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Despite his intense desire to rejoin the Great Link after five long years in deep space, Nuno waited until the last of his crew departed the ship. He watched the Jem’Hadar disappear into the base, followed by Adiss, his Vorta first officer, and then stepped out of the ship himself, running his lightly flaking hand along the hull as the hatch closed behind him.
He left the Link all those years ago with a new mission, and a controversial one at that. He emerged with the goal of taking a small company of Vorta and Jem’Hadar on an exploration mission deep within the Gamma Quadrant. The Link roiled with conflict over the decision to designate an exploration vessel, and Nuno’s suggestion that he—a changeling—go along with them. He convinced them that his team could find great resources, new species to absorb into the Dominion, and even a planet suitable for building a new Link.
A Vorta could lead Jem’Hadar well in many pursuits, but to explore, to seek the unknown and study it – that would require vision. A servitor could not lead such a mission. It required a will only possessed by one of the Founders. His passion flooded the Link so completely that there were no objections as he stepped out of the Link to select his crew.
His ship had no name when it disembarked, but Adiss had deemed it Palanquin, as it carried a god within it. Nuno felt this was appropriate and allowed his first officer this indulgence. He took a name for himself shortly thereafter; while Vorta and Jem’Hadar were accustomed to calling him “Founder” whenever it was necessary to directly address him, other species would not be so inclined. Data from other quadrants suggested a personal name made diplomatic efforts easier with lesser beings. If his name had a meaning, he didn’t know it. It was simply pleasant sounding.
The Jem’Hadar, led by a most capable First by the name of Irit’Ikan, were hardy and well-suited to long-distance travel. They also required less Ketracel-white to perform at peak, which made the unprecedented deep space mission much more efficient.
Nuno and his crew had survived much on this mission, evidenced by the fact that his Jem’Hadar compliment was well smaller than the number they originally took on board. They had been boarded by strange, gaseous creatures; faced intense radiation storms; and survived a period marooned on a dead planet far from its greedy, unhelpful star. When supplies ran low, Irit’Ikan volunteered to give over his rations of ketracel-white, and Nuno helped him through the intense, usually deadly, withdrawal until Adiss (technically, Adiss 5 by that point) discovered a suitable replacement. Nuno had come to know the names of every Jem’Hadar soldier in his crew and had come to respect Adiss’ boldness and latent leadership skills. They had been through a lot together, and now they would embark on a well-earned rest.
As Nuno exited the hangar, a sheepish Vorta approached him. He looked up at Nuno with adoring eyes and bowed very slightly. He gave Nuno the deference he was owed, but as a spokesperson for the female changeling known simply as the Founder, this particular servitor was afforded a bit of respect himself.
“It is my honor to receive you, Founder,” said the Vorta. “I hope that your long mission was pleasurable, and that you have many wonderful stories to pass on to your people.”
“Pleasurable? At times. Wonderful stories?” Nuno smiled, a facial contraction that he’d mastered on his trip, despite the hardship. “Yes, many. My crew has begun a well-deserved rest, but they will report their own findings in time. I wish to rejoin the Link, if there’s nothing else?”
“Ah, yes. Well,” he stammered. He bit his lip a bit and rubbed his throat as if adjusting his collar. “Yes, of course, the Link awaits you. But your crew….” His voice shrank to a concerned whimper, “They are to be deployed immediately. They are needed on the front.”
Nuno was never great at hiding his emotions. He learned (from Adiss’ observations) that he unconsciously grew slightly larger when angered, and his flesh became harder, almost leathery. The young Vorta before him had never experienced that reaction before, and he seemed frightened as Nuno began to tower over him. The changeling tilted his head, and his voice rolled from his throat with a growl.
“We have been gone five years. We have faced terrors unknown even to the Founder, and we have lost more than half the crew to starvation and conflict. What battle is so important that my crew cannot even have a moment of rest?”
The Vorta seemed to shrink beneath him. “I do not know. Please forgive me. I am only passing on the words of the Founder.”
Nuno looked past him and simply stormed off without another word. He stepped up to a terminal and searched through recent history, fleet reports, and troop assignments. He could see battles against an enemy called the Hur’q, but reports had these battles going well, and prevailing wisdom was that the Dominion would soon be victorious. Nuno saw nothing so desperate as to require his battered crew of explorers to hurry to the front lines.
He poked a little deeper. Troop rosters. Vorta recursion statistics. Weapons inventories. Deployment requests. Spacedock requests. Repair logs. It looked consistent, for the most part. It looked like war.
One thing caught his eye: The number of ships departing from starbases near the front lines was much larger than the number of ships requesting docking permission after battle. So either those ships were remaining active for far longer than they should be… or they simply weren’t returning at all. The disparity was… large. For every five ships that disembarked, maybe three returned. Things were not going well. The prevailing wisdom was a lie.
Nuno touched his temple and felt his skin flaking; he’d have to regenerate soon. He turned and made his way out of the base, striding purposefully toward the Great Link. Did the others know about the secret desperation rippling throughout the Dominion? How could they not? If they didn’t, he’d have to tell them. There was too much at stake to gamble the future on lies and false assurances.
Finally, after a walk full of troubling questions and difficult thoughts, he could see the Great Link stretching out to the horizon before him. He felt his flesh pulling him toward it, craving the reunification that he had been denied for these past few years. His mind felt terribly alone, forced into this individual form, to live among individuals for what seemed an eternity. He longed to pass on what he’d learned, what he’d seen, and what now troubled him as a result of his research.
By now, he had tunnel vision. The Great Link was all. He barely felt the soft hand on his shoulder as he approached the Link’s golden shore.
“Welcome home, Nuno. We’ve missed you greatly,” came the honeyed voice of the Founder.
He turned to see her thin-lipped smile, and he stood straight before her. Next to her was another changeling, one named Odo, who had himself endured long periods of separation. Nuno’s arrival had interrupted a conversation, he figured, and Odo didn’t seem all too pleased.
The Founder placed her hands on his shoulders. “The Link awaits you, explorer. I can’t wait to know what you have seen.”
Nuno made eye contact with the Founder. “I’ve seen much... including what appear to be lies regarding the state of our conflict with the Hur’q. I know I’ve missed a lot, and I hope to get caught up when I rejoin the Link.”
The Founder pressed her lips together, and her eyes changed to conflict with her smile. “The Link knows what it needs to know,” she said, almost in a hiss. “It need not be troubled with the details of war.”
“So the Link doesn’t know? Our people are being kept in the dark? When did this start happening?”
The Founder’s smile disappeared. “Hardship requires discretion. You must know this more than most. Would you see the Link in a panic? Would you separate us into factions that disagree on how to carry out a war?” She paused, then smiled again. “We have this under control. We are Founders, after all.”
Nuno glanced at Odo, whose sour face had not changed. “I understand. I will do my best to keep this from the Link. But there may come a time—“
The Founder interrupted. “When that time comes, we will make the right decisions. We always do.” She patted his shoulders and turned to walk away.
Nuno nodded. He looked longingly at the Great Link before turning to walk away. He would find a receptacle, and he would regenerate there, as he had for five difficult years in space. He knew that if he joined the Link, his delicate information would flow into it as a river flows into the sea.
As he left, he felt another hand on his shoulder. He turned to regard the weathered face of Odo, who paused long enough to say, “I want to know everything you’ve learned about the war with the Hur’q. And if you learn something more, come to me. I believe you.”
As Odo passed to follow the Founder, Nuno turned to find a place to regenerate for a moment before preparing to disembark once again. He would send his crew off to die on the front, but after five years of living among them, he wouldn’t send them off into certain death alone.