THIS IS IT...with Parts VI and VII, "The Desolate Vigil" is finished!
Dukat squinted against the light of Verkoun—head slightly dipped to let his eye ridges do what they could to shade against the sun. Still, the glare from the sand made it almost
a futile effort. In the distance, something moved…a hekant
—a small beast, but good eating for a family. The tan-scaled creature had little fur…none, in their desert varieties, but in spite of its reptilian physique, was still a therapsid.
It didn’t matter that in his time with the Kurabda he’d eaten hekant
meat several times and liked it…that didn’t help him as he tried to convince his hand to squeeze his crossbow’s trigger.
No—as he watched this hekant
nibbling on the leaves of a pitifully scraggly bush, he just couldn’t stop picturing his old friend Yidal’s pet hekant
curled up peacefully on the sofa, and feeling badly for this less fortunate creature.
True, he wasn’t much of a hekant
person; he far preferred a more intelligent sort of pet, like a riding hound or a land gharial, to a small, fearful, herbivorous creature like a vompăt
, or Oralius forbid, a vole. That did absolutely nothing to alleviate the gnawing sense that he shouldn’t be party to putting a creature so easily domesticable onto someone’s dinner plate.
“Why do you wait?” Gharumef hissed in his ear. “The opportunity is right—shoot!”
With both hands gripping his crossbow, Dukat had no way to reply. And you’re rather stuck if you can’t make yourself shoot, Skrain!
He just barely suppressed the urge to roll his eyes at himself—he at least had to make a decent pretense
of trying to shoot the hekant
, and that meant keeping a steady gaze on the poor animal. And his hands firmly on his weapon.
flinched, glanced up. A zerayd
drifted into range overhead, lazily riding the desert thermals and casting its shadow below. The hekant
assessed this and bolted for cover.
Dukat gave thanks to Oralius for her timely intervention…but though she might have relieved him from having to shoot the animal, she had not
contravened the laws of the universe. And one of those laws, he’d discovered, was the glare of disapproval on the stern warrior’s face. “You are capable of better than that, Dukat!” he admonished. “I have seen you do it!”
At least he doesn’t think I’m just incompetent
, he consoled himself as he unloaded the bolt from his crossbow and shouldered the weapon. Once he had his hands free, he began his explanation…one that came much more easily now that he had almost five months’ experience with the language. At least the signing
came more naturally—the problem this time was the content. —I know,— Dukat acknowledged. —I do not mean to upset you…but the hekant
is not food where I come from. It is like a riding hound…—
“A pet,” Gharumef supplied, simultaneously signing the missing word.
are pets for us. That makes it hard for me to look at one and think of doing it harm. I understand it is different for you…—
Gharumef snorted. “I can hardly
imagine keeping such a creature as a pet.”
—I do not want one myself,— Dukat answered. —But it is hard to not want to protect one when I see it alive.—
from worthy of protection…it serves no useful purpose except food or hide.”
Maybe it’s not like a hound
, Dukat thought to himself, but I think Yidal would beg to differ
. A few years older than him, Nejran Yidal had entered treatment after having the horrible misfortune of seeing the autopilot of his parents’ shuttle malfunction, killing them in a violent midair collision right outside his school. The terror drove him catatonic and no one—not the medical staff, not the Guides, and not even some of his fellow patients…including Dukat…could get through to him. Only when one of the treatment center’s resident he’ekant
found its way into Yidal’s room did the boy actually engage another living creature. It had still taken Yidal—and the hekant
—much longer than Dukat to leave the center, but they had kept up with each other and Dukat had even been invited to the Yidal home for Nejran’s homecoming, and every anniversary thereafter.
Without that hekant
…who knew what would have happened to Yidal? Still, Dukat kept his argument to himself; this was a matter of culture and certainly wouldn’t constitute ‘judicious’ use of his gift of sign language.
Gharumef, too, let the topic drop. “Then let us find other prey. Or Sokol-haaf, if Fate favors that today.”
Dukat smiled at that thought: it meant there might be news soon.
Neither Dukat nor the Kekil-haaf had any idea what the Sokol-haaf might know of the invasion, but if they followed their traditional patterns, they were due to join their cousins soon. Unlike the tribe to which Dukat felt these days as though he belonged, the Sokol-haaf had no blood connection to the world of the cities. Few of them spoke common Cardăsda, and no Sokol-haaf would ever be caught dead wielding a crossbow—the ultimate concession to the ah’tekel
, as far as they were concerned.
The crossbow of the Kekil-haaf had been adopted by the first generation of villagers to join the Kurabda tribe. Those who fled into the desert had mostly owned projectile weapons, and few of those had any hunting skill…their ammunition had disappeared quickly. As for those few who possessed laser weapons, their limited power cells had proven even more poorly suited to the desert life than guns. One of the refugees had been something of a survivalist even before joining the Kurabda, though, and had designed this crossbow for his fellow village-dwellers, for such weapons were far simpler for the untrained to master than the longbow, which took years of practice. The crossbow might not be as effective as the longbow in certain respects…but for someone like Dukat, who needed to master the warrior’s arts quickly, it was the superior choice by far.
Gharumef raised his spyglass, fashioned by the tribe’s metalsmith —a beautifully-crafted, silver-plated device, eyepiece lined with zabou
hide to sit comfortably wherever it touched the eye ridge. The precision lenses inside it, however, were one of the few items the Kekil-haaf purchased from the Culatda. The Sokol-haaf would never deign to do such a thing, but as Gharumef had commented with a wry smile, ‘the ah’tekel
blood that runs in our tribe’s veins has to go somewhere
Gharumef scanned across the horizon…panning leisurely at first, then he stiffened, glass aimed like a crossbow at some distant target.
—Sokol-haaf?— Dukat fingerspelled, hopeful.
Now Gharumef’s eye ridges furrowed—his expression morphed to alarm. “Take a look for yourself,” he said in the common tongue, offering the spyglass to Dukat. “Those are not Sokol-haaf—not traveling that
way. It looks like your Bajorans are coming.”
Bajorans?— Dukat signed with a sardonic lift of one angular eye ridge. His flash of humor didn’t last long, though. He accepted the spyglass and squinted for a moment as he adjusted the lens. A landskimming troop carrier in that garish combination of burgundy and bronze that the Bajorans adore stirred up a cloud of sand in its wake. Their trajectory carried them unswervingly towards the Kekil-haaf encampment.
He nodded his concurrence with Gharumef’s estimate. Once he returned the spyglass, he added, —They are coming too fast; I do not believe we have time to move camp.—
“Go and warn Rulaahan. I’ll keep watch here.”
Dukat bowed assent and sprinted back towards the collection of tents as fast as his feet could carry him, keeping his eyes fixed upon the gold spire of the chapel tent. The entrance flap was folded open and he caught sight of the Guide in meditation by the fire. He hated to disturb her, but there truly was no other option…so he clapped his hands thrice at the entrance. For a moment, Rulaahan kept her eyes closed, listening for the identification. When none came, she opened her eyes and stood. “Dukat—are you all right? Where is Gharumef?”
—I am fine, thank Oralius,— he signed rapidly in his concern, —but we have seen the Bajorans, and they seem to be coming our way.— He had slowed down for a moment to fingerspell; Rulaahan, he recalled, had never seen his quicksign for the invaders. —Gharumef sent me to warn you; he is still tracking them.—
“He is foolhardy to risk himself,” Rulaahan spat. “Such actions border upon boasting.” Dukat lowered his gaze at the rebuke. It may not have been meant for him, but there was something about that sharp tone from an elder that spoke to the deepest Cardassian instincts. Seeing this, Rulaahan’s eyes softened momentarily. “I don’t hold it against you. You were being obedient; you did well to bear the message. And do not ignore the timing of this, Dukat…for this to happen after your mastery of sign is sufficient to serve is a blessing.”
Dukat dipped his head once more. —What would you have me do?—
“Leave your weapons,” she ordered. “Not in the sanctuary—leave them in your tent. You are strong, but you are a guest under our care and I would not have you as a target for them.”
Dukat swallowed hard at this. Will they recognize me as the one who fled them?
He dismissed that thought; the odds were vanishingly slim. And aside from the lack of beadwork in his hair, he looked every inch the Kurabda. What could aliens truly know of one of Cardassia Prime’s traditionalist minorities?
—I obey,— Dukat assented. —I would ask to join the other men, though.—
“Very well,” Rulaahan conceded. “But not
until you are rid of your weapons.”
Dukat nodded. Once the Guide reciprocated, he took his leave. She followed right behind him to sound the warning. It wasn’t far to his tent; remaining an official guest of Oralius in this camp, he lived near the center of camp next to the chapel tent—the place that in pre-Oralian days had been the due of the tribe’s most powerful. All of that had changed nearly two thousand years ago when the Kurabda adopted the Oralian Way.
The pilgrim slipped into his tent and slid his crossbow off of his shoulder and under the pillows that lay on his sleeping mat. All the while, his heart beat on his ribs like a caged animal just as it had the day the Bajorans. He couldn’t stop seeing the warship falling from the clear blue sky. He couldn’t stop seeing the dying soldier, offering his weapon to Dukat even with that gaping hole in his throat. He couldn’t stop seeing the faces of those classmates he hardly new, cut down behind him as he ran, ran for the desert. And he couldn’t stop seeing the tormented physique of the glinn—Akellen?—from his vision. And the Bajorans, and their strange, featureless faces with burning eyes…
It was time to go face-to-face. Even without a weapon, if he was to stand and fight this enemy someday, he had to begin by at least…standing
Dukat exited the tent and headed back towards the western edge of the camp. Rulaahan had done a good job already of mustering the warriors of the camp, many with longbows and quivers slung on their backs—their hands weren’t on their arrows yet…but the message was clear enough.
Something brushed past his legs heading back towards the center of the camp. It wasn’t a tactile sensation—it wasn’t close enough for that. No…this
was the sensation of a bioelectric field, and a small one at that.
He spun around. A little girl, maybe three years old, carried a small cloth ball…she would have been kicking it from foot to elbow to foot a few minutes ago, he imagined. But now she stood transfixed, the sand-filled ball bulging out of her fist as she gripped it wide-eyed.
Oh, Oralius! She has no idea what’s happening!
It wasn’t uncommon for children to play out of their parents’ sight within the camp; watching out for the children was something of a communal responsibility. But now…the others held weapons. They were needed for the defense. He was unarmed…and he had long since been accepted into the community. He thought he recognized her…he knew her mother. He could take her home.
This is my responsibility.
The girl’s eyes filled with uncertainty at his decisive approach. He could not let any of his own uncertainty or trepidation show—he knew from experience with his younger siblings that small children picked up on that instantly. Their elders…even those like Dukat who still felt like mere youths, were the anchoring points in their young lives, and they had to be strong. He had to appear completely cool and in command. Once he saw he had her attention, he signed, —Your mother needs you at home right away…I will take you.—
It had been a long shot…most children that young knew very little sign language. Still, he had to try; the better the explanation he could offer, the more likely he was to gain her compliance. Unfortunately it was not to be. Befuddlement played across her features. Of course, if I could speak, this would be a lot easier
, he thought to himself, although he was well accustomed to it by now and his mind only dwelled upon the thought briefly.
He tried again, this time choosing only a few signs and hoping she would make a coherent thought of it. —You, I take home,— he tried, substituting a pointed finger in the direction of her mother’s tent for the word ‘home.’
She looked at him with round eyes, her young mind clearly working to make sense of this. Now, with her focus utterly rapt upon him, he signed again, even more simply this time, though with a bit more insistence: he pointed to her, drew his hand back towards his own chest and pointed to himself, then towards her family’s tent. The last sign was a crook of the fingers, his eye ridges lifted in earnest entreaty as if to say please
It was a strange moment when she acquiesced and allowed him to pick her up. While such crimes were uncommon in Cardassian territories, there had still been instances of kidnappings, and like any other child raised in the city, the young Skrain Dukat had always been warned never to come within easy reach of adults his parents did not name as friends and even then not to grant them the same favor as his own family. Her hesitation was far less…and this was quite rewarding, humbling, and sobering all at once. How long could such a thing last in the face of the invasion?
Once he had her in his arms, she asked him point-blank in a tiny, almost sorrowful voice, her succinct words meant only to divine the truth: “You can’t talk, can you?” At least, that was what Dukat thought her Kurabda words meant…he recognized enough now that this was the only possibility that made sense.
He shook his head in a quick, matter-of-fact manner, and disappointment flashed across her face. Perhaps her mother would share the reason soon…and he hoped she would explain as best as she could understand that the voluntary nature of his sacrifice meant he had little to mourn.
Steady breathing and steady walking
, Dukat reminded himself as if the tribe were moving to new grounds, praying for tight control over his body to keep anything in his bioelectrics from alarming the already anxious child. He saw her searching his face as if hoping to find some sort of connection through his eyes down to his unvoiced thoughts. Finding nothing other than what he hoped she would see kindness, she turned away, fixing her eyes so intently upon her family’s tent that even if Dukat hadn’t already known where to go, he could have used her gaze as a compass.
When he drew near the tent, he set the child down. He’d barely lifted his hands to clap when she darted inside with a warbling, “Maayiy!
“Saa’ih!” she called. He wasn’t quite sure what she asked next, but he had a feeling she was asking her daughter if she was all right. Then the woman’s mother caught sight of Dukat, stiffening as she rose from where she knelt and switching to the common tongue. “What is it you—”
Dukat had already launched into his reply. —The Bajorans…the invaders…are coming. I do not know what they want here…but they have taken children in other places. It is not safe now for her to be seen. Please, tell her for me why I did this.— Dukat glanced back at the entrance to the tent. —I must go now, to be with the warriors.—
Saa’ih’s mother’s eyes darted over to her daughter. “I will tell her. I thank Oralius for this, Dukat. Go, and may she watch over you now.”
The pilgrim bowed, praying that it would be so.