The old human died in the night.

His last command whispered around the cell, a whisper given with the last grip of dying man’s fingers, seeking the returned grip of a young promise. “Promise me you won’t try it.”

“I won’t try it.” A reply quick and sure.

“Promise me.” Weak and desperate.

“I promise.” But it was a promise given with no strength in the hand, no reassuring squeeze, no depth to the vocalization. With that, the old man had died.

Immediately, the boy broke his promise. His feet carried him to the beds of the others in the cell, the beds of the other children of the work camp, all younger than him, all Bajoran, save him. Their quiet eyes held questions that went unasked, answers given by the harsh reality in his own gray eyes. One by one he woke them up, bade them to put on shoes and warm clothing, told them to gather. The old man had put together this escape and they could carry it out. Matthew knew they could, he had planned it with the old man. He would get them all away from here and they would all live. There had been contact with a Cardassian guard who had arranged a transport for that night, they had a route through the back ends of the caverns with the entrance in the sewers of the cells. Matthew decided, as the old man had breathed his last and wrenched that promise from him, that the old man had merely lost his nerve. That he wouldn’t do the same. He was ten, he was the oldest child held here by at least four years, and he was old enough to see the plan through, and young enough to keep his nerve. He wouldn’t fail. After all, Garak waited for them at the other end and the old man said they could trust Garak.

The little ones followed him, little footsteps behind him, first in the dirt of the cells, then echoes of small splashes in the work camp’s sewers. They moved in near darkness, and unlike most small children, they preferred the darkness. The night didn’t scare them. What scared them was what they could see in the daytime, the lashes of the Cardassians, the threats of no food, no water, of death and disease.

They formed a chain of young forms desperate for hope, bound hand in hand as they crept along the trail. Soon they reached the maze of caves and footsteps skidded across pebbles and rocks. Matthew held the hand of the smallest, barely four years old, the water had been up to her chest. At least, Matthew hoped it was only water. He knew disease rode as strongly in the sewer waters as it did in the camps, but he couldn’t remember how he knew such a thing.

Then he did. My mother was a doctor.

He shook his head. They had no mothers here, no fathers. He frowned.

“Are we going to be okay?” the littlest one asked. She had seen the change on his face.

“Yes,” he whispered. “I promise.” It was the second time that night he’d made a promise, the first time that night he meant to keep the promise he made. He gripped her little hand in his as tightly as he dared.

She met his promise with a nod of her small chin, hope continuing to burn in her dark eyes.

Ahead of them, the light from a moon bathed the landscape beyond the exit from the caves. The small group tread lightly ahead. Matthew cautiously stuck his head out of the hole, scanned the area. There, just beyond a mound of rock, stood Garak. A ship waited behind him, a shuttle or transport. An escape. Matthew walked out of the caves, leading the other six children, and they walked towards Garak. Thirty feet, twenty feet, ten feet, they could feel the freedom and hope descending on them now, they would leave this camp, this planet, and find their parents again. In Matthew’s hand, the littlest girl’s hand squeezed against his, she sensed it too.

Then another Cardassian stepped out of the ship and hope rained ashes on them all.

Madred. Gul Madred, the camp’s overseer.

Matthew came to a sudden stop, his limbs cold. The chain forged of held hands between the children collapsed as the hands went limp with fear. Cold shoved aside hope, slid in between them, separating them again. They wouldn’t die, they would only wish it were so.

“You thought you could escape,” Madred said.

“Yes,” said Matthew, the idea of telling an untruth not even occurring to him.

“That was your mistake,” said the Gul. “You thought.”

“No,” replied Matthew. “I trusted.” And he fixed a steady glare on Garak, eyes made steel by the betrayal, by the light of the Cardassian moon.

The two Cardassians let out loud laughs. Madred motioned for something, then guards came pouring out of the ship, one for each child, and then some. They seized them roughly, brought them to the holding cell adjoining Madred’s chamber. The tall guards took Matthew directly to the Gul, who waited behind his desk. “This was your doing,” Madred said, leaning back, steepling his hands.

“No,” said Matthew.

“The old human is dead.”

“I know. I watched him die.” The old man had been lucky. His death had been clean, almost painless, one last exhale followed by no inhalation and that was that.

“Who do you think killed him?” Madred asked.

Matthew wanted to give away nothing on his face, but he was ten, he had little control, and his gray eyes narrowed. “But he died quietly,” he said. No one died quietly from Madred’s hand.

“Yes. And that is how each of the other children will die,” said Madred, rising to his feet. “And you will watch all of them. Then you will die, but not as they do.”

Matthew felt his eyes close. They would die, then. They would all die and it was his fault. But there was solace in that the others would die without suffering. The door opened behind them and the first child was brought in. Madred took Matthew by the neck, dragged him to his feet, turned him to face the guards and the other child. The child Matthew had lead to this impending death.

At least it would be quiet.

A baton was raised in the fist of a guard, another guard drew a shock stick, another lifted an instrument that Matthew had no idea had existed. No idea of what exactly it did, except that it would cause pain. Again that night, Matthew realized that a Cardassian had lied. They would all scream. And it wasn’t Madred would would cause the screams. It was his fault. He had broken his promise and led them here, to this place, to this pain.

By the time they got to the third child, Matthew was screaming himself, begging they let the others go, that he would take the place of each of them and suffer for them. By the fourth child, Matthew had closed his eyes and it took Madred and two guards to force them open. By the fifth child, Matthew struggled against them, trying to free himself and shield the other child from the physical torture from the guards.

The sixth child was the youngest, the smallest, the most innocent of them all. In all he had witnessed, in every scream of pain, he hadn’t cried. He wouldn’t give Madred that, wouldn’t give him what he wanted, wouldn’t give in and make the death and suffering meaningless. Then this child came in, dragged by the guards, her face wet with tears, and Matthew saw his second broken promise of the night. They would not be okay. They would have the worst pain ever imaginable, pain that couldn’t even be imagined, and then they would die. She would die.

And she did. “You promised!” her last words a shout to him, a weak whisper to the others, the whisper of a dying human that meant nothing to the Cardassians.

Matthew sobbed, his ten year old body dropping to its knees, hands coming up to cover his face to block the view of the tiny body in front of him, smaller than his own frail form. He’d promised. His word meant nothing.

Madred’s hand went to the boy’s neck, hauled him back to his feet. This would be it, Matthew knew. Now he would suffer and die as the others, and then he would suffer after he was dead, and he deserved it all. He had promised that they’d be okay and instead, he had caused their deaths. He readied himself for the punishment of the shock sticks.

It never came. “You will live,” Madred’s voice said.

Matthew turned, Madred’s hand falling from the boy’s neck. “You said I would die.”

“And I said the others would die painlessly,” said the Gul, teeth flashing. A finger pointed towards the door, a guard went through it, bringing Garak back. “Garak has sold you to a mercenary ship where you’ll live out your days as a slave, just as you were here. Only now you have to remember every night, in each of your nightmares, in all your waking hours, the screams of the children you betrayed.”

Except Madred’s words were drowned out by the screams already in Matthew’s ears. Screams and whispers of a broken promise, of pain and suffering, of his own horrible mistakes. His gray eyes fixed on Garak and he made his third promise of the night. He would kill Garak for what he had done. He would kill Garak for leading him into blindly making the other children die. Anger took him, anger so hot that its scalding brought cold. This third promise I make will not be broken.

But it did nothing to quiet the tumult in his own head.