2375—The Dominion War—One week before the Septimus Massacre
“You wished to see me, Gul Berat?”
It was all the Cardassian commander could do to maintain something that would pass for a relaxed posture when what he really wanted to do was snarl, How
dare you sit there with your desk perched on that platform giving me that narrowed-eyed stare down your ridiculously long nose as though I’m a first-day
garheç about to get written up for failing to polish the legate’s boots properly!
Gul Berat never assigned such demeaning tasks to his own crew: he knew very
well what it was to serve under someone who did, knew very
well what it was to be stripped of all outward dignity and treated worse than a beast of burden. And though the physical hardship had not fallen on Berat this time…he had no doubt he recognized that shade of contempt in the Vorta’s eyes. It was the same expression he remembered on the face of the late, unlamented Selost Marak.
Berat didn’t hesitate in his reply to Dasreen; as with any Cardassian, he recalled his lines perfectly once decided on. “Yes, Dasreen. It…occurred to me that we got off to a rather bad start the first day. I haven’t been able to get it out of my head since then—you have no idea how hard it is for me to say this,” –hard enough to make me feel sick to my stomach even though it’s a total lie!—
“but…you may have had a point, at least somewhat.”
“Oh, really?” Dasreen leaned forward, programmed Vorta diplomatic instincts kicking in with a vengeance. Oh, these creatures were programmed to lap up even the slightest
sign of Dominion-favorable sentiment! The only trouble is
, Berat thought with an inner smirk, the well’s poisoned this time, Dasreen
. The Vorta smiled a treacly-sweet smile like a proud parent at his five-year-old’s first recital of Tret Akleen’s Consolidation of the Union speech, raising an eyebrow, bidding the gul to continue.
Berat gave a slight—ever so slight—incline of the head…the illusion of deference most belatedly—and grudgingly—granted. “I…think it’s possibly I may have allowed my pride to get in the way a bit.” He paused again…the better to swell Dasreen’s ego at the idea of drawing the confession from the recalcitrant Cardassian. Sure enough, Dasreen replied with an encouraging—though overbearing—stare.
Gul Berat waited just a second more, then thought, All right…time to give the Vorta his biscuit.
“I should have considered the fact that perhaps in light of my…condition, there were others better suited to the tasks at hand than myself.”
The Vorta still
sat there, infuriatingly silent, in it now to see just how much he could get out of Berat. In an eerie way, Dasreen now began to remind him of less of the explosive Marak and more of the conniving Gul Dukat. Berat had dealt amicably enough with the narcissistic ghentregămst
after the Deep Space Nine incident—Dukat had been so
pleased with himself at the thought of sweeping in as the herald of the true Cardassian state to be Berat’s personal savior…but even then, after all then-Glinn Berat had endured, he could still see through the illusion. He’d allowed Dukat the privilege of restoring his rank and awarding him his first shipboard posting on the Vrokind
, yes—but privately rejoiced when Macet took an interest and…for once…managed to stake a claim upon which his cousin dared not trespass.
The gul accelerated his delivery now. The ‘great confession’ was out…time to manifest the same overweening enthusiasm he remembered from that nausea-inducing encounter with Gul Broca right after the Dominion takeover. “You know,” Berat pretended to decide on the fly, “I’d like to make it up to you. I pride my crew in their professionalism, and they’ve been that…but I’m afraid they’ve been following my example and that’s about as far as it goes. I can’t imagine that’s been easy on you; I’ve heard Vorta are a very social people by nature. I was thinking…perhaps I could teach you some of our games. I’ll reserve the recreation deck for us—I won’t allow anybody else in. That way…”
It was Berat’s turn to lean in close now. He lowered his voice with a conspiratorial, eyes darting side to side towards the two Jem’Hadar looming over each of Dasreen’s shoulders. “I understand the importance of maintaining one’s credibility in front of one’s men. That way, neither of us loses any of our standing before our subordinates if we lose.”
Berat waited. Come on, come on, come on, take the bait!
Finally, a grin spread across Dasreen’s smug features. “I think you
have a point this time, Gul Berat. First!” Dasreen barked. “I want us undisturbed on our excursion! That includes you two.”
“Esteemed Vorta!” burst out the Jem’Hadar First—Janek’ajan, as Berat recalled. “That is highly inadvisable, to go anywhere alone with one of them!
Dasreen laughed…softly to himself, but it was a laugh nonetheless, and a rather unkind one at that. “Any other time I would agree wholeheartedly,” Dasreen replied. “But him? You worry too much! You have your orders, First.”
And prepared as Gul Berat had been for this—it still smarted. It was as if Dasreen had dared to approach the Sherouk
with shields down. The message it sent was infuriatingly clear: I hold you in such contempt that I need not even expend any energy to defend against you should it ever become necessary.
And the naïveté it demonstrated…that spoke of ignorance coupled with insufferable arrogance—a dangerous combination that had to be dealt with swiftly and decisively lest Cardassia pay the price.
“I’ll show you the way,” Berat offered—quite graciously...at least, in tone.
The rec deck of the Sherouk
was far from the obnoxiously sumptuous sort of facility modern Federation starships like the Galaxy
-class were rumored to have. There were no holodecks, only an assortment of various exercise machines and lines running along the deck in the vast, open bay to indicate various sporting courts and pitches. A collection of static holoprojectors were anchored in the ceiling to generate expendable photonic opponents for full-force sparring, tiny amber lights denoting that they were currently running in power conservation mode.
Berat had turned the lights down low for this exercise, keeping them just barely above the level where the shortsighted Vorta couldn’t make out where he was going. What Dasreen couldn’t have missed, however, was the subtle silver glow reflecting from the Cardassian’s pupils from the vestigial tapeta lucida
coating his retinas as his eyes absorbed the delicate, translucent orb before him. It lacked the intensity of a riding hound’s eyeshine, or even that of the largely diurnal getil
—but it was there nonetheless and contributed to the otherworldliness of the sight. Berat hoped it unnerved the Vorta on some level, if such a thing was indeed possible.
The giant, iridescent bubble hovered soundlessly above the deck as Berat knelt before it in a Cardassian position of meditation: body forming a straight vertical line from head to knees, arms swept from the sides in a curve that mirrored the sweep of the neck ridges, eyes open and seeming to register nothing—but warily watching on the deepest levels of the subconscious nonetheless. This was where rest met readiness, dreams met discipline and melded like coal and iron into steel.
A careful observer would also have noted that as the colors of the orb shifted towards something more solid, the tremor in Berat’s exposed hands grew less and less pronounced, subsiding for occasional spans of a few seconds into near nothingness.
“You promised entertainment. Games
. This…is monotonous,” Dasreen announced. “I fail to understand the purpose of this device.”
The orb flashed with a bewildering, contradictory array of colors as Berat’s flare of irritation mixed with Dasreen’s and disrupted the device’s near-equilibrium. Once knocked out of his meditative trance, merely maintaining his position became a trial once more, let alone generating the theta waves needed to bring the iridescent sphere to rest. He almost had to force his words out at first. “Relaxation. Enjoyment…but by discipline. Focus. Even stillness is directed towards a purpose. The Altonians may have invented it—but I sometimes think the one who did must have been a Cardassian agent. In fact…aside from Altonians and Vulcans, Cardassians have by far the best record of solving the brain teaser of any other race; our discipline of mind gives us an advantage. Granted it took him over three years, but I saw it with my own eyes when Glinn Yejain solved it.”
The Vorta crossed his arms and asked the exact question Gul Berat was leading him to ask. “Have you
ever solved it?”
“No,” Berat plainly replied as he stood, calmly meeting Dasreen’s scrutiny. “I have not…and there is a significant likelihood that my neurological impairment prevents it.”
“Then why bother?” Dasreen pressed. “Why set yourself up for failure time and time again?”
, Berat thought, and you will understand the difference between you and me. And you will understand why it is that we—that
I will defeat you.
It ran against the grain of his scales, what he was about to do. Unlike the carefully-rehearsed lies he’d fed Dasreen back in the Dominion representative’s quarters…what followed was truth
. And more than that—it was the sort of truth he as a Cardassian usually reserved only for those few who had the privilege of calling him ‘Tayben’...far from the sort of thing one generally exposed to one’s enemies.
But it was critical for the series of events Berat would trigger that Dasreen’s ears be firmly focused on him—though a Cardassian would be hard-pressed to hear any of the sounds that might give away what was happening, Dr. Hetalc had warned that the sharp-eared Vorta would be a different matter entirely. Distraction, therefore, was the only option. “A game like this is less about the final victory than it is about the process of getting there,” Berat began. Overhead, in response to his voice and his specific words, the status lights on the holoprojectors he’d had Glinn Motreln retool switched from amber to cyan as they spun up to full power.
Berat kept talking as the power built up. “The extraordinary difficulty, and the benefit of facing that challenge and coming to grips with it, is exactly what keep me coming back. My chances of solving it may well be zero, but I will never know unless I keep trying. If I’m to have even a slight
chance of success, I can’t break my concentration by fretting over the possibility of failure. This puzzle allows even less leeway for that than most other games.”
The projectors began running through their modified test sequence. The column of photons coalescing at Berat’s side emitted no light on the spectrum visible to Vorta or terhăn-çăs
. That was their most typical use, of course, but as Berat well knew, most complex technological devices were capable of far more than they had ever been designed for. Instead, Gul Berat perceived a faint light in the ghenorev
—the under-red, literally, that color just below red on the electromagnetic spectrum.
“I may go to my grave never solving this brain teaser, while someone like Yejain pulls it off in less than four years. And it may well be because of my disability. If it is…then so be it. I will know my limitations by experience rather than fear. But if someday I do
solve it—I’m not sure how well this will translate into your culture, but that victory will be all the more precious to me because I had to take a much harder path to get there.”
The photonic column standing before Dasreen—completely invisible to the Vorta but so blatant to Berat as it shimmered in the heat-light of the ghenorev
that it was an act of will for him not to stare at it—took on a definitive cardasdanoid shape now. And in a brilliant stroke of artistry from Motreln that he hadn’t counted on, it began to mirror Gul Berat’s height and build until for all intents and purposes, it became an eerie, glowing three-dimensional silhouette of him
For just a fraction of a second, Berat had to pause and admire her work. It was perfect beyond words, and made all the more poignant what was about to happen. It began to walk now as the forcefields that would give it substance snapped online. It made no audible footsteps, for the projector emitted the image just barely above the ground; it trod on a razor-thin layer of air.
“My disability does not
sap the value from my life,” Berat insisted, his passion swelling. The holographic projection worked its way past Dasreen and around until it stood right behind the Vorta. “It only adds complexity. Continuing my service to Cardassia—commanding this ship—carrying my people from battle to battle…holding a stylus in my hand and signing my name…putting on my armor and going to the bridge to serve on those days when the pain is so bad I hardly even feel strong enough get out of bed…I treat all of these things the same way as this puzzle—it is the striving itself that drives me on and gives me meaning, and pushes me further than I would ever manage if I listened to everything I am told about where my limits lie. Let me
be the one to find what they are!
The hologram drew back its ghostly, glowing fist, and froze in place, awaiting Berat’s final phrase, his final command. “I will not be swayed!” he snapped, letting the last illusions of courtesy and restraint fall away. “Do you understand now, Dasreen?”
The Vorta’s eyes went wide. At last—at last, the smug Dominion servant understood: somewhere
there loomed an immediate threat, but he had no idea what it was, only that it was entirely too late. He was too stunned to move, even to cry out for help as Gul Tayben Berat unleashed his judgment and his sentence: “That very first moment, when you failed to truly see that, to see me
—your fate was sealed!”
That was all the hologram needed to hear. Its knuckles smashed into the back of the Vorta’s skull with the swift and crushing force of justice inexorable. Berat jumped back out of the way as gravity cut Dasreen down to size. His stomach turned for just a second as a barely-audible crunch signified the Vorta’s nose breaking on impact with the deckplate. But only
for a second.
Berat knelt and slipped his fingers onto the side of Dasreen’s neck. The cocktail of adrenaline and endorphins flooding his bloodstream would have made it a fierce struggle even for an able-bodied person to hold his hand steady enough to make the determination. For Berat it was an even greater exertion of will. But his efforts were rewarded: there was Dasreen’s pulse, unmistakable. It was still strong for now…no sign that the termination implant had activated.
There wasn’t much time left. Gul Berat slapped his wristcomm. “Berat to Motreln—it’s done! Transport now!”
“Gorhoç edek, Gul!
” the engineer replied, her voice filled with unmistakable pleasure and relief. I obey, Gul!
The insensate Vorta lit from within with the orange light of the transporter and shimmered out of sight and straight into cold storage where he would remain for the foreseeable future. “And, Gul…I think I speak for all of us when I say congratulations are in order. What you did…was incredibly brave.
” He took no offense at the obvious evidence of relief in her tone. Had she behaved as though she had absolute certainty in his success before the fact, he would have known her praise to be insincere. Such was the nature of his condition: it removed the certainty in things that for anyone else would be sure, and the first step to dealing with that reality was to acknowledge even those unpleasant aspects.
But that knowledge—important as it was—was only knowledge of the starting line. And that was what he and the crew of the Sherouk
understood, that the Vorta never had.
“You have my thanks—both for your confidence and for everything all of you have done to help me bring this about,” Berat replied with a warm smile Glinn Motreln couldn’t see, but he hoped she could feel. “Are you ready for the next phase?”
,” Motreln replied.
“Then execute!” the gul enthusiastically ordered. “Berat out.”
The channel closed and Berat issued one last command. “Computer—end program.”
With a final glimmer in the ghenorev
—the under-red, the light-silhouetted near-simulacrum of Berat sparkled out of existence, leaving the genuine article standing there blissfully alone on the rec deck with a quiet, satisfied smile upon his lips.
And at last, as the tension wound out of his body, his damaged nerves voiced their indignation at the demands he had placed upon them with that potent jolt of concentration and excitement. A sharp stab of pain radiated from Berat’s fingers and up his right arm and into his shoulder, but the triumphant gul was completely unperturbed. He instinctively clenched and flexed his fingers to allay the pain—but right now, the effort was merely perfunctory.
It felt an awful lot like he had smashed his fist into something.