pavement shimmered in the heat as the security officer, a young provincial conscript from the look of him, took the package from my hand and adjusted his scanner. He would use three scan settings in all, I knew: the first for conventional weapons, the second for nuclear and particle-weapon devices, and the third for antimatter devices.
I did my best to look unconcerned. The package, addressed to an Assistant Undersecretary of Defense, contained a small antimatter bomb hidden inside a childishly sculpted wooden statuette. It purported to be a gift from a group of elementary school students who had been scheduled for a field trip the following week to the Patriotic Conquest Museum, just inside the Defense Ministry compound and not open to civilians except by invitation. Small gifts of handcrafted items were traditional among Cardassians as expressions of gratitude, and the wood that we’d selected had the added benefit of being aromatic enough to mask other scents, should the guards decide to bring out bomb-sniffing canines.
Which they hadn’t; for the moment, it was just me and Country Bumpkin, the other guards having moved on to check the identification of another courier who’d just arrived. The first scan finished successfully, and a green light glowed on the young officer’s readout panel as the second scan began.
I gave Country Bumpkin my best seductive smile, which wasn’t easy with all the plastic surgery I’d had in order to pass for a Cardassian, and gazed up into his dark gray eyes.
“You look so familiar,” I began, in fluent Cardassian with a slight accent that I’d been assured would pass for a regional variation. “Didn’t I see you at the martial arts tournament last week?”
His facial scales darkened just a little, in the Cardassian equivalent of a blush. Not much experience with women, then. So much the better, I thought, as I deliberately struck a seductive pose and broadened my smile.
“No, I, uh, just got transferred here two days ago.” Instead of meeting my gaze, he looked down at his scanner, just as the second green light came on.
Just my luck, he was too damned shy to look at a woman. Any moment now, his scanner would detect the antimatter. I reached out and lifted his chin toward me, smiling as my fingers caressed the smooth scales of his throat.
“There’s another tournament tonight,” I said. “Maybe I’ll see you there. I’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
He gulped nervously, blinking at me, his attention successfully diverted from the scanner. With my other hand, I touched a button to cancel the antimatter scan sequence and quickly restarted the previous scan. To give innocent cover to the sudden hand motion, I raised my fingers higher and let them glide along his arm, just as if I were a Cardassian woman who liked the feel of a man’s uniform.
“Please say you’ll be there,” I went on, keeping my eyes fixed on his nervous face as I gave him my very best imploring look.
“Uh, yeah, I’ll be there,” the young officer stammered, “after I get off duty, uh, yeah.”
He looked down at the scanner again, just as a green light came on for the third time. Scan complete, inspection passed, the message on the small screen read. The same message it would have given if all three scans had successfully run to completion. A tiny chink in Cardassia’s notoriously thorough security procedures, and one that, against all reasonable odds, it seemed I might actually have managed to get through.
A moment later, Country Bumpkin let me go, with an idiotic grin as if he couldn’t believe his good fortune. Although my back felt tight when I turned away, as if I subconsciously expected to be shot between the shoulder blades, I left the Defense Ministry and made my way out of the city without incident.
From a bunker underneath an old warehouse on the outskirts of a nearby town, a Maquis comrade and I watched the newsvids eagerly, waiting for any word on the bomb. A day passed, and another. A news conference broadcast from the Defense Ministry made it plain that the miserable place was still standing. I felt like ripping my faux Cardassian scales and ridges off my face right then and there, with my fingernails, no matter how much of a scar it left. But I paced the floor and watched the news programs and kept myself under control, for the most part, as an entire week went by.
Checking the bunker’s weapons cache once again, I almost missed the black-bordered image of nineteen young children when it flashed up on the screen. The fourth-grade class at Proud Victory Elementary School, according to the caption. Every one of them murdered in a despicable act of terrorism during their field trip to the Patriotic Conquest Museum, the announcer soberly intoned, with many irreplaceable historical relics also lost. All citizens of Cardassia could rest assured, the announcer went on, that the damage to the Defense Ministry compound would soon be repaired and that the cowardly perpetrators would be captured and put to death.
My comrade, a young Bajoran man who went by the name of Varakar, leapt from his chair with a whoop of glee, knocking over the flimsy chair in the process. It fell, with clattering echoes, to the plascrete floor. Several moments passed before he noticed my silence.
“Those children — that doesn’t bother you, does it?” He glared at me, incredulous at the very possibility. “How could it, after all the Bajoran children they’ve murdered over the years? I’d exterminate every stinking Cardie on this filthy planet if I could!”
I closed my eyes. The image of nineteen children still hung there in the blackness as if it had been seared into my retinas.
“You’re soft, weak,” Varakar continued, his tone full of venom. I could hear him spitting on the floor beside me. “You’re no kind of soldier. A real soldier doesn’t care how the enemy dies. What are you?”
It didn’t take long to realize what I was.
Ro Laren. Child murderer. Criminal terrorist scum.
The bright lights in my apartment, as I opened my eyes, weren’t quite enough to dispel the image. Although I knew that Jessil couldn’t possibly understand, that she couldn’t give me what I needed, a small, irrational part of me still hoped. For what, I wasn’t quite certain. Perhaps for something to convince me that my existence might have value after all, a path of purpose for which the Prophets had destined my feet. Or perhaps, more simply, for a reason why I should even go on breathing.
Jessil, instead, gave me a broad grin of pleased surprise. “You mean to say, I been living with a gen-u-wine war hero all these years, and didn’t even know it? That’s, wow, like, so totally awesome!”
She sounded, God help me, thoroughly delighted at such a turn of events.
I left the mining colony the next day, in a battered old Cardassian shuttlecraft that was a spoil of a long-ago Maquis raid, now under Denebian registry. My flight plan, showing Bajor as my destination, was false, needless to say. I’d chosen a small planet in a sector not far from Deep Space Nine as my new home. A Starfleet travel ban had been imposed a few years ago, based on a report that a pre-warp civilization existed on the northern continent. Although I didn’t plan to interfere with the natives, that left the entire uninhabited southern continent as a safe haven where no one was likely to find me.
But I had to admit that security wasn’t my main objective. I harbored what might have seemed a foolish hope, that in the silence and isolation of the forest, I might be able to hear the distant voices of the Prophets. Even after all my years in exile, I was still Bajoran enough to believe that the contemplative life could lead to enlightenment, or at least to a way to free myself from the image of nineteen children that still haunted my dreams.
Approaching the planet, I adjusted the long-range sensors to scan for humanoid life signs. I wanted to map out the exact locations of the native population centers so that I’d know what areas to avoid. The computer, however, informed me that no humanoid life signs were present. I fiddled with the settings, increasing the sensitivity. This time, the sensors picked up a species of small monkeys on the northern continent. Not much likelihood of their being sentient. I notched the scan parameters down again, just a bit.
One life sign appeared, the signal rather weak, as if the individual in question were below ground level. A cave-dwelling civilization, perhaps? I made another adjustment to my scan settings to account for this possibility. No, there was only one person, located in a deep and rocky ravine that had initially blocked part of the signal. Definitely no other sentient humanoids on the planet.
I spent a few moments puzzling over what might have happened here. A devastating plague, a war, an environmental toxin, a mass suicide? The terse report in Starfleet’s database hadn’t mentioned how many inhabitants the planet should have had. I readjusted the sensors to search for any evidence of civilization, only to find no villages, agriculture, or even hunter-gatherer encampments. Nothing but a few crumbling relics of ancient structures in the vicinity, which appeared to have been abandoned thousands of years earlier.
Could be, this mysterious person wasn’t an indigenous villager at all. Following this hunch, I directed the computer to match the life sign readings against all known sentient species.
The computer’s prompt response left me certain that something criminal was going on here. Although it was possible that this lone human might just be another social dropout who’d sought refuge on an isolated planet with a pleasant tropical climate, my scans hadn’t picked up any spacecraft on the surface, either. Which meant the person was stranded here, in all likelihood by someone’s deliberate act. Had a pirate ship marooned one of its crew? I’d heard that some pirates were partial to that ancient penalty, although they tended to pick less comfortable surroundings. And it seemed rather unlikely that any pirates would have had the ability, or the inclination, to plant a false report in Starfleet’s planetary database.
Putting my shuttle in a stationary orbit while I pondered the situation, I reluctantly reached the conclusion that I was going to have to investigate. Although an obvious choice would have been just to turn around and find another suitable destination, I had to admit that I wasn’t sufficiently callous to do it. That damn Starfleet training, I supposed, coming back to bite me when I thought I’d left daring adventures far in the past.
I brought my ship down in a meadow, not far from the ravine. Checking my phaser, I made sure that it was fully charged and set to stun. Although my scans hadn’t turned up any evidence of the usual weapons, I had no intention of letting some desperado who’d fashioned a spear or crossbow hijack my shuttlecraft.
A ghastly, tortured howl assailed my ears as soon as I stepped out of the ship. I spun around, aiming my phaser in the direction of the sound, but I could see only the long grass of the meadow and the dense forest beyond it. Something rustled in a nearby thicket, and a flock of bright-plumed birds rose twittering in loud alarm.
I took another step, and a chorus of hoots and howls came from the thicket just before several small furry shapes leaped for the trees. Monkeys, I realized, as my heart began to return to a more normal beat. Just a few stupid, harmless monkeys.
But the face behind them was human. She stood watching me warily, big dark eyes and tangled dark hair, a wild creature of the forest. The handwoven dress that hung loosely from her shoulders could charitably have been described as resembling a burlap sack. She carried no weapon.
Not wanting to frighten her, I returned my phaser to its holster and spoke softly in Federation Standard English. “Hello.”
“O,” she echoed, in a hesitant voice that was hoarse from lack of use. But I could see a quick intelligence behind those gleaming eyes, a mind that seemed to understand my speech. At a guess, she was about my own age, mid-thirties; I could see a few strands of gray amid the dark cascade of hair.
“How long have you been here?” I continued.
Clearly she understood me; I could see the frustration in her face as she struggled to answer. After a moment, she held out her right hand at about the height of her shoulders.
Since her childhood, I took that to mean. Hard to imagine anyone being alone that long. I wondered if she had parents or other family on Earth. Well, if she had a DNA sample on file, it wouldn’t be hard to find out.
“I can take you to Deep Space Nine,” I said, thinking out loud. “It’s not very far from here . . .”
“No!” The dark eyes widened in terror as she backed away into the dense thicket, hands raised defensively. “Molly, me, home!”
Before I knew it, she had vanished into the forest.
“Molly, I’m very sorry,” I called after her, hoping that she was still close enough to hear me. “I didn’t mean to frighten you. I promise not to take you anywhere that you don’t want to go.”
Over the course of a month or so, I built a small house in the meadow. I fantasized about being a rugged pioneer building a log cabin in a fearsome wilderness, although in fact I was using lightweight pre-fab composite materials from an industrial replicator aboard my shuttle. Might as well have been amusing myself with a child’s building set; it was about that easy.
I saw Molly watching me from the edge of the woods on occasion, but I pretended not to notice her. After a while, I started leaving pieces of replicated fruit and chocolate next to my construction site at nightfall. They were always gone by the time I came out of the shuttle in the morning, although I wasn’t certain whether Molly or the monkeys had taken them.
I finished the house just in time for what seemed to be the monsoon season. A deluge poured constantly, day and night, drumming against my roof in a natural rhythm that I hadn’t heard for more years than I cared to remember. For several weeks I did nothing but sit out on my front porch, just breathing in the damp forest air and watching the rain fall in heavy sheets to the broad, flattened grass. I still left a plate of food outside each night for Molly, and some mornings I could clearly see the prints of her wet bare feet on the porch.
This was all I needed, I told myself. I was at peace now.
But of course it wasn’t that easy.
Although that old nightmare about the black-bordered image from the Cardassian news program had just about gone away by the time the rainy season ended, in its place I had dreams every bit as disturbing. The sounds of children’s voices came from the sunlit meadow or the forest, loud carefree giggles that might have been a large group at play on the schoolyard. Sometimes I heard bits of childish conversation in the Cardassian language. Half awake, I would feel relieved that the children were all right, that no harm had come to them. And then I would remember.
I began to exercise regularly, not so much to keep in shape as to exhaust myself enough so that I wouldn’t dream. A tree near my house had a low branch that was just right for chin-ups, and I would do twenty or thirty at a time, cursing the Prophets in my native Bajoran between reps. One warm, humid evening, I lowered myself to the ground to find Molly standing a few meters away, staring at me in obvious puzzlement.
“You don’t want to know,” I told her in English.
She made no response, and I turned away, walking back toward the house. I figured it was a bit of progress that she was willing to come this close to me, and I didn’t want to scare her away again by trying to force too much conversation on her.
I wiped the sweat out of my eyes. After all that exercise, I was definitely in need of a shower. “I’m going in the house now,” I told Molly, as I stepped inside the front door, leaving her standing on the porch. I didn’t expect her to follow me inside.
The cool, pure water piped from my cistern felt wonderful against my sweaty skin. All those distant memories of my after-work showers on Denebia Four seemed as if they belonged in someone else’s lifetime.
But one thing hadn’t changed; I still left my clothes on the floor.
After I finished showering and put on a nightshirt, I was surprised to find Molly in my living room, intently examining the red tank top she’d picked up. Shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise, considering how many years she’d had to make do with whatever clothing she could weave by hand from dried grass.
“I can get some more clothes for you,” I offered, walking over to the small replicator that I had installed on a wall of my living room. Estimating Molly’s size as best I could, I directed the replicator to give me another red tank top and shorts, identical to the clothes I’d been wearing before my shower.
Molly and I developed a cautious friendship over the next few months. I replicated more clothes for her, trimmed her hair into a modern style as best I could, and treated a nasty infection on her left heel with my trusty medkit. After a while, I managed to convince her that there was some value to wearing shoes. I talked to her about hygiene, too, replicating some girly perfumed soaps that I wouldn’t have been caught dead using, but Molly seemed to like them.
My attempts to find out where she’d come from proved less successful. She had no clear recollection of her parents, couldn’t remember her surname, and was able to tell me only that she’d been “lost” as a child. Given that it was possible to scan an entire planet for human life signs almost instantaneously, I couldn’t imagine how that might have happened. I suspected it was much more likely that someone had abandoned Molly, just dumped her in the forest like an unwanted puppy. Someone with ties to Starfleet, apparently.
The thought disturbed me a great deal, not least because I had come to like and respect Molly. She was intelligent, resilient, and good-natured. No one deserved to be abandoned on an uninhabited planet, and certainly not my sweet-tempered Molly. If I ever found out who was responsible, I promised myself one evening as I looked up at the stars, they were going to pay for what they’d done to her.
The answer, I decided, had to be at Deep Space Nine.
From a hammock in what I’d begun to think of as my front yard, I gazed up into a clear and slightly purplish sky, wondering where in that innocent-looking universe was the fiend who could so casually abandon a little girl. Just a few paces away, Molly read aloud haltingly from a padd containing a simple storybook. She seemed to be learning quickly enough to warrant an inference that she’d learned the fundamentals of reading before she was stranded here. Had she been taught in a Federation colony? On a Starfleet ship? And who was responsible for the false report of a pre-warp civilization, filed long after Molly had grown to adulthood?
The report itself didn’t contain an author’s name or any information that would be useful for identification purposes, but it was dated during the Dominion War, which strongly suggested the involvement of someone at Deep Space Nine. And the only way I was likely to find out just who and what had been involved, I concluded, would be to go there myself.
“I need to get a few supplies,” I said out loud to myself, as I began thinking of just how the trip would go. A Bajoran colonist from a nearby planet, buying a small quantity of non-replicable supplies, wouldn’t arouse any suspicion. I still had the Denebian passport that gave my name as Kirimasu Laren, and my fingerprints and retinal structure had been sufficiently altered during my terrorist days so that nothing short of a thorough DNA analysis would identify me.
Molly glanced up from her padd at the sound of my voice, waiting quietly for me to explain myself, as usual.
“It’ll just be a short trip to Deep Space Nine,” I assured her. “You don’t need to worry, Molly. I’ll be back in a few days.”
The padd fell into the long grass, unnoticed, as Molly’s eyes began to fill with tears. “Laren, don’t go away,” she pleaded.
“Just for a few days,” I said again, knowing that it wouldn’t be easy to convince her that I was really going to return. I felt an even greater rage at the monster in a Starfleet uniform who had abandoned her. I hoped he’d been killed in the Dominion War. I hoped the Cardassians had hung him upside down and gutted him. I hoped there was a grave somewhere that I could spit on.
Reminding myself that such thoughts weren’t exactly appropriate for a holy hermit, I made a less than successful effort to repress them as I told Molly, one more time, that I had no intention of abandoning her. I showed Molly how to use a vidscreen to communicate with me while I was aboard the shuttle.
While en route to Deep Space Nine, I remotely downloaded the station’s roster and pored over it for familiar names. I didn’t recognize any of the Bajorans on the station, and most of the Starfleet officers were unknown to me, as well. I’d already gotten more than halfway down the list before I found two names I knew.
Keiko and Miles O’Brien had served with me aboard the Enterprise. I had worked closely with Miles on several assignments, which had left me with a high opinion of him. Surely, as Deep Space Nine’s chief engineer, he would be in a position to know what reports had been filed regarding nearby planets.
The roster listing noted that the O’Briens had two children on the station, whose names weren’t mentioned. I had a dim recollection of an infant on the Enterprise. All the better, I thought; as a family man, Miles would presumably be very willing to help me track down the vicious criminal who’d abandoned a helpless child to fend for herself in a wild forest.
When I reached Deep Space Nine and began the docking sequence, I told Molly over the comm that I had arrived safely and would call her in a few hours, after I talked to some people. Then I disembarked, consulted the station’s directory, and found my way to Miles and Keiko’s quarters. I had arrived midway through the second shift, so I expected they’d be at home.
I rang the door chime. A few seconds later, Miles appeared in the doorway, still looking much the same as he had on the Enterprise, except that he had a bit less hair and had put on some extra weight. He didn’t recognize me at first, which wasn’t a surprise, considering how many times my face had been altered during my Maquis years.
“I’m Ro Laren. From the Enterprise,” I said.
Miles immediately asked me to come in, his tone so pleasant and friendly that I found myself wondering whether he knew I’d gone AWOL. Maybe he thought I was still in Starfleet and was just visiting Bajor on a brief leave. If so, that could make it easier to gain his cooperation.
I didn’t see Keiko or the younger child as I stepped through the doorway. A teenage girl with dark hair in a ponytail sat at a console across the room, playing some sort of video game. Something about her profile seemed vaguely familiar, although I wasn’t sure why. Then she turned, and I saw her face for the first time.
“You remember my daughter Molly, don’t you?” Miles, following the direction of my gaze, sounded quite cheerful indeed. “Molly, this is an old friend of mine, Ro Laren.”
“Pleased to meet you,” the girl said, in a voice far more confident and direct than I would ever have heard from her older double, but with an eerily identical pitch and timbre.
I stared at her, wordless.
“Of course, she’d have been little more than a baby when Keiko and I left the Enterprise,” Miles went on, apparently sensing an awkwardness in the conversation and trying to fill it as best he could with chatter.
I couldn’t look away from the girl as she went back to her game, which seemed to be some sort of fantasy battle involving trolls and dragons. Could she be a clone, perhaps? A child from a mirror universe? I couldn’t come up with any explanation that made sense. Miles and Keiko weren’t nearly old enough to be my Molly’s parents.
“Is something wrong?” Miles inquired.
When in doubt, I thought, go on the offensive.
“You tell me.” I took a step toward Miles and gave him a hard stare. “Beginning with what really happened on a certain planet near here, the one that doesn’t have that pre-warp civilization on the northern continent.”
The affable smile with which he’d greeted me instantly vanished. “In here,” Miles said, lowering his voice as he gestured toward an adjacent study. Without another word, he closed the doors behind us and motioned for me to sit down.
“What’s with all the secrecy, Miles? You don’t want your daughter to know what you did to the other Molly?” This was a bit of a shot in the dark, but the engineer’s pained expression made it plain that it had hit home. He slumped heavily into his desk chair as if his legs no longer had the strength to carry his weight.
“We didn’t have much of a choice,” he told me, crossing his arms defensively over his chest. “Keiko and I agreed that it was better than letting her be institutionalized.”
That made no sense to me. “Once again, I’m asking you for a complete explanation, Miles. Just pretend I don’t know anything about it, and start at the beginning,” I said.
“Who are you to interrogate me?” Miles slammed his fist down on the desk. “All right, I suppose there’s cause for a criminal investigation, but we were only trying to do what we thought was best. Imagine how you would have felt if you’d been in my place. Molly was eight years old when she wandered away from our picnic and into that alien time portal. It sent her three hundred years into the past. I tried to reverse the process, to get her back, but the damned device wasn’t working as it should have been, and it locked on to Molly ten years after she’d first been transported. She had grown up in a wilderness and could barely remember who she was.”
He exhaled heavily and looked down at his hand, which was already starting to bruise, as if he didn’t quite recognize it as his own. “We brought her back to Deep Space Nine, took care of her, tried to talk to her, but all she wanted was to go ‘home’ to the forest. Sometimes she even became violent. If we hadn’t returned her to that planet and sent her back in time once more, far enough back so that no one could find her, and destroyed the portal afterward, she’d have ended up in a mental ward somewhere and probably would have slashed her wrists. Damn it all, can’t you understand that we did what we had to do to save her?”
I wanted to jump across the desk and choke him. I struggled to keep my voice under control, tried to maintain the even tone that an interrogator would have used. “Didn’t it occur to you that she’d have done much better if you and Keiko had stayed in the forest with her for a while?”
“There was a war on. I was needed here. And we had Yoshi to take care of, as well. We were able to bring the real Molly back through the portal . . .”
The real Molly, I thought, my fists clenching in barely restrained fury. “So you just threw her away like yesterday’s garbage.” This time I didn’t try to keep the anger out of my voice. I understood what had happened now. There must have been another portal, one that had brought Molly forward to this time after Miles had destroyed the original portal. The damn planet was probably crawling with the things; Starfleet sensors obviously couldn’t detect them, or Molly would never have been lost in the first place.
Miles had no answer this time. He just sat there at the desk with his head down, staring at his bruised hand. He deserved to die, I thought. Any man who abandoned his daughter deserved to die. And it took me a moment to realize that I wasn’t thinking of Miles any more, but of my own father, who had been beaten to death by Cardassian labor camp guards when I’d been a child. Leaving me abandoned, just like Molly, because my father hadn’t been strong enough to protect himself and his family. Eventually, growing up in that hellhole, I’d convinced myself that my father’s unforgivable weakness had made him deserving of death.
But I knew where that mindset, the mentality of a terrorist, had led me. To nineteen schoolchildren on Cardassia Prime who would never have a chance to grow up.
“I’m sorry, Miles,” I said, my eyes filling with tears for some incomprehensible reason, as I turned abruptly to leave. “As you said, I don’t have the right to stand in judgment over you.”
The ponytailed teenager had stopped playing her video game and was working on a math lesson as I let myself out. No doubt she was a top student and would one day attend Starfleet Academy. She had all the advantages that her counterpart had been denied. I wanted to hate her, as I thought of my Molly’s laborious struggle to read the simplest texts. I wanted to hate her; but in the end, I couldn’t even bring myself to hate her father.
I bought a few items on the Promenade and was about to leave when I saw Worf in the corridor ahead of me. Worf, the security chief who never forgot a face, even a slightly altered face such as mine. I didn’t know if Starfleet still had my name on its wanted list as a deserter, but I wasn’t interested in finding out. I turned aside, in the hope that he hadn’t seen me yet, and went through the nearest doorway.
A smiling young Bajoran woman welcomed me to Deep Space Nine’s fourth annual intercultural cinema festival. On the wall, a perfectly reproduced ancient poster, made out of actual paper, informed me in English that the featured attraction was a movie on the life of Mohandas Gandhi. The name sounded familiar, probably from a history class at Starfleet Academy, but I couldn’t quite place it.
Well, the movie couldn’t be too bad, I thought, and it would keep me out of Worf’s way for a few hours. I made my way to the front of the darkened theater and sat down, brushing a few kernels of popcorn off my seat. I certainly didn’t expect to hear the Prophets speak to me in the alien voices of long-dead actors, giving me, at long last, the revelation I had so desperately sought in the isolation of my forest hermitage.
The clean smell of freshly turned loam rose from the new flowerbed around my front porch. I reached for another seedling, one of several dozen that I’d bought at Deep Space Nine, and set it gently into its planting hole. The seedlings, a hybrid derived from a Bajoran tropical flower resembling a marigold, were sterile, so there was no risk of environmental damage from off-world flora.
Beside me, Molly set the last plant in the middle row and reached for another. Her brows were drawn downward into a heavy furrow as she knelt facing into the glare of the setting sun, struggling to understand all that I had just told her of my past.
“But, Laren,” she said, after a pause that felt like an eternity, “you weren’t trying to kill the children.”
“No, but I did intend to kill anyone in the area.” I pinched off the tip of a seedling and crushed the tiny leaves between my thumb and forefinger. “That’s known as collateral damage, killing someone other than the intended target. It happens all the time in war, Molly, and usually it doesn’t even rate a mention in anyone’s reports. Most of my comrades just thought I was crazy for thinking twice about it.”
Molly scraped roughly at the ground, her gaze never rising from the end of her spade. After a moment, she said, “You’re not crazy.”
I wondered how long that vote of confidence would last, once I started to explain just what the Prophets had called me to do. But waiting till later wasn’t going to make it any easier, so I took a deep breath and began.
“While I was on Deep Space Nine, I saw a movie about the life of one of Earth’s historical figures, Mohandas Gandhi. He lived almost five hundred years ago, in a country called India, at a time when there was a lot of fighting between two factions, the Hindus and the Muslims.”
Although Molly must have been surprised by what seemed an abrupt change of subject, she listened patiently, setting a plant into the overly large hole she’d just made and filling in the soil neatly around it.
“A Hindu man came to Gandhi one day,” I went on, “asking for help. He had killed a child in the widespread violence and couldn’t live with his guilt. Gandhi advised him to adopt a child who had been orphaned in the fighting; but not just any child would do. The adopted child would have to be a Muslim, and he would have to be raised as one.”
Deep indigo shadows moved across Molly’s silent, attentive face as the sun sank below the horizon. Sunset on this planet usually came in shades of blue and violet, with just a trace of pale orange or red. Peaceful colors, I thought, looking past Molly to the distant cloud formations.
“Molly,” I said, “you were a lost child once. Will you help me bring other lost children to our home and take care of them?”
She didn’t hesitate for a second, bless her.
What really struck me about Cardassia Prime, as Molly and I left the main spaceport, was the shabbiness of it all. Ten years ago, the planet had been the hard, proud core of a formidable tyranny. Now, in defeat, its cold elegance had given way to a hodgepodge of half-crumbled stone edifices and cheap, functional, hastily assembled structures. Garbage and uncleared rubble littered the streets. It had, I thought, almost the look of a refugee camp.
The disdainful bureaucrat in a patched, threadbare uniform lost a bit of her snootiness after I handed over a generous bribe in latinum, but it was still evident how little she cared for meddling foreigners. I had identified myself as the Executive Director of the Denebian Child Welfare Society, an entity that, of course, hadn’t existed before I filed incorporation papers a few weeks ago. We had nineteen beds available at our orphanage for children of elementary school age, I’d said, and we were looking to take in war orphans.
Of course, I knew better than to expect to receive any war orphans. There was no way Cardassian pride, even diminished in defeat, would allow the children of the heroic war dead to be handed over to a human and a Bajoran. The children Molly and I would get, to put it mildly, would not be of the better sort. Cardassian slums had always been full of homeless children, even before the war. The official response to the problem had usually been to shoot the children, as if they had no more value than stray animals, or to ship them off to the nearest labor camp.
The bureaucrat sniffed slightly before informing me, in a tone she might have used for a shipment of cargo, “The children will be ready for loading aboard your vessel in approximately one hour.”
On the way back to the spaceport, I took a short detour past the site of the old Defense Ministry building. Rebuilt after the Maquis attack, it had been reduced even more effectively to piles of rubble in the savage final battle of the Dominion War. An open-air flea market was now operating in what had been the main courtyard. The guard station where I’d spoken with the young conscript had been turned into a roadside stand for meat-pies and other lunch items. I stopped and bought two frozen fruit cups from a gray-haired woman with a badly scarred left arm.
There had been a memorial to child victims of terrorism in the courtyard, I knew, built soon after the Maquis attack. It, too, was gone. No doubt the metal had been salvaged and recycled long ago.
Molly followed me without complaint, dipping her spoon into the fruit cup as we walked across the courtyard in the intense summer heat. I heard several voices raised in lively barter and gossip. Nothing remained of the dead, I realized. It was time to move on.
“Denebian vessel, you are cleared for takeoff.”
The spaceport controller’s voice echoed throughout the shuttle. Nineteen sullen, scrawny juvenile criminals, still wearing the jail jumpsuits they’d been given after they were picked up off the streets, paid no attention to the announcement as they wolfed the meal I’d just given them. Several children hid food in their clothing when they believed no one was looking. I wondered if some of them thought they’d been sold as slaves. The pungent smell of disinfectant made it plain that they had at least been de-loused, although many appeared to have untreated infections and diseases.
I walked forward to my pilot’s chair, reluctantly leaving Molly in charge of the children for the time being. None of them had shown any signs of violence so far, but I knew how unpredictable their behavior could be. As the shuttle climbed through the atmosphere, I listened for any sounds that might indicate a disturbance. After we cleared the Cardassian solar system, I put the ship on autopilot and went to make sure everything was all right.
Molly was still sitting where I’d left her, although her face had taken on a very perplexed expression.
“I’m not sure my universal translator is working.” Molly seemed a bit agitated. “I can’t make sense of what the children are saying.”
“It’s all right, don’t worry about it,” I told her, not much surprised by this report. I decided it would be best to wait until we got home before starting to explain the finer nuances of Cardassian gutter talk.
At the edge of the forest, nineteen newly constructed cabins, arranged in a semicircle, faced a larger building that was intended to be a schoolhouse. For now, it served as an infirmary as Molly and I examined the children. The Cardassian medical database in my shuttle, when linked to a medical tricorder, proved sufficient to diagnose their numerous ailments — one little girl’s skin condition turned out to be a form of leprosy — and to provide replicator specifications and dosage information for the appropriate medications.
I got rid of the jail clothing and gave the children standard Cardassian elementary school uniforms to put on. Needless to say, none of them had ever attended school. They stared down at their new uniforms in shy, awed astonishment, as if they had just sprouted feathers.
“I think they’re afraid of the forest,” Molly said quietly, after removing the universal translator she’d worn during the journey. “They’ve never seen a forest, have they?”
“You’re probably right,” I told her. Even considering that they’d grown up in a war zone, most of the children still flinched when the monkeys let loose with an impressive barrage of howls to greet their arrival.
Molly knelt down to show one of the smaller children, who had probably spent all his life barefoot, how to tie the heavy school uniform shoes. She drew the laces into a neat bow, her movements so easy and natural that no one would have realized it was a skill she’d only mastered about a year ago.
“I was afraid of the forest when I first came here, too.”
She’d been remembering more of her early life in recent weeks, no doubt brought on by our preparations for the children’s arrival, which had included using the shuttle’s weapons to blast every ancient structure that could possibly contain a time portal. No children were going to disappear into an ancient wilderness on my watch.
“I know, Molly.” I reached out and gently brushed back a few strands of hair that had fallen across her face. “And in time, I expect they’ll come to love it, too.”
With good food, fresh air, and proper medical treatment, the children put on weight and began to look much healthier. Of course, as their subdued, frightened demeanor gave way to more normal behavior, various issues of discipline arose.
“You can’t do that here,” I told a wiry thirteen-year-old, whose previous vocation had been that of pickpocket and mugger, when I caught him bullying one of the younger girls.
He responded with a sneer, drawing himself up to his full height, about half a head taller than I was. “Think you can stop me, Bajoran bitch? You and what army?”
Several of the other children began to approach warily, forming a loose circle around the two of us and watching with fierce, eager eyes, almost as if they were feral canines awaiting the outcome of a battle for leadership of the pack. Which, I knew, was about what this confrontation amounted to.
“I don’t need an army,” I said, lowering my voice ominously as I assumed a fighting stance. The ex-mugger rushed me without any further preliminaries, big scaly fists swinging. I figured he probably knew every dirty trick in the book, but I’d had a tough childhood as well, in addition to several years of Starfleet martial arts training. Besides that, I was strong enough to bench-press over a hundred kilos, easy.
I blocked his ham-handed punches without any difficulty and landed a solid kick where it counted. As he doubled over, I hammered my fists down on the back of his thick neck. He keeled over like a fallen tree, and I caught him on the way down, hefting his semiconscious body into perfect position for an old-fashioned body slam. The loud thud and rising cloud of dust as he hit the ground definitely made quite an impression upon my audience.
Ro Laren, alpha wolf for a while longer, I thought.
Morning sunlight, warm against my closed eyelids, filtered through my bedroom window. I could hear children’s excited voices not far away, and very much real; those old nightmares were gone now, left behind in the dust and rubble of Cardassia Prime. The giggling outside the window began to grow much louder, and I reluctantly decided I’d better investigate.
I pulled on a T-shirt and a pair of shorts. Just as I stepped out of the house, a large purple tomato-like vegetable, one of the many Cardassian foods that I’d programmed into the children’s replicators, appeared in mid-air about ten meters away. More giggles arose from the appreciative onlookers as the tomato fell, splattering purple pulp in the already stained grass. The volume of the giggling quickly decreased as the children noticed me standing there.
How they’d managed to accomplish that tomato trick baffled me. The only transporter on the planet, as far as I knew, was in my shuttle, which I always kept locked by means of voiceprint matching and authorization codes. No way that security scheme could possibly have been hacked by a group of semi-literate urchins, most of whom hadn’t progressed beyond first-grade level in their Cardassian reading primers.
“Would anyone care to explain this to me?”
The children shuffled their feet and looked down at the ground. I saw some of them sneaking occasional glances toward one of the cabins, in which I had seen furtive movements a minute earlier. I approached the cabin and looked inside.
Just about every electronic device in there, from the replicator to the desk computer console, lay in pieces on the floor. Amidst the mess, I saw a small, inelegantly constructed, but obviously functional transporter unit, with another purple tomato sitting on its small pad. The little girl who occupied the cabin — her name was Katrizela — was hiding under the desk; I could see the tip of a small foot sticking out.
“Katrizela,” I said, “I’m not going to punish you. Just tell me, did you build this transporter by yourself?”
A tiny nod as she reluctantly emerged from her hiding place. “I’ll put everything back the way it was, Ms. Ro.”
“That’s quite a work of engineering,” I told her. “Where did you learn to build things like that?”
Her only answer was a twitch of the neck ridges that amounted to the Cardassian equivalent of a shrug, the usual response I got whenever I tried to ask one of the children about their past experiences.
About all I knew of Katrizela’s past was that she belonged to an ethnic minority group outside the mainstream of Cardassian society, often involved in larcenous pursuits and savagely persecuted for crimes both real and imagined. They hadn’t been allowed to attend the public schools for the past several centuries, nor could they have obtained legitimate employment even if they had sought it.
“Your clan often used transporters to steal cargo,” I guessed.
Another nod, even tinier than the first.
“Well,” I said after a moment, “maybe we can work on some other uses for your skills.”
Three years to the day after Molly and I first met, we took the children on their first field trip, a visit to Deep Space Nine. I dressed in normal Federation business attire, as did Molly, and the children all wore their uniforms. We’d started lessons in conversational English a few months ago, and Molly had agreed this would be a good opportunity for the students to show off their newly acquired skills.
Molly had no idea that anything else was on the agenda. When Ezri Dax met us at the docking ring, with an offer to take the children on a tour of the station, Molly didn’t seem to suspect anything at all. As Ezri led the children away, I told Molly that I wanted to take a few minutes to visit with some friends.
Molly’s steps began to slow as we approached our destination. “I think I’ve been here before,” she said, glancing uncertainly from one door to another.
Just in front of us, a door slid open silently. Keiko stood just inside the apartment, staring so intently at Molly that it seemed she hadn’t even noticed my presence. Molly, with an almost identical expression of wonder, remained quiet for a long moment before, with a peculiar sound midway between a squeak and a cry, she flung herself into her mother’s arms.
Not quite the end of the second shift, by station time, although it would have been well past midnight in the forest. I’d finally managed to get all the children to sleep, or at least reasonably quiet. Molly, exhausted from the day’s excitement, was sleeping the most soundly of all. I got myself a cup of hot cocoa from the replicator and settled into a comfortable chair.
Just then, the door chime rang.
“Come in,” I said, not much inclined to budge from the chair.
I wasn’t surprised to see Miles enter the room, stopping just inside the doorway as if he subconsciously felt that he might need to make a quick escape. He cleared his throat before he spoke.
“You were right,” he told me gruffly, without preamble.
“A rare event, but it occasionally happens.”
Miles didn’t seem willing to leave it at that. He continued, “I shouldn’t have given up on her. As much as I tried to pretend everything was back to normal, it never really was. I’ve had terrible nightmares for years, about wild animals eating her, and so on. If I could do anything to make up for what happened, I would, but there’s nothing to be done.”
I stirred a melting marshmallow into my cocoa. “I wouldn’t say that, Miles. Have you ever thought about taking in a foster child?”
“D’you mean a Bajoran orphan?” Miles looked a bit confused. “The children who lost their parents in the occupation have all been placed by now, and there’s no shortage of foster homes on Bajor.”
“Actually, I had in mind a Cardassian child, one of my students. She has an outstanding aptitude for engineering, and she needs to be in the care of someone who can teach her properly.”
Miles was considerably less than enthused at that suggestion.
“I’m not a racist,” he began, shifting his weight uncomfortably from one foot to the other, “and I don’t have a problem dealing with Cardassians on a professional basis, but having one of them in my household, well, I really can’t see it.”
“I know, Miles,” I said, my tone soothing.
“And there wouldn’t be any other Cardassian children here,” he went on. “I’m sure she’d feel very isolated. She wouldn’t know what to do with herself.”
“I know, Miles.” I sipped my cocoa, thinking of a hard, streetwise Bajoran girl entering Starfleet Academy, so many years ago. The warmth from the cocoa seemed to spread all through me.
“And what’s more, she ought to be in the care of someone who’s familiar with her culture. I’m not, and even if I could research most of what I’d need to know, well, it would be tough.”
Setting down my cocoa mug, I got up from the chair, took a step toward Miles, and put my hand on his shoulder.
“Miles,” I said, “it gets easier.”