Part V: Signs
In the morning, the people of Kekil-haaf started breaking camp. It wasn’t that this was an unaccustomed act to them—rather, the strange part of it for them was that they migrated ahead of the usual season. But while that might mean a bit of hardship, arriving to the grazing lands in the foothills before they were quite ready and having to hope the za’abou
wouldn’t eat through the available grasses too soon, this was a chance the tribesmen were ready to take. Better that…a risk they knew how to deal with…than staying in the path of the Bajorans.
And another pair of Bajoran ships had crossed overhead in the morning—again unobstructed, again heading for Culat. If anyone had doubted their decision, they offered no resistance now.
Lehnedrel had come by to help Dukat break down his tent; from there, all of his belongings except for those he carried in his rucksack would be loaded onto the hound-pulled sand-sleds. Their design was really quite ingenious, Dukat thought—once they crossed onto harder soil, a set of axles ran parallel just above the skids to which wagon wheels would be attached.
Dukat nearly had his belongings collapsed and ready to be loaded onto the sled when Rulaahan approached, wearing a hooded robe with far less beadwork than any of her other robes before. A traveling robe
, Dukat supposed. Head dipped to shade his eyes but still squinting against the sun reflecting in the sand, Dukat offered a welcoming smile and wave to the Guide.
“A good morning to you, Skrain Dukat.” Rulaahan had yet to pack—for as Akellen and others in the Guard would say, wherever her children went, Oralius was always the first one in and the last one out. Now what’s got her smiling like that in the middle of all this commotion?
His own smile broadened. He wouldn’t have to ask; he would know soon.
“I have news to rejoice in,” the Guide announced. “I have prayed much about this—and there is a gift that Oralius allows me to give you, that I believe will give you much to celebrate. You must use it wisely…”
Dukat’s eye ridges shot up and the tips of his fingers flashed to his throat. My voice?
“Not quite,” Rulaahan clarified with a shake of the head. “But not far. We will now teach you our sign language. It will take you much time—and in the spirit of your oath, you must use it…” She searched for the word in the common tongue. “…judiciously, without idle chatter. But it is right that you begin now.”
The young pilgrim grinned so hard that the skin where the macroscales of his jaw ridges began actually started to hurt. Grateful, he gave his most formal bow.
“I think I know what you want to say,” Rulaahan acknowledged. “And it is a good place to start.” The Guide pressed her palms together, thumbs against her chest at first, then swept them forward towards Dukat, pointing at him like an arrow. “That is how you sign ‘thank you.’”
Dukat nodded, slowly repeated the sign. He had learned a few key signs from the common sign language growing up, as most Cardassians did, but never pursued the subject as he hadn’t thought he would need it in his chosen field as might a soldier or construction worker who worked in an environment where speech sometimes became impractical. Now he regretted that omission. Even though Kurabda sign was a language unto itself, he imagined it would have made the coming acquisition process much simpler for him.
Almost every Cardassian culture had its own sign language, in some cases for as long as history recorded—even some of the older space colonies had developed their own dialects over time. And at the same time as the worlds of Cardassia adopted a common tongue for business and government, no one had thought anything of the need to select a planet-wide sign language as well. But until their first contact with other cardasdanoid races, even most of the speculative fiction writers had never suspected the rest of the quadrant would find anything unusual about this. It still
felt a bit…awkward, Dukat admitted to himself, knowing that the vast majority of species similar to themselves could hear better than the Cardassian species—that what was perfectly normal to him would border on deafness to some species. He could only imagine what the Bajorans
thought of it.
But how many species without telepathy had two
truly diverse ways to communicate, known to such a percentage of the population? And there were those of other peoples who had marveled at that…that because of this, even in some of the most ancient Hebitian cultures, those who could not hear or speak had lived such different lives than the ancients of many other races. Oralius may not have given her beloved children the same acuity of hearing that other species were blessed with—but her people, living with the many talents they did
have had given the gift of true participation to those who might not have had the same chance until later eras on their own worlds. And still
weren’t given, on some worlds…Bajor likely one of them.
Now it was Dukat’s turn to enjoy the benefits of this particularly Cardassian heritage. If the Kurabda were anything like those of his own culture, a sizeable percentage of the adult population would understand him. Maybe even more, in this place
, he thought.
He repeated the sign Rulaahan had taught him, quicker, more confident this time. —Thank you!—
“You are very welcome,” the Guide said. Then she signed something else—a variation on the first, but this time she opened her hands, touching her fingertips first to her temples, between the hooks of her eye ridges and her hairline, and then swept them up, fingers splayed towards the horizon.
sign needed no spoken translation, and Dukat repeated it as well, with gusto.
Darkness spread across the desert of Kurab, canopy of sky opened to reveal the stars from whence the enemies of Cardassia came. Sad
, Dukat thought to himself, not for the first time on this two-week journey. To think what it would’ve been to witness beauty of such magnitude without having to fear—I wish I could’ve seen this for the first time when I’d never even heard of a Bajoran.
He wasn’t sure which star was the Bajoran primary, or if it could be seen from this hemisphere, but he knew it was close enough for the unaided Cardassian eye. It hadn’t been one of the brightest stars—not one of the named ones that belonged to the constellations the Kurabda were teaching him to recognize—yet such suffering from an origin so unassuming…
Gharumef tapped his arm…he’d managed to get so absorbed in his own musings, even now, sitting on the back of Ratoukhit the riding hound, that he hadn’t heard a word the man said, hadn’t even noticed the sensation of his bioelectric field. “Dukat—show me what direction we now travel in,” ordered the warrior who walked alongside Ratoukhit, gripping his harness.
This time as Dukat scrutinized the stars, it was information he sought. There was Vornon the Thresher straight ahead, Sherouk the Starcatcher at Vornon’s left shoulder, so named for what resembled an upended basket that poured tiny ‘stars’—meteors—on the world at the right time each year…
to Sherouk’s left was Yartek’s Eye, the constellation completed at the right time of night by the world aliens often called Cardassia IV. To Dukat, this world was Yarte’krinek
—Yartek’s Spark. It had been a seminal moment in Hebitian history when nine hundred years ago, the scientists staring at the stars realized that the light that winked at them from the center of Yartek’s Eye when the conditions were right was more than just a ball of rock in the sky. It was a whole other world
—a cold world by their standards, to be sure, but a world with an atmosphere capable of holding heat that with the right kind of cultivation might well be made habitable.
That dream had been accomplished six centuries ago. And when their world became Cardassia, the success of the settlements there, throughout the Cardassia system, and beyond became a beacon of hope for a people struggling through the Cataclysm. And when Yartek’s Eye was complete, that beacon pointed the way…
—South,— Dukat signed.
“Correct,” Gharumef replied aloud. “Now,” he said, testing Dukat’s memory, “can you show me where the Kekil camp was?”
This time Dukat had no particular sign with which to reply; his vocabulary was scant so far. He simply focused for a moment, then pointed.
“Almost,” Gharumef acknowledged. “But a bit further east.” He pointed only a scant few degrees off from the direction Dukat had indicated. Both men had the same eidetic memory, for the Kekil-haaf had kept the memory techniques that formed the backbone of early public and private education in the urbanized world. But Gharumef’s memory was far more accustomed to this
sort of information than Dukat’s…and if Dukat hoped to fight the invasion, it would grant him a critical edge to find his way according to nature and not a hand-scanner.
Dukat bowed his head in acceptance. —Thank you,— he signed. The gesture was a bit sharper than he would have liked…for right in that moment, Ratoukhit stopped suddenly, emitted a tiny, discreet whining noise for his master to hear.
,” Gharumef commanded in Kurabda. Stay
. Whatever it was that had distressed Ratoukhit, the last thing Gharumef wanted was for the hound to throw the inexperienced rider who could give no vocal commands of his own.
Cautiously Gharumef swept a path in front of the hound with his walking staff—and suddenly something hissed
,” Gharumef warned. “Stinging beetle nest,” he translated. With his staff he gestured towards a scraggly shrub that clung to life in the Verkoun-baked soil here in the high desert of the Noumara foothills. Just underneath the bush was a construction of an almost paperlike consistency…a small mound that didn’t look like much, but the creatures within, if provoked, were prone to swarm on their victims. A single bite wouldn’t kill, but an entire nest of them could drop even a thick-skinned steed like Ratoukhit, and the clever riding hound knew it.
The rest of the caravan had halted with Gharumef and Ratoukhit—now he directed them with sign lest the vibrations of a shout perturb the nest. Dukat only understood a few of the signs—the directional ones—but the rest of the caravan, with their species’ night-adapted eyes, had no trouble interpreting his instructions.
Gharumef took one last moment to stroke Ratoukhit’s neck and whisper words of reassurance in his ear. Only then did he guide the hound around the nest. “These nests are common here,” Gharumef explained a few minutes later. “But they do not like the areas further in the hills. We will be safe there, where we camp.”
I’ve lived on this planet all my life and I thought from all the documentaries I watched that I really understood this place
, he thought. I can only imagine what an offworlder might make of it!
Dukat’s lips quirked up—in his mind’s eye one of the goggle-eyed Bajoran soldiers, ignorant of what to look for, blundered too close to the nest and fell prey to a vicious beetle-swarm.
But Dukat’s mind latched upon something else, once Ratoukhit resumed a steady gait. —Camp,— he signed. —Where?—
Gharumef didn’t see him at first; his eye ridges were in the way. Cautiously, gripping Ratoukhit’s saddle with his left hand, Dukat leaned over and swept his right hand close to the warrior’s shoulder. The tribesman turned this time, and Dukat repeated himself.
“Not far now,” Gharumef replied, a faint smile tracing across his craggy features. “We sleep one more night under the stars. And then we will set up camp. You will like it here Dukat…this is where you will learn to hunt.”
—Thank Oralius!— the young pilgrim rejoiced. He’d only barely accustomed himself to sleeping in a tent with nothing but the pillows over his ears to block out the noises outside…sleeping outside in a cocoon of blankets and another rolled under his head was even worse. Impossible, more like it! Too much light, too little heat—I don’t think I’ll figure it out even if I have to spend my entire life doing it!
But to know, too, that here he would take his first step towards truly being a warrior…
Gharumef nodded, comprehending his meaning well enough.
The entire tribe, Dukat included, awoke to the prayer songs of Rulaahan’s acolytes just before sunrise, raising up their voices as they lifted the center pole of the chapel tent, stood it erect, and as the first light broke over the horizon, drove it into the soil where the gold spire caught the brightening rays of Verkoun and reflected them back at their source in a sort of natural thanks for the world around them. Once the entire tribe recited the Invocation—though Dukat did so silently and in another language—the rebuilding of the chapel tent commenced. And with Rulaahan, her acolytes, and the entire tribe pitching in, the house of worship stood resplendent in the desert in less than an hour. From there, Dukat proceeded to raise not only his own tent, but to help with those of the camp’s seniors and widows as well.
Still, the sudden weariness stunned Dukat as he opened the flap to his tent. It reminded him so much of the feeling that came over him every time he came home on the weekends to his parents and siblings, and threw his bag onto the floor in his room next to the sleeping mat he’d had since he was sixteen. How could he respond to the sight of this tent, this symbol of just how far his journey had taken him away
from his home, evoke this sort of response? His home
was in the Rukreved District of Culat, with the ones he loved. And he still belonged there, for that was the Cardassian way—to move out into the world for university, but return to the family domicile afterwards, only moving out…and only sometimes…upon marriage.
Yet his body responded to the sight of this Kurabda tent as though it were really some sort of home. His memories of home—of Culat—were undimmed, of course…yet he still felt a sense of ownership of this life somehow. And now that they had stopped moving, that feeling reasserted itself with a vengeance.
He dropped his rucksack. There was barely any energy left in him to remove his sandals and outer robe before he crawled between the covers, pulled them over his body, one pillow below his head, one above it. It wasn’t long before he drifted off…