He did not hear it right away, as he reached the western edge of the camp—one of the last to do so; he felt it through his feet first. Only when he got closer did his ears detect the low hum of a landskimmer. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but something sounded wrong about the engine. And he knew. He knew even before he caught a glimpse of the bronze-clad Bajoran soldiers…there was something wrong about their voices, too, as they carried towards the camp. He couldn’t make out their words yet, but there was a faint hint of something almost mechanical about their speech. They must be using a universal translator
, he supposed.
The Bajorans carried phaser rifles—not aimed at the Cardassians yet, but brandished in a clear attempt to claim dominance. The Kurabda vastly outnumbered them, yet the outworlders regarded the tribesmen with the same expression one might aim at a pack of vo’ompat
. Their eyes were focused, intelligent—fanatics, perhaps, but clearly possessed of their faculties. Dukat had heard enough on the news of the sort of calculated horror these men could carry out…and he’d seen it for himself, back in Culat. And that was the most terrifying part—the awful lucidity to their delusions.
The men of the Kekil-haaf tribe had formed a defensive line of sorts, two men thick. The formation lacked military precision and no weapons were drawn—yet—but the Kurabda men who had weapons made very sure their longbows and the sheaths of their knives were readily visible.
Gharumef’s brother, Arokef, led the Kurabda warriors. He met the eyes of his people, first to the left, then to the right, with chin held level, gaze strong and straight. The message was clear: Stand with me and we will not back down.
Most of the Bajorans had that disturbing, pale blood-hued complexion, flushed a much brighter red now in the heat of the Cardassian desert. Though it evaporated quickly in the dry air, Dukat could see they were sweating—a thing Cardassians only did in cases of severe overheating or illness…but these men were mammalian, he remembered, and he schooled himself not to overestimate the severity of their symptoms even if the heat of the desert clearly affected them. Dukat couldn’t read their rank insignia, but he read the mannerisms of the group and zeroed in very quickly on the man he suspected of being their leader.
This one was of a darker complexion—more natural looking to Dukat, for even though no Cardassian had such a hue, at least the relative opacity seemed more fitting. The surprise came as he scrutinized the leader’s facial features more closely, searching for some other clue he might use, besides eye, skin, and hair tone to tell them apart. Had this encounter occurred under peaceful circumstances, he thought, he likely would have celebrated it: as dissimilar as this man was to a Cardassian, something in the bone structure of his face almost evoked that of a Cardassian man of Nevot. Given proper facial and neck ridges, and a warm grey complexion with the shale-like shades that sometimes showed up on the jaw ridges of the Nevotda, he could actually pass for Inquisitor Osenal’s nephew.
, Dukat thought to himself as the Bajoran opened his mouth. Probably one Osenal would disown.
“I am—” The translator sputtered for a moment. “Tev Rahura.” Maybe that static burst had been a rank. Whatever these aliens’ notions of hierarchy were, they didn’t translate into the common tongue. “Your world is now the official subject of the True Prophets’ Empire of Bajor. As such, all attempts at insurgency are expressly
forbidden, and will be met by your rulers with the strongest of measures.”
“We have done no such thing,” Arokef rebutted with equal firmness. It was only after the first few words were out that Dukat realized Arokef had spoken those words in Kurabda, yet he had understood as though he spoke the common tongue: obviously the Bajorans’ translator had a greater reach than he thought.
Tev snorted. “So quick to answer to an accusation that hasn’t even been levied against you yet!”
There’s a resistance! Thank Oralius—someone’s fighting!
Dukat’s soul soared. Why else would the Bajorans take an excursion into the desert and accuse the Kurabda of rebellion…however they might try to twist their accusation back on the tribesmen…except that there had been an attack on Bajoran interests, and that attack had done damage?
“I am quick to defend against lies. Truth needs no time to think,” Arokef retorted. “Do you see a single energy weapon among us? What do you think we could do to your bases or ships?”
Dukat forgot to breathe. Fear stabbed through his chest like a knife to the heart.
There was one energy weapon among the Kekil-haaf. And it belonged to him.
The disruptor lay in a Kurabda storage box in his tent, just barely buried in the sand, with the rug covering it. He prayed that powered down, they wouldn’t be able to detect it. He prayed that unarmed as he was, and ancient as the weapons were that the others carried, they wouldn’t think to look. Because if they look, and they find my disruptor…I will have brought death to everyone! Help us all, Oralius, I beg you!
Then the Bajoran leader flipped a switch. The translator went off. And he pointed straight at Dukat.
Lieutenant Hamedra flicked off his translator and turned to Major Tev, who mirrored these motions. He pointed towards the tall one—the Cardassian with the sharp, angular features and the phaser stare. “He looks like the insurgent leader,” he insisted. “Carries himself like one.”
Tev stared for a moment more…understandable given how hard it was to tell these scalefaced beasts apart. The True Prophets have chosen wisely to make these their thralls, though
, Hamedra thought while Tev pondered. Their freakish appearance at least means that if we start bringing them back to Bajoran worlds, they’ll be easy to spot.
The Cardassians would have to learn to serve the True Prophets, of course, to truly serve their Bajoran masters, for the True Prophets would tolerate no rival gods in their lands—not even the weak, elusive Oralius these people blindly followed. The work of the troops here was to ensure their compliance.
“It’s a little hard to tell from the images,” Tev decided, “but I’ll grant you he’s taller than your average spoonhead…well, taller than this primitive bunch, anyway. He looks a bit young, though…and something seemed a little odd about his mannerisms when we first drove up. I’m not sure what. Listen when he talks, though—see if he sounds like the man to you. If he is, or if he seems like he knows where the leader is…he faces the Orb tonight.”
They switched their translators back on. “You!” Hamedra snapped, gesturing at the tall one. “Identify yourself!”
The young tribesman made no sound, never even opened his mouth to answer. He seemed defiant, yes—but there hadn’t even looked to be a flicker
of a thought to respond. Hamedra lifted his phaser, switching it into a low-intensity mode, ready to fire a shock-bolt into him to get the message across: comply or die. “Leave him—that will do you no good!” snapped the older tribesman next to him. “He does not speak.”
“Really,” Hamedra deadpanned. “I’d be a little more convinced if he hadn’t turned towards the sound of our skimmers when we got here.”
“I did not say he does not hear you or that he does not understand you,” the war leader replied with an almost mocking degree of enunciation. “I said
that he does not speak.”
“And why would that
The female cleric next to the war leader gave something of a shrug as she interjected. “It is as Oralius has willed it; I do not know her reasons.” Then her face and tone hardened. “It does not hinder him among us.”
If this was true, then there was no way he could have led the attack on the Idrak landing site…that man had clearly been heard shouting commands at his troops. Someone like this could never bring so many men under his sway, especially not under those circumstances. And yet—there was something about this young man’s bearing that reminded him of a napping hara
cat…harmless now, perhaps, but ready to leap at the slightest scent of something it did not care for. “Scan him,” he snapped at the medic, Mora. “See if this is true.”
Mora could barely hide his sneer as he turned to face Hamedra. “No obvious
abnormalities—but I’d need a full infirmary setup to be sure. A field tricorder can’t do a full neurological scan…just tell if his language centers are activated or not. And that
might not even tell us anything.”
Then Hamedra caught an unexpected movement out the corner of his eye, where the tribesmen stood. The young man laid the tips of his fingers upon the upper arm of a warrior next to him, then took a step forward. “Are you sure that’s a good idea?” the warrior whispered, perhaps thinking, with his inferior Cardassian hearing, that there was no way the Bajorans could catch what he was saying. “You don’t have to—”
The younger man’s fingers sketched a pattern in the air, and the warrior gave a resigned sigh as he drew meaning from it. “Very well.” Now the warrior watched as the tall Cardassian fixed Hamedra’s eyes and moved his hands again—a short series of precise shapes. “What are your questions?
” the warrior asked—but it was clear these were not his own words that he spoke.
“Your name!” Hamedra growled. “You do
have one, don’t you?”
He got a closemouthed sneer in response, and a raised eye ridge—well, insofar as a Cardassian could do any such thing. Then he followed it up with a series of quick, confined finger movements Hamedra supposed represented the phonemes he lacked the voice for. “Yaaras
,” the warrior translated, “of Kekil-haaf.
“I see—Yaaras. And I will ask you the same question I asked your ‘friend.’ Where is your speech?”
Yaaras shook his head—a sharp, defiant, almost warning
sort of motion. “That is for Oralius to know.
” He pressed the point almost literally, his gestures growing larger, sharper. “Why do you ask? Should this disturb me?
” The warrior mirrored the tall one’s sarcasm with his voice, and immediately after shot a warning look in his companion’s direction, who registered the expression but seemed not in the slightest bit fazed.
Such boldness in a man of his sort
, Hamedra wondered. In Bajoran society, someone without the power of speech could never gain the apparent standing this man had in his tribe; he wondered if it had something to do with the inferiority of Cardassian hearing, that sign language was so well-known among these people that they regarded it as little different than speech. Perhaps Cardassians didn’t even bother trying to fix simple defects where they felt sign would suffice. Of course, for Bajorans, if the problem wasn’t simple, the True Prophets dictated that resources not be expended upon the defective—maybe someone of Yaaras’ mind could be a domestic servant, but little else.
And for that reason, Yaaras’ incredible poise put a chill down Hamedra’s spine, even in the withering heat of the Cardassian desert. Even if this Yaaras was not the man responsible for the attack on the Idrak landing site…Hamedra began to wonder if someday, Yaaras might lead his tribe. And what kind of force might they be under his direction?
“So.” Hamedra let out an exasperated sigh, determined not to let Yaaras or his fellow tribesmen see how unnerving he found the entire situation. “What have been your whereabouts for the past week?”
It took a few of those rapid, exacting gestures before the warrior could begin voicing Yaaras’ words. “I have not left my tribe
,” he replied. “None of us have. Are you unable to tell this with your equipment?
“You are a deceptive people,” Hamedra rebutted, daring not allow the Cardassians—even primitive ones such as these—to realize that indeed, Cardassians could be difficult to detect at night to traditional biosensors. And yet…I wonder if I have told Yaaras too much.
The precipitous drop in their body temperatures at night compared to true mammalians meant that until their sensors were fully calibrated to deal with these therapsid beings, there were
some rather disturbing possibilities. A Cardassian could be transported on the sly in a deep meditative state, his core temperature low enough to seem like a freshly-killed corpse…
“What do you say I have lied about?
” Yaaras probed before Hamedra could find a satisfactory completion to his statement. The warrior seemed rather uncomfortable with the younger man’s insistence, but relayed the words anyway. But the reticence in the interpreter’s voice could not diminish the steel
in Yaaras’ eyes.
Hamedra turned away from Yaaras: he was getting an intensely disturbing sensation of losing control…that he
was the one facing a strange, voiceless interrogation. That would not stand. But the damned thing of it was, he couldn’t think of an alternative to divulging information to these tribesmen that might allow them to anticipate his line of questioning and tailor their answers to generate alibis.
That left Hamedra with only one other option—disengage, and quickly, before he further undermined himself before these primitives. And before his own men.