Before the jailbreak
Arthur Reynolds & Alenis Meru
Neither of them budged an inch. They sat on different sides of the forcefield, each glaring at the other. While Arthur had tried questioning his future self, the latter just as easily deflected each question with one of his own. Now here they were, nearly an hour later and less than twenty minutes from their ETA. Part of Arthur, the one who sat outside the prison cell on a crate that acted as a makeshift chair, wished he'd vaporized the shuttle as soon as they'd detected it. At least then he could focus on the mission, rather than be distracted with dead ends like this.
Moments earlier, Arthur called for the captain via a subtle message through his comm badge. He didn't want to alert the crew to anything. The less they knew about this, the better. Alenis, however, needed to know. If she was right...
"You're thinking about her, aren't you? About what she said." Younger Arthur tried his best not to let any surprise show, but it should've been obvious. His future self had probably sat exactly where he was now. Even if some things were different. "I once asked her if I should stay in Starfleet or not. It was just before the mission that got her killed. Know what she said to me?" Silence, though only for a moment. "If you run far enough, eventually you'll be back where you started. Galaxy's round." This just made his present-day self grit his teeth in frustration, prompting a subdued chuckle from the other. "You may not like it, but no matter how hard you run, you can't escape gravity."
As the elder Arthur finished his tale, the door to the cargo bay opened. Straightening her tunic as she strolled in, Meru offered her tactical officer a nod as she made her way to the makeshift prison cell. "Good afternoon, Arthur," she said in a deadpan tone. "Arthur," she repeated, this time staring the elder Arthur in the eye, acknowledging his presence.
Quietly, the present Arthur stood when the captain stepped in and started back toward the door. "You wanted to talk to him." He glanced over his shoulder and added in a whisper utterly laced in frustration. "I can't get anything out of him."
"Captain," Arthur's elder acknowledged Meru's presence with an insincere simulacrum of Starfleet decor and propriety. He'd noticed her look, and couldn't help but wonder why she'd bothered to show at all. "Admiral Washington seemed to think you being alive would change the timeline." Shrugging curtly, this Arthur took a step closer to the forcefield and matched her gaze. "What he and the rest of Starfleet fail to realize is you were already alive. Here. In this timeline." A simple glance at his surroundings confirmed that. But then he had a distant look in his eye. Not one of nostalgia or desire, but of... regret? He wasn't homesick, that's for sure. "Frankly, I think he made a big fuss over nothing."
"I'm more worried your presence in this timeline," countered Meru, trying without much success to read Arthur's body movements. "Breen space isn't exactly a popular vacation spot, and as you can imagine, I really don't want to have to deal with paperwork from DTI again."
"Then let me save you the trouble." 'Future' Arthur glowered, though the true meaning behind his gaze imperceptible. "Let me go."
"I'm afraid I can't do that," replied Meru, returning the glower. "At least, not until I figure out what you're doing here... and now."
Grumbling to himself, the far more elderly Arthur put his hands behind him in an effort to calm his nerves. It hardly worked. "You want to know why I'm here? Why don't you try asking the lieutenant?" His eyes flickered over to his youthful counterpart, who looked more restless than annoyed at this point. "He already told you why he was assigned to the Portland in the first place, correct? Did he also mention how the data contained information from Starfleet Intelligence on the Breen? Because that seems like a big oversight for my astute, younger self to make, wouldn't you say?"
"I only learned about the Breen connection a while ago," present Arthur hastily admitted. "The Yridian ship that stole it passed through Breen space. I don't know what's on it."
"For me, it was my future's past." Older Arthur now shifted his focus from Alenis to the young man he'd once been. "For you, nothing."
"Explain," called out Meru, glancing over at the younger Arthur for a moment before glaring back at the elder Arthur.
"Quid pro quo, captain." Arthur's future raised a finger and smirked knowingly. "I'll cut a deal with you. Let me out of this cell, and I'll tell you everything you want to know." Then his smile disappeared. "Leave me here, and you may as well kill me."
Meru shook her head. "I'm afraid I can't do that," she replied in a deadpan tone. "I've seen the future, or at least the possible version of it that you come from. Having you running around, altering this timeline, is not a risk I'm willing to take."
Gray-haired Arthur scoffed and rolled his eyes. With his hands on his hips, he briefly turned to look at the bulkhead before facing Meru again. "What would I do? Do you honestly think I'd kill you? Make your crew experience that all over again?" Shaking his head, he finally crossed his arms and stood directly in front of her, only the forcefield between them. His voice lowered to almost a whisper, weighed down by a threatening tone. "If I wanted to kill you, I had plenty of opportunities. If I wanted to kill myself, I'd have done that too." He glanced over Meru's shoulder at his present-day counterpart, who'd started prowling back and forth as if he were the lion stuck in a cage. "That's not why I'm here."
"Then why?" countered Meru, standing tall in front of the force field. She knew he was hiding something; his defensive tone and body language told her that much.
"Tell our mutual little friend there to go scrub a conduit or bug the Vulcan." A soft, almost imperceptible chuckle escaped him, gone almost as soon as it came. He really loved torturing that poor Vulcan. "You want to know what I know? Ditch the lieutenant. Then I'll talk."
Meru stared into the elder Arthur's eyes for a moment, evaluating his proposal. After a couple seconds, she glanced over her shoulder at his younger counterpart and sighed. "Lieutenant, a little privacy, please?"
At first, Arthur wanted to protest. Why shouldn't he be able to hear what his older self was up to? After all, he'd gone through all the trouble of finding and capturing him. He'd even withstood his first instinct: to silently be rid of the troublemaking time-traveler. But Meru asked him to trust her, especially given what she knew. And, despite all his reservations, he knew he owed her that much. Without a word, he did as he was asked.
As soon as the door whooshed shut, Meru tugged on her tunic and looked back at the elder Arthur. "You know, the prophets warned me about you. They said I had to keep him from becoming like you."
"Interesting," older Arthur quipped in an almost flippant manner. "Why would the Prophets care? I thought they were only concerned with Bajor." Before she could answer, he narrowed his eyes. "But more importantly, captain... why do you care?"
"Why does a shepherd care about her flock?" countered Meru, raising an eyebrow at the question. After pausing for a moment to analyze his response, Meru continued. "I'm not sure who your employers are, but it doesn't sound like bog-standard Starfleet Intelligence. And I get the feeling that you aren't too thrilled with them either."
"Not thrilled?" Arthur started to laugh and pace around his cell a bit before dignifying the captain with a response. "Why wouldn't I be thrilled to work for all that's good in the Federation? Why shouldn't I enjoy watching every last person I ever cared for die because my Starfleet masters told me I was doing what's necessary?" Finally, he took a step toward the forcefield and focused his almost maddened gaze on Meru. "I don't much care whether or not you're the Emissary himself, I'm not simply a sheep whose wool you can pull over their eyes." His eyes glazed over and he looked away, silent for a moment. He had to get his thoughts back on track... but not before getting in the last word. "I won't be fooled again."
Meru sighed for a moment before turning and strolling over to an empty crate, placing it in front of the makeshift cell. Having a feeling that she was going to be there for a long time, she took a seat. "Well, if you want to keep talking in riddles, I've got all day."
Arthur didn't speak again for a time. Years of bottling up his thoughts and feelings made it a lot easier than it was for his younger self. Maybe it was one of the positives of his growing old. No more sounding like an unscrewed bottle of angst getting stains all over the carpet. After all, words could only do so much. He had to take action. "I had to..." He mumbled at almost a whisper, followed by a stolid gaze at the stranger he'd barely known. "That boy out there's trying to be what I'm not! He has a future." His eyes and face fell. "I don't. Not anymore."
Detecting a crack in his stiff exterior, Meru decided to press her advantage. "And I'm trying to keep that future intact," she stated, looking through the force field at the elder Arthur.
That gave him pause, if only for his heart to catch in his throat. Even though he'd never known the captain like the lieutenant, he could sense her conviction. It baffled him; a reaction clearly apparent in the way he looked like a kindergartner trying to understand advanced calculus. But rather than question her about it further, he simply muttered, "So am I..."
Arthur finally leaned back against the wall of his cell and crossed his arms. For what might've seemed an eternity, he said nothing, rather deciding to stare off into the distance. When he did speak, it was with a low and measured voice. "After this is over... you need to let him go."
Meru sighed and took a deep breath. "We've both seen the future," she said, after taking a moment to ponder the elder Arthur's request. "From what I can tell, I'm the only thing different in this timeline. If you don't want him to follow the same path, then I'm the only one who can stop him."
"If you're here, in Breen space, then nothing's changed." Arthur bowed his head. "He's already met Kesuma. Section 31's got their teeth in him now. And if you pull... he'll be torn apart." A moment later, he looked back at her, pleading, "Please, captain. Don't let him make the same mistake I did."
"Kesuma? Section 31?" asked Meru, pulling at these little threads. In her heart she knew she couldn't keep him close and watch over Arthur forever. "Fine," she said, "but I want to know what's going on, starting with this Section 31 or whatever."
Arthur gave a false chuckle, as if trying to convince himself that Meru had said something funny. Nothing could be further from the truth. "It's a long story." He explained how Kesuma recruited him. The Bajoran was a former Kohn Ma-turned-Syndicate operative. As a child, Arthur met him once before being sent to the mines on Vem'ir. "Even after all that time, he still remembered me.
"Section 31 isn't the best kept secret in the Federation. Not since the Dominion War." They stayed low, but not enough to avoid being uncovered by the likes of Benjamin Sisko during the war. An illegal intelligence organization in the same vein as the Tal Shiar or the Obsidian Order. Though how much of it was a true organization depended on whether one might call the Bajoran resistance a single group. "Their recruitment tactics are simple. Once they say you're an agent, you're an agent. Whether you like it or not." He frowned. "From that point on, your life is in their hands. They can mould it, captain, like clay. By the time you realize what's going on, they make you do something you'll regret for the rest of your life."
It was the same story he'd regaled Timothy with the day his younger self had sent in his letter of resignation. Kesuma found him on the planet where they stole the freighter. Arthur got his help in exchange for a meeting with one of his operatives on Trill. From there, he learned he'd been chosen to join Section 31. All of it right before their mission into Breen space.
To say that Meru was shocked would be an understatement. Until now, the idea that there would be a secret organization, accountable to no one, engaging in these sort of unethical cloak and dagger activities under the umbrella of Starfleet would be unthinkable. To her, the Federation, and Starfleet in particular, was a paragon of virtue among the stars. Not having this sort of secret society was one of the things that differentiated the Federation from the Cardassians or the Breen.
And yet, it all made sense. The dark shroud following Arthur in the prophets' vision, and the fact that his tale was simply too much to weave together on the spot, even for a trained intelligence agent. It offended her sense of justice that this sort of organization would exist.
He could've bored her with a long tale of his past, of the main event that led to his decision to leave the future and change the past. But he didn't. He'd never grown close to the Portland's crew, so unlike them, he didn't care whether Meru lived or died. "Take it like this, captain. I didn't know you. Not personally. But you're not the only one in this timeline who wasn't in mine." He looked away. "I'm here."
Knowing full well she'd rather get to the point, hoping not to relive any visions of Timothy or anyone else mourning her death, Arthur filled in the blanks. "You can stand up to them, captain. Section 31 knows you're here. But you'd be risking your life and crew for just one man." So, he made his proposal: "Despite all the help you've given him - all the help he's had from generous people over the years... Section 31 will undo all of it. But I won't. I'm not going to let years of his life go to waste. I know who ruined my life. I know what data the Yridians stole from Deep Space 6. And now, I'm the only one who can help him." His eyes wandered to the door his younger self had disappeared through earlier.
"My shuttle can make one more journey," he explained. "I'll make sure the Yridians don't get away with that data in the first place. At least then, 31 won't touch him." Then he looked at Meru, just as determined as Timothy had been once he'd made his plan to change history... for her. "Let me take him back with me. After he's made sure the cloak is working on the runabout, I'll beam him out when it fails. You can say the Breen took him, killed him... whatever it takes." He grew quiet long enough for Meru to consider it, but added one last whisper. "But if you weren't here, I wouldn't be."
Meru sighed and stood up from the crate she was sitting on. For a moment, she held her head in her hands, unsure of what to do. She had promised to look after Arthur, but if his future self was right, it was too late. "I don't suppose you've seen it fit to include him in this plan," she replied, motioning towards the door.
Arthur looked caught off guard and started to look away. He put his hand up over his mouth for a moment and wandered toward the back wall, deep in thought. After a while, he crossed his arms, lowered his head, and spoke in a weary, cracked voice showing his age. "I don't know." He went silent for a few moments before looking back at her. "What do I tell him? That his future's already decided? That there's nothing he can do to change it?"
Again, he took one step toward the field between him and Meru. "He can come with me to the past, captain, but we'll only be saving the life of one Arthur in a multiverse of trillions... or more. Neither of us can live the sort of life we'd always dreamed of."
His voice began hushed, slowly increasing in volume with growing passion until it hit a grandiose crescendo of anger, sadness and confusion. "When I chose to turn against them, Section 31 made me choose between detonating a shuttle full of people... or killing my wife. They made me abandon our daughter and never see her again. All of that happens in the next two years.
"Your lieutenant doesn't have to experience that. I can't erase his past, but at least I can save his future. If you make the choice." Arthur finally lowered himself onto whatever passed for a cot in the rickety old cell and stared at his feet. "I don't know what the prophets told you. Hell, I can't be sure I even believe in them any more than you must believe me. The whole idea of a race of powerful beings who can see through time... it scares the living hell out of me." Then he raised his head and looked Meru in the eye. "But if it wasn't for them, I wouldn't be here... and neither would you.
"Arthur won't believe. He can't. Because, if he does, he has to acknowledge the fact that there are some things out of his control." He paused to swallow the lump that had been growing in his throat the whole time. "And that's a fact he's yet to learn."
Pausing for a moment, Meru carefully considered the offer. In spite of everything that they had both been through across multiple timelines and multiple universes, there was something about the Arthur that she knew in the old man in front of her. A certain sincerity to his actions.
"I'm sure there is a crypic, possibly mistranslated, ancient Bajoran proverb that would apply in this situation. Unfortunately, I can't think of one." Standing up, Meru took a deep breath and straightened her tunic. "What do you need?"
Arthur matched her pause, though in his case, it was because he'd felt his heart skip a beat. He didn't honestly expect Meru to help him. She'd hardly even known his younger self that long. But thankful as he was, he didn't linger on this surprise for long.
"Lower the forcefield. Let me get to my shuttle." His eyes wandered toward the door again. "But first... try and convince him to speak with me." He looked back at Meru with a lopsided frown. "We've got a lot of work to do."
Capt. Alenis Meru