“Let us come together in prayer,” the Nevotda inquisitor intoned, his voice powerful but lined with a quiet, understated compassion. This was how every class at Yavenn Pretam University began…but what wasn’t so typical was Osenal loosening the drawstrings on a pouch he always carried at his side, withdrawing a finely-carved recitation mask and holding it reverently in both hands just as a Guide typically did at the beginning of a worship service.
I doubt there’ll be a lecture today
, Dukat thought to himself—for Osenal served not only as inquisitor and active research scientist…but also as a Guide of the Oralian Way. Both of these were predominantly female roles in Cardassian society, but there was no doubt, to watch or listen to Osenal, that he was rightfully called to both just as much as a woman might be.
And right now, Osenal seemed to have decided, he was more needed as Guide than inquisitor.
“After we pray the Invocation,” the scientist-priest invited, “every student who feels called to lead may do so. Those of you who wish to don the recitation mask are free to do so; those of you who prefer the laying on of the hands…I am willing.” In some Oralian sects, the donning of the recitation mask, which represented the wearer’s transformation into a conduit for the spirit of Oralius, was a privilege reserved specifically for the Guide, though others could share in the priest’s invocation of the spirit of Oralius by the Guide’s ritual placement of her—or his—hands upon the supplicant’s shoulders. In other sects, however, such as Dukat’s and apparently Osenal’s, while the Guide always led the rituals, spoke the Invocation first, and delivered the first readings and sermon, any layperson who led a prayer—and sometimes even those in individual meditation—wore their own masks.
Osenal paused in silence for a moment as a few of the students—Dukat included—reached into their rucksacks. His fingers brushed against the cool wood of a carrying case, clasping it carefully lest the lovingly-carved mask, a gift from his parents, blessed by Derava and Ihanok both…the Guides who had had the greatest impact upon his life so far. The border of the rectangular box bore a series of verses from the Hebitian Records in tiny, elegant Lhai’khar characters—the language of the first several books of the Records.
When Dukat opened the lid of the case, he took the mask carefully in both hands. Each of these sacred objects was carved by a mask-shaper, often a Guide herself, or at least a member of one of the religious orders. To carve a mask for a Cardassian was a painstaking endeavor undertaken only with much prayer and contemplation by both the shaper and the wearer—not just for the understated details on the face of the mask, but those inside as well: the mask had to sit comfortably over the facial ridges…and this was what reminded believers that one did not hide
behind the mask, for it always bore some semblance underneath of the person who wore it. As one wears the mask of Oralius
, went the proverb, so the mask wears you
For now he simply cradled the recitation mask in his hands on the desk: this moment was Osenal’s to lead. First Osenal placed the recitation mask over his solemn countenance. Then he reached out, palms facing each other, fingertips slightly curled as if drawing in the warmth of a candleflame. This was a gesture that resonated even with those without belief—for this therapsid species, who, while not the reptiles non-Cardassians sometimes mistook them for, still drew more of their warmth from the environment than a mammalian species like terhăn-çăs
…or Bajorans. And just as the body drew from its surroundings that which it could not produce or fully retain on its own, without the help of sunlight and clothing, so did the soul of the believer draw from its divine source that grace it could not generate or maintain for itself.
The Guide prayed the Invocation first, the ritual by which each Oralian’s prayer began: “The power that moves through me, animates my life, animates the mask of Oralius: to speak her words with my voice, to think her thoughts with my mind, to feel her love with my heart—it is the song of morning, opening up to life, bringing truth of her wisdom to those who live in the shadow of the night.
“It is this selfsame power turned against creation, turned against my friend, that can destroy his body with my hand, reduce his spirit with my hate, separate his presence from my home: to live without Oralius lighting our way to the source, connecting us to the mystery, is to live without the tendrils of love.”
Then he began to speak of that matter that weighed most upon each of their hearts, his conversation with Oralius at once seeming intimate, almost private…and yet Dukat felt as if he, though he did not use his own voice—at least, not now—also participated in the conversation, that his words the Guide also spoke. And that, he believed, was indeed the work of Oralius within Osenal, giving him the words to most aptly express what they were all united upon.
“We do not fully comprehend the reasons for the trials our people endure in recent generations,” he proclaimed in his rich, musically-toned voice. “The very soil and atmosphere of our homeworld have turned against us without our doing, and only you know when or if this condition will reverse itself during the span of the Cardassian race. And now our colony worlds fall to an alien species that places itself in opposition not simply to your children, but to you. We pray that you will deflect this sword from the backs of our necks, that you compel the floodwaters to recede and leave the worlds of Cardassia in peace.”
And here, in Osenal’s brief pause, Dukat heard his own thoughts again for a moment. And we also know
, he silently added, that our faith is not simply what the Bajorans oppose—it is what repulses the great Federation sufficiently that they do not come to our aid
. Indeed, the newscasters had announced just a week ago that the Castellan himself had transmitted an emergency plea straight to the Federation Council, and received a disturbingly rapid, curt sort of summary judgment from the terhăn
-led alliance: that even though the Bajorans were clearly the aggressors, the Federation’s ‘Prime Directive’ forbade so-called ‘interference’ in conflicts between species that were driven by religious causes, no matter how fanatical and violent the aggressors, or how reasonable the defenders.
We have science
, Dukat thought with a flash of indignation. We have free dissent. We do not start interstellar wars. And yet to them, we are no different than the Bajorans who attack worlds that never raised a fist against them!
Aspiring law student that he was, he’d read that thrice-burned Federation statute. He’d also read their Charter and Guarantees. And nowhere
did it state that the beliefs of non-member states was just cause to deny an earnest plea by a warp-capable society for help against unprovoked aggression. In fact, those very same Guarantees read very much like the Cardassian Right of Worship, which granted all born of Cardassian blood, or legally residing in Cardassian space, the freedom to worship with any sect, or abstain as one felt moved, without fear of government reprisal or secular employer discrimination.
What the Federation had on paper was really quite noble, and he imagined its founders had held ideals that were quite admirable indeed. But something had become twisted over time—at least, in certain sectors…and certainly the ones that mattered to the Cardassian people. So according to the actual letter of the law, only the lack of warp capability or a stable, world-uniting government should have justified invocation of the Prime Directive.
Therefore, Dukat had passionately argued in Political Rhetoric the day before as an example of what happened when those over whom the people held no recall power got control of a government’s policy, the strict interpretation of the Federation’s own core documents did not allow dismissal on those grounds. Whatever precedents, customs, and legal codes had grown up as the Federation expanded were a sort of legal detritus that had to be cleared away before the actual Charter and Guarantees could be properly enforced once more. And before this lack of respect for tradition could destroy the Federation’s Cardassian neighbors.
Osenal left little time to contemplate this galling truth, however. Before Dukat’s blood could truly begin to boil—for it certainly seemed as though those making the decisions in the Federation simply did not want
to help Cardassia—the Guide yanked Dukat’s attention back down into the here and now…into what they knew in their everyday lives and could most appropriately serve by focusing upon. They could not change the prejudices of politicians in faraway star systems. They could
pray for and support their classmates, all of whom were surely touched by the invasion in one way or the other.
“We remember in this time that you command us to magnify your spirit through the love we show one another in our joys—and there are indeed joys, even now, for the life that you have shaped can never truly be defeated by the icy hands of destruction—and also in our sufferings. I pray for the students of Yavenn Pretam University, that they may find strength in Oralius during this time, expressed through each other and through this faculty.”
For we are, some of us, very far from home
, Dukat added, and from our parents and siblings
. He was not; after much research, counseling, and prayer during his final year of secondary school, he had decided he was best off not leaving the city right away…at least, not until he had established something of a life by himself and he was certain he could manage his illness without his parents and his familiar doctor and Guides in reasonable proximity. In a year or two, he intended to re-evaluate his decision and possibly transfer to the university’s main campus in Nevot. So while Dukat had only moved across the city from his family, he certainly felt for those who had much more distance between themselves and their homes.
“I pray for our leaders, that they may guide us—both worldwide and locally—through this crisis and that we may respond dutifully as required,” Osenal sounded as though he was concluding. But, Dukat well knew, he was only moving into a second phase of prayer. “And now, in this time—I open our supplication for the concerns of those who gather here with me today.” Dukat’s fingers curled tighter around the edges of his recitation mask. He would speak soon…but he knew there were so terribly many in this class who had just lost friends and family in the recent incursion on Cardassia V, or in the fall of Soukara—better for him to wait for now.
Indeed…just as he expected, there were far, far too many prayers for the dead and the missing in action, and for those living—living, they hoped?—behind enemy lines where once there had been sovereign, secure Cardassian territory. He mentally took note of each of the requests, using the eidetic memory he, like most students, had been trained for to aid in scripture and commentary memorization. Then the young woman—still a teenager, he was sure—next to him lifted her index finger to speak. Bital was her surname, he recalled. She had no mask, he noticed, so Osenal came to her, gently laying his hands upon her shoulders. She had not attended class for the past week…and now Dukat found out why.
“Oralius, please,” Bital prayed, “help me, help my family, to release my sister’s soul, enfold her in your peace…and help to give her—to give this all meaning. It’s so hard…it was far too soon—she was just twenty-five, just barely lived an eighth of a life…” And then the words simply stopped flowing. Dukat opened his eyes and met hers. Then he reached over, his fingertips just above hers, waiting for her nod of permission. When she assented, he took her hand in his own, offering his silent presence as she sought the sort of solace that, most of the time, was a long time coming.
Only after Bital went silent for a full minute, after Osenal allowed time for her and the entire class to meditate silently upon this prayer, did Skrain Dukat withdraw his hand and indicate that he, too, had a request.
He pressed his recitation mask gently over his face, effortlessly matching the crevasses of the inside of the mask to his facial ridges by long-accustomed habit. Before he spoke, he silently repeated the Invocation. Then he began, “I pray for the safety of my family...and especially for my cousin Akellen Macet. Akellen is a riyăk
in the Guard, and he’s traveling today from Adometar in Hăzăk to the capital for deployment. I don’t know where he is right now; I don’t know where they’re sending him. I just know…that today, he needs Oralius’ traveling mercies more than he ever has before.”
Just as before, the class entered silent meditation after Dukat stopped speaking. And then—
The noise was positively unholy
Everyone knew what it was by now; Oralius knew there’d been more than enough drills since they’d arrived for the semester. The alarm ceased after only a few pulses, though; Cardassian ears weren’t the best at sorting out sounds from that kind of wall of background noise. This time, instead of the usual ‘this is a drill
’ message, the audio cut straight to a voice everyone recognized: the executive press secretary Vikel Raynak tensely announcing, “Ladies and gentlemen—the Castellan of the Cardassian Theonomy
Over the comm, Dukat could just barely make out the low murmurs and shuffles of the executive press corps angling for vantage points to capture their stills of the Castellan in what he could only suspect was the sort of moment upon which worlds would turn. After another moment, Castellan Shiron spoke. “People of the worlds of Cardassia
,” he began, his voice suffused with the same combination of solemnity and tension as his press secretary, “I have just been informed by my Defense Minister that a vanguard of Bajoran ships has breached our lines and is now inbound for Cardassia Prime. While our orbital defense platforms and aerospace forces continue to fight and are in pursuit, I advise residents of the homeworld to take reasonable precautions, to follow the orders of local officials in any affected areas, and above all,
not to give up. For the sake of Oralius we shall not cease our battle no matter—”
The signal broke abruptly into the high-pitched digital hiss of subspace static, which lasted for several seconds as someone at campus center tried to re-establish the uplink, the class quietly paralleling the sound with the low murmurs of speculation. Dukat simply sat quietly for his part—completely still for the first few seconds, until he realized that he still wore his recitation mask. Slowly, carefully, he removed the mask, packing it up with methodical, almost mechanical motions, nestling it perfectly into its case and shutting it away, and putting the box back into the rucksack that sat at his feet.
A new voice cut in as campus center locked onto a second transmission, overlaid by a heavy interference pattern: RF radio—it had to be. “—is Prefect Rhujan. All subspace-based transmissions have been jammed by Bajoran probes that have just taken up orbit around Cardassia Prime. Regional RF frequencies remain open, but I must order that civilian use of said frequencies be confined strictly to true emergency use.
“Furthermore—I hereby order the immediate dismissal of all schools and universities within Culat Prefecture until further notice. Central Traffic Regulation has been updated accordingly; all landskimmers and aircraft must maintain remote autopilot in all city districts for the next two hours. Again—
As the head of Culat Prefecture repeated his orders, Inquisitor Osenal was already speaking with that firm tone and posture of command that reached straight to the deepest Cardassian instincts. Whether or not one decided to obey—there was most definitely a very primal need to listen
to this voice of authority and give due consideration, for away from home, the inquisitors very much filled the role of leader in these young people’s lives. And Osenal was a Guide, too, no less.
“You likely will not hear this from the Prefect or the university Chancellor,” Osenal said in calm but grave tones, “but you will now hear it from me. There is a reason why the Prefect has placed such a focus on the evacuation of places of learning. As you know, the Bajorans are motivated not just by a desire for conquest, but intend a program of forcible conversion to the cult of the Pah-Wraiths. If reports from the fallen territories are at all indicative, this places the youth of Cardassia in heightened danger. As such, I advise those of you who can not to linger in your dormitories, but to pack up and return to your familial homes as soon as possible, until the crisis passes. You shall conduct yourselves in an reasonably quiet and orderly manner should you choose to evacuate…but if you are to do so, I strongly advise that you do it now
“May the spirit of Oralius protect you and grant you all comfort, calm, and courage,” the tall, robed Nevotda Guide concluded in the same level tone he might use to dismiss a worship service, lifting his hands to shoulder-level, palms facing out towards the class. “Now go in peace.”
And in the gravity of the moment, no one paused to snicker at the irony of that benediction. There had to be peace soon…there had
But right now, Skrain Dukat had only one destination in mind: home. He had to get across town to his parents’ residence. But even more pressing—he had four brothers and sisters still in primary and secondary school. His father was a federal archon and would likely be released from work soon, but his mother was a civil servant affiliated with the Guard and he doubted she’d have the time. And if things were unfolding as quickly and as drastically as Inquisitor Osenal seemed to think, and his own instincts suggested, then it might take both of them to get his younger siblings out of harm’s way in time.
Dread settled like a rock at the bottom of his stomach though he retained an outward state of calm and filed at a fast walk out of the lecture hall, rucksack over his shoulder, bodies of other students pressed around him. For it wasn’t just his immediate family that he feared for.
What about his parents?
What about Akellen?
What about Cardassia?