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This novelization was written out of appreciation for the episode it was based on, and the series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. No infringement of any of Paramount's copyrights is intended.


Children of Time

Novelization by Tracy Hemenover
From the teleplay by Rene Echevarria; story by Gary Holland and Ethan H. Calk


Prologue
(Circa 2173)

They struggled out from the wreckage and looked out on the rolling landscape of the green planet, with eyes still stinging from the smoke filling what was left of the corridors inside the Defiant.

The place was beautiful, you had to give it that much. Not that there was time to admire the scenery.

Worf and Kira led a search for any crewmembers who might be trapped inside the ruined ship, and made sure that everyone was accounted for. Miraculously, there were no fatalities, though there were plenty of injuries; Bashir and his two nurses had their hands full. Meanwhile, O'Brien and Dax worked feverishly to assess the damage.

From his first sight of the slowly-cooling hulk of what had once been the Defiant, Benjamin Sisko knew deep down that there was no hope of repair. He also knew it was the last thing he wanted to voice, and he wouldn't, not until all effort had been expended. The look on O'Brien's face -- on all their faces -- made that very clear.

"That's the last of it," a nurse told Bashir as Sisko approached the makeshift medical center that had been set up as soon as possible. She was carefully depositing a box on the ground.

"All right." Bashir's voice betrayed his weariness. "We've done all we can for the moment. Do an inventory of the usable instruments and supplies. Get some of the able-bodied patients to assist. Then go get some sleep." The nurse murmured an acknowledgement and went to fetch some helpers.

Sisko surveyed the disheveled form of the chief medical officer. "You look like you could use that advice as well."

"I'll take it as soon as I've made one last round to check the patients." Bashir mustered up a lopsided smile from somewhere, obviously stifling a yawn. "How's the arm feel?"

Sisko automatically glanced down at the limb in question, which had been broken when he had been tossed from the captain's seat on the bridge. "It still aches, but I think I'll be able to pitch next game. How many injured are there?"

"Twenty-two, including yourself. Some serious, most are stable now and resting more or less comfortably. Fortunately it seems a lot of the medical equipment came through. Nothing that can't be treated with what we have, though it'll take a long time to heal some of the more severe damage."

"What about Odo?" Sisko nodded toward the containment unit that held his liquefied chief of security.

"The unit was knocked from its table, but he was well protected. He was sloshed about a bit, but as far as I can tell he'll be fine." Bashir's expression sobered. "Of course, there's no way of knowing when or if he'll be able to reform. Any word from Dax and the Chief?"

"I'm still awaiting a report from O'Brien. Dax is -- " As if conjured, the Trill appeared, striding quickly toward them with a PADD in hand. He broke off to ask her, "What have you got?"

She stopped beside them, her face more troubled than Sisko could recall ever having seen it. "Bad news." Handing him the PADD, she launched straight into the report. "I was able to get part of the computer online, and it gave me the sensor logs leading up to the crash. There were some very strange readings a fraction of a second before we lost trajectory, as we impacted the barrier. They included a temporal signature."

"Temporal?"

"Sensors are barely operable, but I got enough information on the surrounding area of space to compare it with our surveys, and, Benjamin, I confirmed it. We've gone back in time."

Sisko cast a stunned gaze on her. He knew better than to demand to know if she was sure. "How far back?" he asked, rather calmly, he thought.

"Based on the positions of the neighboring stars and the other planets in the system...approximately two hundred years."

Two hundred years.

At this time, over 90,000 light years away from here, the Federation was but newly established. Starfleet had barely begun to explore its own quadrant. By the time the wormhole was discovered, unless they found a way to leave and get back to their own time, he and his crew would be long dead.

Almost involuntarily, Sisko tore his eyes from Dax's haunted face, and looked at the remains of the Defiant.

(-|-)

By Dax's estimate, they were in the temperate zone of the southern hemisphere, in an area which was soon due to experience winter. Since transporters were useless and the more severely injured were still unable to travel very far, Sisko focused everyone's efforts on surviving where they were, building shelter and finding food. Worf and some of the best marksmen from the Starfleet security force were designated as hunters to supplement the rations from the single replicator that could be made workable. They also found some native fruits and vegetables which Bashir pronounced safe to eat.

Days passed. Then weeks. By the time the weather had turned cold, there was a pregnancy: Ensign Gaines from Science, and her lover, Engineering Specialist Tamir. O'Brien was best man at the wedding. Even as he smiled at the couple, part of him still hoped that all this was some kind of virtual reality like the Argrathi prison program and he would wake up soon, surrounded by Keiko, Molly, and Yoshi.

I'll see you all again, my loves, he vowed silently. Count on it.

Then there was Kira.

She was no stranger to conditions like these, though it had been quite a few years since her days in the Bajoran underground. To her fell most of the management of the basic necessities: making clothing and bedding from whatever was available, finding ways for people to keep warm, dividing up the food.

One day, however, Sisko noticed Kira sitting down heavily and rubbing her forehead -- then slumping to the ground unconscious.

"It's the energy discharge you absorbed when the Defiant first entered orbit," Bashir told her, as steadily as he could after examining her. "It...damaged your neural pathways, severely."

It was obvious from his voice that he was blaming himself for not having caught it sooner. But Kira had seemed fine until now, and there were so many other people needing his attention.

"Can you repair the damage?" she asked bluntly.

Bashir paused. For once, his doctor's mask of soothing neutrality was gone, and his expressive eyes moist. "If we could get you to the station, I could do a neural pathway induction. But here -- I'm sorry, Nerys. Even when it was intact, the Defiant didn't have the equipment for it. There's not much I can do."

Kira caught her breath. "Am I going to die?" Her voice was very, very clear. Funny, how she had never asked that question before any of the battles she had fought in the Resistance, or in defense of DS9. She wasn't afraid, she told herself. She simply wanted to know, for practical reasons.

The silence told her the answer before he said softly, "It won't be long. A week, perhaps two. I'm sorry."

She absorbed the words, turned them over in her thoughts.

"Thanks, Julian," she whispered.

(-|-)

"Kira died this morning, Odo."

The quiet words, spoken by Dax, came as a shock, even though he had known it would happen. A pain that was almost physical shot through his substance, to permeate his entire being. A ripple broke across his surface and was gone -- the only outward indication of his anguish.

At least once every day, Kira had sat beside Odo's beaker and told him everything that was going on. He appreciated it immensely, though he could give no sign of it. Every attempt to shapeshift into a more communicative form -- or any form -- had so far met with failure. The rest of the time, for the most part, things were almost just as they had been in Mora's lab, before he had been discovered to be sentient: no one thought about talking to him, or had the time, so they didn't. Except Kira. She had made the time. And she had told him of her approaching death.

If only he were still humanoid. Then, he could have comforted her, held her hand, said goodbye. He wouldn't have been here, sitting helpless in a plasglas container, unable to move or speak. He could have told her the thing he should have told her years ago, in the future.

He said it now, silently, the way he had said it a thousand times. Maybe now she would hear.

I love you, Nerys. I will always love you.

(-|-)

Present day
(2373)

Captain's Log, stardate 50814.2

The Defiant is returning to Deep Space Nine after a week-long reconnaissance mission in the Gamma Quadrant.

It was ship's evening, and Major Kira Nerys felt the weariness of the mission in every bone in her body. Was it a sign of creeping age? she mused as she warmed her hands against her mug of raktajino, idly scrutinizing its brown depths. Was she simply out of shape, too used to the relatively soft life she now led, compared to that of the freedom fighter she had been? Or was it merely the stress of being in the Gamma Quadrant, where one never quite knew which areas of space the Dominion had decided to claim?

She sipped at the mug, savoring the heat of the strong Klingon coffee and the sweetness of the two measures of kava she had ordered mixed into it. Her eyes fell on the brooding countenance of her friend, Odo, who sat silently beside her.

Another person might have been at least mildly bothered by the fact that he didn't have a mug in his own hands, which gave the impression that he was only politely tolerating the humanoid need for refreshment. Kira, though, was used to it. She knew Odo could easily sham drinking if he so desired. That he chose not to do so with her was something she appreciated as a tacit reinforcement of the lack of pretense that had always characterized their relationship.

A motion of black-and-gray Starfleet uniform caught her eye, and she glanced up to see Jadzia Dax entering the mess hall. The tall Trill ordered a mug from the replicator, then practically dragged herself over to their table.

"I can't wait to get home and sleep in my own bed." Weariness was evident in every word and movement as Dax slumped into a chair opposite Odo. "The bunks on this ship are so uncomfortable."

Oh yes, the bunks. Another reason why long missions on the Defiant were always so draining. Kira let a dreamy note of wistfulness creep into her voice. "You know what I could use? A weekend at the Golian Spa." She nodded to herself.

"Mm. Maybe you and Shakaar can slip away when we get back." Dax took a sip.

"We're not seeing each other any more." The announcement just slipped out, surprising Kira, who hadn't wanted to make a big deal of it.

She thought she saw Odo's head come up sharply. "When did this happen?"

Had she been listening for evidence of more than mild interest in his voice, she might easily have heard it then. But she wasn't.

"Last week," she said. Odo gazed at the table, seeming to drift into a reverie as the conversation continued.

"No wonder you've been so down lately," Dax said sympathetically.

"I miss him." Kira felt she owed her relationship with Shakaar Edon at least that much of an epitaph. "But the last time we were on Bajor, we went to the Kenda shrine, and we asked the Prophets if we were meant to walk the same path."

"And?"

"We're not."

Dax raised her eyebrows. "You make it sound so cut-and-dried."

Kira shrugged. "Well, the way I see it, people are either meant to be together, or they're not."

"I guess I'd rather believe that any relationship can work, as long as both people really want it to," Dax said thoughtfully.

Perhaps Jadzia and her three centuries of experience were right, Kira thought. However, she told herself privately, not for the first time, the mere fact that she and Edon had felt the need to ask the question was significant in itself.

They had been friends since she was a young teenager, but lovers for just a little under a year and a half, if "lovers" was the correct label for a relationship in which the participants not only hardly ever saw each other, but rarely put forth much effort at any contact at all. Until recently, she had excused it by reminding herself that they were both very busy people. But finally she had recognized that they were only going through the motions. The word of the orb at the Kenda Shrine had come as a relief...to Edon too, as he had admitted at the Rite of Separation.

After that, there was little that could have been said.

There was a lull in the conversation. Odo's head came up again. His eyes darted between both women, as if he felt that they were waiting for him to say something.

"I'm not -- sure I have an opinion on the subject," he said, almost mechanically. "Excuse me, I need to regenerate."

Nonplused, Kira watched his retreating back as it disappeared behind the mess hall exit. She turned to Dax. "Is he all right?"

"You know Odo," Dax shrugged. "This sort of talk makes him uncomfortable."

That probably explained it. Guiltily, Kira remembered that Odo had been in a relationship recently -- his first that anyone knew of -- and it had turned out badly. Maybe the talk about her and Shakaar had brought up painful memories for him. She herself had been through this kind of situation quite a few times, but Odo hadn't. Perhaps he wasn't up to being philosophical about it, even now, a couple of months after Arissa had gone home to the husband neither she nor Odo had known she had.

Kira resolved to see if she could get him to talk to her about it later. What, after all, were friends for?

(-|-)

It troubled Odo now and then that he sometimes felt the need for facial expression. A subtle yet forceful reminder of the differences between himself and his people -- of the habits ingrained in him by years alone among "solids". Nonetheless, he had to pause in the corridor just outside, to permit himself to let the emotions show, where no one could see.

We're not seeing each other any more.

So casually she had said it, too. A year and a half ago, when she had happily hugged him and told him excitedly of her newfound romance with Shakaar -- completely unaware of the turmoil it had caused him, Odo -- he would never have expected her to say it was over in quite that tone of voice, when or if she ever did say those words.

He had ruthlessly refused to allow himself to hope that he would ever hear them. He had done his best to keep to the essentials.

But now...what?

You fool, he reproached himself. Do you really think it matters whether she's in a relationship or not? She will never love you. She can't love you. This changes nothing.

With determined strides, he headed for his quarters, where he took what solace he could in his natural form.

(-|-)

"No thanks, I'm trying to cut down." Captain Benjamin Sisko held up a hand to forestall the crewman who had brought a tray full of mugs of steaming raktajino onto the Defiant's bridge. Despite what one might expect from its origin, raktajino really didn't have much more caffeine than Earth coffee; but still, he had already had his morning cup, and he had determined that he would slow down on the stuff before Dr. Bashir ordered him to.

The crewman turned and continued over to O'Brien, who was by the engineering station, talking to Kira.

"I'm making Molly a dollhouse for her birthday. Ah, thank you." The chief took a mug and sipped appreciatively as Kira shook her head at the crewman. "The house itself was easy, but the furniture...even with a microlathe, I'm not sure I'm going to get it all finished in time."

Kira chuckled as she started across the bridge, headed for her own station. "Guess her dolls are going to have to rough it for a while."

The sensor alert sounded from Dax's console. Sisko saw her swivel to peer at the information on her computer. "Interesting. I'm getting some unusual readings from a nearby solar system."

"What kind of readings?" Worf asked.

"There's some sort of energy barrier surrounding the fourth planet."

Kira tried to clarify the information. "It's hard to tell through the interference, but there could be life forms on the surface."

"If there are," Dax said, "I'd be interested to see how they've adapted to the quantum fluctuations inside the barrier."

"Can't we check it out the next time we come this way?" Everyone else could clearly hear the groan in O'Brien's voice, for Dax and her scientific curiosity.

Dax turned to look at him. "It'll be too late. At the rate the interference is intensifying, in a few weeks we won't even be able to send a probe through it."

"Dax..." Sisko had known Dax in two of her incarnations. By now he knew which one was at the fore at any one time, and this was definitely not a tone he had ever heard from Curzon. This was all Jadzia talking.

It was also Jadzia who now swung around to look at him appealingly. "I know everyone wants to go home, but if we're going to take a look at this planet, it'll be our only chance."

"Are you sure it's safe to pass through the interference?"

Dax checked her instruments, then shrugged. "A few shield modifications and it should be smooth sailing."

Sisko looked at Kira and O'Brien. They looked back. "All right," Sisko yielded. "We'll make a quick survey. But if all we detect is some fungus, we're not beaming down."

There was a definite gleam in Dax's eye. The gleam Curzon used to get whenever he got his way, and hoped to get more. "What if it's smart fungus?"

(-|-)

Through its veil of energy, the planet looked enigmatic, colorless, a rubber ball in space. With remarkable timing, O'Brien announced the completion of the shield modifications just before Kira called out, "We're approaching the barrier."

"All right, old man, take us in," Sisko said to Dax.

There was a jolt. The Defiant began to shudder and buck as it pushed its way into the barrier. Like trying to cut a Risian coconut with a butter knife.

"Adjusting shield harmonics to compensate," Dax announced, raising her voice.

"Quantum fluctuations are intensifying," O'Brien added, fighting his own console as the Defiant accordingly began to shake even more violently.

Sisko managed not to jump as something exploded behind him. He saw the light flare against the surrounding bulkheads as sparks showered down. Ahead, fingers of energy flickered across Dax's console, and to the side, Kira's as well. Dax pulled her hands away, but Kira wasn't quite quick enough.

She cried out as the energy pulsed through her body. Before Sisko's eyes, she seemed to double, as if she had gone out of phase for a split second.

Then things began to quiet down. Soon the only sounds were normal computer beeps, and Kira's harsh breathing.

"We're through," Dax said.

Inside the barrier, the planet now looked blue and green, very similar to Earth...or the way Earth would look with a slight mist around the edges.

Sisko got up and went to Kira. "Are you all right?"

"I think so." Kira sounded uncertain of that.

"Dr. Bashir to the bridge."

"Oh no, I'm fine," Kira claimed, quickly. Indeed, her breathing seemed to have slowed to normal, as if she had only needed a moment to recover from the shock.

Meanwhile, O'Brien was ready with his initial status report. "The inertial dampers are offline, and the gyro-magnetic stabilizers are depolarized." He looked back as Sisko went to stand behind Dax. "We're going to be here for a few days."

Sisko looked at Dax. "Smooth sailing..."

She had the grace to look chagrined.

Just then, unexpectedly, the comm signal sounded. "Sir, we are being hailed from the surface," Worf reported. Sisko had forgotten about the life forms possibly detected earlier. "There are several scattered settlements across the southern peninsula. I am reading approximately eight thousand inhabitants. They appear to be human."

"On screen."

Before them, a man and a woman appeared. She was in her thirties, human or humanoid, with plain, friendly features. The back of her curly brown hair was caught up in a type of snood. The man was about the same age as the woman, and looked human as well, except that he had what looked like a broken line of spots running down each side of his face. Spots that looked remarkably like Dax's.

"Welcome to Gaia, Captain Sisko," the woman said warmly, with a broad and pleasant smile.

It was the last thing Sisko had expected to hear from a newly-contacted planet. "You know my name?"

"We've been expecting you," she said.

"It's a long story, Benjamin," the man put in. "Why don't you come down and we'll talk about it over some raktajino?" He made a show of pretending to be reminded of something. "Oh, I forgot -- you're trying to cut down."

(-|-)

In the middle of the vast, lush valley stood a small city. Sisko, Dax, O'Brien, and Worf beamed down in what appeared to be the town square. People, milling about at various tasks, looked up with keen interest but without particular wonder, at least not occasioned by witnessing the magic of the transporter. A group of children stood nearby, goggling curiously at the visitors.

Ahead, they saw the man and woman who had greeted them, now striding toward them. The woman stopped and shook Sisko's hand with a hearty grip. It struck him that something about her, including that grip, seemed somehow familiar, but he couldn't put his finger on why.

"Miranda O'Brien," she said.

Surprised, O'Brien looked at Worf, then back at her.

The man was now shaking Sisko's hand as well, a wide smile lighting his face. "Yedrin. Yedrin Dax."

Jadzia Dax raised her eyebrows. "What a coincidence," she said to Sisko.

"Would one of you mind telling us what's going on?" Sisko demanded.

"This settlement was founded by the crew of a Starfleet vessel that crashed on this planet two centuries ago," Miranda told him. "I realize this is going to be hard for you to accept, but that ship was the Defiant." She paused, as if to give them time to let the news sink in. "Two days from now, when you leave here and try to pass through the energy barrier, you will be thrown back in time two hundred years. You'll be stranded here and become the founders of this settlement." She took a breath. "We...are your descendants."

It was obvious that the two had been expecting a reaction of stunned skepticism. They were right, too. Unfazed, Yedrin smiled eagerly at Dax. "Go ahead, Jadzia, scan me. You'll find the Dax symbiont right here." He indicated his abdomen.

She got out her tricorder and did as he suggested. Then she looked at Sisko. "It's true."

"The symbiont has been passed down to Jadzia's descendants for three generations. I remember all of you like it was yesterday." Yedrin's gaze took in the away team, and he grinned as if he were at a reunion, before he gestured toward Miranda. "If you scan Miranda, you'll find that her DNA is substantially similar to the Chief's."

Jadzia consulted her tricorder again. "She's an O'Brien, all right."

"And a Tannenbaum, too," Miranda put in, proudly.

O'Brien gave a start. "You mean Ensign Tannenbaum? From engineering?"

Yedrin walked over to him. "You and Rita were married ten years after the Defiant crashed." Before O'Brien could protest, he went on, compassion in his voice. "You were trapped here, Miles, two hundred years in the past. There was no going home, there was no chance of ever seeing your family again. You were the last to give up hope, but eventually you had to make a new life for yourself, here."

O'Brien looked at Sisko, plainly at a loss for words. Sisko frowned, wondering if this was some sort of odd mind game.

As if guessing his thoughts, Yedrin smiled at him. "I know that face, Benjamin. You're still not convinced that we're telling you the truth. All right. If you want, I could tell you something that only Curzon would know." After a moment, Sisko nodded his permission. "You remember that dancer you met on Pelios Station? The one that -- "

Sisko held up a hand. "That'll do." He had gotten into more trouble that night... Thanks to Curzon, of course. Well, and the alcohol. At any rate, he found himself reluctantly convinced that yes, the man before him was every bit as much Dax as Jadzia was, as Curzon had been.

"Are you the son of Mogh?" The question came from a blond-haired boy of about ten years of age. Worf slowly turned around to eye the child. He answered, curtly but civilly.

"Yes, I am."

"Is it true you can kill someone just by looking at them?" The boy's eyes were filled with awe as he awaited the reply.

Worf paused. "Only when I am angry," he said at last.

There were chuckles all around from the adults as the boy backed away slowly, wide-eyed, back to the safety of his peers.

"Why don't we go inside?" Miranda suggested, as if to spare the boy further embarrassment. "You can meet some of the others later. We still have a lot to talk about."

Getting no objections, she and Yedrin led the away team to a building. It was the oldest-looking building they had seen here so far, looking as if it might have been cobbled together from some of the bulkheads of the Defiant. Inside was a large room with a long table in front of a computer screen. Two young girls, both about eleven or twelve, sat at the table, industriously scribbling at paper and clipboards as a figure on the screen drilled them. It was Quark.

"Ready for the next problem? Say you have 27 tessipates of land you want to plant with nice, juicy yelg melons. You have a square kerripate of land to grow in. What is the total number of melons you can plant? Let me know as soon as you have an answer." The image blinked off as the adults came fully into the room.

"This is our meeting hall, which, as you can see, we sometimes use as a schoolroom." Miranda gestured at the room in general.

Yedrin indicated the screen. "Jadzia designed it as an educational program. She took Quark's image from the security logs on the Defiant. I always thought that Quark would make a great math teacher. He's so good with numbers."

Jadzia went over to one of the girls and bent down beside her. "I like your spots," she said. Indeed, the girl did have Trill-like markings, although they were rather hard to distinguish against her dark skin.

"Most people don't have them, because their ancestors were mostly human," the girl said, and dimpled modestly. "My mom says they make me special." Jadzia nodded in agreement.

The other girl -- lighter-skinned, with curly brown hair in a snood like Miranda's -- spoke up in tones as pompous as only a child her age could muster. "It's just genetics, Lisa. Like Torvin's ridges."

"You're just jealous, Molly." There was no particular rancor in Lisa's rejoinder. The two of them bent their heads to their studying again.

"Molly?!" O'Brien couldn't help the exclamation of surprise. The girl looked up at him.

Yedrin folded his arms. "Oh yes, you'll find a lot of them here. The name has been passed down through the O'Brien line."

"Molly," Miranda said, "this is your grandfather's great-great-great grandfather."

Molly smiled shyly at O'Brien. "Hello," she said.

"Hi." O'Brien was plainly extremely uncomfortable with the notion of meeting his own descendants, never mind the news that apparently he had married/would marry a woman here who was not Keiko. He walked over to Yedrin, changing the subject. "How much were we -- were you able to salvage from the Defiant?"

"A portable generator, a replicator, a few phasers, tricorders, things of that sort."

"Did anybody ever try to send out a distress signal?" Worf asked.

"To who?" Yedrin asked. Naturally he would have Jadzia's memories of her relationship with Worf, but there was no trace of such emotions there as he spoke to the Klingon. A wise choice. "It was two hundred years ago. The wormhole hadn't even been discovered yet. There was no way back to the Alpha Quadrant."

"Our ancestors decided to make this their new home," Lisa piped up from the table.

"And they needed a new shelter quickly, before winter came," Molly added.

Lisa indicated the whole room with a glance. "This is it. This is the oldest building there is. At first, everyone had to sleep here. All forty-eight of them."

Jadzia, startled, looked at Sisko, who stepped forward toward Yedrin. "Forty-eight?" Who hadn't made it?

For the first time, a hint of discomfort crept into Yedrin's manner. "Ah. Kira died a few weeks after the crash. The energy discharge that struck her on the bridge damaged her neural pathways. The Defiant didn't have the medical equipment that Julian needed to treat her."

"You want to see where she was buried?" Lisa was all innocent eagerness, looking at her ancestress.

There was a catch in Jadzia's voice as she replied, "Maybe later."

"Girls, why don't you run along and help your parents?" Miranda suggested tactfully. "It's almost time for planting, and there's a lot of work to be done."

Reluctant but obedient, they stood, gathering their materials. "'Bye." "'Bye." The two girls went out.

After a moment, Sisko cleared his throat. "Obviously we need to get Kira back to the station for treatment as soon as we can repair the Defiant."

"Of course." Yedrin nodded.

"I don't quite know how to say this...but now that we know about the accident that sent the ship back in time, we should be able to avoid it."

Yedrin started to speak, but was interrupted by Worf. "If we do that, your timeline will collapse, and everything here will cease to exist."

Sisko nearly winced. He had been trying to be delicate; but Worf didn't believe in tact. So now there it was: the dilemma that had been nagging at the back of his mind ever since he had learned that these people were the descendants of his crew.

But Yedrin surprised him. He held up a finger. "Not necessarily," he answered Worf. "I have a plan." He went to the computer screen and brought up a graphic. The graphic showed the curve of a planet, presumably Gaia, and a dot. "And the key is what happened to Kira on the bridge." On the screen, the graphic showed the dot, which apparently represented the Defiant, being hit by a sudden flash. "This energy discharge caused a subspace doubling effect. For an instant, every molecule in her body had a corresponding quantum duplicate. There were literally two Kiras."

Sisko was intrigued. He remembered how Kira had seemed to double before his eyes for a brief moment. "Go on."

"If we make certain modifications to the Defiant's systems, we should be able to amplify this doubling effect and create a quantum duplicate of the entire ship." Another Defiant appeared on the screen, splitting off from the first. "When you encounter the temporal anomaly, the duplicate will be thrown back into the past, and the original -- you -- will pass through the barrier unaffected." One Defiant flew off into space, while the other ricocheted off the line representing the barrier, dove back down to Gaia, and disappeared.

"So you're saying we go home, and your timeline is preserved," O'Brien said.

"Exactly."

"What do you think?" Sisko asked Jadzia.

She pondered the proposal for a moment. "It might work."

"Now," Yedrin went on briskly, "according to the logs I retrieved from the wreckage, the Defiant encountered the anomaly thirty-nine hours after it arrived in orbit."

Worf grasped the obvious. "If your plan is to work, we must do the same."

Yedrin gazed at Sisko and Jadzia. "There are almost eight thousand people living on this planet. This is the only chance they have."

Sisko made his decision. "Dax," he said, meaning Jadzia, "I want a full evaluation as soon as possible. If the plan is sound, start making the modifications immediately." She nodded.

Yedrin smiled, obviously deeply relieved. He put a hand on Sisko's shoulder. "Thank you, Benjamin."

"Anything for you...old man," Sisko replied.

(-|-)

They stepped back out into the sunshine of Gaia. A movement above caught Sisko's eye, and he looked upward. The shadow of wings passed over his face again. The bird was circling, descending. He peered at it, and was startled to realize that he recognized the species.

"An Arbazan vulture?" He looked quizzically at Yedrin. "Or is there a native species that just happens to resemble it?"

"No," Yedrin said. "There isn't." He frowned up at the bird...then down as it came to a graceful landing about a hundred yards away in the town square, the only place where there seemed to be room for its wings.

Sisko had time only to think to himself that the bird had chosen an odd place to land, before it lost its bird form and began to grow.

"It's Odo!" O'Brien exclaimed, unnecessarily.

Of course. No one knew quite how long Changelings lived, but from all available information it seemed to be centuries. And Odo obviously would have been there at the crash of the Defiant, so it stood to reason he would be here now.

The Odo who shaped himself out of the golden blob that the bird had become was familiar -- and yet different. For one thing, he wasn't in his brown uniform, but "wore" clothing similar to what the other people here wore. For another, his features looked much more...detailed. Clearly he no longer had trouble with humanoid faces. Well, he had had two centuries to work on it.

He walked toward them, and stopped a few feet away. "Captain Sisko." The voice was as gravelly as ever.

"Constable." The name was out before it occurred to Sisko that it probably no longer applied.

Unexpectedly, Odo smiled. It couldn't be called a grin, precisely, but it was a warmer expression than Sisko could recall ever seeing from the Odo he knew. "I haven't heard that name in a long time," he said. His eyes turned toward the other members of the away team. "Jadzia...Chief O'Brien...Worf. I've been looking forward to seeing you again."

"I was wondering if you would remember to be here on this day," Yedrin remarked, his voice curiously neutral.

Odo glanced at him. "How could I not?" he replied simply. He turned back to Sisko. "Captain. I'd like to go up to the Defiant, if I may."

Sisko nodded, after a moment. He supposed it was only natural that Odo might want to see the ship again, perhaps even glimpse his younger self. "I don't see why not."

Jadzia smiled and gestured to Odo, who went to stand beside her and Yedrin as she tapped her combadge. "Dax to Defiant. Three to beam up." A moment later, they dematerialized.

Looking around at Miranda, Sisko saw a rather awed expression on her face. She finally came out of it, with her usual pleasant smile. "I've only seen Odo twice," she explained. "He doesn't come back here very often. He's almost a legend, of sorts. You should hear some of the stories in the other towns. Of course, since we have Dax living here, we at least know he really exists." She sighed, looking at the sky. "I suppose it's been lonely for him, all these years..."

(-|-)

"Apparently the planet is crawling with Bashirs."

"Maybe I'll stay up here." Kira smiled as she said it, and was rewarded by a chuckle from Bashir. She could hear him bustling about behind her as she lay on a biobed in sickbay, a monitor unit perched on her forehead. "How's Odo?"

When no one had seen Odo that morning, a security ensign had been sent to his quarters to look for him, and had found him in a puddle, still regenerating, long past the normal period of time it took for him to do so. He had been scooped up and brought to Sickbay, and now filled a large beaker on a table behind her.

"He's resting comfortably. He can't hold his shape because of the quantum fluctuations inside the barrier." Kira glanced back and saw Bashir lifting the beaker, carefully placing it in a stasis containment unit which a nurse was holding open. "Sweet dreams, Odo." Once the beaker was inside, the nurse closed the unit, and left the room. Bashir picked up his scanner. "But he'll be as right as rain, as soon as we leave orbit... You, on the other hand," he continued as he bent over her, "are going to have to undergo a complete neural pathway induction as soon as we get back to the station."

Kira sighed a little. "If you say so. I feel fine."

"That's because your neural tissue hasn't begun to deteriorate yet." He took the device off her forehead, his voice taking on a mock menacing tone. "But rest assured, you'll be on my operating table...eventually." As she sat up, she saw him starting for the door.

"Where are you off to?"

Bashir glanced back. "I have to get down there. Meet some of those Bashirs." He smiled as he left.

There were times when Julian showed that in some ways he was still as fascinated with himself as he had been four years ago. This was one of them. Well, then again, she supposed the prospect of meeting one's own descendants was too much for almost anyone to resist. But where did that leave her? She didn't have any descendants. The Kira of the colonists' timeline had died without leaving any children.

Kira got up slowly, and walked around the containment unit, looking at it. Too bad Odo was missing all this. She would have to tell him, once they left orbit. At least it was something else to think about besides her own death.

After a moment, she heard the door open behind her. She turned. A man entered, someone she didn't immediately recognize. He wasn't wearing a uniform, so he must be from the planet.

"Hello, Nerys."

With a shock, she recognized the voice. She would know it anywhere. His hair was much the same too, she realized. So were his tall, lean build, his long hands, his blue eyes. But the face around those eyes was different. It was more distinct, more lined, almost craggy, and rather...wise-looking. Of course, she thought dazedly. He's two hundred years older.

"Odo??!" she breathed.

"I came up from the surface as soon as I heard you were here," he said.

Kira glanced wildly back at the containment unit, as if expecting to see it hanging open and empty. It was still closed, of course. She made herself shut her mouth, then had to open it again to ask, "How are you holding your shape? I thought -- "

"I learned to counter the barrier's effects a long time ago." The older Odo stepped forward. "It's good to see you."

Maybe it was the face; maybe those lines added a new dimension of expressiveness that the other Odo's face lacked, but somehow she perceived an extra emotion there. His eyes were riveted to her face as if...as if he were a starving man seeing food at last. It didn't exactly make her uncomfortable, but it was puzzling.

She felt herself smile. She couldn't get over it. "You look -- different."

He seemed to have expected her reaction; he smiled back. "I've gotten better at shapeshifting over the years." Unexpectedly, he raised his right hand slowly to her left cheek. "You're as beautiful as I remember."

His touch surprised her as much as his words. She watched, almost mesmerized by shock as he stroked her face lightly, tenderly.

"You can't know how I've longed to hear your voice -- see your smile."

A feathery caress on her chin, then he dropped his hand. Kira stared, confused. She had never known Odo to be physically affectionate...much less...

"Odo -- what's gotten into you?"

He took her hand in both of his. "There's something I want you to know, something I've wanted to tell you for two hundred years. I love you, Nerys. I've always loved you."

The first instinct was incredulity. Slowly, Kira forced herself to stop staring. A laugh pushed its way to the surface. The Odo she knew was not given to teasing...but maybe this one had changed. Of course. He couldn't possibly --

"What do you mean, you love me?"

"Is it so hard to believe?" He smiled too, softly. The look in his eyes was so gentle and understanding that she felt her own smile fade as it finally sank in that he was completely serious.

He had waited two hundred years to tell her, he had said. Which meant that Odo...her Odo, the one she knew... "I never knew you felt that way about me," she said helplessly.

"I did everything I could to make sure you wouldn't find out." He wasn't moving toward her, pushing himself on her, trying to kiss her, or anything. Simply standing calmly and explaining. Much as her Odo might have done, only more openly, without that wall of reserve that she had always thought was such a part of him.

She turned away, still trying to absorb it all. Walked away a few steps. "Uh...it worked." Beside the containment unit, she turned to face him again. "Why didn't you ever say anything?"

"I didn't think you could possibly care for me the way I care for you. I suppose I was afraid of ruining what we had. Our friendship meant everything to me. It still does."

She glanced down, unable to keep a troubled look off her face as she contemplated all the talks she had had with him. In his office and elsewhere. Talks about whatever was going on in her life. Including her love life.

Odo studied her. A note of concern entered his voice. "Maybe I shouldn't have said anything -- "

"It's not that," she hastened to say. "I was just thinking about all the times I came to you for advice about Shakaar and Bareil. It must have been very hard for you to listen to me go on about another man."

A slight, rueful smile appeared on his lips. "I can't say I enjoyed it. But I wanted to be a good friend to you."

"You were." And now, I think I might be finding out just how good a friend you were. Supporting me even when it hurt you.

Odo took a step forward, and stopped. "Nerys -- I didn't come here expecting you to throw yourself into my arms. But you're leaving here in two days. I'm never going to see you again. All I'm asking is that you spend some time with me. Gaia is a very beautiful place. I'd love to show it to you."

Kira bit her lip. After a moment, she nodded. "I'd like that."

(-|-)

Teresa Sisko was the eldest living example of Benjamin Sisko's descendants on Gaia. The wizened old woman grinned at him and insisted on cooking lunch for him, exclaiming how happy she was to have lived to see Defiant Day and gotten to meet her ancestor. The fact that he was fifty years younger than she was especially tickled her.

Her granddaughter Emily, who lived with her, was equally pleased, if more quietly so. For at least five years, the imminent arrival of "The Day" had been almost all anyone could talk about. She herself wanted to see the Captain hold her baby son, who was also named Benjamin. Sisko obliged, smiling as she put the child into his hands.

"He has your eyes," Miranda observed as Sisko made faces at the baby.

"You think so?" he asked, addressing the baby. "You think so?" The child stared at him, with what might have been a smile. He looked remarkably similar to how Jake had looked at that age. It was like a dress rehearsal for that day when Sisko hoped to hold a child of Jake's.

His combadge beeped. "Dax to Sisko."

"Go ahead."

"Good news, Benjamin," Jadzia's voice said, from the engine room on the Defiant. "I've gone over the sensor logs from the crash. It looks like Yedrin's plan to create a duplicate Defiant is going to work."

"Did you hear that?" Sisko asked the baby. He overlooked the fact that the baby didn't seem to have been paying attention. "Yeah, everything's going to be all right." He went on cooing at the baby, not caring that the two Daxes could hear him.

"Sounds like you have your hands full down there, Benjamin," Yedrin said indulgently.

Sisko chuckled. "Oh yes, you could say that."

"We'll keep you posted," Jadzia said.

(-|-)

In the town square, Worf was peering down into the large central well, which looked to have been made with Defiant technology, and scanning it with his tricorder. "Thirsty?" It was Bashir's voice.

Worf turned and saw the young doctor approaching casually, a cheery smile on his face. He frowned. He had always found Bashir tolerable at best, and an irritant at worst. It looked as if this was going to be one of those "worst" times. But he answered levelly. "The captain asked me to make a survey of the settlement's infrastructure, so we can leave behind the appropriate supplies."

"I've just been doing the same thing at the clinic," Bashir said. He smiled. "I met one of my descendants there. My great-great-great-great granddaughter." Worf could hear him counting "greats" as he spoke. "A doctor. She made quite a fuss over me. Apparently my healing touch is something of a legend around here."

Worf grunted. It seemed to be the easiest response.

"They're here! They're here!" Worf turned to see the boy who had asked him about his "killing look" (he rather liked that legend), running up excitedly. The child's name, he had heard since, was Gabriel.

"Who?" Worf asked.

"The Klingons!"

Worf straightened, watching as three people approached, walking proudly through the village square. They wore skins, furs, and knives. In their hands were tall spears. One of them was a dark-skinned man with very slight Klingon ridges; another was a blond man whose ridges were more pronounced. The third was a woman with no ridges to speak of. Both men sported facial hair in the Klingon style. They stopped before Worf, looking boldly into his eyes.

"Qapla'," the dark man said.

After a moment, Worf responded. "Qapla'."

"We are the sons of Mogh. I am named Brota." Brota indicated the woman. "She is Parell, and he," gesturing toward the blond one, "is Toq."

It seemed plain why they were here. "You are my descendants."

"Some by blood." Brota glanced toward Parell. "Others by choice. Our hearts are Klingon. We live as warriors, just as you taught our ancestors long ago."

"I'm gonna be one of them someday," Gabriel announced. "I'll ride a wild torga, and go hunting, and only come to the settlement to trade furs for the things I need."

Parell spoke. Her voice as she addressed the child was matter-of-fact, but not unkind. "When you're older, you'll have the chance to prove yourself. If you are worthy, you can take a Klingon name, and live among us."

Brota brought the conversation back to Worf again. "The sons of Mogh are gathering to celebrate your return. It would honor us greatly if you would feast with us tonight."

"I look forward to it," Worf said.

"We'll come for you at nightfall." Brota nodded, and left with the other two. Worf watched them go, his heart suddenly full.

"It would appear I'm not the only legend around here," Bashir observed generously.

(-|-)

Jadzia Dax was not as nonplused as some of the other crew members were at meeting their descendants. She had met other Dax hosts in her zhian'tara, after all. And it was a given that if you were a joined Trill, you might run across your own descendants from previous hosts any day. These circumstances were only a slight variant on that concept. And Yedrin was more like a brother to her than her however-many-greats-grandson, and she found she enjoyed working with him. Knowing that his scientific and engineering knowledge had come to him through her just made it easier.

"Once the emitter array is recalibrated, we can start synchronizing the shield generators."

"Oh good, we're ahead of schedule." Yedrin watched as Jadzia adjusted her ponytail. She looked up at his sudden chuckle.

"What?"

"You just reminded me of something. The summer after the crash, it was so hot, Jadzia cut her hair short. Worf hated it." Jadzia smiled, picturing Worf's scowl. Yedrin closed his eyes. "I remember promising to grow it back in time for the wedding..."

Jadzia's eyes widened. "We got married?"

Yedrin nodded. "The next fall. Benjamin performed the ceremony. I'll never forget Worf's voice as he said his vows. It was shaking." He burst into chuckles at the memory. Jadzia joined him.

"Were we happy together?" she couldn't help but ask.

He nodded again, suddenly serious. "He's a good man, Jadzia."

"I know." She sighed. "It's just...sometimes, he's so hard to get along with."

She saw a look in Yedrin's eyes that she suspected others had seen many times in her own. "Don't worry. You'll learn to handle him."

(-|-)

"Did I mention she was a doctor?"

"Twice." O'Brien was doing his best to ignore Julian as he checked out the ways in which the technology from the old Defiant had been adapted for the settlers' survival. A task made infinitely more difficult by the doctor's chatter. If Gaia's Bashirs were all like their ancestor, it was a wonder they hadn't talked either themselves or everyone else to death by now. He wondered, if they were fawning over Julian so much, why Julian wasn't with them right now, basking in their adoration, instead of prattling on at people who had work to do.

"She showed me pictures of the family, going all the way back to me!" Bashir dropped his voice. "You know who I ended up with after the crash? Angie Kirby."

O'Brien looked up. "Who's that?"

"That's what I said. Apparently she transferred aboard last week." Bashir pointed a finger, for emphasis. "But she's gorgeous."

O'Brien managed a rather sickly smile. "Congratulations."

"I think I'm going to ask her out when we get back," Bashir mused happily. "We obviously got along well here." Suddenly he leaned toward O'Brien, his voice taking on a suggestive tone. "So -- you...and ah, Rita Tannenbaum..."

"I don't want to hear about it, Julian. I have a wife and kids back home." O'Brien did not feel at all up to being teased about a woman he barely knew. He had no idea how he could face Ensign Tannenbaum after this; he hoped to God she wasn't getting the same earful he was about their descendants. Or if she was, that she wasn't getting ideas. He didn't care what anyone here said -- when he had married Keiko, he had married for the last time, end of story.

Bashir finally took the hint. "Sorry, I didn't mean anything." He didn't sound particularly contrite. "You know, I'm going to let you get back on with your work." He sauntered off.

O'Brien bent down to his task again. But his relief was short-lived. He heard giggling behind him. Looking, he saw the two girls, Lisa and Molly. They were giggling at him. Why, he didn't know, and he didn't particularly care to find out.

He sighed, and looked away. The Defiant couldn't leave soon enough, as far as he was concerned.

(-|-)

Once, Odo would have done anything to keep Kira from finding out how he felt. He had thought she would be horrified, repulsed, to know that she was loved by an alien blob of liquid; never mind the fact that she had accepted being friends with one. But that was before he had lost her, before he had waited two centuries to see her again. It no longer mattered what her reaction was. All that mattered was that she should know.

And she hadn't been repulsed. Surprised, yes. Shocked, yes. He had expected that. But she hadn't rejected the notion. He thought of his younger self, currently in a container on the Defiant, and the memory of all the agony and self-doubt he had put himself through almost made him smile at the irony.

He entertained no thoughts of romancing her. That wasn't why he had told her. That was for his younger self to do, if he found the confidence. For himself, he was content to be in her presence, to see her eyes and hear her voice, for the short time she would be here.

He hadn't expected her to ask to see her grave. But he had brought her here without arguing, because she wished it. He watched as she slowly knelt and raised her hands beside the arch that marked her burial spot under the lone tree in the grassy field; he listened as she chanted in Bajoran. At last she fell silent, letting her arms drop. Then she looked at him, smiling faintly.

"Praying over your own grave...that's got to be a new one."

Odo smiled in return. "If the Prophets were listening, they're probably very confused."

Kira looked at the grave again. "Well, I wouldn't blame them. I've got to tell you, this whole quantum-duplicate, two-Defiants thing has me feeling a little strange."

"Why?" he asked. "Thanks to Yedrin's plan, our timeline is being preserved, and you're going back to the station for the treatment you need."

"I know." Kira studied the arch. "It's just that I've always believed that we're all given one destiny, one path. And now we're using technology to get around that. I'm not sure how it makes me feel."

"I know exactly how it makes me feel," Odo said.

She turned to gaze at him as if she had never seen him before. The wind lifted her hair, playing with its short waves. She was even more beautiful to him than she had ever been.

"You can't know how much it means to me to know you're going home, Nerys. It won't change anything for me -- I lost you two hundred years ago. But for the other Odo, up on the ship, it changes everything. He doesn't have to lose you. And somehow, knowing that makes me feel better...Does that make any sense?"

She seemed to consider him, still trying to fathom this new version of someone she had thought she had known so well. "You've changed so much, Odo. I don't just mean the way you look. You used to be -- so closed off."

"I have changed," he agreed. "And the Odo you know will change too...if you're patient with him."

There was a pause. Finally, she said, "Why don't we head back?"

He nodded, and rose, going to her and offering his hand. She looked at it for a moment, then took it, allowing him to help her up. They walked off together toward the town.

Still hand in hand.

(-|-)

When a group of kids had invited Sisko to play catch with them, Sisko had been pleasantly shocked to learn that baseball existed on Gaia, thanks to the Benjamin Sisko who had crashed on the planet. The mitts and the ball were unmistakable. He had whiled away a leisurely half hour tossing the ball back and forth, just as he all too rarely got to do with Jake.

"Nice catch," he told the girl who snagged his fastball, as Jadzia walked up to him, a PADD in one hand and an urgent expression on her face. "Dax."

"We need to talk." Sisko went on tossing the ball; she continued, knowing she had his attention. "I was going over the sensor logs from the crash, and I came across something odd."

Finally responding to her grim tone, he caught the ball one last time. As he began to walk off with her to the side, he tossed it to the kids, behind his back. He and Jadzia moved to the shadow of a pillar.

"The quantum fluctuations in the barrier are factored out to zero. The chances of that must be a billion to one."

"What are you getting at?" Sisko asked.

"That Yedrin faked the logs."

Sisko stared at her. "Why would he do that?"

"So we'd think his plan was going to work. It's not. There was never going to be a duplicate Defiant. Just one. And Yedrin wanted to make sure it went back in time."

"So history would repeat itself..." Sisko looked around at the beautiful, peaceful town. The result of his crew being stranded here in the past, never to see home or their families again.

Jadzia's voice, unusually for her, was choked with unexpressed anger and confusion at the deception of her descendant/future host. "If I hadn't realized what he had done, we would have ended up stranded here. And Kira would have died."

(-|-)

"You betrayed us. You betrayed me! You call yourself Yedrin Dax. But I don't recognize you." Jadzia paced back and forth, more furious than Sisko could recall seeing her.

To his credit, Yedrin didn't deny it. He sat at a table in his house, his head down, listening silently as Jadzia raged at him. Finally he spoke, very quietly. "Now that you know, what are you going to do about it?"

"What do you think?" Sisko demanded.

"Dammit, Ben!" Yedrin exploded. He got up to face him. "If you don't take the Defiant back in time, the eight thousand people on this planet will cease to exist!"

"You think I don't care?" Sisko raised his voice. "Oh, come on, you know me better than that! What am I supposed to do? Re-create the accident and deliberately maroon my crew?"

Yedrin fixed him with a half-implacable, half-desperate gaze. "Who's to say that's not what's supposed to happen?"

"I'm not going to stand here and argue philosophy with you. I have a duty to protect my people!"

Yedrin flung his arm aside to encompass their surroundings. "Look around you! Benjamin, think of the things you've seen since you got here. This is what your crew and their descendants will build if you let history play itself out. I'm not saying that it won't be hard at first, but they will have good lives here. Happy lives."

"What about Kira?" Jadzia argued hotly. "If we don't get her back to the station, she'll die!"

Her descendant turned to her. "Is one life too much to ask if it saves eight thousand?" he asked.

The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one... But like James Kirk, Sisko didn't agree. "Who are you to decide who lives or dies?" he challenged. "Who are you to make that call?"

"I have to make that call!" Yedrin shouted back. "Because I'm responsible for what happened here!" There was a brief pause. Sisko saw Jadzia's face go taut with an emotion he had never expected to see there. Guilt. Yedrin homed in on it like a guided torpedo. "Jadzia knows what I'm talking about. She's the one who insisted that the Defiant investigate this planet." He addressed her directly. "You know as well as I do that you should have been more careful. You should have seen that the barrier was unstable when you scanned it."

"But I didn't," she whispered. "I was so bent on making some great discovery, that I missed it."

"And because of you -- because of me -- Kira died, and forty-eight people were stranded here. You don't know what it was like to live with that." Yedrin turned to Sisko. "For years, Benjamin, every time I looked at you, all I could think about was Jake, and how, because of me, he would never see his father again. Eventually, I had to accept the fact there was nothing I could do to change things. I couldn't bring Kira back. All I could do was look to the future, Benjamin, and make sure that we survived here. No matter what." He paced a little, and turned back to Sisko. "This community is my responsibility. For two centuries, I have watched it grow into something to be proud of. For generations, these people have worked to make a life for themselves here. They deserve a chance to hang onto it."

"I'm not denying that." Sisko softened his tone. "I wish there was a way we could help you. But my people have the right to return home to their families. And I will not ask Kira to sacrifice her life for eight thousand people, or eight million! No one has the right to ask that." His next words made him ache inside, but he said them. "I'm sorry, old man...but there is nothing I can do."

Sisko turned and walked out of the room.

(-|-)

The news didn't take long to spread. Those who might have either applauded or reproached Yedrin Dax for what he had tried to do seemed to realize that by tomorrow night it wouldn't matter how they reacted. A kind of wistful air of acceptance settled in among the adults of the town; the children, those who noticed, were mostly bewildered.

Miranda fingered the leaves of a tree she had planted in the town square as a young girl. "It would have been a good crop this year," she murmured. "Spring came so early..."

"Miranda?" It was Gabriel, his small face uncertain. "Is something wrong? Everyone's so quiet."

Coming out of her reverie, Miranda managed to smile at him. "It's nothing you need to worry about."

He didn't look reassured, but he walked off to join the other children.

In the dusk, some of the younger children, those who remained unaffected by the general mood, were tossing a ball around, chasing each other, accompanied by assorted shrieks and giggles. Nearby, a bonfire roared. Kira stood beside a pillar, watching the children. She knew Worf had joined her, but she did not turn, and he was silent.

"Look at them," she said softly. "They have no idea what's going to happen."

"It is for the best," Worf rumbled. "They are children. They would not understand."

"I'm not sure I understand. Eight thousand people, Worf...and they have to die because I have to go back to the station to be treated for some condition I can't even tell I have?"

There was an unusual gentleness in Worf's voice as he replied. "That is not the only reason we are going back. Do not blame yourself, Major."

Suddenly Kira couldn't bear to be here, couldn't face the children's laughter, any longer. "I'm going up to the ship."

Worf watched her go, then walked over to the bonfire. Staring into the flames, he felt the presence of others approaching and stopping. He looked up. There stood Brota, Parell, and Toq, his descendants. The feast, he remembered, and stood up.

Parell spoke. "We came to tell you. There will be no feast tonight."

After a moment, Worf nodded. "I understand. This is not a time for celebration."

Brota gazed at him impassively. "Tomorrow we will see the sun rise again, but no one here will see it set."

"Join me," Worf said. "There is something I wish to say." He sat down again, and was joined by the three others. "It is...a great honor to know that my legacy has thrived on your world for so long. I can see the Klingon heart beats strong here."

"You honor us with your words," Brota replied, with dignity. "We have tried to live as you taught us to."

"We've never plowed fields or milked chattel," Parell added, her gaze taking in the placid townfolk nearby. "We've lived as warriors. Hunters."

"Last winter I slew a yar-bear three meters tall." Brota gestured, his hand rising to indicate a creature of great height. "Your mek'leth was my only weapon. The beast maimed me, and for a time it seemed I would die from my wounds." He fixed Worf with a somber stare. "Now, I wish I had. It would have been a warrior's death."

"He could have taken his place amid the honored dead in StoVoKor," Parell said.

Worf attempted to give them some measure of hope. "Perhaps he will yet."

Brota shook his head. "No. Ceasing to exist because my parents were never born? That is not a death worthy of StoVoKor." He rose, and so did the other two. Suddenly he drew his knife, a d'k tahg, and offered it to Worf, hilt first. "Kill me, Worf. I have no enemies to fight, no glory to be won. Give me an honorable death."

The others followed suit.

"Don't make us wait for the end like farm animals waiting for slaughter," Parell implored.

Worf stared at the knife, and at his descendants' eyes. They looked much like the eyes of Kurn when he had come to Worf and demanded Mauk-to'Vor, the ritual slaying that would restore his honor. In the end, Worf had not been able to do it, had taken another path to give his brother his desire. Yet even if that solution could have worked here, he knew in his heart he could not do it again.

There was only one thing to say. "I will come to you tomorrow and do what you ask."

(-|-)

Most humanoids didn't do self-sacrifice very well. A fact with which Odo was very well acquainted. Over the years, it was only to be expected that Jadzia's successors had made the continuation of the colony, rather than the prevention of its existence, their primary goal.

It was, Odo felt sure, the influence of the Gaia-born hosts. He had given up arguing with Yedrin, hoping that he might somehow reach beyond the host to the older part inside, the symbiont who remembered that it had been an officer of Deep Space Nine. Odo had come to feel that he was the only one now who cared about restoring the timeline to what it should be: the Defiant crew returning to DS9, and Kira living on.

Then, Yedrin's plan to preserve both outcomes had restored Odo's faith in Dax -- yet now that he knew it to be a deception...

He shifted, becoming part of the bark of the tree, as the light broadened in the sky. It was the last sunrise he would ever see. That thought did not depress him. He was glad, in fact. Two hundred years of longing would be erased, and she would live, knowing now what she had a right to know. That was what mattered, not the colony, not his existence.

A figure came striding into view from the town. A woman, blade-slim, wearing a red uniform. It was her. Quickly he assumed humanoid form and waited for her.

"Why did you want to come back here again?" he asked.

Kira's eyes were fixed on the remembrance-arch. "I had to see it again, so I could be sure."

"Sure about what?" Even as he asked, Odo had an uneasy feeling that he knew what she had in mind.

"That this is where I belong," she said. "The path the Prophets laid out for me ends here."

Fear rose. "Not this time, Nerys," he attempted. "The captain's taking you back to DS-Nine."

Kira shook her head. She hadn't taken her eyes from the grave. "I can't let him do that. Not if it's going to cost eight thousand lives. We have to let history take its course." She took a deep breath that throbbed through him like an ache. "Even if it means I have to die here."

(-|-)

"What? Have you lost your mind?" O'Brien's voice rang out in the Defiant's mess hall.

"Kira," Bashir said, "if we don't get back to the station, you'll die within a few weeks. There's nothing I can do for you here."

"I know that, Julian. I've accepted it." Kira had spent a long and sleepless night accepting it. She had meditated, stared into her own pagh, and everything she was seemed to tell her that her death on Gaia was meant to be. She looked at Sisko. "We've got to take the Defiant back in time. Otherwise, we're cheating fate."

"Well, I wouldn't mind cheating fate all the way home to the station," O'Brien said.

"Neither would I," put in Jadzia. "But if we go home, eight thousand people are going to cease to exist."

O'Brien turned on her. "I don't know those people. But I have a wife and kids back home who need me."

"Your family will be fine, Miles," Kira tried to assure him. "The Prophets will take care of them."

O'Brien let out a skeptical breath. "No offense -- but I don't believe in your Prophets."

Worf spoke up. "All Major Kira is saying is, our families will survive, no matter what we do. The colonists will not. If she is willing to sacrifice her life to save them, I am willing to remain here."

"Well, that's easy for you to say. You hardly ever see your son."

"And you are afraid to face your destiny," Worf retorted evenly.

O'Brien controlled himself with an obvious effort. "Look, we can sit here and argue about destiny until we're blue in the face. But the bottom line is, nobody has the right to tell me I can't go home to my family."

Sisko spoke for the first time. "I want to go home as much as you do, Chief. I'm just listening to what everyone has to say."

O'Brien looked at him hopefully. "So we're not actually considering this?"

All eyes were on Sisko. He paused. "No, we're not," he said at last. He respected Kira's choice to sacrifice herself, and her belief that her destiny had led her to its end, here...but that destiny was also the destiny of everyone else, and they had a say as well. He couldn't ignore O'Brien, or tell the man he couldn't see his family again.

"Captain..." Kira protested.

"Major. You've made your position clear." She lowered her head, and he looked around at their faces as his decision sank in. "All right, people. Dismissed."

(-|-)

It was morning on Gaia. Worf and Jadzia were wandering slowly through the oddly empty town square, with her hand tucked in his elbow. "By sunset, this will all be gone," Worf said solemnly, as Sisko came up.

"Taking a last look around?" Jadzia asked him. He nodded, then stepped back in surprise as Gabriel came sprinting by, passing between Sisko and Worf. Sisko snagged the boy midstride.

"Whoa, whoa, Gabriel, where are you going in such a hurry?"

"To the fields. It's time for planting."

Sisko let him go, and the boy ran off. The three adults followed at a more sedate pace. At the edge of the town, they found the settlers gathering together, busily bringing in saplings and young shoots of plants, piling up tools and growth supplements. They could hear Miranda supervising the children, telling them to put sunscreen on their faces.

Yedrin walked up to Sisko, Worf, and Jadzia, a plant cradled in each arm. "Planting day has always been important here," he said. "It brings everyone together. Somehow, it feels right to see it through." He handed one of his two plants to Sisko, who took it. The invitation was clear.

It was either a fitting and triumphant footnote or a tragic irony that what everyone thought of as the last day of the colony's existence was so...perfect. The sunshine was brilliant, with a crystalline clarity that made you want to record every sight and every moment. The weather was just hot enough that the Defiant crew felt the need to shuck off their outer uniform tunics; but cool enough that once divested of unnecessary clothing you were fine.

Everyone from the town joined in. Even the younger children had tasks to do, and performed them with a minimum of fuss or squabbling, carried along by the mood of cooperation. Sisko had never thought of himself as a plant person, but he found that he could dig holes and put plants there with the best of them. Looking around now and then, he saw Kira also working, and Bashir, and Dax. It was coming on noon, though, before he saw O'Brien, picking his way over, PADD in hand.

"Status report you asked for, sir. The repairs are finished. The Defiant's ready to leave orbit."

"Aren't you going to help?" asked Molly, looking up in the middle of planting a young tree.

O'Brien glanced reluctantly at the girl. "I'm busy."

"You don't look busy," she said practically.

Sisko laughed. "She's an O'Brien, all right. Better get to it, Chief." He handed O'Brien a spade. O'Brien took it, hesitantly, staring at it as Sisko walked off chuckling.

People paused in their work, murmuring in wonder as four figures approached from the direction of the hills. Three carried spears; the other was Worf. Brota stopped, surveying the industrious scene in confusion.

"You said there was an enemy for us to fight," he said.

"They are attempting to plant their fields before the sun sets," Worf told him. "Time is their enemy. We should help them defeat it."

There was a pause. Brota looked evenly at Worf. Suddenly his stoic expression lightened, as if realizing that Worf was right. Perhaps he and the other "Klingons" had stayed proudly away from their fellow colonists for too long. "Bring the others," he told Toq.

A few hours later, as the sun had passed its zenith and was climbing down the other side of the sky, O'Brien reached out for the seedling that Molly was holding out. He had lost himself in the memory of the times when he had helped Keiko plant.

"You know, I have a little girl named Molly too," he confided suddenly.

"Really?"

"Mm-hm."

"Can I meet her?" Molly asked.

O'Brien felt his eyes mist, unexpectedly. Damn. "We'll see," he managed.

She smiled, holding the plant upright as he patted dirt around it. "By summer, this plant will be taller than you. After the harvest, I'll help my mother make gelm bread with it."

O'Brien couldn't help but chuckle in response. Then Molly was called away by another adult. Such a nice, easy-going, helpful child she was...so much like he hoped his Molly would become if she ever grew out of her current mulish phase.

Suddenly he sobered. He had actually caught himself thinking it was a bloody shame that his daughter's namesake wouldn't live past today. Dying and never having existed were two different things, he argued with himself. But in the end, the result was the same, wasn't it?

After a moment, he got up and went to Sisko and Kira. He couldn't believe what he was going to say to them.

"Something wrong?" Sisko asked.

"We can't do it," O'Brien said. He looked off to where a group of kids were taking a break from working. One would think they would be lying about or eating, but they were chasing each other around enthusiastically, as if energy were an inexhaustible thing. "We can't let these people die."

(-|-)

"You can't do this." Odo matched Kira's stride down the corridor of the Defiant. Far from the serenity she had come to expect from this version of him, he now exuded agitation. He was as upset as Kira had ever seen him -- either one of him.

"Please, don't make this any harder than it already is."

"You have to go home, Nerys. You have to."

She stopped to face him. "This isn't about me. This is about the eight thousand people down on that planet, their children, and their grandchildren."

"What about the children who will never be born because the Defiant doesn't return to DS-Nine?"

Kira gave the only answer she could. She wasn't about to be swayed by what to her were mere possibilities. Not when she knew what was right, what was destined. "They don't exist yet. These people do."

"Nerys," he said. He took her hands in his. "Just tell me one thing. If you'd known how I felt about you -- if I'd said something years ago -- do you think things might have been different?"

She was startled to recognize a look in his eyes that she had seen many times before. Ironic, that she should only now know it for what it was. Love. And desperation. All those times he had listened to her, saved her life, argued with her, stood by her. And she would die without knowing what it would have been like to love him back. The stab of regret through her gut scared her. But she had to tell him the truth. "Maybe," she said softly.

Quickly, before shyness could change her mind, she found her mouth reaching for his, lips coming together in a bittersweet, all-too-brief kiss. His mouth felt like any other man's, but was salted by her tears. At last she pulled away, rested her forehead against his.

And then she turned and walked away, without glancing back.

(-|-)

"The navigational logs from the original crash," Yedrin said, handing Jadzia a PADD as they stood beside his house. "Download them into the ship's autopilot, and it'll match the original trajectory. That should send the Defiant back to the right point in time."

Miranda clasped Sisko's hand in both of hers. "I don't know how to thank you for what you're doing."

"We'd better go, Benjamin," Jadzia warned. "There isn't much time."

Sisko faced Yedrin. He understood everything the man had done for the colony, all he would continue to do. He had always understood. And he found himself wishing he could have known Yedrin, really known him.

For a moment, he clasped the other man to his chest, and felt the hug returned.

(-|-)

How long he had been here, he didn't know. All he knew was that when he tried to resume solidity again, something always stopped him. Some force that imposed its will on his substance, to stay as he was, in his natural form.

He supposed it was fortunate he had been liquid when it happened. If he had been in humanoid guise, he would have been stuck there, in gradually-increasing agony as the need to revert grew, just as it had been with the Obsidian Order's quantum stasis field device that had once been used to torture him.

Odo waited, patiently. In a way, he found this enforced inactivity quite pleasant. It wasn't often that he got to simply be himself for this long. Normally, his liquid state was merely a necessary rest phase, in between the periods of solidity which he needed to do his job and interact. Now, though, it was almost like a vacation of sorts. The only disadvantage was being cooped up in the dark, in this beaker.

Inevitably, he thought about her. The same thoughts that both comforted and tormented him whenever he hadn't managed to find something else to occupy his mind. What it meant, now that she was no longer in a relationship. He couldn't help entertaining delusions, even knowing them for what they were. But no, she would never know, and it was better this way.

Then, light burst upon him.

(-|-)

"Has everyone had a chance to record a message to their families?" Sisko asked of the bridge in general.

"I've downloaded the recordings into a Class Four probe," O'Brien said. "It'll start transmitting the location signal as soon as it clears the barrier."

Sisko sat in the captain's chair. There was a pause. "Launch the probe, Chief." He saw O'Brien press the control, felt the slight shudder underneath.

Behind, he heard Kira and Dax murmuring to each other. "I'm sorry," Jadzia said softly. "For everything."

"It wasn't your fault," Kira said. "Please believe that. I chose this. And so did everyone else. Remember that." She unclasped Jadzia's hands. "It's time." They each went to their stations.

"Transfer helm control to autopilot," Sisko said.

"Autopilot engaged," Dax replied.

"Raise shields."

"Aye, sir."

Sisko looked at Kira. In her eyes, he saw fear, but he also saw resolution. No peace, but perhaps that would come later.

"We are breaking orbit," Worf said.

"Coming around to four-two mark seven." That was Dax.

"I'm picking up an unusual temporal signature," O'Brien announced.

"It's the anomaly," Kira said. "We're headed straight for it." She sent a silent prayer to the Prophets, for the people on Gaia. And for Odo.

Dax looked at Sisko, then back to her console as she began the countdown. "Ten seconds to impact. Eight. Seven. Six. Five. Four..."

Kira broke in suddenly. "We're veering away from the anomaly!"

The ship started to shudder. "Try to override the autopilot!" Sisko shouted.

"I can't!" Dax's voice was frantic.

"We're clearing the barrier," O'Brien said.

Gradually, the shaking stopped. Sisko looked at the aft view on the main screen before him, and saw Gaia receding, a cloaked ball once again. He rose. "What happened?" he asked.

O'Brien had already consulted his computer. "Someone changed our flight plan." He looked up, as if sensing Sisko's eyes on him. "It wasn't me!"

"Scan the surface," Sisko told Kira.

After a moment, she reported, in a toneless voice, "No sign of the settlement. Or the inhabitants." She turned. "Everything's gone."

(-|-)

Most of the crew was subdued. Probably, Sisko thought, everyone felt what he did. Grief for the promising young colony they had left behind...and guilt at being glad to be headed home.

He knew one thing, though -- when he got back to DS9, he was going to hug the stuffing out of his son.

"Whoever changed our flight plan knew their way around the computer system," he told Dax as they headed for the mess hall together. "They bypassed our security protocols without leaving a trace."

"It must have been someone from the crew."

Sisko stopped. "Or...someone who used to be."

Dax stared at him. "Yedrin?" He nodded. "But all he cared about was the settlement. What could have changed his mind?"

Sisko hazarded a guess. "Seeing us again? Perhaps he decided he couldn't let us go through with it." It seemed unlikely, but one thing he knew about Daxes was that they could always surprise you. They could even surprise other Daxes.

"Everyone we met...they never existed." The tragedy shone in Jadzia's face.

"They existed," Sisko said. "As long as we remember them. They always will."

(-|-)

Kira stared at the bottom of the empty bunk above her, until she heard the signal at the door. "Come in." She didn't really feel like company, but it was better than thinking. Then again, maybe not, she thought, feeling a ridiculous urge to flee when the door opened and Odo walked in.

He was in uniform, smooth face and all. This was her Odo, all right, the younger one. Of course. The other one had never existed. How would he react when he found out that she now knew? She doubted she could keep it from him for long. How could things ever be the same again?

For a long moment she just looked at him, and he looked solemnly back. Finally, she said, "Odo." Acknowledging his presence.

He clasped his hands behind his back. She realized he was uncertain, though she didn't know what about. "There's something you should know," he said. Plunging right in, with no preliminaries. That was Odo. "The other Odo, the one from the planet, came to Sickbay before he left the ship."

"Oh?" was all she could say.

"He linked with me." A pause; Odo cleared his throat. "Now, I know everything that happened."

Kira stared at him. He knew that she knew. She didn't know whether to be relieved or scared. When the silence threatened to smother her, she finally forced out some words. "The other day...when I told you about Shakaar and me not seeing each other any more...you seemed so uncomfortable."

A flicker of reaction in his eyes. "I'd come to accept the fact that you were involved with someone else," he said at last, quietly. "Then, suddenly everything changed." There was a catch in his voice, and he couldn't seem to meet her gaze.

"I don't know what to say," she said frankly. "I'm still trying to sort everything out."

"So am I." Odo paused, painfully. "I think we both need some time." He started for the door. She fought down an urge to call him back.

But then he stopped anyway, and turned around to face her again. "There's something else the other Odo wanted you to know. He was responsible for changing the Defiant's flight plan."

Kira stared until she thought her eyes would burst from their sockets. "Why??" Her mouth was dry.

"So that you wouldn't have to die," he said simply.

"I can't believe it -- eight thousand people!" She felt as if she had been punched in the stomach. A civilization wiped out, because of her?

Odo finally met her eyes. His looked as if he were pleading for her to understand. "He did it for you, Nerys. He loved you."

"That makes it right?!" she burst.

"I don't know," Odo said. In his face she could see pain warring with the need for stark honesty. "He thought so."

There was a very long pause. She could think of nothing to say. He was the one who finally spoke again.

"I'll see you in the morning."

It was the only thing that could possibly be said now. Averting his gaze from hers, he left her there.

(-|-)

THE END


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