For perhaps another twenty minutes, his landskimmer continued to crawl away from the university at the same agonizingly slow pace; he could still see it behind him when he turned around, but he’d made it a good three blocks down the street. Then his progress came to an abrupt stop—almost at the moment when he would have turned into an intersection. “Warning
,” intoned his landskimmer, “autopilot signal is compromised
“Skimmer—reacquire!” Dukat snapped. He was none too crazy about the city autopilot, but as a tool for keeping order during the evacuation, he could see the logic. Nor was he thrilled with the thought of spending the night in jail for his disobedience if he got caught trying to take advantage of the situation to maneuver around everybody else; on a day like this, being confined somewhere where he couldn’t move
if necessary terrified him.
“Attempting to reacquire…attempt failed
,” the landskimmer reported almost immediately.
“Radio on—first active station.”
The landskimmer’s computer chirped its acknowledgment…a strange, incongruously mild sound.
“—cannot determine the extent of the injuries on the ground at this time. The central autopilot computer has also gone offline, and again, we have no idea here in the broadcast tower what the cause is, but we are advising all citizens to stay put until it is determined whether autopilot control will resume.
“Again, this is Darvinay Metral reporting for Culat City Public Radio. We have confirmed the report that a downed
Verkoun-class cruiser has crashed into a populated area in the city of Culat in what looks to us, based on its trajectory, to be the Rukreved District
“No!” Dukat shouted at the air for the second time in less than an hour. Of course, Rukreved was as large as an entire town in its own right, and had been until just sixty years ago when it agreed to incorporation by the city of Culat. The odds of the Dukat family home being hit, or the schools his brother and sister attended were vanishingly small. They had
“This impact appears to have compromised the city’s defensive shields
,” Metral continued. The shields of Culat, put into place a generation ago when the klin’ça-çăs
started making threatening noises towards their much quieter neighbors, weren’t enough to deflect an orbital phaser blast, and certainly not a photon torpedo…but they could block transporters or foot soldiers. “We have reports from the capital of—
A shimmering electronic whine and Metral went speechless…something shattered in the background and a male voice cried out, “Dear Oralius! ’Vinn, GET DOWN
—” A different, high-pitched wail and then—static
. Signal loss…again
He knew those sounds from the news and even with the inevitable distortion of an RF broadcast, they had been unmistakable. A transporter. Phaser fire. A troop landing
“Skimmer—locate next active station!” Dukat ordered.
“There are no subspace or RF stations currently broadcasting in this region
“Radio off.” As the landskimmer chirped its reply, Dukat let out a long, tremulous sigh, propping his elbows on the edge of the control panel. Squeezing his eyes shut, he rubbed at his temples, careful not to go against the grain of the macroscales. This wasn’t doing the trick, so he moved down to the outer sides of his eye ridges; the macroscales there were a bit more armor-like and there was less of a feeling that you might accidentally peel your face off. The pressure of the cartilaginous hook against the nerves and other tissues was a great reliever of eyestrain and to some extent, headaches as well…put simply, a comfort gesture to most Cardassians. And Dukat needed all he could get right now.
He had to know what was going on somehow
, and began to think out loud. “Skimmer,” he said, “display city map.” The map appeared on the main monitor panel in front of him, his current location highlighted in the elliptical display with a yellow triangle. “Display location of Culat City Public Radio.”
“No. Display only.” A red dot flashed up on the display, and the map automatically scaled itself to display both locations. Yavenn Pretam University was on the western edge of the city in what had come to be known as a district in its own right; the radio station lay nearer to the Irkeshel District—the government center—Culat’s oldest sector.
So…they would be spreading out from the city center. Assuming that’s their only landing site
, Dukat amended. He had a little time, he supposed, but if Inquisitor Osenal was right, after the seizure of government, military, and communications targets—and maybe even during this phase of the attack—Yavenn Pretam and Culat Universities would be hit next.
Dukat looked around him, at the surrounding vehicles. How many had been listening to what he now realized was Metral’s final broadcast? Did they know what was coming? If the autopilots did not resume—or if they resumed according to Bajoran
instructions instead of Cardassian ones—there would be only one choice. He pulled the rucksack that held his recitation mask, his medication, and his other most essential possessions close. He laid back for just a moment, allowing himself to enjoy the feeling of the landskimmer’s comfortable, ergonomically-designed seats, all the while feeling as though he were hanging over a precipice.
Transporter beams swirled in the street and Dukat stiffened, all the while racking his brain for something handy for use as a weapon. But as their silhouettes took shape, he gave a broad smile of relief—the telltale flare of the neck ridges told the story. They fanned out from their insertion point at the center of the intersection, moving towards the stranded vehicles. A pair of soldiers approached Dukat’s vehicle and the young man lowered the window.
The lead soldier, the inscription on his cuirass denoting him as a ragoç
, spoke without preamble. “Prefect Rhujan has ordered an immediate evacuation of this area. You need to leave your vehicle immediately and come with us; we’ll take you somewhere safer. Bring only what you can carry.”
Though seated, Dukat gave a respectful, grateful bow of the head. “Ve’, Ragoç
,” he agreed even as he noted with sadness that he’d been right to prepare for departure. He grabbed his rucksack, slinging it over his shoulders as he opened the door. He gave a glance at the storage compartment, where his suitcase and the bag holding his quilt waited, but the soldier discouraged him with a shake of the head. There was no time…he’d have to do without.
Dukat wanted to ask the soldiers where they were leading him and the rest of the civilians, but decided against it—chatting with the students-turned-refugees didn’t seem like something they would welcome right now. That didn’t stop him from listening for clues as they began moving on foot on the crowded sidewalks. The ragoç
received a message on his wristcomm. A voice ordered him to the Idrak Athletic Complex. So, that’s where they’re putting us up for the night
, Dukat supposed. A large building like that was easier to fit with mobile shielding units, and if the Bajorans were already transporting soldiers onto Cardassia Prime, it might keep them safe for longer.
Suddenly, the tenor of voices over the soldiers’ wristcomms changed, grew more strident. Urgent
at his side shoved him—hard—off the sidewalk and into the entryway to one of the curious little stores that ringed the Yavenn Pretam campus…a specialty confectionary, from the scent of it. “Stay there!” he hissed. “Don’t move!”
The sound of transporters again...the pitch of it sounded vaguely wrong, but more so was the sight of it: not gold, but white. And the shapes
…from his hiding place, Skrain Dukat caught his first look at the invading aliens.
At first, the predominant hue of their skin didn’t seem that different—while most Cardassians had some sort of grey complexion like Dukat, there was
a beige-hued minority. But it quickly became clear there was something very different about the paler of the Bajorans: he could actually see the hue of their red blood through their skin. Of course, all a Cardassian had to do was open his mouth for the underlying similarity to be obvious…but the microscales comprising the upper layer of skin were too opaque to allow it to be this visible on the outside.
The other disturbing thing about the Bajorans was the smooth ridgelessness of their faces. They looked unfinished, as though they’d all come out of the same mold at the factory. Yes, they had hair and skin pigmentation to help him tell some of them apart—but the details of a person’s facial ridges were one of the key ways Cardassians used to identify each other at a glance. Even Cardassian toymakers gave great attention to these features in children’s dolls and action figures.
But the strangest thing was their unnaturally slender, fragile-looking necks. He knew that most species lacked the elaborate tendons and musculature that Dukat could feel every time he turned his head, but it still made them look as though their heads were most precariously balanced on their shoulders.
There was a flash as one of the Bajorans lifted his phaser rifle…not from his weapon, but from the armor he wore. It was a resplendent bronze, painstakingly etched, the chestplate appearing to be made of real metal, not the practical, phased-energy deflecting memory material of the Cardassian cuirass. A proverb came to mind at the sight of the Bajoran troops and their glaring armor, and the Cardassian ones in their darker, much more utilitarian version: Beware those who come cloaked in false light
The Cardassian soldiers pushed back against the onslaught. The ragoç
who had shoved Dukat to safety ducked that first shot, drawing his disruptor pistol and squeezing off several of his own. Energy bolts shrieked back and forth: the gold of Cardassia, a strange sunset-pink for Bajor. And then—
—a white orb of energy slammed down from above like a photon torpedo. It wasn’t a photon torpedo; he’d seen footage of the aftermath of orbital bombardment and one of those could easily leave a crater the size of a city block and a rain of lethal fallout to match. This was tiny in comparison. Still, he flung himself headlong into the confectioner’s shop, eyes squeezed shut against the light, and there came a terrible sound, far more than his ears could handle...
Slowly he peeked back out around the corner. Whatever the Bajorans had fired, they were recovering from it much faster than the Cardassian soldiers; this weapon had been meant to disorient, not to kill. Some of those who had had the misfortune to be looking directly at it were still squinting, involuntary tears streaming onto the lower hooks of their eye ridges and from there onto their cheeks.
And the Bajorans…they took brutal advantage.
One bolt after the other speared towards the Cardassian soldiers. Dukat couldn’t hear their cries, between the closed door and the ringing in his ears from the stun grenade—but how they fell, one right after the other!
Another shot blasted down from the roof. Suddenly—quicker than he could make sense of it—the ragoç
lay sprawled against the wall, eyes wide, mouth gasping soundlessly for air.
Hardly any Cardassians remained to retreat. And the Bajorans ran forward, pressing their advantage, giving no respite for the survivors to retrieve their wounded or dead. They ran towards the university, one wave after the other. Then one minute of stillness passed. And another.
Maybe it was reckless. But Dukat had
to try and save the man who had acted with such selflessness for his sake. He scrambled back out the door over the objection of the grey-haired confectioner, who had finally found the wherewithal to speak in the face of this horror: “You fool boy! What do you think—”
But the young man didn’t hear another word—not from the confectioner…and not from the soldier.
The officer’s breath came with a rattling, sucking wheeze. And when Dukat realized why, his stomach lurched violently enough that he almost vomited. A long, cauterized wound slashed laterally across the soldier’s neck from ridge to ridge…his larynx, perhaps, burned away. There should have been more blood. It didn’t seem right. It seemed unnatural, like a butcher’s experiment gone awry.
He trembled convulsively from the shock of his wound. Yet his hand—his hand struggled for something
Dukat reached for the soldier’s wristcomm. He could call for help—
emitted a much sharper wheeze, eyes and mouth widened with mute alarm. Dukat jerked his hand away in panic. “I’m so sorry—I’m so sorry!” he exclaimed over and over, unable to stop himself. Oh, Oralius…what can I
do? Show me, show me—what am I supposed to do?
As if in response, the soldier stilled himself with a monumental effort, panic and agony pushed back for just a moment as he locked eyes with Dukat. Watch!
he wordlessly commanded, a strange, utterly haunting strength flickering in his eyes. The spasmodic fingertips of his left hand reached, reached…Dukat’s eyes followed—and there was the soldier’s phaser pistol, dropped as he’d fallen. One more twitch of the fingers—they made contact.
And pushed the weapon with a tiny scrape on the pavement…towards Dukat.
Tentatively, Dukat reached forward, then froze his hand in place just a centimeter from the weapon. And even with his face contorted in that terrible, mute pain, the soldier mustered up a tormented semblance of a smile. Yes!
Dukat’s hand closed around the pistol’s grip. “What do I do?” the young man murmured. “You want me to take it?”
He closed his eyes. Dying
, Dukat could see. And that rictus of a smile crossed flickered across his face in one last affirmative.
With his free hand, Dukat reached out and clasped the hand that had indicated the weapon. He could barely wrench the words out of himself. “I…I—thank you
.” He sniffed back hard and his voice cracked as he spoke. “May Oralius keep you forever.”
And the soldier gave one last gasp, a terrible shudder shooting throughout his body. His head lolled to the side and whatever meager strength remaining in his hand faded out forever.
The Bajoran troops would surely be returning in force soon, to consolidate their hold on this area; if they wanted to keep the university under their control for any length of time, they’d also need the surrounding commercial blocks to serve as a support district. He couldn’t stay here long enough for the next wave to arrive. And yet—and yet…this man had suffered. Had given of himself even in the worst agony imaginable. Had died in his presence. And that, too, came with its ancient duty, for a Cardassian.
In ancient, prehistoric days, it had been an instinctive need to see that predators and carrion-hunters could not ravage the bodies of the dead. Normally in modern day, the expression of this instinct was simply a matter of delivering the final rites and ensuring that the body received a proper burial. But in this moment, Dukat felt as though he understood exactly what his very first sentient ancestors would have felt when one of their number was slain. The enemy was coming—and this man who had sacrificed his life could not be left to whatever degradations the Bajorans might have in mind. Escape could wait for the few minutes it would take to carry out this task.
Dukat knelt down and hooked his arms under those of the dead soldier, dragging him back into the confectioner’s shop. He did not bleed as one ought to expect; his heart was stilled and the disruptor had largely cauterized his death wound. Instead, it had likely been the shock and the respiratory distress that had killed him. “Please, Rhodrun
,” Dukat ground out, calling the confectioner by a title of respect that meant ‘aged man,’ “if you would, take care of him until he can rest.”
“You dangled yourself over a cliff, boy,” the old man spat back.
And though he was twenty years of age, Dukat could not object: legally, he was still in his proving years—an adolescent, not a full adult. This time from sixteen to twenty-four got its name because it was up to the adolescent to prove that he or she could conduct himself according to the laws of society as parents withdrew their supervision: one became fully liable for any crimes committed, but only after this probationary period acquired the full rights and privileges of adulthood.
So, even in better times, he had no standing from which to object—to a man in his summit years, one like Dukat was
a boy, more than anything. Right now, though, Dukat couldn’t even muster up a spark of indignation. He gave a quiet, fractional bow—the best he could manage with the body of the ragoç
in his arms.
The older man offered no other objection, though…the sight of a fallen brother did the same thing to him, as a Cardassian, that it did to Dukat. He took another, appraising look at the tall young student and his expression softened a bit. “I’ll do what I can. I suppose it would be futile to tell you not to go back out there—but you listen to me first.” Dukat obediently froze. “Flip the cover on the left side of the grip. That’s the power switch…hit it. Now, you keep that weapon powered down unless you are absolutely ready to use it. You might not think it of a man in my line of work, but I served during the Klin’ça
border skirmishes when I was young, and I know what I’m talking about. That’s for your safety in more ways than one.”
“I’ll remember that, Rhodrun
,” Dukat solemnly replied as he adjusted his rucksack and slipped back out the door and into the treacherous street.