Author’s note: This story takes place in the “Catacombs of Oralius” universe—the same one I’ve used for most of my TrekBBS contest entries. This world was first seen in the TNG episode “Parallels.” In this universe, the Cardassians have, by and large, remained believers in the Oralian Way, and their history has taken a very different course…with significant effects on certain people.
Written with thanks to Andrew J. Robinson for his concept of the Oralian Way, as he described in
A Stitch in Time. I have taken it, tweaked it, and greatly elaborated upon it throughout the
Catacombs of Oralius series, but I thank him very much for the idea. Thanks also are due to Gibraltar for the challenge topic over at Ad Astra that gave me the impetus to actually start writing this. I wound up with way too much story to make the cut for the challenge, but AU Dukat is grateful. Also…acknowledgments due to everyone who suggested title ideas in the thread over there. You did a wonderful job of sparking my imagination.
This will be a slow-updating story, but I hope that Part I will be enjoyable for now.
And in conclusion…Gibraltar, you asked a question, and I thought of this verse in response:
"For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for My sake,
he is the one who will save it.
For what is a man profited if he gains the whole world,
This, indeed, is at the root of all that I write, though I may write about very different worlds from our own. I place my faith in Christ and will not be ashamed.
6 Hedorăk, Sixth Year of the 370th Ăstraya
Federation Year 2325
and loses or forfeits himself?”
A tall, lanky young man in a casual, but conservatively-tailored two-piece burgundy suit sat on the floor with the coolness of the skin-grey stone wall of the corridor at his back, and the warmth of the red-shifted sunlight streaming in from the floor-to-ceiling windows at his front. He kept his long legs carefully tucked close to his body lest they trip passers-by…he’d already inadvertently caught a few fellow students unawares in his first days of university and paid for that with a set of purple bruises under his grey, scaled skin. His eyes, ringed by a strikingly angular set of ridges that lent a certain intensity even to his current demeanor of meditation, were closed now as he let the contrasts of cold and heat play through his body, and he prayed.
Any other year, a passerby might have thought the twenty-year-old novice student had reached that point where further study of a troublesome subject was useless and the matter of one’s exam grade simply had to be commended to the aid of a higher power. But this year…everyone felt it: a strange tension between the need to carry on their lives as though everything were normal, to keep progressing towards their ordinary goals in case the distant storm relented—and the sense that their universe was on the verge of unraveling completely.
They were too young for the war, of course; there was nothing they could do other than conserve resources for the sake of the war effort…and pray. Unlike short-lived species like…like the terhăn-çăs
, the twenty-year-old novice student thought, reaching for an example he knew mainly from his textbooks and a documentary or two, the Cardassian lifespan meant no one below the age of twenty-four was subject to the emergency draft the Castellan had reluctantly enacted after the rasgă’ălour
, or the outer colony worlds, had fallen to the Bajoran invasion fleet. There was talk of lowering the draft age as the situation worsened…but as the young man grudgingly admitted to himself, by the time the politicians ever agreed on such a course, the fate of Cardassia Prime would already be decided.
The commotion in the hall finally grew too noisy for him to keep his focus upon Oralius. His grey eyes popped open…and Skrain Dukat took in the sights. Indeed, he had marveled at the diversity of culture and style when he’d first arrived on campus—still did. He attended Yavenn Pretam University of Culat, one of the faith-based universities as opposed to, say, the secular University of Culat, but contrary to what even he had expected, far from falling into lockstep with each other, it wasn’t just the immigrants among the faculty and students who sported their own unique styles.
The women, of course, donned an almost bewildering array of hairstyles and fashions—but so too did the men. Most of them wore their hair at least down to the level of their chins, a few in the slicked-back military cut, but that was the shortest, for the most part…queues and hair down to the shoulders were quite common. A few men even wore one or more braids, and simple ornaments were not unheard of. But more surprising for Dukat had been seeing a few men who had shaved their hair within a centimeter of their scalps, to the point where one could actually see their entire eye ridges, tracing from the hook all the way up the forehead to the point where they receded into the skull.
And Valouk had actually pierced his eye ridge
. Even looking
at the ornamented ring through the thick cartilage was painful, as far as Dukat was concerned.
Dukat, for his part, wore his long black hair pulled neatly into a queue that reached down to the middle of his back. For a Cardassian man from Culat, this conveyed a reasonably conservative, businesslike look that suited the position Dukat hoped someday to enter: prosecuting nestor—the one responsible for representing the interests of the state in court. He could easily have become a conservator as well, the one who saw the convicted criminal through his sentencing and served as advocate for the rights of those within the criminal justice system—or alternately, served as court-appointed guardian and advocate for minors placed under court protection…but his rhetoric instructor back in secondary school had pointed out that his debate style grew a bit too fiery sometimes for that. As for the defensive nestor…that role paid better, and it was a very necessary role for the legal system to function, but Dukat just couldn’t stomach the thought of some of the evil people he’d have to defend.
Oralius knew he’d fought hard enough to have this chance, how much he’d had to draw upon her when his own resources would not suffice. And to Dukat, serving the enemies of righteousness in such a manner would have felt as though he returned her kindness with a slap on the face. Others were called to this role in their legal system, yes, for there were innocent to be defended as well. But for him…it was out of the question. He owed far too much.
At twenty years old, he was older than most of the novice class. It wasn’t that he had lacked the intellect to move from level to level on time…in fact, he probably could have done so early in his later secondary school years, if it hadn’t been for the illness.
He’d just barely turned thirteen then—only just begun to speak with the voice of a young man—when for reasons couldn’t explain, he began to feel as if his very soul were draining out of his body through his toes. He’d tried to hide it for the longest time, tried to brush it off, to do everything he could to forget…but still it circled round and round his head like a zerayd
on the hunt, waiting, just waiting for the opportunity to strike.
Perhaps he could have told somebody, he thought—and in retrospect, that would have been the right thing to do. But in greater clarity and age, and perhaps with the faintest beginnings of wisdom, that was easy to see. At thirteen years of age, in the midst of that miasma, it had been a different matter entirely. That meant the first worrisome sign anyone else had noticed had been when the quality of his academics began to falter. He could never find the right words to explain, when his parents and teachers confronted him about it, and it always ended up in a fight—as far as any one else could tell, he was disinterested, he was lazy…and worst of all, he was rebellious, had something wrong with his instincts to disregard his instructors and parents thus, especially after promising time after time that he would turn his performance around.
There had been a brief period where things seemed to improve—he felt quite steady at first, but as time went on, he seemed to be on a constant, unstoppable ascent to orbit where suddenly the world was aflame with light, where his energy was boundless and nothing, not even petty nuisances like the need for food or sleep, could slow him down: everything he encountered, he threw himself at with a tempestuous passion. He lived, or so it felt, within his own personal subspace field, where pedestrian things like the ordinary speed of light simply could not interfere. But after the pit of quicksand from which he believed he’d finally managed to extricate himself, this was far preferable. And as far as anyone else had been concerned, ‘the old Skrain Dukat was back.’
After another month or so, this ceaseless energy cooled off, and he figured the end of the euphoria was to be expected and he could simply go on with his life just as he had before any of it happened. And then…it had hit him again. He could pinpoint the very moment it had happened—he had just come home from evening session in school, when it pulled down upon him so brutally that it felt as if he were being drawn into the gravity well of a neutron star. Unbearable, endless, inexorable…he couldn’t think straight.
In the end, that was also what saved him. It had come on so suddenly that he’d never really had the time or presence of mind to form a coherent plan for his own demise: he’d simply taken the first exit he could see. His father had been the one to sense something amiss—there had been too much silence, Dukat supposed…and in that silence, he must have heard the voice of Oralius. That was the only way to explain it, how he’d known. The last thing he remembered was Father crouched over his draining body, shouting down the stairs for his older brother to call the emergency medics—and then, as he lost consciousness, the hum of a transporter that signaled their arrival.
He had woken to find his parents, a doctor, and Ihanok, the family’s Guide, all standing over him, their faces revealing deep worry and compassion…but also confusion. Grief. He could see the question in their eyes that none of them could find the heart to ask, and the same one he couldn’t find the strength to answer: Why, Skrain?
He had survived…but it had taken three months of intensive treatment after he recovered from the blood loss—months marked by a strange, difficult sort of mourning for himself, or at least, who he thought he should have been—to find something resembling equilibrium again.
It hadn’t just been the weeks it took the doctors to figure out the proper medication for his serious condition...it had been the slow process of stitching himself back together in body, mind, and spirit. He saw not just the doctors and therapists during his recovery—but a Guide as well, a compassionate woman named Derava, who had been called to minister to those suffering the illnesses of the mind. Dukat had been raised a believer in the Way, but, he now believed, it was only in being brought so low that he truly began to open his eyes to the mysteries of Oralius. To wonder
. And hope.
And it was this prayer, this meditation, this deep and abiding belief, that…at least, over time…helped him learn to resist the temptation to go off his medication in search of the wild onrush of mania and the intoxicating, powerful sense of invulnerability that went with it. And to keep drawing breath, one at a time, when his dosage needed to be adjusted and the depression struck. He had setbacks, yes—and in that first year after his diagnosis, he lost enough ground in school in spite of his best efforts that he had to repeat that level.
But finally…he had graduated, and entered the university. Yes, he was two years older than most of his peers—but this victory had been the sweetest in his short life thus far. And indeed, the temptation to immolate himself in the fires of the mania was still there, but he had been here, living by himself for almost two months thus far and by faith he still had yet to lapse even once.
Now, a soft chiming tone issued from the ceiling-mounted speakers and a low, feminine voice announced, “Sixth session
Dukat stood—as long as Inquisitor Osenal wasn’t planning on holding class over, there was about to be a stream of students out the door, and sitting on the floor as he was, even with his legs tucked in, he was still sure to wind up as a sentient speed bump if he didn’t move, and quickly. He grabbed his rucksack, throwing it casually over his shoulder as he entered the lecture hall.
The light of Verkoun filtered in through a skylight at the center of the vaulted ceiling of the amphitheater-style classroom, lending a bit of its color to the grey- and beige-skinned students who filed in and took their desks settled into silence as Inquisitor Osenal took the podium and killed the artificial lighting in preparation for their time of prayer. Osenal cut a regal figure in his black, blue-trimmed ruviyal
, a traditional Nevotda men’s robe. Almost a fourth of the Culat campus inquisitors were born in Nevot and educated at the main campus in Lourasat, hometown of Yavenn Pretam, the Guide after whom the university was named—and some, like Osenal, very much retained their ties to their homeland.
Inquisitor Osenal cleared his throat. There was something quite commanding about the Introductory Survey of Science professor’s voice even though he kept it at normal levels. Perhaps it was that crisp articulation of the vowels, almost like a musical instrument in its sound, that distinguished the accents of native-born Nevotda when they spoke the common tongue of Cardăsda in lieu of the languages of their region. “The class will come to order,” he firmly declared. “If time permits, we will pick up where we left off yesterday and cover the shaping our ancestors into the modern, sentient form.”
Though Osenal used the poetic description common to most believers in the Oralian Way—shaping
—the concept he spoke of was the exact same evolution described in the secular universities. Though there had been occasional spats in the far distant past between scientists and certain practitioners of the Way, most of that had come to an end almost seven centuries ago, about the time the Hebitians took their first baby steps into space. These days…even the thought
of conflict between seekers of truth, be that spiritual or material truth, seemed utterly ridiculous and unnecessary.
For just a second after Osenal’s pronouncement, Dukat let a faint smile trace across his face: he could hardly think of a better example of a divine miracle than the shaping of sentient life. He’d visited the Catacombs of the Shaping in the city of Lakariy’ane once on a field trip…and the descent into the candlelit underground shrine had been among the most moving experiences of his life. Within the Catacombs lay the entombed bodies of creatures representing every major step of Cardassian evolution. Each one, upon its discovery and positive identification as a direct Cardassian ancestor, had received a proper memorial and interment, their remains respectfully placed into vaults, safely shielded from the eyes of gawkers. Instead, visitors interacted with detailed holograms that allowed them to see the appearance of the remains as well as a holo-artist’s interpretation of how they would have looked and moved in life.
And to behold the evidence of Oralius’ painstaking labor of love, that shaping of life from a tiny therapsid creature not unlike the vole into people like himself—it had moved him almost to tears, an expression of wonder both in mind and spirit.
But Dukat’s smile quickly faded. There was a reason Inquisitor Osenal had said, if time permits
: just last night, the Bajoran invasion force had made its first incursions into the Cardassia system itself.
No one had slept well the night before. How could they, as the damage and casualty reports kept rolling in, this time from the edges of the Cardassia system itself? How could they forget the fact that the class might shrink by an entire third, if the Castellan’s proposed emergency draft kicked in, since apparently even the activation of the entire Reserve Order hadn’t been enough? All they could do now was pray…pray that the new Gălor
-class vessels of the First Order—the home guard—would be enough to turn back the Bajoran assault, enough to give them a moment’s reprieve, enough to convince the Federation arbiters of power that it was worth the fight.
All of this had come on with such terrible swiftness…six months ago, no one had ever really heard
of a Bajoran, not even Dukat, an avid reader of speculative fiction. But now it was inescapable. And still…even with the draft, with the inevitable shortages and rationing as the resource-poor planet lost tie after tie to its trading partners and colonies, the people of Cardassia Prime tried—at least as much as anybody really could—to lead a normal life.
But in the end, there was no escaping it. They could not help but feel the dread. And they could not help but plead to Oralius, that this storm might pass harmlessly overhead, that they might not be struck down.