They wore desert uniforms—off-white, loose-fitting shirts and pants with the Starfleet patch sewn to the breast, that would have blended in perfectly on the streets of Kabul. The trim of each man and woman’s sleeve bore their rank and department colors. The system primary—Verkoun, after which the class of ships that had escorted them here had been named—had climbed high in the sky, but its light still had a distinctly reddish hue in comparison to Sol, and the tinge it brought to the sky reminded him a bit of the Martian colonies even in midday. But this place was far, far hotter than Mars at midday. Despite their mode of dress, Christopher Pike could have sworn the oppressive heat of the capital city had hit him even before the transport cycle had a chance to complete itself; only Ambassador Sarek, in his heavy Vulcan robes, appeared wholly unaffected. Had the Cardassians arranged things this way on purpose?
To actually set foot on this planet, after what he had read about it during the shuttle trip, was a strange and sobering experience. Just as Earth had numerous times in its past, Cardassia Prime was suffering the agonies of a major extinction event, and had been for the past four hundred years—an event that bore striking similarities to the Great Dying, the climactic crisis marking the boundary between the Permian and Triassic eras. It was the Great Dying that had killed the creatures on Earth most similar to the Cardassians—and indeed, a sizeable portion of the planet’s other dominant species: the therapsids, creatures not entirely reptilian, but not entirely mammalian, either. The Cardassian vole, he’d noticed in his reading, bore a rather striking resemblance to the Terran cynodont—although Pike had immediately commented to his fellow red-cuffed ensign that the cynodont had the better end of the bargain by far.
Pike ceased his musings almost immediately: security guards, clad in similarly forbidding outfits to the wing of the military represented by Gul Tamrak, although with decidedly less armor, surrounded them. Still, Pike couldn’t help observing how these men blended in with the architecture—a rather brooding blend between Art Deco and Gothic features, though with a utilitarian austerity to the entire thing.
The other thing that struck Pike were the giant viewscreens mounted almost everywhere in sight, not unlike the famed Times Square television before the nuclear attack…though these had an elliptical shape to them. All of them were tuned to the same channel; a man clad in an identical uniform to Gul Tamrak was speaking. Ensign Pike couldn’t understand a word of it, for the translator could only handle so many input-output channels simultaneously, and that one had been discarded in favor of the speech of those nearby. The tone, however—at least, if Cardassian speech was similar enough to that of humans to make the judgment—was decidedly authoritative in nature. Was this some sort of public service announcement? Or was this what the people of this world were subjected to all the time? Somehow Pike suspected the latter.
Then the guard nearest to Pike spoke. “Sosotiy Cardăsa-ra Terăm-ra oça’adep de’ek
,” he declared, his eyes cold and his tone just as steely as the one from the viewscreen. Captain ch’Maashan held the team’s Universal Translator in a possessive grip. Though he stared stonily ahead, something about the Andorian warrior’s demeanor sent a clear message—try and take this from me and I
will test my theory on what orifice of yours it’ll fit into
. The translator rendered the Cardassian’s words into Federation Standard: I welcome you all to Cardassia Prime
But almost imperceptibly, the Vulcan ambassador’s eyes had narrowed. Was there something rude about the guard’s statement that the translator hadn’t caught? Still, that didn’t stop Sarek from delivering a level, even respectful response in the other’s native language: “Pakariy malinzayn ça’ada
.” You do a great service
, the translator said at first—then amended itself with a looser translation: We thank you
At this, the guard raised an eye ridge, ever so slightly. The hook of cartilage shading each eye was only half as mobile as a human or Vulcan eyebrow, so Pike supposed this gesture might have seemed a bit more animated in Cardassian eyes than it appeared to him. Was he impressed, perhaps, that the Vulcan had taken the time to study his language? Or was that contempt, that a lesser being would speak in his tongue?
,” the guard commanded—You will follow me
. He gestured towards the great portal of the largest building: this, according to the mission plan, was the main headquarters of Cardassia’s Central Command. Opening relations at their military headquarters
, Pike thought to himself. If
that doesn’t send a signal about what these people are like, I don’t know what else does.
Once through the doors, Sarek, ch’Maashan, Pike, and the rest of the team were subjected to a series of scans so prolonged and intrusive that Pike half expected an all-cavity strip search to follow. No one ordered them to remove their clothes, thankfully—but the ensign rather suspected that the Cardassians’ scanners had already done the job, in a manner of speaking.
Only after this process was completed were they led into a conference room not much larger than the officers’ briefing room aboard the Challenger
. At first Pike wondered if this, like the outdoor transport coordinates, the strip-scan, and whatever it was in the guard’s phrasing Sarek had found so rude, was also a none-too-kind statement as to what these Cardassians thought about the visiting aliens. Then again
, he observed, we’re not exactly here officially; I don’t suppose a red-carpet welcome would exactly be appropriate under the circumstances
The first three Cardassians to enter the room, judging from the Union sigil emblazoned on the sleeves of each man’s cuirass, were thă’ăkliv
, a rank that for whatever reason had been translated into Federation Standard as ‘legate.’ One lower-ranking officer accompanied each thăkliv
, his or her rank indicated by two gold diamond shapes—the larger on top, a smaller one below—with a hollow in the middle of the upper diamond. This, Pike remembered, signified the rank of glinn
…a position so difficult to translate into Federation Standard that like gul
, it remained untranslated. But the way they related to the senior officers made it quite clear they served as aides.
“Veçok de’ekou Măcor, Yasur, me Uparok
,” the oldest-seeming of the legates said, gesturing first to his own chest, then pointing at the other two. Even before the translation caught up, Pike understood Macor to be introducing himself and his fellow legates. Legate Macor did not, however, bother to introduce their aides.
Another Cardassian burst into the room—this one, at least judging from his clothing, appeared to be a civilian. His breath came quickly, as though he and his aide had been running to reach the meeting on time; he narrowed his eyes at Legate Macor as if accusing him of something. Macor countered with a menacing look of his own. If this was the representative of the Cardassian Union’s civilian Detapa Council that they had been told in the official dossier to expect, then this dynamic surely didn’t bode well.
Is it me
, Pike wondered, or did Macor intentionally give this guy the wrong time or place for the meeting?
For his own part, the young ensign would have translated the civilian’s look as something like, Nice try, jackass.
He glanced over at ch’Maashan, though he didn’t go so far as to raise an eyebrow. The Andorian met his eyes—it seemed the captain was on the same page.
“Rhăbalbre Telor edek
,” the civilian announced simply: I am Councillor Telor
The Councillor’s aide, who went unintroduced just the same as the legates’ aides, was a pale-hued young man who seemed a bit more absorbed with whatever he had started typing into the table console than the momentous occasion unfolding around him; his fingers danced across the panel with the graceful precision and rapidity of a concert pianist—though these weren’t exactly the slender fingers of a musician. There was strength in them as well, that suggested someone capable of a more practical sort of work, though some would surely call it just as much of an art. All of this registered subconsciously to Pike; all he knew was that he suddenly had an image of this man building model planes for a hobby—that is, if Cardassians did any such thing.
The aide glanced up from his work…possibly some sort of last-minute reference check to compensate for the Councillor’s near-lateness. Like the others had before, he coolly assessed the Starfleet team. Pike wasn’t sure if it was the natural wideness of this particular man’s eye ridges, or the lightness of his blue eyes not unlike some in Pike’s own family, but something about the young Cardassian’s expression seemed ever so slightly different from Councillor Telor’s, and especially compared to the legates—at least to Pike the difference was like night and day. His eyes betrayed an earnest curiosity about the mammalian visitors not unlike a Starfleet officer his age might have displayed.
Ensign Pike couldn’t resist smiling at the young aide. The Cardassian, however, gave not even the slightest hint of a smile. Pike’s face fell. But at that, something flickered in those lake-blue eyes—hard to read, especially with the reduced mobility of those eye ridges, but…it almost looked like regret.
And then Pike understood, with a flash of his own remorse: the aide could not
evince even the slightest approval or even openness towards the aliens lest he risk being branded by the Orwellian regime as a traitor…it had been unfair of Pike to expect the response he would from someone not trapped in the yoke of totalitarianism. Still, the young man maintained eye contact for a fraction of a second more…and that said enough. There are at least a few
, Pike thought to himself, that seem to have some receptiveness towards us as more than just allies of convenience.
There would be no accord today. It was far too premature for such a thing, and hopefully there would never come a day of such grievous need as that. But at least if the time came, this reassured Pike a bit: no matter what the uniformity their society had enforced on the populace, this was far from a hive culture. No—there was
a soul underneath…one that in some cases, apparently lay much closer to the surface than others.
Something kicked Ensign Pike under the table: ch’Maashan. The Andorian spoke not a single word. Instead, he edged his antennae backwards, a gesture he apparently hoped the Cardassians’ spies—for there certainly were
spies, perhaps even among the delegation—would fail to interpret as significant. After all, Andorian antennae were almost always on the move, and most often in an instinctive manner. But Pike had already worked long enough with ch’Maashan long enough to know what this deliberate gesture translated to: Watch your back—it’s time.
And thus began the Federation’s first formal contact with the Cardassian Union, twenty-four years before most of its citizens would ever know.
32 Hedorăk, Union Year 388
[Federation Year 2258]
Cardăsa Terăm—City of Lakat
The pale-hued, forty-four year-old Cardassian, still considered young by his people’s standards, set down his tools and glanced up from the elaborate maze of plastic tubing he’d been working on. It was a vompăt
habitat, of a magnitude he’d promised the twins would elicit the jealousy of pets throughout the Union. As soon as his twin sons had asked their parents’ permission to buy a pair of vo’ompat
, Varec had immediately laid down two stipulations: one, they would evenly
split the primary care responsibility for both pets, and two—under no circumstances would he allow them to carry the poor creatures in the tiny plastic globes so many other kids used for the small, unusually furry creatures. It was a cruel practice, Varec and Nelay had both insisted, and strictly forbidden for any child of theirs.
Varec could have worked all night on the habitat—but with a glance at his wrist chrono, he realized it was nearly time for bed. That’s odd
, he thought to himself: the children should already have been asleep by now, so normally his wife wouldn’t shout across the house like that.
, Nelay?” he called back. “Is everything all right?”
“Turn on the news!” Nelay yelled. “You have to see this!”
“I repeat for those of you just tuning in that in the wake of the destruction of the core Federation planet of Vulcan, a mutual defense pact was signed early this morning by representatives of Central Command and the Detapa Council
,” Glinn Kopal, the usual newscaster, was announcing. “The Federation representatives have bound themselves to their word: should the Klingons or Romulans attempt—however futilely—to mount an offensive against the Union, we are to be defended as vigorously as their own core worlds. And should they fail to live up to their oaths, rest assured that we shall exact retribution in punitive measure. Cardassia
shall not fall as Vulcan has fallen!
“It should be emphasized that all dealings with the Federation
must be cleared through official channels. No citizen shall seek passage beyond Union borders without the express permission of the proper authorities, and anyone coming into contact with Federation citizens shall submit a full contact report to the following address…
Varec obligingly watched until the glinn had finished his message, rather absently memorizing the address, but assigning it little import…his internship as Councillor Telor’s aide was long overwith, and he now had a successful career as one of the civilian Administrators of Lakat. Once Kopal finished his message, Varec switched the viewscreen back off for the night and switched off the lights; the starlight coming in through the windows was enough for him to see where he was headed.
Nelay was waiting in her nightclothes for him at the head of the stairs, her long hair flowing loose for the night, almost down to her waist. She pressed her lips together. “Do you think they’re a threat, Varec?”
Varec, of course, dared not reveal his participation in the first formal contact between the Federation and the Union; that was classified information and the penalty for revealing such information was death. And as everyone knew, the eyes and ears of the Obsidian Order could be anywhere; the threshold of the home was far from sacrosanct, as far as they were concerned. He had a feeling, based on that day’s interactions. But he could not, must not couch it in those terms. “I don’t believe so,” he truthfully answered, then continued. “Central Command’s clearly thinking ahead…I trust they would never allow it.”
Nelay nodded her agreement with the orthodoxy her husband had just cited. “Wise words, Administrator,” she affirmed with a smile, and kissed him delicately on the jaw ridge. Varec returned the kiss, following it with a long embrace, letting her draw reassurance from the feeling of his body and bioelectric field against hers.
Thus relaxed, Varec finally began to notice how tired he was. “I’d best be off to bed,” he decided. “I’ve got a council meeting first thing in the morning.”
“You do that,” Nelay gently chided. “I’ll check on the kids first—I’ll be along shortly.”
He crawled into bed, his muscles weary—and his mind churning relentlessly over the evening’s news. He turned out the lights, lay down, and pulled a pillow over his head as many Cardassians did to maintain warmth as they slept…but for just a moment, he pulled the covers up as well. To any outside observer, whether to Cardassian eyes or those of an Obsidian Order camera, he would appear as nothing but a silhouetted shape of a man formed out of cloth.
Like any Cardassian, his eidetic memory allowed him to almost relive the events of the past as if they were yesterday. In his mind’s eye, he glanced up from the research Councillor Telor had begun, but never had the time to finish thanks to Legate Macor’s attempt to cut Telor out of the meeting entirely—or at least embarrass him.
A young, dark-haired human met his gaze with intense, almost raptor-like eyes. Pike
, the Vulcan ambassador would call him. But as piercing and analytical as those eyes were, they seemed to twinkle a bit—alien he might be, but what he read there was genuine goodwill…far from the rapaciousness the usual animated caricatures of foreigners might depict.
Pike aimed an amiable grin in his direction.
Now, as he lay there in the dark, face hidden by the bedcovers, he felt that same flash of regret he remembered from the day of the conference. With his tongue, he touched the empty spot where his first molar had been extracted at the age of ten and given to the Bureau of Identification…the sign every Cardassian carried of the state’s place in the hierarchy over the individual. He felt a similar hollow deep in his memory of the moment.
But tonight, twenty-four years late though it might be…Varec Berat smiled.