Author’s note: This story takes place in the pre-invasion times of the
Sigils and Unions: Catacombs of Oralius AU in which Cardassia has retained much of the culture of its Hebitian forefathers, and a young Skrain Dukat grew up in a completely different world from that of his prime-universe counterpart.
If anyone has difficulty with the mention of self-harm and what it might be like for someone to struggle through those issues, please consider if this is something you will be comfortable reading. While I intend the utmost respect, I do not want to upset anybody.
Tirhem Farms, thirty kilometers outside Lakariy’ane
13 Miçoun, Thirty-First Year of the 369th Ăstraya
Federation Year 2325
The spacious room in the center of the Pearl Domicile at Tirhem Farms offered thirteen-year-old Skrain Dukat very few reminders of the reason why he was there. Sunlight showered down through the skylight in the great, two-story-high vaulted ceiling, keeping just shy of the couch he sat on, old-fashioned, hide-bound copy of Ya’ilelh’s Commentaries
in his lap. He could memorize it, yes…but even if he did that someday, the feel and scent of an actual book in hand would still resonate with his heart.
By all appearances, the great room of Pearl Domicile looked like the centerpiece of any ordinary, middle-income Lakariy’anda home: furnished with, overstuffed couches with just the right balance between aesthetics and simple, approachable comfort, chairs with reading lamps behind them. Only the scale of the place gave it away, and what had seemed to Skrain at first like an infinity of real books
—not just electronic files, but actual, hardbound, paper-printed books. It was hardly anything compared to the few libraries left in Lakariy’ane, to be sure…but the fact that it actually exceeded the case-study collection in his father’s study was quite enough to impress him.
Tirhem Farms had actually been the estate of a wealthy family half a millennium ago, before the Cataclysm seared the wealth from the land and the Ti’irhem themselves had been forced to divest themselves of the sprawling compound or face even more complete destitution. For the seventy-five years without its owners, Tirhem Farms had alternated between a state of total abandonment and haunting by desperate squatters. Eventually, as Cardassia began to settle into a careful tension between the resource-impoverished homeworld and its colonies and trading partners, the property had fallen into the hands of an order of Oralian devotees with the idea of turning Tirhem Farms into a place for bringing new life to minds and hearts that might otherwise slip away for decidedly less pragmatic reasons than centuries-past abandonment by the Ti’irhem.
There was a large vidscreen on the far side, but it wasn’t on right now; it would be later that evening when those who were able gathered to watch the evening news for a dose of reality, and something more edifying afterwards for a dose of something real in the way that would truly
last. A few other children and teens read on the couches nearest to the bookshelves, and on the far end of the room, another group had gathered to play kotra
—or more accurately, two to play, and a gaggle of others to kibitz in a way that would never
be tolerated at any serious tournament. Skrain wasn’t the type to feed off of that sort of excitement; he was fine with his book, the conversation of the Guides and acolytes, and a few acquaintances near his own age that he’d made since coming here.
Besides…the truth was that he didn’t feel as though he really belonged
in their company. Never mind that all of the other young people were here for their own reasons. And of course some suffered more severe disruptions to their thinking and feeling than he ever had…some couldn’t even participate in these activities if they wanted to. Like Nejran Yidal, whom no one, not the Guides, not the counselors, not even his fellow patients had been able to bring out of the catatonic state he’d been in since he witnessed the deaths of his parents in a horrific midair collision near his school. As for the doctors…there might be medicines they could try, but the consensus between the three constituencies of Tirhem Farms was that this was a problem of the spirit, and medicine would likely do more harm than good.
But for Skrain—it didn’t matter that the doctor had been so skillful with a dermal regenerator that there were no visible scars to remind him of what he had done. Or tried
to do. His capacity for memory hadn’t faded as he drained away, as fear suddenly resuscitated itself in his body when by all accounts it should have done no good except to remind him at the very last of the absolute waste
of what he had done.
Father, kneeling over him…
Father, shouting into a comm unit…
Transporters nearby, and darkness…
Skrain felt something thump
against the bottom of the couch, breaking him out of leaden thoughts. He glanced down just as a brown-scaled tail, with the hard, fin-like end that reminded Skrain of the tail of a lake ray, hit the furniture again—not too
hard…just hard enough to get his attention. Skrain slid into a seated position, and eyed the long-snouted camayrit
—a ‘house gharial,’ as he’d read the creature was known on Terhăn Terăm
, thanks to a wonderful example of convergent evolution. The camayrit
stood a bit taller on his straight legs than the terhăn
creature with its jutting knees—but the biggest difference was the species’ temperament and social behavior. The animal started scrabbling at Skrain’s leg with his clawed front feet, great yellow eyes staring up at the Cardassian boy with that permanent, hopeful smile. Pick me up?
those eyes begged.
Even with the design of his legs, the camayrit
was still a fairly low-slung creature, and not much good for jumping. That didn’t stop camayrit-çăs
from wanting to be in high places when their owners were there. “I give up, Vratsik…you win,” Skrain finally conceded with a faint smile. He didn’t worry about bringing his hand within the reach of the camayrit
’s teeth, which stuck out prominently from the jaws, sharp as needles. They might have seemed threatening to an alien visitor who had never seen such a creature before, but these were thin, fish-snaring jaws, not the kind that could take a bite out of a man’s hand or foot. The attempt would snap the small reptiloid’s jaw, and both of them knew it.
As Skrain lifted Vratsik, the camayrit
thrummed happily away. Skrain couldn’t hear the sound—only with a rare combination of the right person and the right camayrit
were the sounds the creatures made ever audible to a Cardassian. Camayrit-çăs
knew their owners’ deafness to the sounds they made, and while no one had ever quite proven it, Skrain had a feeling that was why some, like Vratsik, so liked to be picked up and petted: only by touch could they make themselves ‘heard.’
Vratsik tromped around a bit on Skrain’s lap like a little soldier scouting the territory for a perfect camping position, then walked his long body into a circle and plopped down. Skrain gave the camayrit
a gentle ‘scratch’ just above the krilătbre-yezul
—the inverted teardrop-shaped protrusion on the forehead that all Cardassian creatures with a bioelectric sense shared. He was careful as always not to use his fingernails…he didn’t care one bit for the feeling of one of his own macroscales being pulled the wrong way, and wouldn’t blame Vratsik for scrambling off his lap if he erred.
“I have quite a tendency for that, don’t I?” Skrain whispered ruefully to Vratsik. The camayrit
intensified his thrumming, oblivious to the content of Skrain’s words, but seeming to recognize the tone. “At least someone
around here doesn’t know…” That I tried to waste all of Oralius’ gifts
, he silently finished. That I didn’t even
tell anybody. That I just pushed Mom and Dad away and told them everything was fine...and then…I…
He couldn’t understand why his father—the strong and dignified federal archon Procal Dukat—had taken a partial leave of absence, splitting his docket with an older archon looking to ease his way to retirement, and traveled from Culat to Tirhem Farms to spend half of each week at the Ruby Domicile, where he lived during those times and came over to visit with his second son. Didn’t Dad worry about what would happen if the media started asking questions? Didn’t he worry about the hurtful speculations they might come up with to explain his absence? True, especially
as an archon he could use the laws about public dissemination of information about minors to threaten any reporter who so much as thought
about running a story about the embarrassment of a son who had managed to wind up in a mental health center, and for that
reason. He shouldn’t have to worry, he realized, but some reporters’ hierarchical instincts…and sense of common decency…seemed to be broken. Some of them might not
stop at the thought of releasing such a story, and even with a retraction, the damage would be done. What would they think
of Dad? Would they think he’d been a monster to his son and that Mom had let him? There were
those here at Tirhem Farms who had suffered all manner of abuse from their parents, after all.
And thank Oralius—I am not one of those
, Skrain thought. There were no horrors remembered, nor gaps in his memory. He had gotten along reasonably well in his large family, aside from the expected poking and prodding and teasing that went with being the second boy in the family. And that was what made it all the more galling to him, what he had done. How could Dad follow him here without reservations, after he’d thrown the love of his family right back in their faces the way he had?
The tears started again. He was tired of tears…they were good for the soul, his people said—even the Hebitian Records themselves said—but he had shed so many of them and he was tired of not knowing whether they came from a broken mind or a broken soul. One tear slid down, missing his eye ridge thanks to the angle to which his head was tilted, and splashing on Vratsik’s back. The camayrit
cocked a gentle, curious eye at Skrain, but didn’t interrupt his gentle thrumming—water was
natural to the fish-eating animal, after all.
He didn’t know whether he preferred the tears or the fire
anymore—the kind that consumed the mind and drove it endlessly without rest. It could be an alluring state, yes…but…in clarity, he knew it wasn’t him either. To treat one was hard enough…to treat both…even in the reign of the 369th Ăstraya…while at the same time respecting the integrity and dignity of the personality—it wasn’t so easy. He knew he was making progress…he was in one of his low states now, but he could
at least get out of bed, and his soul wasn’t completely dead to the toothy ‘smile’ of one of Oralius’ creatures.
Still…they had not yet found the right thing to completely stop
the cycling. And until then, he was here. Not that ‘here’ was terrible…not like the horrors he’d heard of from the days of the Cataclysm and even a century or so after that. People treated him far
better than he deserved, he thought. Especially the acolytes and Guides, who knew full well how badly he had offended Oralius and still showed him kindness anyway. It was as though he were a long-anticipated house guest, not a patient. Even the ‘family pets’ seemed to think so. But that still didn’t ease his soul.
In stark contrast, Vratsik’s eyes began to narrow with pleasure as Skrain stroked the entire length of the camayrit
’s body, all the way from the krilătbre-yezul
to the paddle-tip of his thick, sturdy tail. I’m going to be stuck here for awhile
, Skrain thought with a hint of laughter that barely even twitched his lips…but at least it was something. No doubt: Vratsik was settling in for a nice, long nap.
Skrain was even more sure of this when Vratsik barely even opened an eye to register the approach of Derava, one of the robed Guides. Even with his eye ridge partly in the way, Skrain couldn’t have mistaken her for anyone else—for she could stand eye-to-eye with him, alone among the Guides at Tirhem Farms. Her long hair flowed halfway down her back, with the sides drawn back without embellishment, only a simple cord more comparable to what most males—Skrain included—used for their hair, than the elaborate ornamentation many women employed. That hair brushed against neck ridges wrapped in a clerical scarf high enough across her throat that only the last few macroscales just under the jaw ridges were left exposed. The more infrequent male Guides, in Skrain’s sect, did the same: for a Guide, and some very conservative Cardassians, the neck ridges were only for the eyes of one’s husband or wife as the case might be—never for the fantasies of another.
Derava gestured towards Skrain with a smile. “Ya’ilelh’s Commentaries
, I see? What do you think?”
“I think Vratsik had other plans,” Skrain wryly answered. The truth was, he hadn’t been able to maintain his concentration. The Guide nodded her understanding. Maybe she knew what he was trying to say, but felt no need to force him to state the obvious.
She, however, clearly felt no such compunctions about her own words. “I think he likes you.”
On cue, Vratsik rolled his elongated little body onto its side, back leaned on Skrain, stretched all four of his legs, stubby, clawed toes splayed, then settled down again, leaving his tan belly with its sensitive secondary bioelectric node exposed for petting. Skrain couldn’t help but oblige.
Skrain found it much easier to talk to the religious devotees who served at Tirhem Farms than he did the counselors or doctors. It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with the other staff members…in fact, a few even had diagnoses of their own. Skrain would never forget his surprise the first time he saw Dr. Rhulat’s hair part in the wind to reveal the silver glint of a medical implant behind her right ear—almost the same kind that he might end up with if his condition continued to be so difficult to fully treat. He respected, even liked Dr. Rhulat…but still, to him a Guide was different.
That wasn’t true of everyone—some of the other children avoided the Guides and acolytes as though they carried an illness that would make every single scale fall off of their bodies. For Skrain…it made no sense, with the guilt he carried. Yet to him...they represented order. Sense. But the kind that warmed the heart rather than quenching its flame.
“Vratsik likes anybody who’ll give him a free stomach rub,” Skrain demurred. Which probably was
one of the criteria the staff used for selecting the resident pets.
“But not everybody is willing,” Derava countered. “Not everybody is an animal person, of course. But it’s one of the ways we can express compassion. It says something about you, Skrain. Something good.”
“That’s very kind of you, Guide,” Skrain murmured flatly. Even the name of this building mocks me
, Skrain thought to himself as he remembered Derava’s explanation of how the Pearl Domicile had come by its name. Because each of you is even
more priceless and unique than a natural pearl…each of you is handcrafted and precious, and to be respected and loved for who you are
, she’d said. Yet even in the face of that fact…just what
had he done? “Still…”
Derava said nothing, simply waited until Skrain was ready to speak.
“I realize now...that I have this imbalance,” the teenaged Cardassian began. “And that at least helps me understand why I feel the way I do sometimes. But I don’t
understand why I—how it is that when Oralius tested me, something so horrible
came out of me. I don’t see how I’m supposed to forgive myself for that
The Guide paused, deep in thought. It seemed not to matter that she must have heard these sorts of things many times from who knew how many other children. The weight of the question had to be recognized. “That’s not how Oralius sees it,” Derava replied. “She is not so indifferent to life as to want people to desire the eternal tundra. No illness…regardless of what kind it is…is something that she wanted for any of us, nor are you
your diagnosis, in her eyes. You weren’t in a state to make a rational choice then—your medical record is most clear on that. And above all, she does not practice entrapment. Please…don’t entrap yourself
Skrain nodded—though he feared the feel of his bioelectric field might somehow convey to Derava just how much he struggled with those words. No…that didn’t sound right. Feared
wasn’t the word, precisely; if this were anyone other than one of the Guides, and especially Derava, he likely wouldn’t have spoken. “I’ll try my best, Guide.”
“Would you care to pray with me?” Derava invited, her hand instinctively patting the recitation mask she had been carrying.
Skrain nodded again…perhaps this might stop the arid wind from blowing through his soul.
Derava slid the mask onto her face, then rested a hand on his shoulder as she recited the Invocation. Then, in tandem, they closed their eyes. “Compassionate Oralius,” the Guide began, “we come to you in search of a sign. I ask you to show Skrain Dukat who it is you have fashioned him to be, who it is he will
be as you continue to help him regain equilibrium of body, mind, and spirit—and above all, as he grows in his faith in you. Help him to recognize that sign—that moment, in whatever form it is presented to him—and to draw strength from it, and to feel his faith and his recognition of your love for him redoubled in his heart. May Fate be by Spirit so guided.”