The sun had already dipped below the horizon, though for now its red glow still shone above the horizon. The sky was clear tonight, and for that Dukat gave thanks; he didn’t know about the Bajorans, but his species’ eyes, only recently adapted to diurnal life in evolutionary terms, were well equipped to handle the diminishing light. On the other hand, he’d have to be cautious to avert his eyes if anyone looked his way—too direct a gaze and the reflective coating of his retinas would send silver starlight right back at them.
He held the disruptor close to his waist, moving carefully and quietly among the buildings, keeping tight to the shadows, for few people were out and about. He didn’t know exactly where he was heading; all he knew for sure was that if he was going to make it back to his family residence, he was safest to move through the outskirts…perhaps even the desert plains just beyond Culat, keeping the city lights in his sights as he traveled. And if he was going to do that
, especially without a navigation device, and a water purifier in his rucksack but no water to be found, he had to move at night or the heat could prove crippling.
As he drew into a residential neighborhood of small, single-story homes, one he remembered opening up after a kilometer into the desert wilderness, Dukat caught sight of a trio of young men his age headed the opposite direction, their faces fraught with tension. He didn’t recognize them right away, but their apparent leader’s shirt was of the deep blue of Yavenn Pretam University, the name of the school stitched in small letters upon his breast. They took notice of him, and waved him sharply towards them. Once Dukat drew close enough, he realized this man studied evolutionary biology under Inquisitor Osenal, right after Dukat’s introductory science class. “Latzec Dojal,” he whispered by way of introduction.
“They’re setting up a checkpoint down the street,” Dojal warned. “If we’re going to have any chance of getting out of here, we’ve got to do it now!”
“What’s your plan?” Dukat whispered.
“We’re going to sneak past them. There’s too many for the four of us to take them on directly, but I think if we cut through over there—” He pointed at a small grove surrounding the neighborhood’s artificial lake. “—we might make it before they get the whole area covered. And if not...that’s what this
is for.” Dojal gestured to his shoulder, where a Bajoran rifle sat. “Are you with us, Dukat?”
“If you think we can get to our homes in one piece,” Dukat said, “I’m in.”
Dojal replied with a thin smile. “It’s our best shot…but we can’t afford to wait.”
Dukat nodded. “Then let’s go.”
He was alone in the desert, alternately running and scrambling in the sand. He had no idea where he was, and in this moment he didn’t care.
Not one of the others had made it—not Dojal, not Trast, not Rapral. The scene had played in his head in an infinite loop once he’d gotten out of disruptor range: they’d crept up alongside the makeshift barrier the Bajoran soldiers were erecting where Idrak Parkway ran out into the emptiness, out of sight behind homes whose lights were darkened to avoid the invaders’ attention. They’d kept several meters apart, none daring to try the exact same gap, hoping and praying that by spreading out, most or all of them would get through.
A lone Bajoran soldier was patrolling the unsecured perimeter of the neighborhood. Suddenly a tricorder beeped and everyone ducked behind the scraggly shrubs that existed here thanks to the miracle of irrigation. The Bajoran’s head swung around, his eyes covered by sensor scopes and turning him into the image of some cybernetic horror. On some unspoken signal, everyone, Dukat included, broke and ran. His heart thudded—the Bajoran fired—one
Feet slammed against pavement and suddenly against sand…
He stumbled, scrambled back to his feet, ran again, as best he could—
More distant now—another howl, another death.
His chest heaved, his legs pumped, and even as his body ran with all he was worth, his mind waited, waited in dread of the final shot. His
shot. It never came.
Only now was he beginning to understand why. The Bajorans’ scopes homed in on lifesigns, yes—but a powered weapon emitted off a far, far stronger power signature. Dukat, on the other hand—all of it had happened so fast that he hadn’t powered up his disruptor pistol. He wasn’t a soldier, after all; he’d been more focused on preparing for his sprint than preparing to fight. And so the other three…they’d become the soldiers’ primary targets. And by the time he was out of range…yes, there might have been a life sign, but no sign of a weapon. He understood the confectioner’s admonition all too well now.
Maybe the Bajorans counted on the desert to take care of their problem for them. That sounds about right
, he thought to himself with a bitter laugh, now that he no longer feared the sound would carry back to Bajoran ears. He had no idea how long it had been by now; he’d lost the lights of the city and he was thoroughly lost. Please, Oralius
, he prayed, if you plan to take me, at least let me feel no pain
. He wasn’t sure how likely that
was, though…unless a wild animal took him, heatstroke, starvation, or dehydration would do the honors. And none of those sounded particularly painless.
Voices buzzed in his head—artifacts of his imagination, he well knew: family, friends, the deceased of today, speculative fiction characters, even…all of them echoing one message, that the world he had been born and raised in had perished. Was this what it felt like in the first years of the Cataclysm?
he wondered to himself. His
Cardassia could be a challenging one, yes, compared to gentle worlds like Terhăn Terăm
and, from what he’d heard, Bajor—but with the help of the colonies it sustained them. That Cardassia was no more…and he feared what all modern Cardassians did: a return to the terror that nearly plunged the entire world into war.
These were dreadful speculations—but there was no point in not giving way to the daydreaming now. At least the thrumming of the motors of his mind kept him alive, kept him moving.
How long had he kept on? His body was completely and utterly drained now. A faint light glowed now at the horizon—at first he grinned: the light of the city? But its glow was too subtle, too diffused, he realized with further scrutiny. It was the light of Verkoun. Dukat was no survival expert, but any child growing up in the city of Culat knew that to travel by foot in the desert wilderness under the light of the sun was death. He had to find shelter—but where, in this featureless place?
The voices intensified and an old, accustomed fear speared at his heart: Am I losing it?
It was only when he realized the voices were speaking a language that he didn’t know that he realized…they were real. Please, let them be Cardassian!
he cried silently. He squinted—and just barely made out the distinctive sweep of their neck ridges.
The robed figures wore ornamented cords woven into thin braids in their shoulder-length hair. The robes themselves were simple, loose, layered garments, nothing like the elaborate Nevotda ruviyal
Osenal had worn. But he didn’t have long to focus on aesthetics…for they had drawn their daggers. Dukat dropped to one knee—a potent gesture of submission, for these desert dwellers surely spoke no Cardăsda. Nonetheless, it all spilled out of him in a frantic rush. “Please…I don’t know where I am. I just escaped from the city, from Culat—the Bajorans…they’re the invaders—another species, from space—” He gesticulated sharply at the skies and his desire coalesced deep within his heart: duty, indignation, dread. “I want to go back and fight them, do something
One of the warriors spoke up in gruff tones…and near-perfect, though accented Cardăsda. “We know what has happened,” he declared.
“You—you speak the common tongue?” Dukat burst out, incredulous. “How—and you know about the invasion?”
The tribesman’s expression grew fierce. “Do not mistake our decision for ignorance, ah’tekel
.” Dukat recognized that tribal term from the movies: city dweller. “We have radios…how can we live in this world without knowing what goes on in it? What you
do—” He used the plural form there. “—affects us as well. We understand the difference between our life and yours; we are not slaves to our ways. This is our choice
“I…meant no offense,” Dukat stammered, bowing his head. Though some of the people of Kurab, the native desert dwellers, lived fairly close to the city, there was little contact between them and the people of Culat, and what he knew of them largely came from documentaries and books about the ancient days. “I spoke in ignorance…forgive me.”
The warrior nodded. “Indeed you have. But,” he said as he cocked his head, “perhaps you could learn, if you desire it enough. Come with me—you will speak with Rulaahan, our Guide. She will decide what to do with you.”
do with me…?
Dukat wasn’t sure he liked the sound of that—but he had no choice, and followed along.
“Who are you?” the Guide questioned, after the warrior—Gharumef, he’d called himself, though Dukat’s lips, accustomed only to the common tongue, could not form the final sound—recounted the story of how they’d met.
This woman was nothing like Ihanok or Derava, the meek-tempered, gentle Guides who had seen him through the worst of his illness. No…this Rulaahan embodied an entirely different aspect of the Spirit, even more so than the regal Osenal: fierce endurance as if from deep within the planetary core. He stood almost a head taller than her, but this was a power
“Skrain Dukat,” he stammered. The Guide held her silence; Dukat shifted despite himself. What does she want?
“I…I’m a student from Culat. I just fled a Bajoran patrol—tried to get back to the city to find my family, but I got lost and I haven’t the faintest idea how to get back. I have no idea if they’re alive or dead—the Bajorans are killing people, and I want to fight them…but I’m not a soldier, and I have no idea—”
,” barked the Guide, much like an old ragoç
training recruits. Dukat ceased his nervous chatter. “You wish to fight…I sympathize,” she said. “Our tradition is a long and proud one. And a strong resistance won’t be born there, in the cities. It will flourish out here
. In our
land. Eventually the Bajorans will understand that, and they will come for us.
“We can teach you, but there is much
you must learn, in mind, body, and spirit all. But we must give you a position among us,” she added. “Or the Bajorans, should they come our way, will question why you live amongst us. I offer you a position as a seeker of discipline. In that capacity you can also learn the arts of survival and war that you seek…but only if you devote yourself discipline with sincerity, devoid of all reservation of heart. What is seen and heard on the outside is one thing—but the voice of your heart must speak in honesty.”
Dukat swallowed. The Kurabda were adherents to some of the oldest forms of the Oralian tradition, some of whom still held to the most ancient ascetic disciplines. What would they ask of him? Could he even complete the tasks laid before him? But there was no choice—not if he wanted to learn how to survive, how to fight. And Oralius must have laid this path out before me
, he thought, even as his heart rebelled against the notion. It sure felt like he was being offered a critical choice, even though he couldn’t fathom why it was all happening now
, when his world was in crisis.
He bowed his head. “I can do that, Guide.”
“Are you sure, Dukat? There are no proving years here as there are in the city,” she warned. “You have full right to take this oath, and full responsibility. You shall take this oath as a man.”
Dukat nodded. “I will.”
Rulaahan closed her eyes in communion. Time seemed to dilate like a ship at relativistic speeds without the subspace microfield as she awaited her answer and Dukat awaited his fate. At last the Guide opened her eyes, fixed the piercing blue orbs upon his.
“Skrain Dukat—yours shall be the discipline of silence, for as long as Oralius shall see fit. Are you prepared to follow this path?"