OK, guys...here you have it! According to Word, this story clocks in at 4974 words, minus the title and author's note. ------- Author’s Note: As some of you may already be aware, the character of Tayben Berat actually originates in Lois Tilton’s novel, Betrayal, which comes from way back in the day of the numbered novel. If you want to read a summary of Betrayal, please visit this link; you may find it helpful. You may also be interested in my short story “A Stone’s Throw Away,” which is the first to bridge the gap between that Berat and my Berat. But this is the moment, above all, that created my Berat. If not for this, you’d be looking at a very different character. 2371—The Time of the Maquis Uprising—24 hours remaining Volan III The 2305-series Starfleet Type-I hand phaser lay in pieces on the sixteen-year-old human boy’s desk. His dad had managed to hide the old weapon from the Cardassians when they’d beamed down for their first ‘security sweeps,’ but he hadn’t exactly managed to hide it from his own son. Hadn’t even noticed his prized phaser had been gone for three days already. It baffled the boy, as he installed the beam collimator he’d managed to scrounge up, how his father could complain about the Federation as they abandoned their people to politics, how he could complain about the Cardassian jackboots and do nothing about it. He couldn’t even be bothered to tuck tail and run when the Cardies took over, let alone stand up and fight like the Maquis were doing. And now, the boy marveled as he clicked in a power cell he’d tweaked so it could manage just one shot before powering the weapon down, his dad was actually falling for the Cardies’ hype. The Cardassians had a new ship parked in orbit over Volan III; they’d been trumpeting its arrival for the past two weeks, and given their near-takeover of colony media, it was inescapable. Everything was going to be different this time, they promised…just hold your fire and you’ll see: we can be benevolent overlords after all. That’s what it boiled down to, in the boy’s mind. Give the ghencardă’ăsthe—the sub-Cardassians—a few tasty treats and maybe they’ll figure out their job is to beg at their Cardassian masters’ table and play fetch for the Union when called upon. The boy didn’t want to get his dad in trouble. That was one of the reasons he’d doctored the phaser…the Cardassians were going to try and scan for the signatures, of course. He’d carry the old parts, put the weapon back to its old configuration as soon as it was done. Even if they got hold of it, the old phaser wouldn’t match the one they were after…not with the twitchy power cell and the replacement collimator. If they looked for a DNA trace, wondered why he’d been handling the weapon, he had a story for that, too: when he’d first swiped the phaser, he’d done a bit of sport shooting out in the woods beyond the colony walls. There…he slapped the cover back on the phaser and put the old weapon back into its case. According to the family legend, the phaser had served in the first border skirmishes with the Cardassians. Fitting, he thought, that it would soon serve again. If his dad wouldn’t carry on the tradition…then he would. And once the Maquis found out what he’d done, they’d have to take notice. They’d told him he was too young, when he’d volunteered. Wait until the summer—then we’ll talk. Well, the Cardies weren’t going to magically stay their hand until summer. They had to be dealt with now, decisively. And if no one else was willing to do it—he would. 2371—2 hours remaining Cardassian Union Warship Sherouk, in orbit of Volan III A youthful Cardassian officer set down the padd he had been reading and stood, cautiously drawing his sidearm, lake-blue eyes scrutinizing the weapon with the piercing gaze of an engineer. A former engineer, in his case…and some habits died hard. Sometimes he still couldn’t believe he commanded this ship. Of all the guls in the Cardassian Guard, Tayben Berat had wondered as he read the mission intelligence, why was I chosen? The legates of Central Command never did anything without a plethora of reasons—contingency plans upon contingency plans, layers upon layers...and politics could never, never be divorced from their doings. Just six months ago, Berat had been a glinn, the chief engineer aboard the Vrokind. Now it was the complexities of Cardassian social systems he had to be the most concerned about, second to his ship’s mission performance. His superior, Legate Turrel, seemed to be a different sort of leader. The idea that the Federation expatriates in the Demilitarized Zone might respond to the offer of assistance—contingent, of course, on the cessation of Maquis attacks on Cardassian interests—was one that to Berat’s knowledge, no other legate had publicly entertained and gotten away with it. That someone could speak such things without prompt action from the Obsidian Order suggested that either they too were willing to give it a try, or that Turrel had consolidated a large enough power base that they dared not. At least, until the results of the mission were in. It wouldn’t be easy. Helping the colonists to understand that their interests were now those of Cardassia would be a long process—but when Berat thought about it, Cardassia had done very little to make its new denizens feel like… Like anything but an occupied people, Berat thought, lowering his head just slightly and casting his eyes beneath the shadows of their ridges as he finished his inspection and holstered his weapon. The burning in the Bajorans’ eyes aboard the former Terok Nor haunted him still…he’d known, when he saw that, that the ‘merciful’ hand of Gul Dukat had been unmerciful enough. And the enemies of the Cardassian Union—their hand had been merciful, even when he had deserved death for his actions aboard their station. And that was what gave Gul Berat hope that Legate Turrel was right: with the right incentive, and a sense that someone in the Union actually regarded them as fellow cardasdanoid beings, they might well be convinced to lay down their arms and turn against whatever diehards refused. There was still one question central in the gul’s mind. He was the youngest gul in the Cardassian Guard, and one of the least tenured…he’d even beaten Dukat’s record for an early ascension to power. And this, in a culture so reverent of years and so distrustful of youth, spoke of two possibilities: either Turrel wanted someone relatively uncorrupted by loyalty to other legates, someone less set in his ways—or he, and Central Command both, wanted a way to dismiss any failures as simply that of a young man. Berat wondered, as he entered the transporter room, who would suffer if the mission failed: its author, or its executor? He could only hope the same youth Central Command might hope to use as an excuse would protect him in that case. Autonomy within the Union was a function of age, and as long as the mission did not trigger a purge, he hoped he would be safe…for he had survived two such purges—just barely. Therefore he intended to keep an open commlink after he beamed down: his every word and action on-planet would become a formal part of his permanent documentation file as well as streamed live aboard the Sherouk for all officers ranked dalin and above to hear. There would be no room for accusations that he had not followed the prescribed preliminary negotiation tracks. And that was the best he could do. Berat stepped up onto the transporter pad. At his side was Riyăk Eret, a Federation specialist from the investigative crew—a bit too indispensable for the nature of the mission than Berat liked. That was the perverse thing about service in the Cardassian Guard: he needed the expertise of a woman like Eret, yet one always had to be suspicious of those assigned to study the enemy. The state, after all, would not risk exposing anyone less than perfectly loyal to detailed information on foreigners and their societies, so there was a strong chance in Berat’s mind that Eret was Obsidian Order. He trusted Gor Tebal and Garheç Mavrit from his deck patrol far more. Given his horrid experience with Gul Marak aboard the Ghedrakbre, one of Gul Berat’s first tasks upon assuming command of the Sherouk had been a bloodless purge of its former gul’s deck patrol, replacing them with more principled individuals loyal not just to the state and to their gul, but to the reasons the rules existed…people who wouldn’t just stand by while some young garheç belowdecks suffered beating after beating from the people who were supposed to be his comrades. These were men who had something left in their hearts, not just in their brains and their bodies. And at least while they remained on the Sherouk, no one would knock that out of them. Once the entire party stood on the pad, Berat glanced over at Riyăk Arvor, the transporter operator. “Ousighukum,” he commanded, his diction authoritative but his voice low. “I obey, Gul.” Arvor engaged the transporter, and for an instant dislocated the four Cardassians from space and time. The suspicion in Governor Soon’s eyes was regrettable, Gul Berat thought, but understandable. These people had not simply fought the might of the Cardassian Union and lost. No—for them there had been no battle, no hope that an aggrieved Federation might return someday to reclaim a conquered territory. Instead their own people had handed them over. There would be no rescue…and in their minds, what hope would they have but that which they created for themselves? That did not excuse the colonists’ terrorist sympathies, by any means…but it did at least provide an avenue through which Berat hoped he might be able to reason with them. “I’m sure you understand why something like that would take time,” the governor was saying of Berat’s proposal. “They’ll demand proof.” He nodded at the door where his fellow colonists gathered. “Conversely—so do we,” Berat countered. “Both Guardsmen and Cardassian civilians have died at the hands of Maquis insurgents, and we must have assurances that the attacks are going to stop. I really do want to help you become a fuller participant in the Union—a true rasgălor, with official recognition as a prefecture of the Union, not just a settlement. The Federation never granted you that status, did they?” Soon offered no direct answer. Instead, he raised a skeptical eyebrow far higher than any Cardassian’s eye ridge could ever go. “You would grant equality to aliens?” “All worlds within the Union must answer to Cardassia,” Berat clarified. “But in that, you would be no different. That said…if it’s Bajor’s situation you fear, I am authorized to tell you that if the violence stops, things will be different for you than that. We are even willing to assist you in solving the exchange problem and helping you enter the Cardassian economy.” This, according to Turrel’s analysis, was one of the greatest practical problems faced by the colonists. They still had no right to attack Cardassians—or their own people, for that matter—but the remnant of ‘currency’ in the Federation was nearly worthless in comparison to the Cardassian lek. Maybe barter would suffice on-planet for these early generations...but with the exception of the few colonists who might have a few strips of latinum to their name, they had no way to purchase goods off-planet, the things their small personal replicators could never make. Making matters worse, Federation attempts to interdict illicit arms shipments had proven ineffective—therefore the only option had been to deny all Federation ships entry if they refused to submit to Cardassian inspection. Few got through, and those that did were sorely delayed. The colonists were beginning to feel privation. And if allowing Federation shipments meant the flow of contraband—then the alternative was to give the colonists a means to purchase from a safe source…Cardassia…instead. If successful, a small outlay and some lessons in finance and fiscal responsibility could pay tremendous dividends for the Union—and the colonists as well. Soon appeared to consider it for a moment…but he hadn’t forgotten his concerns. “And if there is an attack?” Berat pressed his lips together, and fixed the governor’s eyes with his own. He took no joy in the words he now delivered and he hoped Soon could read his face well enough to discern that. “Then I will have no power to stop Central Command from reprisals. I really don’t want to see that—and that’s why I want to speak to your people directly. I want them to know that they have a real chance with us.” Maybe not the chance you would have had with your own people if they had been true to you, Berat thought, but it’s more than they ever really gave you in the end. 2371—5 minutes remaining Volan III The boy had slipped out of the settlement at the light of dawn, taking up a position in the branches of one of the tallest trees. Fortunately for him, Volan III had no predators capable of scaling the tree and leaping out to the wall to menace the colony, so the settlers had seen no reason to trim back the long, high, sturdy branches that reached out towards the structure in a natural bridge of sorts. His chronometer vibrated against his wrist: beamdown time. Sure, something might go wrong, the meeting might be scrapped at the last minute…one never knew, but if there was one thing the Cardies prided themselves on, it was punctuality. The gul and his entourage had to be here. And for whatever conniving reason of theirs, they didn’t just want to speak to the governor. They wanted to speak to the people…no doubt insurance in case they failed to brainwash the governor into doing whatever he wanted against the will of the people. But if his dad was any indication, too many would fall for it. Gingerly he shuffled along the branch, gripping it with both gloved hands and between his knees until he reached the edge of the stone wall. His heart pounded as he prepared to drop down onto the wall itself and some small part of him remarked at the irony, that he so dreaded this when a far more dire act awaited. Slowly, he loosened his grip with his left hand, reaching for the cold concrete of the wall. It wasn’t far—he was right over the wall now. As he leaned, the world seemed to swoon for an instant, and he froze, letting his head settle enough for the next step. Finally, he clambered off the branch and after a few seconds curled atop the wall in something like a fetal position to regain his equilibrium, he allowed himself a flash of jubilation. He’d practiced reaching the top of the tree before, but never actually attempted the drop to the wall until now—and he’d actually made it. He reached for his rucksack, feeling for the shape of the phaser. Good…it was still there, and the safeties still engaged. His father always swore by these old-style weapons, before Starfleet had even started building miniature touchscreens into even their phasers—a true manual safety was far, far more reliable if you knew what you were doing. He definitely knew what he was doing…replicators were few and far between on Volan III, and it was customary to hunt in order to supplement the bland, synthesized fare. And he was a skilled hunter; his father had taught him well. A pang shot through the boy’s stomach at the sudden shift in tone towards his father—what had Orwell called it, in that book the teachers had had everyone old enough study right before the Cardies came? Doublethink. And then another word—crimestop. Well, this wasn’t a crime, exactly, but he couldn’t let himself be distracted. That meant failure. Now perched carefully on the wall, he eased his rucksack off and drew out the phaser. There was no more time for tests now—what if he tripped the spoonheads’ sensors? What if he drained the battery below the critical threshold? He’ have only one shot. He’d considered an eyepiece with a heads-up display, but dismissed the idea. He was well-practiced at hitting his targets at a distance. And what was a slow-moving Cardassian compared to a Volan summerbuck? He could do this. From on high he crouched in silence, watched the door to the governor’s residence, and waited. There—finally! Side by side the governor and gul emerged. Three Cardassians accompanied the gul—two men, one woman. As for the woman, she struck him as some sort of bureaucrat. The men looked like a couple of typical jackbooted heavies. Their hands weren’t on their weapons, but they easily could be in an instant. Coward, he sneered at the gul. Too afraid to face your subjects without an armed guard, are you? You send messages filled with words like peace and trust, but I see how you really feel. The gathered crowd watched and waited, appraising the Cardassian commander as he spoke a few more words with the governor. A smile, a flash of blue—the gul turned, presented his back— He would never truly recall the exact instant he pulled the trigger…only the instant when it all fell apart.