Struggling up to the crest of another sand dune in what seemed to be an endless series, Kasidy Yates once more saw the white flash of a gull’s wings in the distance. She adjusted the sweat-soaked bandanna around her head and drank the last few drops of water from her canteen before trudging onward.

How she’d gotten herself stranded on this unforgiving planet was a simple enough story. When a cargo ship’s captain got a reputation for gun-running, that had a tendency to make her a prime target for pirates. Although she hadn’t been involved in such activities since the Dominion War, the gang of outlaws who’d captured her ship couldn’t be expected to know that. She’d been able to send a distress signal before her shot-up shuttle landed in the desert, so help was presumably on the way. It was just a matter of staying alive that long.

From the brief scan she’d been able to make, Kasidy knew there was no fresh water on the planet. Life, what little there was of it, existed in and around a few salty, shallow seas. The desalination kit in her backpack would produce enough water for her needs, if only she could reach the seashore. In the broiling desert heat, on a planet that rotated so slowly that this area would be in daylight for approximately two more Earth weeks, she wouldn’t have bet much on her survival chances.

Just beyond the next dune, she found the seagull again, perched atop a small rock as if it had been waiting there for her. It focused an inquisitive brown eye on Kasidy that reminded her of someone she’d once known. Someone who would have saved her from this desert, if he’d had enough sense to stay out of a certain Bajoran cave.

She paused for a moment, put her hands on her hips, and spoke to the bird in a harsh, accusing tone. “Might as well stop looking at me like that. You’re not going to convince me that you’re Ben Sisko’s ghost, here to guide me to safety. I don’t believe in any of that spirit-world nonsense.”

The gull blinked placidly at her, not at all disturbed by the sound of her voice. For some reason, that just infuriated Kasidy further. “You know what, I’m an atheist, you stupid bird. If something looks supernatural, that just means we don’t yet know how to measure it scientifically. I have no use for interfering aliens who pretend to be gods, tamper with human minds by giving people so-called visions, and amuse themselves by finding out if we’re gullible enough to worship them. I don’t need any prophets to control my life, even if it’s supposedly for my own good. Now get lost.”

She scooped up a handful of scorching hot sand and hurled it toward the bird, which flapped its wings a few times before lifting off again. Within minutes, it had flown out of sight. So much for spiritual guidance, Kasidy thought. About all those wormhole prophets ever did for Ben was to make him crazy and then kill him. That was reason enough for anyone to become an atheist, after having seen how religion destroyed an otherwise rational man.

“I would’ve blown up that stinking wormhole if I ever had the chance.” Kasidy was still speaking aloud, although not to anyone in particular, as the empty, undulating horizon shimmered before her. No matter how far she walked, just putting one sore foot in front of another, it didn’t seem as if she’d made any progress at all.

Another dune, a steeper one this time, with a bit of shade on the far side. The relative coolness of it beckoned irresistibly. She was dizzy, nauseous, had to rest, just a little rest would make it easier to go on later. She took off her backpack, put her aching head down on it, and closed her eyes.

“Kasidy.” The deep voice was Ben’s, and she thought she felt a hand on her shoulder, shaking her awake.

But it can’t be Ben, she thought hazily. He’s dead.

She opened her eyes and found herself staring up into a dusty brown sky. It took her several seconds to remember where she was: lost in an alien desert, with no water, and hallucinating, obviously. Not good at all.

A bright speck of white passed across the edge of her peripheral vision. The seagull was back, circling above her. Guide and savior, my ass, Kasidy thought. It’s probably just waiting for me to die so that it can eat my remains.

The thought gave her enough motivation to struggle to her feet. Although a peaceful slumber in the shade might not seem like a particularly bad way to die, the prospect of ending up as alien bird chow struck her as considerably less appealing.

She lurched into motion again, the straps of her backpack chafing against her sore shoulders. The wind had shifted, carrying a faint tinge of salt from somewhere not far ahead. Kasidy couldn’t quite remember why that was a good thing, only that it was the way she needed to go. The gull flew slowly in the same direction, circling back from time to time, until she crested the final dune to see the reed-filled marsh spreading out before her.

Salt water, she remembered. Desalination kit in the backpack. She fumbled with the equipment, finally getting it set up. The pump whirred reassuringly as the precious drops of filtered water drained into her cup. She drank, and drank again, and then, with the last of her energy, found a cool spot in the shade of some bushes where she could sleep.

A while later, a nearby hissing sound brought her wide awake. Kasidy opened her eyes, only to find herself face-to-face with an extremely large snake that bore an unsettling resemblance to a king cobra. She didn’t expect that the standard first aid kit in her backpack would contain anything useful for treating alien snakebite. Best not to make any sudden moves. She slid her right hand slowly toward her holstered phaser, as the snake puffed itself up ominously, its triangular head swaying back and forth.

Just as she began to draw the phaser, the snake struck.

Only to be snatched away in a flurry of wings as the gull pounced, carrying its still struggling prey to a nearby hillock.

Blinking in astonishment, Kasidy finally spoke to the gull again. “Uh, thanks. But you know, I still don’t believe in supernatural protectors.”

The gull, as it began to devour the snake with obvious enjoyment, didn’t respond in any way.

Chiding herself for her own foolishness, Kasidy checked her chronometer. Starfleet was nothing if not prompt about its rescue missions. They should be arriving any moment . . .

The dusty landscape began to shimmer as a transporter beam took her. For an instant, the vista around her looked magical, a glimpse into a realm of infinite possibilities.

But she knew there was a perfectly logical explanation for it.