He had won—that time. But every subsequent round, ever since his bitterest defeat…he had failed in one attempt after another. Thrice he tried to escape, and thrice she and her soldiers had caught up with him before he could even make it out of the building. Even his attempt at suicide had failed.
Then something changed in Vedek Tora—subtle, but unmistakable. And he knew. He knew when he saw her press that hypo to her neck every morning and night—medications he knew no pregnant woman would risk taking if there weren’t something very unusual about the child. And the primal impulse to reach out and place his hand on her stomach confirmed it, even though the one carrying the child repulsed—and yes, frightened him more than he cared to admit.
He’d kept the knowledge to himself, never acknowledging a thing until she announced it to him in the tone reserved for animals and simpletons…better that she not realize he felt even the slightest connection to that life growing inside her. To that end, he’d even staged one more escape attempt, a few weeks after the news—a halfhearted one for appearance’s sake…he’d been resigned to recapture even before he left, for had he actually freed himself, that would have greatly complicated freeing the child. And he had vowed he would never leave Bajor without that life formed in part…the dominant part, he hoped…from his own.
Vedek Tora, however, needed never know that. Better to play the role his scaled, therapsid appearance suggested on her world: a primitive creature, ready to let his young fend for themselves against the wild.
As if he
would ever be protecting her
. No…though he was loathe to admit it, at the very sight of her—even after all this time—there was a part of him that still wanted to dive for cover under the nearest piece of furniture that might shield him, and that struck to his core as a man. Especially when she brought out that hypo. She so enjoyed parading that thing before him, making sure he was watching, wondering, worrying…and remembering, always remembering.
His ear ridge burned. He closed his eyes.
Where there had been contempt in her eyes before, something like pity, now there burned only hatred and disgust—and perhaps a touch of fear. But she would not be dissuaded, not even by this.
I’ve heard things about you, Dukat. They say your mind betrays you from time to time, when you lack the medicine to keep the Dal’Rok at bay. I’d be quite interested to know if that’s true. They say patience is a virtue—but it’s not one of mine.
Her arm whipped forward, hypo in hand; so quickly had she sprung into action that he had no time to duck out of the way. It hissed like a
rhirzum and bit into his neck. Even before his heart could beat one more time, it seized in horror.
No! something in him screamed.
Please…don’t do this to me…! It was one thing to fight the madness as it came. But to feel it heed this witch and emerge as she pleased—even death would be preferable—oh, Oralius, she had the power to rip the rug right out from under his mind…!
How do you
Terrified, he thought, but he would never admit it.
Then she unshackled him—just in time for insanity to seize hold. And she grinned.
Like a curtain ripped from a window, every last shred of restraint tore away and he blazed with fury. Everything was too loud, too bright, too strong, and energy ripped through him, too wild and too alluring to resist. He lunged at her, long fingers ready to snap that pole-thin neck—never mind the men outside…her face grew more familiar, more warped: a parody of a Cardassian…she was an ice-born demon of the tundra now.
And from outside him somewhere, or so it seemed, came that voice:
Take down the queen and the minions will follow. Men outside? Oh,
they wouldn’t be a problem, he thought, even though a small, still part within him still recognized the mania for what it was and tried to resist. What could he have to fear from
her? He’d take her down before they even realized.
He hurtled forward and just as he was about to make contact, an electric current ripped through him. For just a moment, something like rational thought returned:
A skinfield! That she-hound was wearing a damned skinfield! He fell back, staring wide-eyed as she touched a finger to his heart and let the power surge into him. His heart skipped, jolted, fluttered—just before he thought he was going to die, she broke contact and switched the device off.
He would have leaped at her again, but he was fast fading. Everything shattered into fragments.
Perhaps his plan for tonight was just as futile…just another failed escape, except this would surely cost his life and possibly Ziyal’s as well.
There was a certain Bajoran servant-woman who had taken pity on the captive Cardassian, reading the silent plea in his eyes when Vedek Tora would turn her back and take the newborn infant away for the night and lay her in that cradle behind that door where he could not follow. The next day, while the vedek attended the Assembly, she had slipped into the ‘consort’s chamber’ where he spent his days and taught him the devil-cleric’s entry and exit codes. The servant-woman had offered to write it down, but he’d declined: there was no sense getting this kind soul in trouble for actions that would be his alone. One repetition was all it took.
For Ziyal’s sake, this was all he had ever done with the codes until tonight: let himself into the nursery until he had lulled Ziyal to sleep, then sneak back into ‘his’ room. Tonight, however…he would walk right out of this place. A few months ago, Vedek Tora had stopped posting a guard outside their adjoining chambers at night, no longer seeing in him an escape risk. As much as this favored him…it stung. Part of her complacency was the result of his own charade, of course. But the other part…he had seen, he had heard—but until now, it had never concerned him
, not as one who actually had something to fear.
He had fought—damn it, he had fought, yet none of it made a difference and of everything else to come, that had been the cruelest stroke of all, to find himself so powerless where by strength and skill should have been the one to hold all the power. Even the skinfield he could have defied.
Except for that damned hypo and the onrush of bewilderment and madness.
He flew through the air, until his spine and the back of his head slammed into a wall, stunning him.
That was all the respite the demon needed. She dug her talons into his shoulders and half-dragged, half-threw him onto his back...
Too cold—the enemy wind of Bajor blew in from the vent above, leaving nothing untouched—
There was something wrong with her eyes—those unholy intense eyes, feral and insatiable, determined to sate their hunger whatever the cost. They filled him with terror right down to the core of his soul.
Crimson—everything glowed crimson…
Another blow—this one sharp to the nerves like the sting of the needle the camp medic used when no hypo was available. A pressure point struck? Another injection? A venomous creature’s sting? He couldn’t tell. He lashed out blindly against it, but found no focus in mind or body with which to coordinate his resistance. All sense of equilibrium had fled and civil war broke out in his mind: surrender, accept! No—fight! The demon’s too close, the demon’s everywhere: flee…! No—surrender!
For all that’s holy—
Something ripped tracks into the scales of his back. And then everything just—blazed white. She was turning him inside-out. His eyes rolled back; he couldn’t breathe. He was trapped between fire and ice.
The demon’s voice, faint over the pounding of his heart in his ears, powerful and taunting nonetheless…
How do you feel
To answer lay beyond his power. A tiny, weak groan passed between his lips, a faint echo of the shrieking klaxon deep within his mind—a voice howling with the sharp tang of betrayal, loathing, and utter isolation as he lost consciousness one wretched minute too late.
He jolted back to reality with a strangled gasp. His left ear ridge positively blazed with pain. His face contorted with a mute fury. In one sharp motion his hand lashed out, seized the red ceremonial earring, tore it free, and threw it violently to the floor.
The infant cradled in his arms gurgled softly—a curious sound, and just in time, too, for he’d found himself on the edge of tears he could reveal to no one else. He gave thanks for this diversion, for he could grant dominion to neither the rage nor the despair tonight. He needed his edge, or whatever remained of it after the long periods of desolation: the programs he’d written with that carelessly-tossed padd would kick into action in just a few minutes.
He rocked Ziyal a few minutes more and the baby settled into the crook of his arm. It was a powerful and tender feeling all at once, this life that turned to him in such utter, unabashed dependence. She complicated his escape, to be sure—but he owed her no less. If he returned, of course, some would see the half-Bajoran child and pour their contempt like oil over his head—he fervently prayed no such choice would be necessary, but not even the revulsion of his own family would turn him aside. If they haven’t killed them yet
, he ruefully thought; they’d taken a DNA sample from him almost immediately upon capture. Perhaps the reprisals had already come.
That gave him all the more reason to dedicate every last shred of will he had left to protecting the girl who might very well be the only one he had left. And she must remember nothing of this place—nothing!
Ziyal lay silent in his arms now, shifting sleepily against his breast on occasion but never peeking out from the knitted blanket he had wrapped her in. He rose in a slow, smooth movement this time, reaching up with one arm to the simple gray cloak he’d brought with him tonight—the same cloak Vedek Tora so loved for those ‘dramatic unveilings’ every time he took her on one of her political junkets. He rested it on his shoulders and fumbled with the clasp for a few seconds before it clicked in place, almost jumping at the sound.
Thus shrouded, Dukat strode towards the exit. The sensor registered his presence and signaled the doors to part for him as if he were something other than a Cardassian interloper. Good
, he thought with a nod, though he allowed himself naught more than a brief flicker of pride. He had the layout memorized, and knew there were still too many mazelike corridors left to traverse, too ways in which everything could collapse. If Ziyal cried, if someone caught a glimpse of the grey of his ungloved hands, if a computer self-diagnostic picked up traces of the damage he’d done, if the Vedek’s orbital flier failed to rise as programmed…
Oralius, sustain my spirit and deliver me
, the Cardassian father and fighter prayed, for I have strength left only for this. Help me give this over to your wisdom and will—but please…if I should fall, at least take pity on Ziyal; my life is immaterial before hers.
Ever so faintly he tiptoed across ‘his’ room, swift and soft as his boots would allow—silent enough to his own ears, but dreading all the while what the sharp Bajoran ear might detect that he could not. And then…with that unavoidable swoosh
…into Vedek Tora’s chambers.
He froze, filled with that piquant blend of hostility, dread, and mortification that assaulted him every time he came within visual range of her. She had yet to wake. That was one of the more unnerving things about her, how calmly and deeply she slept in spite of the filth that spewed forth from her in the day. No Cardassian, no matter how secure in the soul, could afford such sleep…and this, if he succeeded, would serve as a prime illustration of why.
Dukat treaded slowly through the room, eyes fixed to her face for any sign of stirring, his attention so rapt that he never noticed, as he backed through the exit, the figure standing behind him. Even the faint proximity warning of the krilătbre-yezul
at the center of his forehead he’d written off as an artifact of fear, nothing more.
Only when the door slid shut did the other lift a hand and place it on his arm. He whirled violently; only the infant in his arms kept the Cardassian defensive instinct from fully asserting itself and earning this foolhardy individual a swift punch in the face. Ziyal hiccupped and whimpered even as the source of the intrusion whispered, “It’s all right—it’s just me, Sulan!”
“Get away! Go!” the Cardassian hissed at the kindly old serving woman, gesturing for them to move away from the vedek’s chambers. “She’ll know you should’ve seen something!” I might even have to hurt you
, he thought with far more regret than he ever would have expected at the prospect of taking out a Bajoran, and one of their women at that.
She met his eyes, which shined in a way her species had to find unsettling, without even the slightest trace of fear. “And if that be the Prophets’ will…so be it.”
Dukat gaped as the import of her phrasing dawned on him. The serving woman did not veil her Prophets in unnecessary vanity, any more than he felt the need to proclaim Oralius as the one true spirit of Cardassia…such things needed not be said, for the spirit knew. Hope bloomed within: she was one of the old believers, driven to worship underground just as his people had.
“I heard a voice calling to me—Get up and get dressed, Sulan!
But no one was there. I felt compelled to come here, to give you this.” Sulan opened her hand. Upon her palm sat an ovoid bronze-brushed device…a thrill of recognition shot through him: the emblem of the hidden faith! She turned it over and rested her thumb upon a catch on its back. “I’ve used it so many times I don’t need it anymore. You’ll find directions inside to a safe house…maybe someone there will know how to get you back to your world. At the least…you’ll have somewhere to hide.”
The Cardassian clasped the Bajoran sigil, doing the best he could to ignore the too-smooth, too-warm feel of her hand. He bowed as deeply as he could with the child in his arms. “I am in your eternal debt.”
“It’s nothing…I serve the Prophets. Now go!
And so he fled.
The light of an unfamiliar satellite glowed resplendent in a halo of moisture, and the air moved through the streets with a boundlessness he hadn’t felt for so long. He shivered in the haze. Something roared overhead and he gazed up, one hand securing the hood of his cloak; even in shadow the Cardassian facial profile was unmistakable.
He had already made it five blocks from the vedek’s compound by the time the orbital flyer launched on autopilot, on a heading for Cardassia. Such a craft could never have survived the interstellar passage, given the navigational hazards of the Denorios Belt and warp eddies, but that didn’t matter. What did was the appearance of a desperate, foolhardy flight—one last resurgence of the old, hotheaded Dukat. That would hopefully keep the vedek and her minions searching skyward long enough for him to take shelter.
His new refuge, according to Sulan’s directions, lay in an impoverished neighborhood only a few blocks further from the opulence of the vedeks’ compounds. Even fewer Bajorans were about the streets here; he supposed the upper crust might fear such territory, but streets like this reminded him of Cardassia Prime. Here he could move as if he belonged.
Finally he reached the house her note described, and with a shuddering breath, rapped on the door. It cracked open just a bit, and a gasp emerged from within. No Cardassian wandered masterless on the streets of Ashalla at this hour unless something had gone severely awry—he could be a murderer, a terrorist…anything. “What in the name of...you’re Tora’s consort!”
Tora’s consort.” He dug into his pocket and pulled out the religious symbol Sulan had given him. “A friend of yours sent us…I mean you no harm—we just want to go home. To Cardassia.”
“Oh, my…” The blond-ponytailed, nightgown-clad Bajoran woman took a step back, hand to her heart. She seemed middle-aged—at least, Dukat assumed so from the slight wrinkles and rounded figure. Her eyebrows arched, blue-grey eyes staring warily back at him, almost coldly at first. Then something drew the Bajoran’s eyes lower; his gaze instinctively followed as Ziyal stretched, fists balled up as she flexed. And the woman’s eyes softened, genuine compassion lighting her features. She had made her choice. “Come in, come in…make haste, child! I’ll do everything I can.”
Just before she shut the door, he turned to look back though he knew the risk of letting his face be shown to any potential passers-by. And with a haunted wisp of a smile, his grey-blue eyes took in one brief glimpse of unfettered daylight.
This story is dedicated all men who suffer the scars of such atrocities. You have my prayers, and my respect.