Jake’s eyes cracked open to a fuzzy white light. “Dad,” he muttered, hopeful that he was inside the Celestial Temple; that somehow his father or the Bajoran Prophets had saved him.
“Not quite Mr. Sisko,” the bass voice rumbled. Jake’s eyes fluttered open fully, and immediately closed. The fuzzy light had turned sharp and painful, matching the pain throbbing in his head and with growing realization, throughout his body.
“Wha-where?” His thoughts were muddied and filled with the clang and roar of a battle by all rights he should not have survived.
“Forgive our medics,” the speaker with the deep voice said again. “But we are not accustomed to tending human patients. He has assured me though that none of your injuries are fatal,” the man said. “It would be unfortunate for him…and his Sept if that proves incorrect.”
Jake eased his eyes open slowly, allowing them to adjust to the light. They resolved on the looming, tawny-furred figured standing over him. The man was tall, most Alshain were by human standards, but his frame was more rangy than muscular. He was dressed in a sleeveless purple tunic-vest and matching pants. A white, gold-embroidered white cape was artfully draped across his left shoulder. “I am Protocol Officer V’Del.”
“Where…” Jake’s throat was as dry as a Cardassian desert.
“You are in the infirmary aboard our flagship,” V’Del said with obvious pride. “Nauarch S’Elani would accept nothing less than the best treatment possible for the son of the honored Captain Benjamin Sisko.” With a sick realization Jake realized that Galig had been right all along. Despite Jake’s willingness to live among the refugees of Munzala, he was still a privileged Federation citizen, with the protections afforded to journalists and the son of a war hero to boot. He was different, and the risks he took had a bigger safety net to catch him if he fell.
“My…partner…” Jake ran his desiccated tongue over his cracked lips, “The woman…”
“Kall Yano?” V’Del knowingly replied. “She is being attended to. Her injuries were unfortunately a bit more extensive. She put up quite the scuffle. Her remarkable Vulcan genetics serve her well.”
“Where is she?” Jake’s voice hardened. He squinted through the pain and his protesting muscles as he sat up on his bed. He glanced around the spacious, spotless medical room. None of the other beds were occupied. Jake and the protocol officer were the only occupants.
“She is being attended to,” V’Del remarked, his one tone becoming firmer. “I have been assured that she will make a full recovery.”
“I want to see her, right now,” Jake demanded.
“You will see her, but first,” V’Del held up a finger. “I have a few questions….”
Jake Sisko felt scraped clean, inside and out as he stood in the shuttle bay deck, surrounded by a duo of stone faced Alshain guards. His Alshain ‘hosts’ had been roughly thorough in their cleansing of his body and wounds and V’Del had been equally as comprehensive in learning everything he could about Jake’s activities on Munzala.
And the young reporter had been able to take a measure of pride from not being able to produce the holorecording footage of the Alshain’s rampage inside the cave. That small victory was doused by the protocol officer’s adamant refusal to provide any greater illumination on the fate of Kall. And he wouldn’t even entertain any of Jake’s inquiries about the irregulars or refugees. “Those are legal matters which I am not privy to discuss,” the man would repeat ad nausea.
He trembled in the slightly cold air. The fur and armor covering his lupine sentries protected them much better against the frigid air than the too large one-piece suit they had given Jake. He surmised that their replicator technology wasn’t precise enough to get human body dimensions, or perhaps they just wanted to get one more jab in before they put him on the shuttle and sent him packing to the nearest starbase.
The entrance to the bay swished open and Jake’s heart pinched. “Yano!” He croaked in surprise, his voice cracking.
Kall Yano stepped in, accompanied by a smiling V’Del. “See Mr. Sisko, I told you, she would be well.”
The Vulcan-Bajoran rolled her eyes before walking over to Jake. He forced himself not to run to her. Though when they met he grabbed her and pulled her tightly to him, not caring what the Alshain thought of the emotional display. “Are you okay?” He asked. “How bad did they hurt you?” Up close he could see a patchwork of still healing scars and scratches marring the woman’s face. One ear was bandaged.
“I was going to ask you the same question,” Kall replied, giving him a once over. “You look a little banged up.”
“I feel a little banged up,” Jake admitted.
She managed to chuckle, “Well humans are a lot more delicate than my people.” He shared in the laughter. She glanced around. “Where are the others?”
Jake’s smile faltered. “I don’t know. They wouldn’t tell me,” though he had a sinking feeling that he would never see them again. The Alshain had probably executed them already. Jake just prayed that their suffering wasn’t prolonged, and he was already devising a searing eulogy for them.
And he couldn’t help sharing that information with the protocol officer. He wanted to wipe that smile off his face. He pulled himself out of Kall’s orbit enough to say. “You know, I’m going to write about what happened on Munzala.” He declared, “The galaxy will know of this atrocity.”
To Jake’s surprise V’Del’s smile grew toothier. “You can write all you want,” he shrugged, “But what is it you humans are fond of saying about the value of images…worth a thousand words or somesuch.” The protocol officer’s hazel eyes glittered in triumph.
Jake realized the man was just as predatory as the monsters on Munzala though his hunting ground revolved around the manipulation of words and appearances. “It appears that your holorecorder was unfortunately destroyed during the melee, and our subsequent inspections of your persons didn’t reveal any additional data, so as far as the galactic community knows, nothing out of the routine happened here.”
“That’s not true!” Kall charged.
“Without images, it’s just words, mere opinions from an improbably idealistic young man, still grieving over the profound losses of the Dominion War and looking to find some meaning in his life. A young man taken in and manipulated by renegades posing as freedom fighters. Magnifying our legitimate claim into species cleansing.”
Kall couldn’t take it anymore. “There was nothing ‘legitimate’ about what you did on Munzala; where was the honor in slaughtering unarmed people?”
V’Del shrugged his shoulders again, “What unarmed people? We routed a nest of guerillas. That story has already sent out on the comnet.”
“Bastard,” Kall pulled away from Jake, but he grabbed the woman before she could confront V’Del.
“Now’s not the time,” Jake said. “We’ll get our say.” Further antagonizing the Alshain would do them no good. The most important thing now was to get back to Federation space and see if they could counteract the Alshain lies with the truth. Kall took a step back and Jake knew that the Vulcan-Bajoran understood.
“Which is your right,” V’Del replied cheerily. “I wish you safe journeys. It would be in your best interests if we do not meet again. I don’t know if the Exarch’s charity will be able to protect you if you trespass into our space again.”
“You two are as lucky as you are reckless,” the station’s commander, a pinched face, violet hued Saurian, glowered at them. As soon as the Alshain had dropped them off, they had been rushed to the infirmary to undergo a full medical checkup. “Putting yourselves in harm’s way like that.” Jake lowered his head. He didn’t like being scolded like he was a child, but he felt so terrible about the tragedy on Munzala, he felt so responsible and so helpless that he deserved to be taken to task, for something. He could sense by Kall’s sharp intake of breath at the rebuke that she wasn’t going to stand for any of that though.
“With so little to show for it,” the chief medical officer, a green Nasat, piled on.
“That’s not quite correct sirs,” Kall smiled wickedly as she opened her right palm, with a small, circular disc within. Jake’s eyes widened and his heart raced.
“That’s a holographic data chip,” he remarked, a bit dumfounded by this turn of events. “How did you?”
“Do you really want to know how I got this past our captors?” Kall raised a telling arched eyebrow. “Let’s just say, they checked us well on the outside, not the inside.” The station commander’s face became even more drawn and the medic twisted his face.
“Perhaps not,” Jake grinned, his spirits brightening. He hadn’t felt so good in a long time.
Captain’s Ready Room
Two weeks later…
“Have I caught you at a bad time Mr. Sisko?” Captain Jean-Luc Picard asked, with obvious sympathy.
Jake Sisko stifled a yawn and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. “Of course not Captain Picard.” His eyes cleared, he added, “Though I must admit this is a surprise.”
Captain Picard gave the younger man a half-smile. “I’m not the personage of the moment Mr. Sisko. You are.” Sisko didn’t know how to take that. He smiled for a moment and then tried to tamp his enthusiasm behind a more serious demeanor.
“I’ m not in this for awards or notoriety,” Sisko said. Picard had heard that the young man had recently been nominated for a Brooks Award.
“Of course you aren’t,” the captain replied. “But I’m sure they don’t hurt.”
“No, I guess they don’t.” Jake conceded. “I’m assuming you’re contacting me about my most recent expose on the Alshain-Son’a War?” The younger man paused, a pained expression on his face, “About Munzala?” The captain nodded in assent; his expression frosting.
“I think it was a foolhardy thing for you to do, going into a war zone,” Jean-Luc realized how silly he sounded as soon as the words left his lips. He didn’t know Sisko but he had reproved the young man like he was Wesley. He had only met Jake briefly, years ago, when the Enterprise-D had visited Deep Space Nine shortly after his father’s installation as station commander. Picard and the elder Sisko hadn’t exactly hit it off due to the man losing his wife during the first Borg Incursion, principally led by an assimilated Picard, but eventually they had come to an understanding. Perhaps out of a deep seated guilt, and knowing what had befallen Captain Sisko, Jean-Luc had a desire to protect the man’s progeny, among other things…
“Risk is part of the job,” Jake said flippantly, the stars in his eyes dimming. His expression became defiant. “The galaxy had to see what’s going in the war zone, the Federation needed to know about the atrocities against civilians that the Alshain are committing.”
“One could hardly consider the Son’a civilians,” Picard found himself taking a defensive tack. “They enslaved two races, tried to destroy a planet, and that’s before joining the Dominion and waging open war on the Federation.”
“That war ended six months ago,” Jake said, with an impatient tone. It appeared like this was a well trod rejoinder for the journalist. “The Son’a Imperium surrendered and was abiding by the terms of the peace treaty. Whatever obligations the Federation feels it has to the Alshain Exarchate have been paid in full.” Jake took a breath before continuing, “And it’s just Son’a who are suffering. Tarlac, Ellorans, and Munzalans were slaughtered in the Tonkean Belt. I saw it with my own eyes.”
Picard remorsefully shook his head. Anij had been telling him the same things. Some of the war’s Son’a survivors had been fortunate enough to make it to Ba’ku, but the captain feared that the more that arrived there, the bigger a target the planet would become for the Exarchate.
“How many innocents should die before we start caring?” Jake had continued during Picard’s reverie.
“Salient point Mr. Sisko,” Picard said soberly. “May we continue this discussion…off the record?”
“Of course captain,” Jake’s expression sharpened. “How can I help you?”
“Despite some of your allegations that Starfleet has turned a blind eye to the plight of those in the war zone, I can assure you that many officers have not,” Picard said.
“I take it that you are in that number?” Jake asked, now all business. The captain was impressed by how quickly the man took on a professional bearing.
“Yes,” Picard admitted, though it pained him to do so. “Can I trust you Mr. Sisko?”
“Captain, I don’t think you would’ve taken the effort to find me if you didn’t think you could,” Jake answered bluntly. Picard agreed.
“There are some of us who would like to do more, to halt the civilian casualties, or at least provide humanitarian aid, but we are prevented from doing so. However, your articles on how the Alshain are conducting their war have given us renewed entrée in the debate. They are shaping public opinion and in turn that is influencing the policymakers. We would like those articles to continue, without undue risk to you of course.”
“Of course,” Jake said, pausing. Here it comes, Picard realized, the quid pro quo.
“My editor and all of FNS are now in my corner,” Jake said, “but it would make my job a bit easier if I could get quotes and information occasionally from likeminded officers in the Fleet.”
Picard tensed, but he anticipated that Jake would make such an offer. The little boy had he had once met in passing had become a man, a tough, grizzled professional. If the young Sisko hadn’t tried to angle for as much information as possible for his readership, he wouldn’t be doing his job, the captain realized. And if Picard held protocol above morality he wouldn’t be doing his. “I’m sure I can find a way to accommodate you.”