The council of tribal elders had convened almost immediately upon the return of Dukat and Gharumef. Sitting robed and cross-legged in the chapel tent, these grey-haired men and women reminded Dukat very strongly of a panel of federal archons listening to oral arguments. Though he wondered just how much medicine these people practiced, in comparison to city dwellers, the youngest of them seemed as though he must be a century old, and the eldest—a woman who had been carried into the tent in a shaded palanquin, who appeared as though she’d lived in excess of 180 years. This he hoped to find out later; if tribal society was anything like his, such years were a mark of honor and people became quite generous with that information, the older they got…quite unlike Dukat, who at a mere twenty years would have been uneasy with the question and the judgment his answer might bring.
The more he listened, the more evident it became that just as Gharumef had hinted in that first meeting, before Dukat surrendered his voice to Oralius, that the people of Kekil-haaf had much more of an understanding of the modern world—and even the galaxy at large—than their archaic way of life might lead one to believe. They had a radio for news…or at least they had, until Cardassia’s radio stations had stopped transmitting.
The only piece they were lacking that actually meant something, as far as he could tell, was any kind of vidscreen or computer terminal that might have given them a visual frame of reference for the concepts they spoke of with such unexpected ease. Perhaps some of them had studied in the cities and seen those things—but they saw no need to bring them into their encampment. Because of this, Gharumef had sought formal confirmation from Dukat as a matter of record.
He had bowed then, as befit a man so young preparing his testimony to such venerable men and women. His testimony would be without words, of course, but it would be entered into consideration nonetheless.
Could he affirm with certainty that the appearance of the ship he had seen passing over the Noumara Mountains matched the appearance of the ships he had seen on the news as the Bajorans invaded the rasgă’ălour
, he had indicated formally with both a nod and another bow that at once demonstrated respect and solemnized his response as sworn testimony in place of a spoken vow.
Had there been any Cardassian ships present, either in the formation or harassing it as it passed, or any other evidence of resistance, to include the use of surface-to-air or space-to-air weaponry?
, he had signaled, an expression of mourning upon his face. There had been no resistance…no sign the Cardassian Guard still fought. Little hope that Akellen—if he hadn’t already perished—had enjoyed even the slightest taste of victory, wherever he fought. On the other hand
, he had reflected, I saw no sign of compliance on our part, either.
And that was good: whatever they wanted to take from Cardassia—though it was hard to imagine what, beyond their minds and souls, might be of any value…it would come at a cost.
Though there might have been other questions the council might have asked him under different circumstances, the eldest among them had released Dukat back to his place at Gharumef’s side, on the grounds of his inability to answer any further questions.
From there, the debate had turned to the possible troop levels the Bajorans had massed in the intervening weeks since Dukat’s arrival, whether they commanded sufficient resources to afford a foray into the desert to harass a nomadic tribe. Close proximity to the city, Gharumef had argued before the council like a defensive nestor, increased the chances the Bajorans would
consider it worth their while, given the tactical advantage of forming a resistance to the invasion in otherwise unpopulated territories that would likely prove hostile to those lacking intimate familiarity with the land. And, Gharumef had added, these aliens’ bodies might not withstand the rigors of the desert as a Cardassian would.
With that, Dukat had had to concur with a nod he doubted the council had taken any notice of. He well remembered his biology lessons, and the Bajorans—like so many of the galaxy’s dominant species—most resembled the creatures of Cardassia Prime’s northernmost climes…mammalians, not therapsids, creatures bred to survive the equivalent of a Cardassian polar winter, beings who overheated easily and relied far more on sweating to cool themselves and therefore dehydrated more quickly than a Cardassian would under the same circumstances.
However, countered a merchant woman by the name of Hraadenir, there was also the risk that an unexpected migration, without an obvious trigger like a storm, the need to leave a particular area fallow for some time, or any other apparent reason besides the overflights might catch the attention of Bajoran sensor operators. Even from a ship, while individual lifesigns might be difficult to distinguish when the subject wasn’t wearing a wristcomm or other tracking device, the migration of hundreds might be sufficient to draw attention. It might even read like troop movements and bring down the wrath from above.
But that wasn’t right, Gharumef had countered—surely those same sensors could detect active power sources, which put out far more of an energy signature than the Cardassian body could? The Kurabda had few powered devices, and those they did possess, such as their radio, and Dukat’s disruptor, could be switched off over the course of the day when the tribe prepared to travel, if they weren’t already powered down. Done gradually, this would hopefully avoid tripping any alarms.
Dukat, for his part, had sided with Gharumef and burned for the means to provide his opinion…but to his surprise, about halfway through the meeting, a sense of calm had come over him: yes, he had lived in the modernized world until recently, but he’d been training as a nestor then, not a tactician or warrior. What could he truly offer that would be based on any greater credentials than Gharumef, Hraadenir, Koremaad, Rulaahan, or any of the other people of Kekil-haaf, who were certainly no intellectual pushovers themselves? And what did he really
know about what the Kurabda could accomplish with the means their custom allowed?
He did not have all of the answers, and idle speculation would contribute nothing of use other than to draw attention to himself that, while it might give him some sort of thrill to think that his words were the testimony upon which this massive decision might ride, would be an illusory one at best.
In this moment, anyway, he did not have to have all of the answers—though he knew Cardassian nature, and his in particular, well enough to be sure the yearning would return in short order. But right now, he was here to listen and to pray for the wisdom of those older and more experienced than himself, who knew their strengths and the piece of the world in which they lived.
Rulaahan had donned her recitation mask and spoken a blessing over the elders and everyone gathered there inside the chapel tent. And eventually, after a few moments of conferring amongst themselves, and several more moments of silent prayer together, those elders who could stand on their own rose. The most venerable among them was lifted by the young palanquin-bearers who had brought her into the chapel tent.
It was this eldest who delivered the decision: tomorrow, the tribe would break camp and set course by the stars for the foothills on the far side of the Noumara Mountains, where no ah’tekel
cities or bases lay near and the Bajorans—barring a complete lack of reason—would see little need to interfere with them while they made their efforts, by contact with those of other Kurabda tribes, to piece together a better picture of what had happened and determine what, if anything, they might be able to contribute to the freedom of Cardassia Prime.
With that, the calm in Skrain Dukat’s heart evaporated almost completely. Filing out of the tent behind Gharumef, he cast a sorrowful eye behind him, feeling the tension in the long tendons of his neck ridges as he turned his head. He had lost the lights of Culat long ago, when his aimless flight into the desert took him farther than he’d ever believed the Cardassian body could carry a man without giving out. Now even the slightest final semblance of closeness to home, to the place where he prayed his family still lived, was to be cut away from him, too.
The Guide Rulaahan saw this and laid a hand upon the young pilgrim’s shoulder. “Just because there is a beginning,” she intoned, “does not mean there is always an end before it. We do not always see where the thread goes when it disappears beneath the cloth, but that does not mean it will not appear again.”
Dear Spirit whose hand rests upon Fate
, Dukat prayed once he thought he understood, please let that be true for the ones I love, someday.
“Come with me,” she invited—though it was more of a command. “We will pray together.”