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Hard Time

Production no.: 491
Teleplay by: Robert Hewitt Wolfe
Story by: Daniel Keys Moran & Lynn Barker
Directed by: Alexander Singer
Stardate: not given
First satellite airdate: April 13, 1996
Rosalind Chao ....
Margot Rose ......
Hana Hatae .......
F.J. Rio .............
Craig Wasson ....

In a cavernlike cell sits a prisoner with a wild mass of unkempt gray hair, wearing the ragged remains of a Starfleet uniform. He is drawing a pattern in the sandy floor. A decontamination sweep passes through the room, erasing the pattern. Then the door opens, and an alien guard appears with a female security officer named Rinn. "Miles Edward O'Brien," she announces. "The Argrathi Authority has been conducting a review of your case. Do you wish to add anything to the official record?" O'Brien shakes his head. "No matter," she says. "Your correction is completed. You are free."

O'Brien, confused, makes no move. He has been there for twenty years, and has no idea where he would go. "That's not my concern," says the woman, and the guard yanks him out of the cell.

Then O'Brien wakes up with a shout of horror. He is lying strapped to a bed, with wires connecting him to an alien device. Kira is there, along with Rinn. O'Brien looks at the Major in confusion; it's been twenty years, yet she hasn't changed at all. Rinn tells him that only a few hours actually passed during his "correction".

Kira tries to explain to a still-disoriented O'Brien that he hasn't been in prison; he has just experienced an artificial reality, an interactive program; and Rinn adds that her race, the Argrathi, punishes offenders by giving them memories of incarceration modeled to fit their personalities. "It's more efficient, and much more effective than maintaining an extensive prison system." "Which means," says Kira gently, "that what you think you experienced in prison, the things you remember, didn't happen. It wasn't real." O'Brien just stares at her, trying to grasp what she's saying. "It's real to me, Major," he says at last. "It's real to me."

Back at DS9, Sisko fills Keiko in on what happened to her husband. It seems that O'Brien, on a mission to Argratha, a world in the Gamma Quadrant, asked a few too many questions about the native technology, and was arrested and charged with espionage. By the time the Argrathi notified the station, they had already carried out the "correction". Keiko asks if the memories can be removed, and Sisko tells her the Argrathi claim it's impossible, but Bashir will do his best. She can see him as soon as Bashir OK's it.

Kira brings O'Brien home. "I used to dream about this," he says as they approach DS9. "Being in a runabout, coming through the wormhole, seeing the station again. I keep expecting to wake up and find myself back in the cell." "Being in your cell was the dream," Kira says. "This is the reality." O'Brien is deeply moved by the sight of the station. "I'd forgotten how beautiful it was," he murmurs.

Bashir greets them at the airlock, alone; he didn't want O'Brien to get overwhelmed. The Chief needs to take things easy for a while, and get used to the place again. "I can't imagine what it would have been like," Bashir says. "Twenty years in that cell...In all that time, were you able to talk to anyone? See anyone?" "I was alone," O'Brien says.


O'Brien is tossed into the cell. It's the beginning of his incarceration, and he is semiconscious after a long session of interrogation. But in the cell with him is an Argrathi man, a fellow prisoner, who gives him a fruit. He tells O'Brien he's been alone in here for six cycles (years). "It's a wonder I'm not insane. But you find ways to survive. Let me guess. Sedition?" "Espionage," O'Brien says. The other prisoner nods. "It looks like we're going to be in here together for a long time. My name is Ee'char." "Miles. Miles O'Brien." Ee'char smiles. "Hello, Miles. Welcome to hell."

"Completely alone," O'Brien tells Bashir.

Later, Bashir talks to Keiko as he's taking her to the infirmary to see her husband. He tells her that for O'Brien, the memories are real, and the only way they can be removed is to wipe his entire memory. But he reminds her of all the terrible things O'Brien has been through and survived. "In the long run, he's going to be okay. It's just going to take some time."

When Keiko and Bashir reach the infirmary, O'Brien stares at his wife, at first seeing Ee'char in her place. Bashir leaves them alone, and Keiko embraces her husband, who is overwhelmed by emotion at seeing her, and at realizing that she's pregnant -- it had been so long, he had forgotten. Keiko tells him tenderly that everything is going to be all right. O'Brien hugs her again, but his face is haunted.

Having dinner with his family for the first time since his return is a strain on O'Brien, who unconsciously divides his food into two portions before eating. He and Keiko talk a bit about the sessions he's supposed to undergo with the station counselor, Telnorri. When he starts piling food on his napkin, Keiko asks what he's doing; embarrassed, O'Brien explains that he developed a habit in prison, of saving things for later, since the guards often didn't feed him for days or weeks at a time.


Ee'char bundles up and hides some food as O'Brien watches. It's been a few weeks, and O'Brien asks his new friend how he manages in a place like this. Ee'char shows him how to draw an eseeka -- a geometric pattern, which he uses as a way to relax the body and occupy the mind. O'Brien's awkward efforts make him chuckle, and O'Brien asks him how he can laugh after six years here. "After six years in a place like this, you either learn to laugh or you go insane," Ee'char says. "I prefer to laugh." A disembodied voice announces a dormancy period. "Sleep well, Miles," Ee'char tells him. "And if you feel like laughing in the middle of the night, go ahead. I'm a heavy sleeper."

That night, Keiko wakes up to find that her husband is not in bed with her. He's down on the floor, sleeping just as he did in the cell. Keiko quietly gets a blanket and covers him.

As time passes, O'Brien tries to get on with life and reassure everyone that he's fine. While playing darts with Worf, however, he sees Ee'char standing on the Promenade. O'Brien rushes out of the bar, but Ee'char is gone. Later, Jake helps him get reacquainted with his tools, in preparation for going back on duty, and when O'Brien finally does get back to work, he seems more or less okay. But when he's left alone, his mask shows some cracks -- he's only been pretending.

Bashir checks up on him. He's heard from Counselor Telnorri that O'Brien hasn't been coming to his sessions. O'Brien is defensive. "I don't need counseling or relaxation or time to adjust. I just want to be left alone." "I'd have thought after being alone for twenty years, you'd want someone to talk to," Bashir observes, and O'Brien loses his temper. "If there's one thing I haven't missed in the last twenty years, it's your smug, superior attitude. Now I have told you I wanted to be left alone and I meant it. So if you know what's good for you, you'll stay the hell away from me." He turns away from Bashir's concerned face and storms out.


Ten years or so into his incarceration, O'Brien is having a bad day. He's getting edgy and agitated, and Ee'char tries to relax him by asking him to describe Keiko for what seems like the hundredth time. But O'Brien only gets more restless. He kicks sand over Ee'char's eseeka. "I'm sick of this place, I'm sick of your drawing, and most of all I am sick of you!" Ee'char, knowing that O'Brien is about to get himself into trouble, tells him to try to be calm, but O'Brien works himself up even more. "I don't want to be calm! I've had it with this place. I don't belong here! Do you hear me? I don't belong here. I didn't do anything wrong!" He shouts at the door and pounds the walls, demanding almost hysterically to be let out.

There are sounds of other prisoners also shouting, stirred up by his defiance. The com voice warns that if the disturbance doesn't cease, they will be disciplined. "Discipline this!" O'Brien shrieks, uncaring. Ee'char forcibly restrains him and clamps a hand over his mouth. Then screams begin to filter in from surrounding cells -- other prisoners are being "corrected" for the near-riot O'Brien created. O'Brien slumps, spent.

On the Promenade, Odo gives O'Brien a friendly greeting; O'Brien snaps at him before apologizing. He goes to Quark's and orders a synthale, but the Ferengi is swamped and takes too long for O'Brien's patience. The Chief grabs Quark's wrist in a painful hold and threatens him. Seeing that he's dead serious, Quark gets him the drink.

As O'Brien takes a seat at an empty table, suddenly he sees Ee'char there, in his prison garb. "What are you doing here?" he asks. "I've never really been gone, have I?" Ee'char replies. "You're not real," O'Brien tells him harshly. "You're just in my head." Ee'char says he's real to O'Brien, and that's all that matters. O'Brien orders him to go away. "I can't," Ee'char tells him. "I'm your friend. You need me." "You are the last thing I need," O'Brien retorts. Ee'char just looks at him. "You're wrong, Miles. You need me. Now more than ever." From the bar, Odo and Quark are watching O'Brien sitting by himself at the table and looking very distressed.

Ee'char appears again as O'Brien gets dressed for work the next morning. He says he's worried about O'Brien. "Don't be," O'Brien says. "I'm home, I'm working, and for the first time in as long as I can remember, I feel good." "Then why am I here?" asks Ee'char, pointedly. Just then, Sisko calls. He wants to see O'Brien in his office.

Sisko has heard about the confrontations O'Brien had with Bashir and with Quark. O'Brien tries to minimize them. "Look, sir, I may have let things get a little out of hand. But it won't happen again." But Sisko also knows O'Brien has stopped seeing the counselor. O'Brien says he'll make an appointment for tomorrow, but Sisko tells him he will see the counselor immediately. He will brook no excuses. O'Brien is relieved of duty and ordered to attend the counseling sessions. "Sir, you're blowing this all out of proportion," O'Brien protests. "You know that's not true," Sisko tells him firmly. "What happened to you on Argratha affected you a lot more than you're willing to admit. And it's not going to get better overnight, no matter how much you want it to. You need help." O'Brien pleads for another chance. However, Sisko says that in the opinion of the chief medical officer, O'Brien is unfit for duty, and therefore he's on medical leave, effective immediately. If he doesn't attend counseling and cooperate with his physician, he will be confined to the infirmary.

Dax tries to talk to O'Brien as he leaves Ops, but he brushes by her, heading for the Promenade, and flings his combadge into the wall of the turbolift. He storms into the infirmary and gets in Bashir's face, furious with him for telling Sisko to relieve him of duty. Bashir tries to tell him it's for the best. "How do you know what's best for me?" O'Brien rages. "You have no idea what I've been going through." "You're right," Bashir says. "You were alone in that cell. I wasn't there with you. I didn't see what they did to you. But I do know you suffered, and that you're still suffering now. And I'm trying to help." "I never asked for your help," O'Brien retorts. Bashir tells him, "You didn't need to ask. I'm your doctor, and your friend."

"You should listen to him, Miles," Ee'char urges, appearing. "He cares about you. Just like I did. Don't make the same mistake with him you did with me." "Don't you get it?" O'Brien shouts back. "You're not my friend. Not anymore. The O'Brien that was your friend died in that cell." "He's not dead," says Bashir, who of course can't see or hear Ee'char. "He just needs a little help, that's all." O'Brien explodes. "Stay away from me! I don't want your help, I don't want your friendship. I just want to be left alone!"

He goes out into the Promenade, pursued by Ee'char, who pleads with him to go back and let Bashir help him. "We're both your friends." "Yeah," O'Brien says bitterly. "And look what happened to you." He continues onto the lift, to the habitat ring, where Ee'char confronts him again. "You know, sooner or later, you'll have to tell someone about me." "Like hell I will," O'Brien declares. Ee'char is there around the next corner too. "You can't run from me forever." "You're dead," O'Brien says. "So why don't you go away and leave me alone?" Ee'char stays right where he is. "You want me to leave? I'll leave. Send me away. Don't you see? If I keep coming back, it's because some part of you keeps bringing me here." When O'Brien turns toward him, Ee'char is gone.

Exhausted and at the end of his mental rope, O'Brien finally goes home, to find a worried Keiko, who says Bashir has been trying to contact him. He tells her he's been walking, and thinking. Just then, Molly, who has no idea what's been going on, asks her father to come see something she drew. O'Brien tells her, "Not now, honey," but Molly is insistent. With Keiko trying to reassure him, and Molly pushing for his time, O'Brien grows more and more exasperated. Finally, he blows up, and almost grabs Molly, shouting at her. Keiko pulls her away and comforts the sobbing little girl. O'Brien is aghast. "I didn't mean to -- I'm sorry..." And he rushes out.

He goes to a cargo bay and starts tearing it apart, knocking crates over. Then he finds a weapons locker. Slowly, he takes out a phaser, adjusts it to its highest setting, and puts it to his chin.

Just then, Bashir finds him. "Get out of here, Julian," O'Brien tells him, in a tired, determined voice. But Bashir approaches slowly, speaking calmly. "You don't want to do this, Chief...Look, I don't claim to know what you're going through, but whatever it is, it's not worth dying for." "You don't understand at all," O'Brien says roughly. "I'm not doing this for me. I'm doing it to protect Keiko, and Molly, and everyone else on this station." Bashir asks from what. "From me. I'm not the man I used to be. I'm dangerous. I nearly hit Molly today. All she wanted was a little attention, and I nearly hit her." "But you didn't," Bashir points out. "You're a good man, Miles Edward O'Brien. And whatever it is you think you've done wrong, you don't deserve to die."

"You sound like Ee'char," O'Brien says, forgetting his resolve. Bashir asks who that is, and suddenly Ee'char is there, listening. Unable to hold back the flood of memories any longer, O'Brien begins to tell Bashir all about Ee'char. "What happened to him?" Bashir asks.


Twenty years now since O'Brien was imprisoned. The guards haven't fed them in weeks, and he and Ee'char are both starving. Eseekas aren't helping. O'Brien has eaten the last of his food, a week ago; Ee'char indicates he doesn't have any either. "Maybe they've forgotten about us?" O'Brien wonders. "Or just decided to finally let us die." "Then we die," says Ee'char with calm acceptance. The dormancy period is announced, and Ee'char lies down. Finally, O'Brien succumbs to sleep as well.

He is awakened by sounds of movement, and sees Ee'char at a cubbyhole that O'Brien hadn't known about, taking out some food and doing something with it that O'Brien can't see. Enraged, O'Brien attacks him. "You pretended to be my friend and all this time, you were holding out on me!" Ee'char defends himself; it becomes a full-fledged fight. O'Brien grabs him in a chokehold, gives a jerk, and suddenly Ee'char is still. Then O'Brien goes over to the food, and finds that it's been divided equally. He laughs, realizing Ee'char was saving it for both of them. But Ee'char doesn't get up. O'Brien tries to wake him, but discovers that his cellmate and friend is dead, his neck broken. He backs away in horror.

The worst part, O'Brien confesses, was that the guards started feeding him again the next day. He killed Ee'char over some bits of food that he was going to share. Bashir tries to tell him it was a mistake; he didn't mean it. "I meant it," O'Brien says. "I wanted him to die. I keep telling myself it doesn't matter, it wasn't real. But that's a lie. If it had been real -- if it had been you instead of him -- it wouldn't have made any difference. He was my best friend, and I murdered him. When we were growing up, they used to tell us humanity had evolved. That mankind had outgrown hate and rage. But when it came down to it, when I had the chance to show that no matter what anyone did to me, I was still an evolved human being, I failed. I repaid kindness with blood. I was no better than an animal."

"No," Bashir tells him softly. "An animal would have killed Ee'char and never had a second thought, never shed a tear. But not you. You hate yourself. You hate yourself so much you think you deserve to die. The Argrathi did everything they could to strip you of your humanity. And in the end, for one brief moment, they succeeded. But you can't let that brief moment define your entire life. If you do, if you pull that trigger, then the Argrathi will have won. They will have destroyed a good man. You cannot let that happen, my friend." Very gently, Bashir takes the phaser out of O'Brien's unresisting grasp.

"Miles," Ee'char says quietly. "Be well, Miles." And as O'Brien watches, his face streaked with tears, Ee'char walks away, and vanishes.

Bashir walks O'Brien home; he has prescribed a medication that should stop the hallucinations and take the edge off the depression, though Bashir cautions that it won't take away the memories or the feelings of guilt. Only time can do that, and counseling. O'Brien agrees, especially seeing as the alternative to Telnorri is Bashir. "Thanks, Julian. For everything." "What are friends for?" Bashir asks with a smile.

O'Brien steps through his door. Molly runs to hug him; all is forgiven. "Daddy's home, Daddy's home!" Her father bends down to embrace her, his healing finally beginning. "That's right. Daddy's home."

  • The original pitch for this episode had been submitted during the first season, and the second and third, but was rejected each time by Michael Piller. However, during the fourth season, Ira Behr approved it. Wolfe created the character of Ee'char; the ending was based on one from an unproduced TNG story pitch involving Sito Jaxa.