“I hope I'm not interrupting,” he said cheerfully. It was clear he was very tired; his eyes were bloodshot and circled by dark rings and half of his hair was out of his braid—he tucked it behind his left ear, but it hung loosely on the right side of his face—however, his smile was wide and his eyes shone with excitement.
“I take it you have something,” she guessed.
He gave her a careful look, scrutinizing her face for a moment, and then nodded. “Indeed.” He went to the table and sat. “Zamarran was able to determine with certainty that there was some kind of Bajoran Orb involved in the accident. Whatever they intended to use it for, it opened a fissure in the interspace quantum continuum through which Aladar beamed Dukat to our ship. I wouldn't be surprised if our food is there now.” He grinned. “It would appear that—”
“Spare us the details,” Jarol raised her hand, interrupting him. “You know very well such things give me a headache. Can we return Dukat to his own reality?”
“We think so.” Brenok smiled to Dukat and then looked back at Jarol. “But we need an Orb.”
“We have returned all of them to Bajorans.”
“Well, not all. Aladar did some searching in the database—he's a resourceful man; I had no idea—and managed to learn that there are some fragments still in our possession. The Obsidian Order experimented on them and they still should be in their laboratory facilities, unless someone moved them without filing the paperwork, which is doubtful.”
She thought for a while. “I'll need to talk to Gul Daset; he should have a way to retrieve it for us,” she said slowly.
“I must point out,” Brenok addressed Dukat, “that there is no way of testing our theory before we apply it in practice. If something goes wrong...” He didn't finish, but he hoped it was clear what he meant. “I want you to realize that. It's a great risk.”
Dukat nodded. “I understand. And I think you’re right. I…did not explain it before,” he continued with a tinge of embarrassment, “but my sources had been telling me there was an Orb of the Pah-Wraiths on Cardassia Prime, in our area. We went after it while they were carrying it to another city, hoping we could damage or destroy it. Give me a moment and I’ll try to see it…”
He closed his eyes in the sort of self-hypnosis that his people used for the most detailed types of recall, drawing himself back into the memory of the cargo skimmer in the seconds before he blacked out. “I’m looking for the ark of the Orb…if it’s there, it was out of my view while I was conscious. The cockpit is directly ahead of me; its door is shut. I suppose it could be there, but I doubt it—they fear its power and they would never take a chance of its accidentally opening while they were driving. There are other compartments, though…nothing large, but I can see a few that are large enough to hold an ark.” He manipulated the scene for a moment to account for perspective, then—even with his eyes still closed, raised his hand and measured out a space between his thumb and forefinger. “There would be about that
much clearance around the ark if they used those compartments.”
He returned to the view he’d had right before he blacked out. “But now…if I look at the Bajoran soldier’s weapon…I can see that it was adapted from a standard Bajoran phaser rifle. The muzzle has been altered, though, right after the beam collimator. There is an indigo crystal mounted in front of the collimator, by some device with wires leading back to the rifle’s power pack. But ‘crystal’ is only an approximation of what it is. It’s more like a crystalline plasma ball, and I can see it shifting. It appears almost…bloodshot, though. Tortured. It…doesn’t want
the changes they’ve tried to make to it, but it’s trapped, and now he’s firing the beam through
it—it’s more dispersed than it should be—it slams me into the bulkhead, and it burns…some…but not the way it usually does when you’re shot, and it keeps going…”
Dukat’s eyes opened. “And that was the last thing I saw before I woke here.”
Jarol and Brenok observed Dukat's recollection technique with interest. They had been trained to concentrate on one point in front of them—or close their eyes—to concentrate, bring the whole picture into focus in their mind’s eye and then start describing it, as simultaneous recollection and speaking would break their concentration. When Dukat’s eyes opened they looked at each other. “The Orbs of the Prophets glow white,” Jarol said. “You say it didn't want the changes?” she asked, looking at Dukat; he nodded. “We never managed to establish what the purpose of those Orbs is, but they are a powerful source of energy.” She knew that the Ministry of Science had tried to find a way to harness that energy to use it for industrial purposes, but they had failed. “And they can do... things. I believe sending a sentient being to a parallel universe wouldn't be beyond their possibilities. Do you have detailed plans for how to use it?” she asked Brenok.
“Yes. Actually Zamarran and Aladar are preparing the transporter as we speak. They have to rebuild the leptoquark flux coil to make it compatible with the Orb fragment and then reroute the di-virtual wave buffer to compensate for higher power usage. Our calculations indicate it should be safe, but there is some risk that it would blow our iso-internal distribution net. We'll take precautions not to let it fry the whole grid.”
“I'll talk to Gul Daset.” She rose. “If you’ll excuse me, gentlemen,” she said and left the quarters.
“She looks better.” Brenok gave Dukat a huge smile that showed his white, even teeth. “It's difficult for her, because it's eight days short of ten years since she lost them. You don't seem like you have eaten anything.” He reached for some parra
bread, brought it to his nose, and inhaled deeply. “Fresh bread; love it.” He’d had no idea how hungry he was until he took the first bite.
Dukat smiled. “I meant no insult to your cooking...I can smellwhat a fine job you’ve done.” He knew the food had likely gone a bit cold during their conversation, but the thought didn’t bother him at all…warm or cold, good food was good food. He mirrored Brenok, reaching for his own bread. “It was just that your gul came first. The burdens she was trying to carry were just—no one
should have to bear them.”
“I wholeheartedly agree.” Brenok nodded. “And I will pass your compliment to our cook. My cooking wouldn't be as successful,” he said with a sheepish smile. He ate for a while and then looked at Dukat. “Can I ask you a question?” The Oralian nodded, so Brenok sucked his teeth and then spoke in a gently voice. “Why do you call your people Cardassians if there is no Cardassian Union in your reality?”
“I take it that the Cardassian Union is your government…and a completely secularized one?” Brenok nodded. I think I may know what happened in this universe’s history…it had to be the Cataclysm—the reforms must have failed.
That sent a chill down Dukat’s spine…for the results of that apparently included a Cardassia that conquered worlds. Had the corrupt ones among the Guides refused to face their sins? Or had the terrorists simply been too strong, and destroyed the faith by force? Would it offend Glinn Brenok if he asked? Gul Jarol certainly mourned the sins of her people. Brenok, too, bore scars of the heart, according to Jarol. Did that mean he would share Jarol’s painfully-acquired wisdom?
First, though, he would answer Brenok’s question—he couldn’t see any possible harm in it. “It was one of the reforms Yavenn Pretam and Rhirzum Akleen introduced.” Rhirzum?
Brenok mouthed with a raised eye ridge; Dukat couldn’t tell whether he was trying not to laugh out loud. Dukat couldn’t really blame him…he had to admit it was a rather odd nickname, odder still even in modern day that Akleen had accepted it in the public discourse, but one rarely saw the name ‘Tret Akleen’ except on formal documents and memorials. “After the crisis at the beginning of the Cataclysm…and the way the Hebitian government botched the response…we had to reform. We had to do something about the corruption and the abuses—some of them by Guides—or people were going to keep dying, either from neglect or a revolution. And those things were just wrong
. We had to do better, and I pray all the time that we won’t lose that because of this darkness our worlds are in.
“So…about the name change. We changed our judicial system as part of the reforms, along with some other things. It was at that same time when Pretam and Akleen proposed changing our name to ‘Cardassian.’ It’s because of what ‘Hebitian’ means. I’ve seen it translated as ‘people with souls,’ or ‘people of the spirit.’ There are some who still call themselves Hebitians…like the people of the tribe that took me in when I first went out into the desert. They don’t want to abandon their traditions. There are traditions I would feel terrible about losing—when the Bajorans attack them, it feels like a knife to the heart. So I understand the feeling...but in my belief, those traditions are our culture. They aren’t the name of our entire species. People can opt out of cultural things, but if they feel like they have to opt out of the species
, or that people will think of them that way, as if they don’t have souls or something, or aren’t people…it doesn’t matter how few there are. I can’t
do that. Whereas ‘Cardassian’ just means ‘the people.’ It’s simple, but it works. ”
Brenok listened carefully and with interest. To him it seemed like Hebitia was still there, in Dukat’s world, but it was nothing like he had been taught at school. Not anymore, according to Dukat. It was a Hebitia in which everyone could find their place. “It’s interesting,” he said, “that—although in different ways—we arrived at the same name for ourselves. But... rhirzum
? Really? Rhirzum
?” A smile played on Brenok’s lips. “We call him Tret Akleen and...I can’t imagine a comparison to such a...” One of his eyes squinted, as he thought for a while. “I’d give him the name ‘Zerayd’
; it is an adequately dignified animal. Sorry.” He became serious and glanced at Dukat. “I don’t mean anything by that. It’s just...Akleen is a great figure in our history and I would never think of him as a...rhirzum
!” He moved closer to the table and returned to his breakfast.
“It was an unusual case, I’ll grant you that,” Dukat replied with a small smile. “As far as anyone knows, Yavenn Pretam gave him the name because they bickered so much—like enemies or lovers, except they were neither. They never were…they were friends, in spite of their differences. In spite of the fact that the first time he ever saw her—he tried to kill her. I’m sure she would have been happy if he had changed his mind on his beliefs…she was
a Guide, after all…but she kept him close because he challenged her. Some people close to Pretam got upset over the fact that the Castellan’s Guide was keeping a nonbeliever as an advisor…so they leaked Akleen’s private nickname to the media. It should have been a grave insult…still would be, for most people—they didn’t expect him to enjoy the attention!”
Dukat’s words caught Brenok’s attention. “Pretam befriended Akleen even though he tried to kill her? Either she had a lot of forgiveness in her heart or he was more exceptional than I ever thought. Or both,” he added after a second.
“What we do
know is that before that incident, he was involved with a terror group. Neither of them talked very much about what exactly happened, or what exactly Akleen did before they met. We do know that he was very, very young, not much more than twenty. Practically a boy. Pretam would have been almost forty years older than him at the time. Maybe it was
both…maybe she saw the man he could be, instead of the one he was about to become. That she could see that when he was threatening her…I can tell you, it’s a hard thing to think about when you’re looking down the wrong end of a rifle. But if you forget—then anything
becomes so easy to justify, because you think there’s no value in that life. I’ve seen people forget, and I try so hard to stop it…I don’t want that for us.”
“Your history is so different than ours. We had our problems with extremists too, but according to our records Akleen helped to solve our problems with those people; he wasn’t one of them.” He fell silent for a moment. “Sometimes being on the wrong end of a rifle helps you to realize you don’t want to point it at anyone anymore and that it was wrong to point it at anyone in the first place,” he said quietly, as more to himself than Dukat, thinking about the Dominion and their indifferent slaughter of Cardassians just as the Cardassians used to indifferently slaughter Bajorans. He had never been to Bajor, he was too young to serve there, but he didn’t like to be associated with butchers and he knew he was.
“Defending innocents is one thing. But I never want to do more
than that.” Dukat paused, folding his hands together and closing his eyes for a moment. Please don’t let me hurt him
, he prayed. But please—give me the strength if I must follow the most difficult path.
“Glinn…I—may I ask you something? It…may be a difficult question.”
Brenok studied Dukat’s face for a long moment. The man seemed to be very nervous, worried maybe? What kind of question was it to cause so much anguish? Was it something bad? Was it something personal, very personal? Was it about his daughter? “All right, but I reserve the right to refuse to answer if I find it too personal,” he said finally.
“I…don’t think it’s personal in the way you may be thinking,” Dukat slowly began. “It’s just that—Gul Jarol mentioned that in your world, Cardassia invaded Bajor. And I may be wrong…but it seems like something happened to people like me. To Oralians. The three of you—I don’t think you approve of things like that. But what about people who still do
? If they exploited your kindness...I don’t want to be responsible for leading another set of conquerors to my people. Even—” The words caught in Dukat’s throat. “Even if meant never seeing my daughter again. I can’t let someone follow me again
Brenok’s heart stopped for a second at the words ‘never seeing my daughter again’. He would never condemn anyone to suffer like that, never. He knew all too well how terrible it would be. He looked at Dukat, who was clearly worried at the prospect, leaned toward him and said in a quiet, but firm voice that—he hoped—sounded reassuring. “Dukat, I would never allow anyone to follow you and harm your world. We have done enough bad things in this one. Even if someone went there believing they would be helping you get rid of the Bajorans...I don’t think it would be right. I don’t think my conscience could take any more.” He leaned back in his chair. “There are only five people who know about this. Gul Jarol, me, Medic Taret, Glinn Zamarran—he is our engineer and he’s working on the way to send you back—and Garesh Aladar, who saved your life by beaming you here in one piece and then calling Taret to keep
you in one piece. I trust Zamarran with my life; he is a good, honorable man. Aladar is young, younger than even me,” he added with a warm smile, “but he can be trusted, I know that. None of them, of us
, will speak of this event to anyone. Gul Jarol and I will ask them to forget about it as good Cardassians, and they will also have their orders as good soldiers. No one outside of our five will even know this has happened. I will purge the ship’s logs myself and Zamarran will check my work to make sure it’s done properly. Your sacrifice is not necessary.”
Skrain Dukat rewarded Brenok with a quiet, joyous grin of relief. “Thank you, Glinn Brenok,” he finally replied. Bless you
, he said, and he meant it. “That means everything to me.” After another moment’s reflection—and another few bites of his breakfast—he mused, “Some powers are just too great for frail beings like us to handle.”