Ba'el spent all of that night wracked by nightmares of the Scouring of Bajor. He saw countless visions of the planet burning, glimpsed things he could never have seen in real life – bedarkened phantoms of crumbling buildings, scorched earth and burning corpses. In his imagination, the whole planet became a pyre and he held the torch that lit it.
He hardly slept. When the computer 'woke' him to inform him that the ship was an hour away from Laurentii space, he stumbled out of bed. The face that looked back at him from the mirror was hagard and haunted. He looked as bad as he had back on Earth just before Kovat called him up to take command of Redemption
After cleaning himself up - although he doubted even cell regeneration therapy could help the bags under his eyes - he put on his uniform and headed out the door, barely even nodding to the officer assigned to his security that day, a young Deltan man who fell smoothly into step behind him.
As he walked down the corridor to the turbolift, Ba'el couldn't help himself from playing back his argument with Prin from the night before. As she had walked into his ready room, the first words out of her mouth had been to ask him what the hell he thought he was playing at.
He had told her gruffly that it wasn't the time. All he had wanted was to sit there and stare out at slipstream space, to try and erase from his mind the look on Rhodes' face. He hadn't even wanted to think about Jasto Dax and that whole mess.
Prin, though, wouldn't have any of it. She had pushed and prodded at him, trying to force him out of his shell, until he had thrown a glass globe he had picked up in Romulus across the room where it had shattered against the wall.
Climbing into the turbolift now and ordering it to the bridge, he winced slightly as he remembered the look on her face when he had told her, his voice as cold as he could make it, to leave him the hell alone before he threw her out of the nearest airlock.
She had stormed out.
Now, as the turbolift doors opened and he stepped out onto the bridge, Ba’el searched for her with his eyes. She was stood over Lieutenant Barani at Ops, studying some kind of readout. Though she looked up at the sound of the turbolift doors opening and met his gaze, she turned away almost immediately. Biting back a curse, Ba’el left the safety of the lift and stepped out onto the bridge.
"Captain on the bridge," one of the MACO's announced.
"Status," Ba'el asked, trying to make his voice as normal as possible as he made his way around the edge of the Pit.
"We're about three minutes from our exit position," Prin announced from Ops without looking at him.
Ba'el accepted his headset from an ensign at the top of the steps, settling it down over his forehead as he descended. By the time he had reached the lower section, he had the viewfinder over his eye.
"The other ships?"
"All present and accounted for."
Taking his seat, Ba'el tried to remain concentrated on the job. Prin had been right about one thing - he shouldn't be allowing his own personal problems to interfere with the way he ran his ship. He was just going to have to work through this in...
His thoughts trailed off as the turbolift on the far side of the bridge swooshed open and Benjamani stepped out, Lieutenant-Commander Kalara at her side. All of a sudden, all Ba'el's anger from two nights before came flooding back and all he wanted to do was snap her long, pale neck.
Stopping on the edge of the Pit, Benjamani just stood there for a moment, staring down at them imperiously. She had warned him during the infamous dinner that she would be coming to the bridge as an 'observer' for their arrival in Laurentii space. He had hoped she’d forgotten.
"Status report, Captain Sarine," she demanded suddenly.
I'm not your damned chauffeur
, Ba'el wanted to say. Instead he turned to Prin, an eyebrow raised.
Prin glared at him for a moment, and then sighed, turning to the ambassador. "We are almost at the coordinates you provided, Ambassador. We should be exiting slipstream space in one minute, forty one seconds."
"Any contact with the Laurentii?"
Prin shook her head. "None so far, sir."
"Very well." Benjamani seemed pleased about something, but the happy look only lasted for a few seconds before she frowned. "I require a headset for my aide and I."
Ba'el forced himself to meet Benjamani's gaze. He smiled. "May I ask why?"
"So that we can see what is happening."
Go to hell
. He forced a smile. "I'm sure that can be arranged."
Before Ba'el could respond, another turbolift opened. This time, Admiral Qwert and Liaison Groves stepped out. Qwert had a spring in his step, while Groves looked a little the worse for wear, his eyes as sunken as Ba’el’s own.
"Admiral on deck."
Ba'el stood and nodded his head to both men, though inwardly he was fighting back a sigh. More observers. Wonderful. "Admiral. Mister Groves."
"Don't know if I've had a chance to tell you this, Captain, but you've got quite the fine ship here," Qwert said, squinting down into the Pit. He caught sight of Prin and Barani, and leered. "Quite a fine ship indeed."
Ba'el opened his mouth to reply, but Benjamani interrupted. "Captain, I--"
Deciding to preempt any more requests for headsets, Ba'el cut her off. "Computer, tactical display."
Instantly, the bridge around them vanished and the various Redemption
crew members, admirals, liaisons and bitches, found themselves stood in the middle of a flowing tunnel of quantum energy. The blue-grey light had an almost hypnotic quality. Ba'el heard Benjamani gasp a little at the unexpected change, which left even him feeling a little nauseous. Thankfully, it only lasted a few moments before the ship exited slipstream space with a flash of white light and returned to normal space.
The starfield was a familiar, comforting sight. The coordinates the Laurentii had given them placed Redemption
and her support ships out in the nothingness between stars, along an imaginary line separating Federation from Hegemony space. Here, they were supposed to meet their hosts.
Ba'el didn't need scanning equipment, though, to see that their hosts weren't there.
"Where are they?" Admiral Qwert asked, his trollish little face all squished up.
"Commander?" Ba’el turned to Prin.
His XO was frowning as she stared at the readouts. "There's no one here but us, captain."
"Are you sure?"
Ba'el turned to face Benjamani. "If you wouldn't mind letting me
Benjamani opened her mouth to retort, but to Ba'el's surprise, Kalara leaned in and whispered something that brought the other woman up short. She glared at Ba'el for a moment and then nodded curtly.
Walking over to stand next to Prin at Ops, Ba'el lowered his voice. "What have we got?"
Prin glanced at him, a hint of censure in her eyes, but she didn't say anything. "Nothing on short range scanners."
Barani shook her head. "Nothing either. They're not here."
Ba'el nodded, then turned back to the observers. "It seems our hosts are late. We'll hold station here and continue to scan the area. As soon as the Laurentii arrive, we'll inform you."
His dismissal couldn't have been any clearer. Or firmer. Qwert got the hint immediately. Nodding to Ba'el, he slapped a hand on Grove's shoulder, eliciting a wince from the “hu-mon”.
"Come on then, Groves. Looks like we've got time to finish that drink after all."
The two men walked across the invisible decking, stepped into a turbolift, and disappeared.
Ba'el turned to Benjamani. He didn't say anything, simply raised an eyebrow. The old woman stared back, scowling. After a moment, Ba'el sighed. He obviously wasn't going to get rid of her that easily.
But I can't just sit here in the same room with. I can't. Not yet. I’ll go insane. But I can't just walk out and leave Prin again either.
To his surprise, Prin approached him. Glancing up at Benjamani, she leant in to whisper in his ear.
"I heard what happened during your meal with the other captains. What she did..." Prin screwed her mouth up in distaste. "I understand. I'll keep you informed if anything changes."
Ba'el felt a surge of warm feelings and couldn’t hold back a smile. Good old Prin
, he thought. "Thank you."
She frowned at him, but Ba'el could tell it was forced. "Don't think you're off the hook, Sarine."
"Wouldn't dream of it, Ly’et."
He held her eyes for a few more moments, waiting for her to smile. When she finally gave in, a small smile crossing her lips, he nodded and turned to Benjamani.
"Ambassador, I have some things to handle elsewhere. If you need anything, please don't hesitate to ask Commander Ly'et."
Ba'el saw a hint of a sneer on Benjamani's lips as she smiled. "Of course."
He didn't bother to take his leave, simply turning his back on her and walking to the stairs out of the Pit. He could feel her eyes on his back right up until he stepped into the turbolift. One of the security officers went to follow him in, but Ba'el held up a hand, and shook his head.
"I'll be fine, lieutenant," Ba'el said. "That's an order."
Before the security officer could insist, the doors closed on his startled face.
Ba'el closed his eyes and stood there for a moment, breathing in and out. He had no idea where to go. He didn't want to go back to his quarters. He could have gone to one of the bars, but there would be people there. He just wanted to be alone.
He thought back over the briefing material he had received on Redemption
, trying to think of anywhere he hadn’t been yet that might afford him some solitude. After discounting a number of options, he had an idea. Yes. That would be perfect. Closing his eyes, he leant back against the wall.
"Computer, deck 31."
The turbolift sprang into motion.