Sigils and Unions: Catacombs of Oralius--The Desolate Vigil

Discussion in 'Fan Fiction' started by Nerys Ghemor, Sep 3, 2009.

  1. Nerys Ghemor

    Nerys Ghemor Vice Admiral Admiral

    Joined:
    Aug 4, 2008
    Location:
    Cardăsa Terăm--Nerys Ghemor
    Star Trek:
    Sigils and Unions​
    Catacombs of Oralius: ​
    “The Desolate Vigil”​

    Author’s note: This story takes place in the “Catacombs of Oralius” universe—the same one I’ve used for most of my TrekBBS contest entries. This world was first seen in the TNG episode “Parallels.” In this universe, the Cardassians have, by and large, remained believers in the Oralian Way, and their history has taken a very different course…with significant effects on certain people.

    Written with thanks to Andrew J. Robinson for his concept of the Oralian Way, as he described in A Stitch in Time. I have taken it, tweaked it, and greatly elaborated upon it throughout the Catacombs of Oralius series, but I thank him very much for the idea. Thanks also are due to Gibraltar for the challenge topic over at Ad Astra that gave me the impetus to actually start writing this. I wound up with way too much story to make the cut for the challenge, but AU Dukat is grateful. Also…acknowledgments due to everyone who suggested title ideas in the thread over there. You did a wonderful job of sparking my imagination.

    This will be a slow-updating story, but I hope that Part I will be enjoyable for now.

    And in conclusion…Gibraltar, you asked a question, and I thought of this verse in response:

    "For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,​
    but whoever loses his life for My sake,​
    he is the one who will save it.​
    For what is a man profited if he gains the whole world,​
    and loses or forfeits himself?”​
    —Luke 9:24-25​

    This, indeed, is at the root of all that I write, though I may write about very different worlds from our own. I place my faith in Christ and will not be ashamed.



    PART ONE


    6 Hedorăk, Sixth Year of the 370th Ăstraya
    Federation Year 2325

    A tall, lanky young man in a casual, but conservatively-tailored two-piece burgundy suit sat on the floor with the coolness of the skin-grey stone wall of the corridor at his back, and the warmth of the red-shifted sunlight streaming in from the floor-to-ceiling windows at his front. He kept his long legs carefully tucked close to his body lest they trip passers-by…he’d already inadvertently caught a few fellow students unawares in his first days of university and paid for that with a set of purple bruises under his grey, scaled skin. His eyes, ringed by a strikingly angular set of ridges that lent a certain intensity even to his current demeanor of meditation, were closed now as he let the contrasts of cold and heat play through his body, and he prayed.

    Any other year, a passerby might have thought the twenty-year-old novice student had reached that point where further study of a troublesome subject was useless and the matter of one’s exam grade simply had to be commended to the aid of a higher power. But this year…everyone felt it: a strange tension between the need to carry on their lives as though everything were normal, to keep progressing towards their ordinary goals in case the distant storm relented—and the sense that their universe was on the verge of unraveling completely.

    They were too young for the war, of course; there was nothing they could do other than conserve resources for the sake of the war effort…and pray. Unlike short-lived species like…like the terhăn-çăs, the twenty-year-old novice student thought, reaching for an example he knew mainly from his textbooks and a documentary or two, the Cardassian lifespan meant no one below the age of twenty-four was subject to the emergency draft the Castellan had reluctantly enacted after the rasgă’ălour, or the outer colony worlds, had fallen to the Bajoran invasion fleet. There was talk of lowering the draft age as the situation worsened…but as the young man grudgingly admitted to himself, by the time the politicians ever agreed on such a course, the fate of Cardassia Prime would already be decided.

    The commotion in the hall finally grew too noisy for him to keep his focus upon Oralius. His grey eyes popped open…and Skrain Dukat took in the sights. Indeed, he had marveled at the diversity of culture and style when he’d first arrived on campus—still did. He attended Yavenn Pretam University of Culat, one of the faith-based universities as opposed to, say, the secular University of Culat, but contrary to what even he had expected, far from falling into lockstep with each other, it wasn’t just the immigrants among the faculty and students who sported their own unique styles.

    The women, of course, donned an almost bewildering array of hairstyles and fashions—but so too did the men. Most of them wore their hair at least down to the level of their chins, a few in the slicked-back military cut, but that was the shortest, for the most part…queues and hair down to the shoulders were quite common. A few men even wore one or more braids, and simple ornaments were not unheard of. But more surprising for Dukat had been seeing a few men who had shaved their hair within a centimeter of their scalps, to the point where one could actually see their entire eye ridges, tracing from the hook all the way up the forehead to the point where they receded into the skull.

    And Valouk had actually pierced his eye ridge. Even looking at the ornamented ring through the thick cartilage was painful, as far as Dukat was concerned.

    Dukat, for his part, wore his long black hair pulled neatly into a queue that reached down to the middle of his back. For a Cardassian man from Culat, this conveyed a reasonably conservative, businesslike look that suited the position Dukat hoped someday to enter: prosecuting nestor—the one responsible for representing the interests of the state in court. He could easily have become a conservator as well, the one who saw the convicted criminal through his sentencing and served as advocate for the rights of those within the criminal justice system—or alternately, served as court-appointed guardian and advocate for minors placed under court protection…but his rhetoric instructor back in secondary school had pointed out that his debate style grew a bit too fiery sometimes for that. As for the defensive nestor…that role paid better, and it was a very necessary role for the legal system to function, but Dukat just couldn’t stomach the thought of some of the evil people he’d have to defend.

    Oralius knew he’d fought hard enough to have this chance, how much he’d had to draw upon her when his own resources would not suffice. And to Dukat, serving the enemies of righteousness in such a manner would have felt as though he returned her kindness with a slap on the face. Others were called to this role in their legal system, yes, for there were innocent to be defended as well. But for him…it was out of the question. He owed far too much.

    At twenty years old, he was older than most of the novice class. It wasn’t that he had lacked the intellect to move from level to level on time…in fact, he probably could have done so early in his later secondary school years, if it hadn’t been for the illness.

    He’d just barely turned thirteen then—only just begun to speak with the voice of a young man—when for reasons couldn’t explain, he began to feel as if his very soul were draining out of his body through his toes. He’d tried to hide it for the longest time, tried to brush it off, to do everything he could to forget…but still it circled round and round his head like a zerayd on the hunt, waiting, just waiting for the opportunity to strike.

    Perhaps he could have told somebody, he thought—and in retrospect, that would have been the right thing to do. But in greater clarity and age, and perhaps with the faintest beginnings of wisdom, that was easy to see. At thirteen years of age, in the midst of that miasma, it had been a different matter entirely. That meant the first worrisome sign anyone else had noticed had been when the quality of his academics began to falter. He could never find the right words to explain, when his parents and teachers confronted him about it, and it always ended up in a fight—as far as any one else could tell, he was disinterested, he was lazy…and worst of all, he was rebellious, had something wrong with his instincts to disregard his instructors and parents thus, especially after promising time after time that he would turn his performance around.

    There had been a brief period where things seemed to improve—he felt quite steady at first, but as time went on, he seemed to be on a constant, unstoppable ascent to orbit where suddenly the world was aflame with light, where his energy was boundless and nothing, not even petty nuisances like the need for food or sleep, could slow him down: everything he encountered, he threw himself at with a tempestuous passion. He lived, or so it felt, within his own personal subspace field, where pedestrian things like the ordinary speed of light simply could not interfere. But after the pit of quicksand from which he believed he’d finally managed to extricate himself, this was far preferable. And as far as anyone else had been concerned, ‘the old Skrain Dukat was back.’

    After another month or so, this ceaseless energy cooled off, and he figured the end of the euphoria was to be expected and he could simply go on with his life just as he had before any of it happened. And then…it had hit him again. He could pinpoint the very moment it had happened—he had just come home from evening session in school, when it pulled down upon him so brutally that it felt as if he were being drawn into the gravity well of a neutron star. Unbearable, endless, inexorable…he couldn’t think straight.

    In the end, that was also what saved him. It had come on so suddenly that he’d never really had the time or presence of mind to form a coherent plan for his own demise: he’d simply taken the first exit he could see. His father had been the one to sense something amiss—there had been too much silence, Dukat supposed…and in that silence, he must have heard the voice of Oralius. That was the only way to explain it, how he’d known. The last thing he remembered was Father crouched over his draining body, shouting down the stairs for his older brother to call the emergency medics—and then, as he lost consciousness, the hum of a transporter that signaled their arrival.

    He had woken to find his parents, a doctor, and Ihanok, the family’s Guide, all standing over him, their faces revealing deep worry and compassion…but also confusion. Grief. He could see the question in their eyes that none of them could find the heart to ask, and the same one he couldn’t find the strength to answer: Why, Skrain? He had survived…but it had taken three months of intensive treatment after he recovered from the blood loss—months marked by a strange, difficult sort of mourning for himself, or at least, who he thought he should have been—to find something resembling equilibrium again.

    It hadn’t just been the weeks it took the doctors to figure out the proper medication for his serious condition...it had been the slow process of stitching himself back together in body, mind, and spirit. He saw not just the doctors and therapists during his recovery—but a Guide as well, a compassionate woman named Derava, who had been called to minister to those suffering the illnesses of the mind. Dukat had been raised a believer in the Way, but, he now believed, it was only in being brought so low that he truly began to open his eyes to the mysteries of Oralius. To wonder. And hope.

    And it was this prayer, this meditation, this deep and abiding belief, that…at least, over time…helped him learn to resist the temptation to go off his medication in search of the wild onrush of mania and the intoxicating, powerful sense of invulnerability that went with it. And to keep drawing breath, one at a time, when his dosage needed to be adjusted and the depression struck. He had setbacks, yes—and in that first year after his diagnosis, he lost enough ground in school in spite of his best efforts that he had to repeat that level.
    But finally…he had graduated, and entered the university. Yes, he was two years older than most of his peers—but this victory had been the sweetest in his short life thus far. And indeed, the temptation to immolate himself in the fires of the mania was still there, but he had been here, living by himself for almost two months thus far and by faith he still had yet to lapse even once.

    Now, a soft chiming tone issued from the ceiling-mounted speakers and a low, feminine voice announced, “Sixth session.”

    Dukat stood—as long as Inquisitor Osenal wasn’t planning on holding class over, there was about to be a stream of students out the door, and sitting on the floor as he was, even with his legs tucked in, he was still sure to wind up as a sentient speed bump if he didn’t move, and quickly. He grabbed his rucksack, throwing it casually over his shoulder as he entered the lecture hall.

    The light of Verkoun filtered in through a skylight at the center of the vaulted ceiling of the amphitheater-style classroom, lending a bit of its color to the grey- and beige-skinned students who filed in and took their desks settled into silence as Inquisitor Osenal took the podium and killed the artificial lighting in preparation for their time of prayer. Osenal cut a regal figure in his black, blue-trimmed ruviyal, a traditional Nevotda men’s robe. Almost a fourth of the Culat campus inquisitors were born in Nevot and educated at the main campus in Lourasat, hometown of Yavenn Pretam, the Guide after whom the university was named—and some, like Osenal, very much retained their ties to their homeland.

    Inquisitor Osenal cleared his throat. There was something quite commanding about the Introductory Survey of Science professor’s voice even though he kept it at normal levels. Perhaps it was that crisp articulation of the vowels, almost like a musical instrument in its sound, that distinguished the accents of native-born Nevotda when they spoke the common tongue of Cardăsda in lieu of the languages of their region. “The class will come to order,” he firmly declared. “If time permits, we will pick up where we left off yesterday and cover the shaping our ancestors into the modern, sentient form.”

    Though Osenal used the poetic description common to most believers in the Oralian Way—shaping—the concept he spoke of was the exact same evolution described in the secular universities. Though there had been occasional spats in the far distant past between scientists and certain practitioners of the Way, most of that had come to an end almost seven centuries ago, about the time the Hebitians took their first baby steps into space. These days…even the thought of conflict between seekers of truth, be that spiritual or material truth, seemed utterly ridiculous and unnecessary.

    For just a second after Osenal’s pronouncement, Dukat let a faint smile trace across his face: he could hardly think of a better example of a divine miracle than the shaping of sentient life. He’d visited the Catacombs of the Shaping in the city of Lakariy’ane once on a field trip…and the descent into the candlelit underground shrine had been among the most moving experiences of his life. Within the Catacombs lay the entombed bodies of creatures representing every major step of Cardassian evolution. Each one, upon its discovery and positive identification as a direct Cardassian ancestor, had received a proper memorial and interment, their remains respectfully placed into vaults, safely shielded from the eyes of gawkers. Instead, visitors interacted with detailed holograms that allowed them to see the appearance of the remains as well as a holo-artist’s interpretation of how they would have looked and moved in life.

    And to behold the evidence of Oralius’ painstaking labor of love, that shaping of life from a tiny therapsid creature not unlike the vole into people like himself—it had moved him almost to tears, an expression of wonder both in mind and spirit.

    But Dukat’s smile quickly faded. There was a reason Inquisitor Osenal had said, if time permits: just last night, the Bajoran invasion force had made its first incursions into the Cardassia system itself.

    No one had slept well the night before. How could they, as the damage and casualty reports kept rolling in, this time from the edges of the Cardassia system itself? How could they forget the fact that the class might shrink by an entire third, if the Castellan’s proposed emergency draft kicked in, since apparently even the activation of the entire Reserve Order hadn’t been enough? All they could do now was pray…pray that the new Gălor-class vessels of the First Order—the home guard—would be enough to turn back the Bajoran assault, enough to give them a moment’s reprieve, enough to convince the Federation arbiters of power that it was worth the fight.

    All of this had come on with such terrible swiftness…six months ago, no one had ever really heard of a Bajoran, not even Dukat, an avid reader of speculative fiction. But now it was inescapable. And still…even with the draft, with the inevitable shortages and rationing as the resource-poor planet lost tie after tie to its trading partners and colonies, the people of Cardassia Prime tried—at least as much as anybody really could—to lead a normal life.

    But in the end, there was no escaping it. They could not help but feel the dread. And they could not help but plead to Oralius, that this storm might pass harmlessly overhead, that they might not be struck down.
     
  2. Nerys Ghemor

    Nerys Ghemor Vice Admiral Admiral

    Joined:
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    Cardăsa Terăm--Nerys Ghemor
    “Let us come together in prayer,” the Nevotda inquisitor intoned, his voice powerful but lined with a quiet, understated compassion. This was how every class at Yavenn Pretam University began…but what wasn’t so typical was Osenal loosening the drawstrings on a pouch he always carried at his side, withdrawing a finely-carved recitation mask and holding it reverently in both hands just as a Guide typically did at the beginning of a worship service.

    I doubt there’ll be a lecture today, Dukat thought to himself—for Osenal served not only as inquisitor and active research scientist…but also as a Guide of the Oralian Way. Both of these were predominantly female roles in Cardassian society, but there was no doubt, to watch or listen to Osenal, that he was rightfully called to both just as much as a woman might be.

    And right now, Osenal seemed to have decided, he was more needed as Guide than inquisitor.

    “After we pray the Invocation,” the scientist-priest invited, “every student who feels called to lead may do so. Those of you who wish to don the recitation mask are free to do so; those of you who prefer the laying on of the hands…I am willing.” In some Oralian sects, the donning of the recitation mask, which represented the wearer’s transformation into a conduit for the spirit of Oralius, was a privilege reserved specifically for the Guide, though others could share in the priest’s invocation of the spirit of Oralius by the Guide’s ritual placement of her—or his—hands upon the supplicant’s shoulders. In other sects, however, such as Dukat’s and apparently Osenal’s, while the Guide always led the rituals, spoke the Invocation first, and delivered the first readings and sermon, any layperson who led a prayer—and sometimes even those in individual meditation—wore their own masks.

    Osenal paused in silence for a moment as a few of the students—Dukat included—reached into their rucksacks. His fingers brushed against the cool wood of a carrying case, clasping it carefully lest the lovingly-carved mask, a gift from his parents, blessed by Derava and Ihanok both…the Guides who had had the greatest impact upon his life so far. The border of the rectangular box bore a series of verses from the Hebitian Records in tiny, elegant Lhai’khar characters—the language of the first several books of the Records.

    When Dukat opened the lid of the case, he took the mask carefully in both hands. Each of these sacred objects was carved by a mask-shaper, often a Guide herself, or at least a member of one of the religious orders. To carve a mask for a Cardassian was a painstaking endeavor undertaken only with much prayer and contemplation by both the shaper and the wearer—not just for the understated details on the face of the mask, but those inside as well: the mask had to sit comfortably over the facial ridges…and this was what reminded believers that one did not hide behind the mask, for it always bore some semblance underneath of the person who wore it. As one wears the mask of Oralius, went the proverb, so the mask wears you.

    For now he simply cradled the recitation mask in his hands on the desk: this moment was Osenal’s to lead. First Osenal placed the recitation mask over his solemn countenance. Then he reached out, palms facing each other, fingertips slightly curled as if drawing in the warmth of a candleflame. This was a gesture that resonated even with those without belief—for this therapsid species, who, while not the reptiles non-Cardassians sometimes mistook them for, still drew more of their warmth from the environment than a mammalian species like terhăn-çăs…or Bajorans. And just as the body drew from its surroundings that which it could not produce or fully retain on its own, without the help of sunlight and clothing, so did the soul of the believer draw from its divine source that grace it could not generate or maintain for itself.

    The Guide prayed the Invocation first, the ritual by which each Oralian’s prayer began: “The power that moves through me, animates my life, animates the mask of Oralius: to speak her words with my voice, to think her thoughts with my mind, to feel her love with my heart—it is the song of morning, opening up to life, bringing truth of her wisdom to those who live in the shadow of the night.

    “It is this selfsame power turned against creation, turned against my friend, that can destroy his body with my hand, reduce his spirit with my hate, separate his presence from my home: to live without Oralius lighting our way to the source, connecting us to the mystery, is to live without the tendrils of love.”

    Then he began to speak of that matter that weighed most upon each of their hearts, his conversation with Oralius at once seeming intimate, almost private…and yet Dukat felt as if he, though he did not use his own voice—at least, not now—also participated in the conversation, that his words the Guide also spoke. And that, he believed, was indeed the work of Oralius within Osenal, giving him the words to most aptly express what they were all united upon.

    “We do not fully comprehend the reasons for the trials our people endure in recent generations,” he proclaimed in his rich, musically-toned voice. “The very soil and atmosphere of our homeworld have turned against us without our doing, and only you know when or if this condition will reverse itself during the span of the Cardassian race. And now our colony worlds fall to an alien species that places itself in opposition not simply to your children, but to you. We pray that you will deflect this sword from the backs of our necks, that you compel the floodwaters to recede and leave the worlds of Cardassia in peace.”

    And here, in Osenal’s brief pause, Dukat heard his own thoughts again for a moment. And we also know, he silently added, that our faith is not simply what the Bajorans oppose—it is what repulses the great Federation sufficiently that they do not come to our aid. Indeed, the newscasters had announced just a week ago that the Castellan himself had transmitted an emergency plea straight to the Federation Council, and received a disturbingly rapid, curt sort of summary judgment from the terhăn-led alliance: that even though the Bajorans were clearly the aggressors, the Federation’s ‘Prime Directive’ forbade so-called ‘interference’ in conflicts between species that were driven by religious causes, no matter how fanatical and violent the aggressors, or how reasonable the defenders.

    We have science, Dukat thought with a flash of indignation. We have free dissent. We do not start interstellar wars. And yet to them, we are no different than the Bajorans who attack worlds that never raised a fist against them! Aspiring law student that he was, he’d read that thrice-burned Federation statute. He’d also read their Charter and Guarantees. And nowhere did it state that the beliefs of non-member states was just cause to deny an earnest plea by a warp-capable society for help against unprovoked aggression. In fact, those very same Guarantees read very much like the Cardassian Right of Worship, which granted all born of Cardassian blood, or legally residing in Cardassian space, the freedom to worship with any sect, or abstain as one felt moved, without fear of government reprisal or secular employer discrimination.

    What the Federation had on paper was really quite noble, and he imagined its founders had held ideals that were quite admirable indeed. But something had become twisted over time—at least, in certain sectors…and certainly the ones that mattered to the Cardassian people. So according to the actual letter of the law, only the lack of warp capability or a stable, world-uniting government should have justified invocation of the Prime Directive.

    Therefore, Dukat had passionately argued in Political Rhetoric the day before as an example of what happened when those over whom the people held no recall power got control of a government’s policy, the strict interpretation of the Federation’s own core documents did not allow dismissal on those grounds. Whatever precedents, customs, and legal codes had grown up as the Federation expanded were a sort of legal detritus that had to be cleared away before the actual Charter and Guarantees could be properly enforced once more. And before this lack of respect for tradition could destroy the Federation’s Cardassian neighbors.

    Osenal left little time to contemplate this galling truth, however. Before Dukat’s blood could truly begin to boil—for it certainly seemed as though those making the decisions in the Federation simply did not want to help Cardassia—the Guide yanked Dukat’s attention back down into the here and now…into what they knew in their everyday lives and could most appropriately serve by focusing upon. They could not change the prejudices of politicians in faraway star systems. They could pray for and support their classmates, all of whom were surely touched by the invasion in one way or the other.

    “We remember in this time that you command us to magnify your spirit through the love we show one another in our joys—and there are indeed joys, even now, for the life that you have shaped can never truly be defeated by the icy hands of destruction—and also in our sufferings. I pray for the students of Yavenn Pretam University, that they may find strength in Oralius during this time, expressed through each other and through this faculty.”

    For we are, some of us, very far from home
    , Dukat added, and from our parents and siblings. He was not; after much research, counseling, and prayer during his final year of secondary school, he had decided he was best off not leaving the city right away…at least, not until he had established something of a life by himself and he was certain he could manage his illness without his parents and his familiar doctor and Guides in reasonable proximity. In a year or two, he intended to re-evaluate his decision and possibly transfer to the university’s main campus in Nevot. So while Dukat had only moved across the city from his family, he certainly felt for those who had much more distance between themselves and their homes.

    “I pray for our leaders, that they may guide us—both worldwide and locally—through this crisis and that we may respond dutifully as required,” Osenal sounded as though he was concluding. But, Dukat well knew, he was only moving into a second phase of prayer. “And now, in this time—I open our supplication for the concerns of those who gather here with me today.” Dukat’s fingers curled tighter around the edges of his recitation mask. He would speak soon…but he knew there were so terribly many in this class who had just lost friends and family in the recent incursion on Cardassia V, or in the fall of Soukara—better for him to wait for now.

    Indeed…just as he expected, there were far, far too many prayers for the dead and the missing in action, and for those living—living, they hoped?—behind enemy lines where once there had been sovereign, secure Cardassian territory. He mentally took note of each of the requests, using the eidetic memory he, like most students, had been trained for to aid in scripture and commentary memorization. Then the young woman—still a teenager, he was sure—next to him lifted her index finger to speak. Bital was her surname, he recalled. She had no mask, he noticed, so Osenal came to her, gently laying his hands upon her shoulders. She had not attended class for the past week…and now Dukat found out why.

    “Oralius, please,” Bital prayed, “help me, help my family, to release my sister’s soul, enfold her in your peace…and help to give her—to give this all meaning. It’s so hard…it was far too soon—she was just twenty-five, just barely lived an eighth of a life…” And then the words simply stopped flowing. Dukat opened his eyes and met hers. Then he reached over, his fingertips just above hers, waiting for her nod of permission. When she assented, he took her hand in his own, offering his silent presence as she sought the sort of solace that, most of the time, was a long time coming.

    Only after Bital went silent for a full minute, after Osenal allowed time for her and the entire class to meditate silently upon this prayer, did Skrain Dukat withdraw his hand and indicate that he, too, had a request.

    He pressed his recitation mask gently over his face, effortlessly matching the crevasses of the inside of the mask to his facial ridges by long-accustomed habit. Before he spoke, he silently repeated the Invocation. Then he began, “I pray for the safety of my family...and especially for my cousin Akellen Macet. Akellen is a riyăk in the Guard, and he’s traveling today from Adometar in Hăzăk to the capital for deployment. I don’t know where he is right now; I don’t know where they’re sending him. I just know…that today, he needs Oralius’ traveling mercies more than he ever has before.”

    Just as before, the class entered silent meditation after Dukat stopped speaking. And then—

    The noise was positively unholy.

    Everyone knew what it was by now; Oralius knew there’d been more than enough drills since they’d arrived for the semester. The alarm ceased after only a few pulses, though; Cardassian ears weren’t the best at sorting out sounds from that kind of wall of background noise. This time, instead of the usual ‘this is a drill’ message, the audio cut straight to a voice everyone recognized: the executive press secretary Vikel Raynak tensely announcing, “Ladies and gentlemen—the Castellan of the Cardassian Theonomy.”

    Over the comm, Dukat could just barely make out the low murmurs and shuffles of the executive press corps angling for vantage points to capture their stills of the Castellan in what he could only suspect was the sort of moment upon which worlds would turn. After another moment, Castellan Shiron spoke. “People of the worlds of Cardassia,” he began, his voice suffused with the same combination of solemnity and tension as his press secretary, “I have just been informed by my Defense Minister that a vanguard of Bajoran ships has breached our lines and is now inbound for Cardassia Prime. While our orbital defense platforms and aerospace forces continue to fight and are in pursuit, I advise residents of the homeworld to take reasonable precautions, to follow the orders of local officials in any affected areas, and above all, not to give up. For the sake of Oralius we shall not cease our battle no matter—”

    The signal broke abruptly into the high-pitched digital hiss of subspace static, which lasted for several seconds as someone at campus center tried to re-establish the uplink, the class quietly paralleling the sound with the low murmurs of speculation. Dukat simply sat quietly for his part—completely still for the first few seconds, until he realized that he still wore his recitation mask. Slowly, carefully, he removed the mask, packing it up with methodical, almost mechanical motions, nestling it perfectly into its case and shutting it away, and putting the box back into the rucksack that sat at his feet.

    A new voice cut in as campus center locked onto a second transmission, overlaid by a heavy interference pattern: RF radio—it had to be. “—is Prefect Rhujan. All subspace-based transmissions have been jammed by Bajoran probes that have just taken up orbit around Cardassia Prime. Regional RF frequencies remain open, but I must order that civilian use of said frequencies be confined strictly to true emergency use.

    Furthermore—I hereby order the immediate dismissal of all schools and universities within Culat Prefecture until further notice. Central Traffic Regulation has been updated accordingly; all landskimmers and aircraft must maintain remote autopilot in all city districts for the next two hours. Again—

    As the head of Culat Prefecture repeated his orders, Inquisitor Osenal was already speaking with that firm tone and posture of command that reached straight to the deepest Cardassian instincts. Whether or not one decided to obey—there was most definitely a very primal need to listen to this voice of authority and give due consideration, for away from home, the inquisitors very much filled the role of leader in these young people’s lives. And Osenal was a Guide, too, no less.

    “You likely will not hear this from the Prefect or the university Chancellor,” Osenal said in calm but grave tones, “but you will now hear it from me. There is a reason why the Prefect has placed such a focus on the evacuation of places of learning. As you know, the Bajorans are motivated not just by a desire for conquest, but intend a program of forcible conversion to the cult of the Pah-Wraiths. If reports from the fallen territories are at all indicative, this places the youth of Cardassia in heightened danger. As such, I advise those of you who can not to linger in your dormitories, but to pack up and return to your familial homes as soon as possible, until the crisis passes. You shall conduct yourselves in an reasonably quiet and orderly manner should you choose to evacuate…but if you are to do so, I strongly advise that you do it now.

    “May the spirit of Oralius protect you and grant you all comfort, calm, and courage,” the tall, robed Nevotda Guide concluded in the same level tone he might use to dismiss a worship service, lifting his hands to shoulder-level, palms facing out towards the class. “Now go in peace.”

    And in the gravity of the moment, no one paused to snicker at the irony of that benediction. There had to be peace soon…there had to be.

    But right now, Skrain Dukat had only one destination in mind: home. He had to get across town to his parents’ residence. But even more pressing—he had four brothers and sisters still in primary and secondary school. His father was a federal archon and would likely be released from work soon, but his mother was a civil servant affiliated with the Guard and he doubted she’d have the time. And if things were unfolding as quickly and as drastically as Inquisitor Osenal seemed to think, and his own instincts suggested, then it might take both of them to get his younger siblings out of harm’s way in time.

    Dread settled like a rock at the bottom of his stomach though he retained an outward state of calm and filed at a fast walk out of the lecture hall, rucksack over his shoulder, bodies of other students pressed around him. For it wasn’t just his immediate family that he feared for.

    What about his parents?

    What about Akellen?

    What about Cardassia?
     
    Last edited: Sep 3, 2009
  3. TheLoneRedshirt

    TheLoneRedshirt Commodore Commodore

    Joined:
    May 22, 2007
    Beautifully written. I enjoyed the P.O.V. of Dukat as he thought back over his own personal/spiritual struggles to the current moment when a direct attack by the Bajorans seemed increasingly likely. You provide a very different version of Cardassian society, but a well-thought and interesting portrayal. As usual, your character-work is top notch, especially capturing the emotions and thoughts of Dukat.

    Hopefully you will continue on with this story.
     
  4. Nerys Ghemor

    Nerys Ghemor Vice Admiral Admiral

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    Thank you so much! :) I am really glad to see that something Sigils and Unions worked for ya...I kinda thought I'd lost ya!

    I'm especially glad that Dukat thinking back on all he's been through in his short life so far worked out for you. I was worried I had too many memories! So that's really great feedback. :)

    I really find myself thinking that what he was remembering is a pivotal moment that perhaps our canon Dukat never had. My personal theory is that all versions of Dukat have the Cardassian genetic equivalent of bipolar disorder...the question is, how do they confront it? Or do they? With as drastically different as my AU Dukat's personality is, especially in later years, I figured the divergence had to go way, WAY back--even to the moment he was born, but certainly what happened in his teenage years, too.

    I think there ARE still a few similarities to the Cardassian society that we know, even in this, though yes--it's wildly different. The way the leader/follower relationships work is still the same in the most underlying sense, though it's not abused the way the canon Cardassians abuse it. That's why the Castellan, Prefect, and Inquisitor might sound a little more...demanding, or bossy, than you might expect a human authority figure to do in a crisis situation like that. I think Cardassians do instinctively want leadership to have a bit more of a firm hand, especially in a time like that...though in the SigCat society, that's balanced by many more freedoms, to prevent leaders from going too far with it.

    I do expect to continue this at some point, but admittedly this story is going to be a bit of a slow mover compared to The Thirteenth Order.
     
  5. Rush Limborg

    Rush Limborg Vice Admiral Admiral

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    Great beginning--slow-paced at first, but that's how it should be, as we start with the inner emotions of Alternate Dukat.

    Excellent developement of the Oralian Way, particularly how Dukat's faith affected his life in this universe.

    Like your comments on the Prime Directive--nice to know that our captains of canon aren't the only ones driven nuts by the "interperetations" of the Admiralty and the Council....

    Also like the lines about Federation history--how the Founding Documents indicate a once truly noble society--which, tragically, has lost its way....

    I could also say the same for the Bajorans. I've sometimes wondered what a Bajor would be like that was under the Pah-Wraith cult. Now...we know.

    Great work, Nerys! Look forward to more. :techman:
     
  6. Gibraltar

    Gibraltar Rear Admiral Rear Admiral

    Joined:
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    US Pacific Northwest
    Copied from my Ad Astra review...

    This is a deeply powerful story, as much about faith as it is about the fear of the unknown in the face of impending disaster. I very much like this AU Dukat, and discovering that he (and likely his 'evil' twin in the Trek-verse) suffer from bi-polar disorder helps me understand the motivations and challenges of both men.

    And, knowing as the readers do that for this Dukat the worst is yet to come, only makes it that much more poignant. It's obvious that Skrain takes the faith and strength of those who have surrounded him in his youth and uses it to gird his soul in the challenges to come.

    Very, very well done.
     
  7. Nerys Ghemor

    Nerys Ghemor Vice Admiral Admiral

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    Thanks for reading, guys! :)

    And a special shout-out to Gibraltar, of course, for inspiring me to actually sit down and WRITE this! :)

    Rush--I figured that an interpretation not grounded strictly in the letter of the law would irk someone who wants to be a lawyer, especially if that person was a Cardassian (and I think even in this universe, it's more difficult for Cardassians to change traditional ways than it is for humans). And knowing the way it's going to affect his world...not good. :(

    And yeah, this is one scary Bajor the Cardassians are facing!
     
  8. kes7

    kes7 Fleet Captain Fleet Captain

    Joined:
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    Sector 001
    That was really interesting, especially the part about his bipolar disorder ... I thought that rang very true. The religious bits were also well-handled and believable. I'm not usually a fan of stories that are narrated entirely within the character's head, but in the 3rd person, but somehow that perspective worked well for this piece.

    I'm struck by the idea that your own faith is what almost certainly what lends the authentic air to the Oralian Way as you portray it here. Nicely done.
     
  9. Nerys Ghemor

    Nerys Ghemor Vice Admiral Admiral

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    Thank you very much for checking this out. :)

    About the perspective...I think that's just something I've been used to doing for a long time.

    Also..going deep into AU Dukat's head was something that I felt was very important. When you're dealing with an alternate of someone who, in canon, was so thoroughly horrible, I felt it was very important to give people a strong sense of who this one is, and what he is not.

    I've always felt that canon Dukat had some form of mental illness. I do not see him as excused, by any means--but there were definitely behaviors and incidents that made me think so. So, given that the AU version had the same genetics, that was a challenge I knew he was going to have to face.

    BTW, a note about the Oralian Way--you may notice that Dukat practices differently than we've ever seen in any of the relaunch novels. My thought is that we've had 500 years in AU Cardassia's history where instead of being forced underground and kept by only a very few, the Oralian Way has grown and developed out in the open, so I felt like it was reasonable for there to be the kind of variation you see IRL with major religions like Christianity or Buddhism or the like. (Oh...and you'll get to see another sect later in the story, one that is quite different from the ones you've seen so far. But like I've said before, it'll take me a long time to do more writing on this due to The Thirteenth Order!)

    And I felt like I was taking a big risk by stating so openly what inspired me, given the reaction you get around here sometimes if you believe--but I'm glad you liked it. :)
     
  10. BrotherBenny

    BrotherBenny Rear Admiral Rear Admiral

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    My first response can be summed up thus: Wow! Just wow!

    My second response: If you were to create your own race as similar to the Cardassians as plagiarism would allow, you could have what to me would be a piece high literary science fiction.
     
  11. Nerys Ghemor

    Nerys Ghemor Vice Admiral Admiral

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    Thanks for reading. And that's very kind of you. :)
     
  12. Nerys Ghemor

    Nerys Ghemor Vice Admiral Admiral

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    At long last--Part II! Remember, this is not the same version of Skrain Dukat you knew from Deep Space Nine...

    (BTW, the Cardassian name for the Klingons is a tribute to John M. Ford's take on the Klingon culture in his TOS novel.)

    =========

    Part II
    Exodus

    Finally—Skrain Dukat had a moment’s respite from the unbelievable motion and noise. That was to say, he at least had a thin set of walls and a door between him and the noise, and his small single room all to himself. Wild rumors of every possible variety were already flying, and without any confirmed communications from the Castellan or his Councillors, there was nothing but fear: the capital had fallen to enemy bombardment, a special team of assassins had beamed into the Castellan’s office…truth was a hard commodity to come by.

    He hovered for a moment over his open suitcase. What do you pack for Mătz Irhiy’iylakou? True, this might not be the Day of Sorrows, for predictions—even in the midst of crisis—brought swift condemnation by the Guides of most mainstream sects, including from Astraea herself, the chief Guide of the largest sect. That said, this could easily be the closest he’d ever come to experiencing that in his lifetime.
    He’d read numerous tales of world-sweeping invasions, all the way from seven-hundred year old tales from before Cardassians…the Hebitians then…had any idea they weren’t alone among the stars, to tales from the past decade warning what might happen if the Klin’ça threat wasn’t taken seriously.

    No one back then had foreseen the Bajoran incursions.

    That notwithstanding, he still found himself flashing back to those stories...maybe that would help this all to make some kind of sense. Travel lightly, he thought. Take just what you need. He certainly wasn’t planning on leaving civilization, but with traffic tied up in the school evacuations and the inevitable military and police disruptions, he couldn’t count on making it to the family home on the first day and in the worst case, he might end up having to live out of his landskimmer in the meantime.

    But, Dukat admitted to himself, his imagination was getting ahead of him. Still, it seemed like a good idea to stick to just a suitcase and a rucksack—any more and it would be too difficult to move around freely. Clothes… he thought to himself, rattling off the same list he went through when he visited his parents on the weekend, toiletries, textbooks, recitation mask, Hebitian Records…medication! He wasn’t due to have his implant reloaded for a good two months from today; he’d just seen his doctor a few weeks ago, but something told him to pack his emergency cartridge anyway. The recommended practice was to precede each reload with physical, mental, and spiritual assessments, but in the worst case, he could make the switch himself with a special hypospray designed to work exclusively with subdermal implants like his.

    Dukat also grabbed the emergency food kit he, like most students this year, kept in his dorm in case of power failure; inside it was a water purifier fit to handle the worst nature on Cardassia Prime could dish out, and rations enough to last him a week or so if need be. Even without infrastructure destruction, a run on pre-replicated and non-replicated foodstuffs was almost inevitable in emergencies…even for Cardassians, the command from leadership to avoid such behavior would only last so long should communications between them and the people be lost.

    Just before he turned to leave his dorm room, he glanced at the sleeping mat, with its plethora of pillows and blankets. That reminded him of one last item he needed—yes, he’d have to use his laundry bag to accommodate this, but he stuffed a quilt made by his great grandmother as quickly as he could into the bag. For Cardassians, hypothermia was a serious matter, and if there was even the slightest chance he might end up sleeping in an unheated environment, he would need all the warmth he could get.

    That’s it, he thought sadly, looking at his quickly-ransacked room. He hoped to be returning soon—but for some reason this had such a sense of finality. If the Bajorans did indeed seize the universities the way Inquisitor Osenal predicted, there was no telling how long it would be…or if…he could safely return from his parents’ house. The education he’d worked so, so damned hard to earn the chance for could well become in this new environment a danger to his safety, sanity, and life.

    Oh, Oralius… he pleaded from the longing deep within his heart, don’t let it all just evaporate like this. He felt a tear at the corner of his eyes, and it was only with great effort that he held it in. For a man of Cardassia, grief had its time to be fully known and released from the body. Unfortunately, this wasn’t it. This was the time for focus.



    The traffic was unbelievable. Even though by the looks of it, Dukat had been among the first twenty-five percent of the student population to begin the evacuation, even at the head of the line it was bad enough. He’d just barely passed through the university gate, a great, elegant stone archway some four hundred years old, bearing the words Yavenn Pretam University, Culat Campus in an old-fashioned common-tongue script that these days had nearly fallen out of use except for ceremonial documents and the hulls of starships.

    If we even have any starships left, Dukat grimly added.

    He had intended to set a course for the Rukreved District where his parents lived and his younger brothers and sisters went to school; he’d chosen a surface-street course he’d hoped would be less congested than the main highway routes, but to no avail. The autopilot had received its directions straight from the city’s central navigation computer and instead insisted on routing him to the city’s outer beltway…along with what seemed like every single landskimmer from Yavenn Pretam University. At this rate, there was no telling how long it would take him to reach his home district.

    He’d heard the Prefect’s warning about the use of unjammed radio frequencies…but his parents had to know their son was alive. And he had to know if indeed he was needed to bring his brothers and sisters home. He had to try. Even if not the frequencies restricted by the provincial Prefect—he had to find some way to get a signal through to his parents, and now that he was secure in his landskimmer, he had an opportunity…he hoped. Vehicle transmitters, especially in this city, so near to the desert, typically had more in terms of sheer power than the home kind, as an emergency precaution, so if there was anywhere he’d have a chance of getting through, it was here.

    But every time he tried to make a connection, the call was flatly rejected—it didn’t even go to the familiar messaging salutation in his father’s rich, resonant voice that he’d heard since childhood: You have reached the mailbox of the Dukat family. Please leave your name, contact information, and message and we’ll get back to you as soon as Fate permits. Instead, there was nothing but silence.

    Hăcet,” he muttered to himself—chaos. Just how bad is the jamming? he thought—then hit upon a way to find out.

    “Skimmer,” Dukat questioned his vehicle, “how many public-broadcast stations are currently airing within range?”

    Two stations are currently broadcasting,” the onboard computer replied.

    Dukat gulped. Never in his memory had the airwaves and subspace frequencies of Culat been so devoid of life as they were now—if he was right, every civilian subspace, satellite, and terrestrial radio station was off the air, save the official ones. “Name those stations and state their types.”

    Culat Provincial Radio—terrestrial RF informational station, state-operated. Culat City Public Radio—terrestrial RF informational station, state-operated.

    So the government and military had either shut down or taken over every other frequency for the duration of the crisis. And the Bajorans, of course, were still jamming subspace. Nothing to do but pray and wait, he thought as the landskimmer lurched forward on autopilot another two whole skimmer-lengths ahead and then went stationary once more. He thought about ordering the skimmer to play him a meditative trio…maybe a piece by Tanet or Krasor, but decided against it. Keep your senses sharp, something urged him. And indeed, the Cardassian ear could only focus on so many things at one time…and who knew just what he might need to be listening for at a time like this?

    In the end, though, it wasn’t Dukat’s ears—but his eyes that caught the first signs of something far worse. Even the youngest Cardassian children, once old enough to speak, could recognize that red flare from high in the sky for what it was: a spacecraft on re-entry. But this wasn’t the ordinary, controlled re-entry of a passenger transport, or even the high-speed dive of a military fighter in exercise maneuvers. Instead of remaining constant, the heat of re-entry dispersed evenly across the ship’s shields, the growing flare pulsed with a disturbing, irregular pattern as each new piece caught fire—

    —and from the shattered piece of metal that fell straight down into the city of Culat, perhaps twenty kilometers away from Yavenn Pretam University came a unmistakable flash of ochre. And the same common-tongue script as the university sign. The shape of the wing reminded Dukat of the old Verkoun-class cruiser. Perhaps someone had brought this ship out of storage in a last-ditch effort to beat back the Bajoran invasion—

    No!” Dukat screamed hoarsely in the cabin of his landskimmer, surrounded by what had to be thousands of others in their vehicles, many with eye ridges wide in the same distress Skrain Dukat felt in that moment…but right now their presence didn’t matter. Each of them was a world of anguish unto itself. Hundreds of Cardassians—dying…dead…! “Please, Oralius—no, no, no…!

    And words dissolved into an awful, hollow moan of despair that started deep in his chest but by the time it made it out of his mouth was just…minuscule. Several seconds later, after the wing fragment plunged below the skyline, the earth shook—faintly, at a distance, but he could feel it nonetheless. Impact.

    He couldn’t even weep…not yet. All he could do was just stare at the place where the dying ship had traced its final course through the atmosphere of Cardassia Prime.

    Akellen…!

    That ship—it had been an antique…one of the newly-launched…and Akellen had just been transferred from his old assignment to the capital city to go somewhere; Dukat had no idea where. Had he already arrived at the capital before all of this? Could he have been deployed already to a ship of the battered, crumbling reserve fleet? That ship?

    Finally he managed to tear his eyes away from that awful, too-clear sky. He bowed his head, his lips moving soundlessly in prayer.
     
  13. Nerys Ghemor

    Nerys Ghemor Vice Admiral Admiral

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    For perhaps another twenty minutes, his landskimmer continued to crawl away from the university at the same agonizingly slow pace; he could still see it behind him when he turned around, but he’d made it a good three blocks down the street. Then his progress came to an abrupt stop—almost at the moment when he would have turned into an intersection. “Warning,” intoned his landskimmer, “autopilot signal is compromised.”

    “Skimmer—reacquire!” Dukat snapped. He was none too crazy about the city autopilot, but as a tool for keeping order during the evacuation, he could see the logic. Nor was he thrilled with the thought of spending the night in jail for his disobedience if he got caught trying to take advantage of the situation to maneuver around everybody else; on a day like this, being confined somewhere where he couldn’t move if necessary terrified him.

    Attempting to reacquire…attempt failed,” the landskimmer reported almost immediately.

    “Radio on—first active station.”

    The landskimmer’s computer chirped its acknowledgment…a strange, incongruously mild sound.

    “—cannot determine the extent of the injuries on the ground at this time. The central autopilot computer has also gone offline, and again, we have no idea here in the broadcast tower what the cause is, but we are advising all citizens to stay put until it is determined whether autopilot control will resume.

    Again, this is Darvinay Metral reporting for Culat City Public Radio. We have confirmed the report that a downed Verkoun-class cruiser has crashed into a populated area in the city of Culat in what looks to us, based on its trajectory, to be the Rukreved District—”

    “No!” Dukat shouted at the air for the second time in less than an hour. Of course, Rukreved was as large as an entire town in its own right, and had been until just sixty years ago when it agreed to incorporation by the city of Culat. The odds of the Dukat family home being hit, or the schools his brother and sister attended were vanishingly small. They had to be.

    This impact appears to have compromised the city’s defensive shields,” Metral continued. The shields of Culat, put into place a generation ago when the klin’ça-çăs started making threatening noises towards their much quieter neighbors, weren’t enough to deflect an orbital phaser blast, and certainly not a photon torpedo…but they could block transporters or foot soldiers. “We have reports from the capital of—

    A shimmering electronic whine and Metral went speechless…something shattered in the background and a male voice cried out, “Dear Oralius! ’Vinn, GET DOWN—” A different, high-pitched wail and then—static. Signal loss…again.

    He knew those sounds from the news and even with the inevitable distortion of an RF broadcast, they had been unmistakable. A transporter. Phaser fire. A troop landing.
    “Skimmer—locate next active station!” Dukat ordered.

    There are no subspace or RF stations currently broadcasting in this region.”

    “Radio off.” As the landskimmer chirped its reply, Dukat let out a long, tremulous sigh, propping his elbows on the edge of the control panel. Squeezing his eyes shut, he rubbed at his temples, careful not to go against the grain of the macroscales. This wasn’t doing the trick, so he moved down to the outer sides of his eye ridges; the macroscales there were a bit more armor-like and there was less of a feeling that you might accidentally peel your face off. The pressure of the cartilaginous hook against the nerves and other tissues was a great reliever of eyestrain and to some extent, headaches as well…put simply, a comfort gesture to most Cardassians. And Dukat needed all he could get right now.
    He had to know what was going on somehow, and began to think out loud. “Skimmer,” he said, “display city map.” The map appeared on the main monitor panel in front of him, his current location highlighted in the elliptical display with a yellow triangle. “Display location of Culat City Public Radio.”

    Plot route?

    “No. Display only.” A red dot flashed up on the display, and the map automatically scaled itself to display both locations. Yavenn Pretam University was on the western edge of the city in what had come to be known as a district in its own right; the radio station lay nearer to the Irkeshel District—the government center—Culat’s oldest sector.

    So…they would be spreading out from the city center. Assuming that’s their only landing site, Dukat amended. He had a little time, he supposed, but if Inquisitor Osenal was right, after the seizure of government, military, and communications targets—and maybe even during this phase of the attack—Yavenn Pretam and Culat Universities would be hit next.

    Dukat looked around him, at the surrounding vehicles. How many had been listening to what he now realized was Metral’s final broadcast? Did they know what was coming? If the autopilots did not resume—or if they resumed according to Bajoran instructions instead of Cardassian ones—there would be only one choice. He pulled the rucksack that held his recitation mask, his medication, and his other most essential possessions close. He laid back for just a moment, allowing himself to enjoy the feeling of the landskimmer’s comfortable, ergonomically-designed seats, all the while feeling as though he were hanging over a precipice.

    Transporter beams swirled in the street and Dukat stiffened, all the while racking his brain for something handy for use as a weapon. But as their silhouettes took shape, he gave a broad smile of relief—the telltale flare of the neck ridges told the story. They fanned out from their insertion point at the center of the intersection, moving towards the stranded vehicles. A pair of soldiers approached Dukat’s vehicle and the young man lowered the window.

    The lead soldier, the inscription on his cuirass denoting him as a ragoç, spoke without preamble. “Prefect Rhujan has ordered an immediate evacuation of this area. You need to leave your vehicle immediately and come with us; we’ll take you somewhere safer. Bring only what you can carry.”

    Though seated, Dukat gave a respectful, grateful bow of the head. “Ve’, Ragoç,” he agreed even as he noted with sadness that he’d been right to prepare for departure. He grabbed his rucksack, slinging it over his shoulders as he opened the door. He gave a glance at the storage compartment, where his suitcase and the bag holding his quilt waited, but the soldier discouraged him with a shake of the head. There was no time…he’d have to do without.

    Dukat wanted to ask the soldiers where they were leading him and the rest of the civilians, but decided against it—chatting with the students-turned-refugees didn’t seem like something they would welcome right now. That didn’t stop him from listening for clues as they began moving on foot on the crowded sidewalks. The ragoç received a message on his wristcomm. A voice ordered him to the Idrak Athletic Complex. So, that’s where they’re putting us up for the night, Dukat supposed. A large building like that was easier to fit with mobile shielding units, and if the Bajorans were already transporting soldiers onto Cardassia Prime, it might keep them safe for longer.

    Suddenly, the tenor of voices over the soldiers’ wristcomms changed, grew more strident. Urgent.

    The ragoç at his side shoved him—hard—off the sidewalk and into the entryway to one of the curious little stores that ringed the Yavenn Pretam campus…a specialty confectionary, from the scent of it. “Stay there!” he hissed. “Don’t move!”
    The sound of transporters again...the pitch of it sounded vaguely wrong, but more so was the sight of it: not gold, but white. And the shapes…from his hiding place, Skrain Dukat caught his first look at the invading aliens.

    At first, the predominant hue of their skin didn’t seem that different—while most Cardassians had some sort of grey complexion like Dukat, there was a beige-hued minority. But it quickly became clear there was something very different about the paler of the Bajorans: he could actually see the hue of their red blood through their skin. Of course, all a Cardassian had to do was open his mouth for the underlying similarity to be obvious…but the microscales comprising the upper layer of skin were too opaque to allow it to be this visible on the outside.

    The other disturbing thing about the Bajorans was the smooth ridgelessness of their faces. They looked unfinished, as though they’d all come out of the same mold at the factory. Yes, they had hair and skin pigmentation to help him tell some of them apart—but the details of a person’s facial ridges were one of the key ways Cardassians used to identify each other at a glance. Even Cardassian toymakers gave great attention to these features in children’s dolls and action figures.

    But the strangest thing was their unnaturally slender, fragile-looking necks. He knew that most species lacked the elaborate tendons and musculature that Dukat could feel every time he turned his head, but it still made them look as though their heads were most precariously balanced on their shoulders.

    There was a flash as one of the Bajorans lifted his phaser rifle…not from his weapon, but from the armor he wore. It was a resplendent bronze, painstakingly etched, the chestplate appearing to be made of real metal, not the practical, phased-energy deflecting memory material of the Cardassian cuirass. A proverb came to mind at the sight of the Bajoran troops and their glaring armor, and the Cardassian ones in their darker, much more utilitarian version: Beware those who come cloaked in false light.

    The Cardassian soldiers pushed back against the onslaught. The ragoç who had shoved Dukat to safety ducked that first shot, drawing his disruptor pistol and squeezing off several of his own. Energy bolts shrieked back and forth: the gold of Cardassia, a strange sunset-pink for Bajor. And then—

    —a white orb of energy slammed down from above like a photon torpedo. It wasn’t a photon torpedo; he’d seen footage of the aftermath of orbital bombardment and one of those could easily leave a crater the size of a city block and a rain of lethal fallout to match. This was tiny in comparison. Still, he flung himself headlong into the confectioner’s shop, eyes squeezed shut against the light, and there came a terrible sound, far more than his ears could handle...

    Slowly he peeked back out around the corner. Whatever the Bajorans had fired, they were recovering from it much faster than the Cardassian soldiers; this weapon had been meant to disorient, not to kill. Some of those who had had the misfortune to be looking directly at it were still squinting, involuntary tears streaming onto the lower hooks of their eye ridges and from there onto their cheeks.

    And the Bajorans…they took brutal advantage.

    One bolt after the other speared towards the Cardassian soldiers. Dukat couldn’t hear their cries, between the closed door and the ringing in his ears from the stun grenade—but how they fell, one right after the other!

    Another shot blasted down from the roof. Suddenly—quicker than he could make sense of it—the ragoç lay sprawled against the wall, eyes wide, mouth gasping soundlessly for air.

    Hardly any Cardassians remained to retreat. And the Bajorans ran forward, pressing their advantage, giving no respite for the survivors to retrieve their wounded or dead. They ran towards the university, one wave after the other. Then one minute of stillness passed. And another.

    Maybe it was reckless. But Dukat had to try and save the man who had acted with such selflessness for his sake. He scrambled back out the door over the objection of the grey-haired confectioner, who had finally found the wherewithal to speak in the face of this horror: “You fool boy! What do you think—”

    But the young man didn’t hear another word—not from the confectioner…and not from the soldier.

    The officer’s breath came with a rattling, sucking wheeze. And when Dukat realized why, his stomach lurched violently enough that he almost vomited. A long, cauterized wound slashed laterally across the soldier’s neck from ridge to ridge…his larynx, perhaps, burned away. There should have been more blood. It didn’t seem right. It seemed unnatural, like a butcher’s experiment gone awry.

    He trembled convulsively from the shock of his wound. Yet his hand—his hand struggled for something.

    Dukat reached for the soldier’s wristcomm. He could call for help—

    The ragoç emitted a much sharper wheeze, eyes and mouth widened with mute alarm. Dukat jerked his hand away in panic. “I’m so sorry—I’m so sorry!” he exclaimed over and over, unable to stop himself. Oh, Oralius…what can I do? Show me, show me—what am I supposed to do?

    As if in response, the soldier stilled himself with a monumental effort, panic and agony pushed back for just a moment as he locked eyes with Dukat. Watch! he wordlessly commanded, a strange, utterly haunting strength flickering in his eyes. The spasmodic fingertips of his left hand reached, reached…Dukat’s eyes followed—and there was the soldier’s phaser pistol, dropped as he’d fallen. One more twitch of the fingers—they made contact.

    And pushed the weapon with a tiny scrape on the pavement…towards Dukat.

    Tentatively, Dukat reached forward, then froze his hand in place just a centimeter from the weapon. And even with his face contorted in that terrible, mute pain, the soldier mustered up a tormented semblance of a smile. Yes!

    Dukat’s hand closed around the pistol’s grip. “What do I do?” the young man murmured. “You want me to take it?”

    He closed his eyes. Dying, Dukat could see. And that rictus of a smile crossed flickered across his face in one last affirmative.

    With his free hand, Dukat reached out and clasped the hand that had indicated the weapon. He could barely wrench the words out of himself. “I…I—thank you.” He sniffed back hard and his voice cracked as he spoke. “May Oralius keep you forever.”

    And the soldier gave one last gasp, a terrible shudder shooting throughout his body. His head lolled to the side and whatever meager strength remaining in his hand faded out forever.

    The Bajoran troops would surely be returning in force soon, to consolidate their hold on this area; if they wanted to keep the university under their control for any length of time, they’d also need the surrounding commercial blocks to serve as a support district. He couldn’t stay here long enough for the next wave to arrive. And yet—and yet…this man had suffered. Had given of himself even in the worst agony imaginable. Had died in his presence. And that, too, came with its ancient duty, for a Cardassian.

    In ancient, prehistoric days, it had been an instinctive need to see that predators and carrion-hunters could not ravage the bodies of the dead. Normally in modern day, the expression of this instinct was simply a matter of delivering the final rites and ensuring that the body received a proper burial. But in this moment, Dukat felt as though he understood exactly what his very first sentient ancestors would have felt when one of their number was slain. The enemy was coming—and this man who had sacrificed his life could not be left to whatever degradations the Bajorans might have in mind. Escape could wait for the few minutes it would take to carry out this task.

    Dukat knelt down and hooked his arms under those of the dead soldier, dragging him back into the confectioner’s shop. He did not bleed as one ought to expect; his heart was stilled and the disruptor had largely cauterized his death wound. Instead, it had likely been the shock and the respiratory distress that had killed him. “Please, Rhodrun,” Dukat ground out, calling the confectioner by a title of respect that meant ‘aged man,’ “if you would, take care of him until he can rest.”

    “You dangled yourself over a cliff, boy,” the old man spat back.

    And though he was twenty years of age, Dukat could not object: legally, he was still in his proving years—an adolescent, not a full adult. This time from sixteen to twenty-four got its name because it was up to the adolescent to prove that he or she could conduct himself according to the laws of society as parents withdrew their supervision: one became fully liable for any crimes committed, but only after this probationary period acquired the full rights and privileges of adulthood.

    So, even in better times, he had no standing from which to object—to a man in his summit years, one like Dukat was a boy, more than anything. Right now, though, Dukat couldn’t even muster up a spark of indignation. He gave a quiet, fractional bow—the best he could manage with the body of the ragoç in his arms.

    The older man offered no other objection, though…the sight of a fallen brother did the same thing to him, as a Cardassian, that it did to Dukat. He took another, appraising look at the tall young student and his expression softened a bit. “I’ll do what I can. I suppose it would be futile to tell you not to go back out there—but you listen to me first.” Dukat obediently froze. “Flip the cover on the left side of the grip. That’s the power switch…hit it. Now, you keep that weapon powered down unless you are absolutely ready to use it. You might not think it of a man in my line of work, but I served during the Klin’ça border skirmishes when I was young, and I know what I’m talking about. That’s for your safety in more ways than one.”

    “I’ll remember that, Rhodrun,” Dukat solemnly replied as he adjusted his rucksack and slipped back out the door and into the treacherous street.
     
  14. Nerys Ghemor

    Nerys Ghemor Vice Admiral Admiral

    Joined:
    Aug 4, 2008
    Location:
    Cardăsa Terăm--Nerys Ghemor
    The sun had already dipped below the horizon, though for now its red glow still shone above the horizon. The sky was clear tonight, and for that Dukat gave thanks; he didn’t know about the Bajorans, but his species’ eyes, only recently adapted to diurnal life in evolutionary terms, were well equipped to handle the diminishing light. On the other hand, he’d have to be cautious to avert his eyes if anyone looked his way—too direct a gaze and the reflective coating of his retinas would send silver starlight right back at them.

    He held the disruptor close to his waist, moving carefully and quietly among the buildings, keeping tight to the shadows, for few people were out and about. He didn’t know exactly where he was heading; all he knew for sure was that if he was going to make it back to his family residence, he was safest to move through the outskirts…perhaps even the desert plains just beyond Culat, keeping the city lights in his sights as he traveled. And if he was going to do that, especially without a navigation device, and a water purifier in his rucksack but no water to be found, he had to move at night or the heat could prove crippling.

    As he drew into a residential neighborhood of small, single-story homes, one he remembered opening up after a kilometer into the desert wilderness, Dukat caught sight of a trio of young men his age headed the opposite direction, their faces fraught with tension. He didn’t recognize them right away, but their apparent leader’s shirt was of the deep blue of Yavenn Pretam University, the name of the school stitched in small letters upon his breast. They took notice of him, and waved him sharply towards them. Once Dukat drew close enough, he realized this man studied evolutionary biology under Inquisitor Osenal, right after Dukat’s introductory science class. “Latzec Dojal,” he whispered by way of introduction.

    “Skrain Dukat.”

    “They’re setting up a checkpoint down the street,” Dojal warned. “If we’re going to have any chance of getting out of here, we’ve got to do it now!”

    “What’s your plan?” Dukat whispered.

    “We’re going to sneak past them. There’s too many for the four of us to take them on directly, but I think if we cut through over there—” He pointed at a small grove surrounding the neighborhood’s artificial lake. “—we might make it before they get the whole area covered. And if not...that’s what this is for.” Dojal gestured to his shoulder, where a Bajoran rifle sat. “Are you with us, Dukat?”

    “If you think we can get to our homes in one piece,” Dukat said, “I’m in.”

    Dojal replied with a thin smile. “It’s our best shot…but we can’t afford to wait.”

    Dukat nodded. “Then let’s go.”



    He was alone in the desert, alternately running and scrambling in the sand. He had no idea where he was, and in this moment he didn’t care.

    Not one of the others had made it—not Dojal, not Trast, not Rapral. The scene had played in his head in an infinite loop once he’d gotten out of disruptor range: they’d crept up alongside the makeshift barrier the Bajoran soldiers were erecting where Idrak Parkway ran out into the emptiness, out of sight behind homes whose lights were darkened to avoid the invaders’ attention. They’d kept several meters apart, none daring to try the exact same gap, hoping and praying that by spreading out, most or all of them would get through.

    A lone Bajoran soldier was patrolling the unsecured perimeter of the neighborhood. Suddenly a tricorder beeped and everyone ducked behind the scraggly shrubs that existed here thanks to the miracle of irrigation. The Bajoran’s head swung around, his eyes covered by sensor scopes and turning him into the image of some cybernetic horror. On some unspoken signal, everyone, Dukat included, broke and ran. His heart thudded—the Bajoran fired—one

    Feet slammed against pavement and suddenly against sand…

    Two

    He stumbled, scrambled back to his feet, ran again, as best he could—

    Three

    More distant now—another howl, another death.

    His chest heaved, his legs pumped, and even as his body ran with all he was worth, his mind waited, waited in dread of the final shot. His shot. It never came.

    Only now was he beginning to understand why. The Bajorans’ scopes homed in on lifesigns, yes—but a powered weapon emitted off a far, far stronger power signature. Dukat, on the other hand—all of it had happened so fast that he hadn’t powered up his disruptor pistol. He wasn’t a soldier, after all; he’d been more focused on preparing for his sprint than preparing to fight. And so the other three…they’d become the soldiers’ primary targets. And by the time he was out of range…yes, there might have been a life sign, but no sign of a weapon. He understood the confectioner’s admonition all too well now.

    Maybe the Bajorans counted on the desert to take care of their problem for them. That sounds about right, he thought to himself with a bitter laugh, now that he no longer feared the sound would carry back to Bajoran ears. He had no idea how long it had been by now; he’d lost the lights of the city and he was thoroughly lost. Please, Oralius, he prayed, if you plan to take me, at least let me feel no pain. He wasn’t sure how likely that was, though…unless a wild animal took him, heatstroke, starvation, or dehydration would do the honors. And none of those sounded particularly painless.

    Voices buzzed in his head—artifacts of his imagination, he well knew: family, friends, the deceased of today, speculative fiction characters, even…all of them echoing one message, that the world he had been born and raised in had perished. Was this what it felt like in the first years of the Cataclysm? he wondered to himself. His Cardassia could be a challenging one, yes, compared to gentle worlds like Terhăn Terăm and, from what he’d heard, Bajor—but with the help of the colonies it sustained them. That Cardassia was no more…and he feared what all modern Cardassians did: a return to the terror that nearly plunged the entire world into war.

    These were dreadful speculations—but there was no point in not giving way to the daydreaming now. At least the thrumming of the motors of his mind kept him alive, kept him moving.

    How long had he kept on? His body was completely and utterly drained now. A faint light glowed now at the horizon—at first he grinned: the light of the city? But its glow was too subtle, too diffused, he realized with further scrutiny. It was the light of Verkoun. Dukat was no survival expert, but any child growing up in the city of Culat knew that to travel by foot in the desert wilderness under the light of the sun was death. He had to find shelter—but where, in this featureless place?

    The voices intensified and an old, accustomed fear speared at his heart: Am I losing it?

    It was only when he realized the voices were speaking a language that he didn’t know that he realized…they were real. Please, let them be Cardassian! he cried silently. He squinted—and just barely made out the distinctive sweep of their neck ridges.

    The robed figures wore ornamented cords woven into thin braids in their shoulder-length hair. The robes themselves were simple, loose, layered garments, nothing like the elaborate Nevotda ruviyal Osenal had worn. But he didn’t have long to focus on aesthetics…for they had drawn their daggers. Dukat dropped to one knee—a potent gesture of submission, for these desert dwellers surely spoke no Cardăsda. Nonetheless, it all spilled out of him in a frantic rush. “Please…I don’t know where I am. I just escaped from the city, from Culat—the Bajorans…they’re the invaders—another species, from space—” He gesticulated sharply at the skies and his desire coalesced deep within his heart: duty, indignation, dread. “I want to go back and fight them, do something…”

    One of the warriors spoke up in gruff tones…and near-perfect, though accented Cardăsda. “We know what has happened,” he declared.

    “You—you speak the common tongue?” Dukat burst out, incredulous. “How—and you know about the invasion?”

    The tribesman’s expression grew fierce. “Do not mistake our decision for ignorance, ah’tekel.” Dukat recognized that tribal term from the movies: city dweller. “We have radios…how can we live in this world without knowing what goes on in it? What you do—” He used the plural form there. “—affects us as well. We understand the difference between our life and yours; we are not slaves to our ways. This is our choice.”

    “I…meant no offense,” Dukat stammered, bowing his head. Though some of the people of Kurab, the native desert dwellers, lived fairly close to the city, there was little contact between them and the people of Culat, and what he knew of them largely came from documentaries and books about the ancient days. “I spoke in ignorance…forgive me.”

    The warrior nodded. “Indeed you have. But,” he said as he cocked his head, “perhaps you could learn, if you desire it enough. Come with me—you will speak with Rulaahan, our Guide. She will decide what to do with you.”

    What to do with me…? Dukat wasn’t sure he liked the sound of that—but he had no choice, and followed along.



    “Who are you?” the Guide questioned, after the warrior—Gharumef, he’d called himself, though Dukat’s lips, accustomed only to the common tongue, could not form the final sound—recounted the story of how they’d met.

    This woman was nothing like Ihanok or Derava, the meek-tempered, gentle Guides who had seen him through the worst of his illness. No…this Rulaahan embodied an entirely different aspect of the Spirit, even more so than the regal Osenal: fierce endurance as if from deep within the planetary core. He stood almost a head taller than her, but this was a power.

    “Skrain Dukat,” he stammered. The Guide held her silence; Dukat shifted despite himself. What does she want? “I…I’m a student from Culat. I just fled a Bajoran patrol—tried to get back to the city to find my family, but I got lost and I haven’t the faintest idea how to get back. I have no idea if they’re alive or dead—the Bajorans are killing people, and I want to fight them…but I’m not a soldier, and I have no idea—”

    Stop,” barked the Guide, much like an old ragoç training recruits. Dukat ceased his nervous chatter. “You wish to fight…I sympathize,” she said. “Our tradition is a long and proud one. And a strong resistance won’t be born there, in the cities. It will flourish out here. In our land. Eventually the Bajorans will understand that, and they will come for us.

    “We can teach you, but there is much you must learn, in mind, body, and spirit all. But we must give you a position among us,” she added. “Or the Bajorans, should they come our way, will question why you live amongst us. I offer you a position as a seeker of discipline. In that capacity you can also learn the arts of survival and war that you seek…but only if you devote yourself discipline with sincerity, devoid of all reservation of heart. What is seen and heard on the outside is one thing—but the voice of your heart must speak in honesty.”

    Dukat swallowed. The Kurabda were adherents to some of the oldest forms of the Oralian tradition, some of whom still held to the most ancient ascetic disciplines. What would they ask of him? Could he even complete the tasks laid before him? But there was no choice—not if he wanted to learn how to survive, how to fight. And Oralius must have laid this path out before me, he thought, even as his heart rebelled against the notion. It sure felt like he was being offered a critical choice, even though he couldn’t fathom why it was all happening now, when his world was in crisis.

    He bowed his head. “I can do that, Guide.”

    “Are you sure, Dukat? There are no proving years here as there are in the city,” she warned. “You have full right to take this oath, and full responsibility. You shall take this oath as a man.”

    Dukat nodded. “I will.”

    Rulaahan closed her eyes in communion. Time seemed to dilate like a ship at relativistic speeds without the subspace microfield as she awaited her answer and Dukat awaited his fate. At last the Guide opened her eyes, fixed the piercing blue orbs upon his.

    “Skrain Dukat—yours shall be the discipline of silence, for as long as Oralius shall see fit. Are you prepared to follow this path?"
     
  15. kes7

    kes7 Fleet Captain Fleet Captain

    Joined:
    Jan 29, 2008
    Location:
    Sector 001
    Wow. Awesome stuff, Nerys. My very favorite part was how you described the human-like Bajorans from the Cardassians' perspective and they became "other," alien. Chilling and very, very well done.
     
    Last edited: Nov 21, 2009
  16. Nerys Ghemor

    Nerys Ghemor Vice Admiral Admiral

    Joined:
    Aug 4, 2008
    Location:
    Cardăsa Terăm--Nerys Ghemor
    Thank you so much for reading and commenting. :)

    I figured that especially given what the Bajorans were doing, that's how it would feel to a Cardassian to see them up close for the first time--even though they know, intellectually, that they are the unusual species. Even so, they are going to be used to their own appearance above that of other species (I don't mean that in an arrogant sense, just aesthetics), so seeing aliens would take some getting used to.
     
  17. Rush Limborg

    Rush Limborg Vice Admiral Admiral

    Joined:
    Jul 13, 2008
    Location:
    The EIB Network
    It's most fascinating, that AU Dukat would find refuge with tribesmen, who intend to instuct him.

    Somehow...it reminds me of Bruce Wayne in the beginning of Batman Begins--where he undergoes the training neccesary to find the means to fight injustice...and turn fear against those who prey upon the fearful....

    I feel confident this "good" Dukat, if he's half the motivated fellow his evil counterpart is, will be superb in finding these means.
     
  18. Nerys Ghemor

    Nerys Ghemor Vice Admiral Admiral

    Joined:
    Aug 4, 2008
    Location:
    Cardăsa Terăm--Nerys Ghemor
    I hadn't even drawn that parallel...but then again, I'm not a big fan of Batman at all. Other than the old X-Men cartoon back in the early 90s, I never really followed any of that comic-book type stuff.

    But it's really awesome to see the confidence in him. :)

    I expect that some aspects of his training, whenever I get around to writing it, will surprise you!
     
  19. Nerys Ghemor

    Nerys Ghemor Vice Admiral Admiral

    Joined:
    Aug 4, 2008
    Location:
    Cardăsa Terăm--Nerys Ghemor
    OK, got the next section finished! :) What I thought was going to be 1 part is now split into 2 parts, so overall you'll be seeing 2 more parts after this one before this story is complete.

    A young (alternate) Skrain Dukat has a lot to learn, in some very unusual circumstances. Some of these lessons are not what he expects.

    (And let's see if you guys see the beginning of certain lessons that will widen the separation between Skrain and his canon counterpart...)

    ----------------

    Part III
    Silence

    The irony of it was, in that first instant as Dukat processed the ruling of the Kurabda Guide Rulaahan, he had no idea what to say. Thank Oralius, no further physical ordeal was to be placed upon him, following his harrowing exodus—but this…in its own way, it was just as unfathomable. Memory and voice: these were the gifts upon which his future as prosecuting nestor—at least, this future he’d envisioned for himself just yesterday—were based. To give up speech for any significant time…especially this indefinite period…he could barely imagine it. Even with his best efforts, could he actually uphold such an oath?

    And there were the practical concerns, too. Gharumef and Rulaahan had also promised that he would learn the ways of their tribe that would help him, someday, to fight the Bajoran invaders. It had all happened far too swiftly, too definitively—and as much as he hoped and prayed that Cardassia would quickly shake off the invasion, he feared it wouldn’t be so easy. But how could he learn if he could not speak, could not ask questions?

    “This will be very difficult,” Dukat admitted. “I’ve never done anything like it. I mean, I’ve had to learn a lot about meditations and disciplines—how to pray…I’ve had to learn how to live with an imbalance, and getting an implant is only the start of that, not the end. But something like this vow…don’t get me wrong. I feel like I should try, but I would hate to disappoint—”

    For the first time, the formidable Guide offered a hint of a smile. “This is not a matter of your strength alone, Dukat. And you are not the only one to have followed this path. I expect your past experiences have shown you that.”

    Dukat gave a deep bow of acknowledgement. “You speak true, Guide.”

    “You are prepared, then?”

    The young man nodded. “I am…I accept. And thank you for allowing me to stay with you.”

    Rulaahan replied with a curt nod of her own. She surveyed the skies. “Come, then—this ceremony is performed in the light of the rising sun. Now is the time. Gharumef…you will serve as my witness?”

    “Of course,” said the warrior.

    They crossed through the Kurabda encampment. The camp was mostly still now, save the light wind moving between the tents, and the trio walking through its center. It looked, for the most part, just like something out of a documentary—tents forming an elliptical pattern around the central meeting area. A particularly spacious tent, Lhai’khar text embroidered around the covering to the entrance had to be the chapel of the Way. From the central pole there protruded a gold spire. “Wait here,” Rulaahan commanded as she ducked into the tent.

    It was a matter of seconds before she emerged again with a carved wooden case in her hands that much resembled his own. And that raised a critical question—one he dared not omit before he could ask nothing else. “Guide…where I worship, we each have our own recitation mask. I still have mine in my rucksack. Am I permitted to wear it, or would you prefer I not?” Rulaahan pressed her lips together for a moment; Dukat felt her bioelectric field quicken for just a second. No mistaking what she thinks of that, he thought to himself.

    “This is not our way,” Rulaahan said.

    Dukat bowed his head. “I meant no offense.” He would try his best, but it wouldn’t feel right to enter his deepest meditations with his face uncovered. True, he had done exactly that less than a year ago, but for a young man of his sect, the First Recitation, as it was called—the first time he donned his own recitation mask and took the second reading before the congregation after the Guide’s reading, almost ranked with the birth, death, and marriage ceremonies in the life of an Oralian.

    If Rulaahan’s disapproval had been clear before, now he beheld it etched upon every ridge and wrinkle on her face. She turned her head, fixing a hard gaze upon Dukat; he realized immediately that he had spoken out of turn. “I will not permit you to don the recitation mask in the sight of others; you are neither a Guide nor female, and that is not our way. However,” she added, “though I do not believe in what your people have done, I would not take what you and your Guide at home believed rightly given. You may wear the mask that was given to you in your solitary prayers, and only then.”

    “Thank you for your generosity,” he replied with a gracious smile. They had almost traversed the entire encampment now, which seemed to contain a few hundred people, and he was acutely aware there was little time left to satisfy his curiosity. “If I may, where, exactly am I? And how long have you camped here?”

    “We are the people of Kekil-haaf.” Sweeping her arm at the camp and the barren lands surrounding them, “Our home has been in this vicinity for nearly five hundred years. We are a small tribe, with six more encampments like this one. There was once a farming community here, almost exactly where we stand—your people. But when the Cataclysm came and the desert spread from the mountains all the way to Culat, many starved. Others crowded into the city. But there were those who could not or would not go to Culat. They fled into the desert, and they joined with us. They largely adopted our ways, and after all this time, their blood is such a part of ours that it could never be separated. Some tribes,” she warned, “would not have welcomed you, even as a pilgrim. But we have not forgotten our ties, and we have taken their name as a memorial to them.”

    “Is that also why you speak Cardăsda?”

    “In part,” Rulaahan replied. “It is wise in this age regardless; even before the Cataclysm, we had a few people who spoke the common tongue. But it is because of the people of Kekil that it will be no trouble for all but the young children to speak to you; we start teaching them once they’re old enough to read in our language.”

    Dukat allowed himself a wry laugh. “This is the first time today—well, since yesterday…that I’ve been able to see the hand of Oralius in anything that’s happened. What I’ve seen…” He shuddered. In his mind’s eye, that ship still burned and the eyes of the ragoç still spoke of that hideous agony. “Dear Oralius, I had no idea what war was like up close.” It sounded so clichéd coming out of his mouth—but it was all so completely inexpressible.

    “You will only see more of that as a warrior, and you will take some of those actions into yourself,” Gharumef warned. “It is noble to defend the innocent, but if you are called to it, it will not be easy. This will be a time of contemplation and discernment for you,” he said. “We will teach you, but remember that the final decision of your fate does not rest in your own hands. Fate is guided.”

    Hokrol edek,” replied Dukat: I understand.

    Gharumef lifted a formidable, arched eye ridge. “In time, young man.”

    They had reached a rocky promontory that jutted out from the sandy plain. Here began a craggier, more unforgiving terrain than the plains he had crossed on his flight from Culat, as the desert rolled on towards the Noumara Mountains. The sunrise had just begun to stretch its fingers above the mountains, reaching up for the great expanse of the night sky. Nothing marked this spot—no shrine, no inscriptions—but before Rulaahan said a word, Dukat got the distinct feeling this was where the rite would take place.

    Indeed, the Guide nodded at Gharumef. The warrior stopped in place, letting Dukat know to do the same by placing his fingertips on the young man’s upper arm. Gharumef remained at Dukat’s side, while Rulaahan took up a position with her back to the light of Verkoun. She opened the case she had been carrying, withdrawing her recitation mask, though this one appeared to be made of unadorned tan clay rather than wood like his own. No engravings decorated the mask, only the detailing in the ridges, giving Rulaahan an almost Hăzăkda appearance that reminded Dukat quite painfully of Akellen.

    Dukat started to kneel, but Rulaahan shook her head. She began to pray, the aperture at the mouth of her recitation mask giving her voice an otherworldly resonance. “Oralius—spirit moving through the winds and the hearts of our world—just as you brought us the people of Kekil in a time of great need, tonight you have brought us this man, Skrain Dukat, of Culat. I thank you for your trust in us, that you have placed him under our care and pray that your strength and comfort bloom within his mind and heart, that he may have solace for his past and strength for his future. May Fate be by Spirit so guided.”

    She focused her gaze now upon Dukat. “Once you have taken this oath, no further words shall pass from your throat and lips until Oralius so ordains. As Gharumef says, this is to be a time of prayer and contemplation. There will be times of solitude, but you will live and learn among us as well, among those who will have the power you do not. Do you understand now what it is you prepare to do?”

    “I do.”

    “Do you, Skrain Dukat, submit to this discipline without reservation of heart, and in full honor of the one who has shaped you?”

    “I submit,” he declared in a low voice suffused with solemn finality.

    With that, Rulaahan reached up and firmly placed the tips of her middle and index fingers upon Dukat’s lips. “Give him the strength to bear the discipline of silence that he has undertaken.” She held that position for several seconds. Then she lifted her fingertips and set them on Dukat’s throat—this a slightly gentler touch. “Through this time of silent vigil, show him the way to strengthen the voice and ears of his heart that he may draw his thoughts and his actions closer to your own.”

    As she withdrew her hand, Dukat felt almost lightheaded, as though a current of electric wind blew through him, not just the sensation of skin and forehead that was the bioelectric sense. He knew, of course, that his physical ability to speak remained untouched, yet he still felt an odd sense of…numbness, pressure, where Rulaahan’s fingers had been, as though some sort of transformative power had run through his skin. There had been those who dismissed these sorts of physiological effects as a meaningless figment of the mind, falsely ascribed to the intervention of the divine—but as far as Dukat was concerned, whether it originated within the body or without was irrelevant: after all, the Cardassian body was the design of Oralius, and that it should be designed such that even its natural functions and processes could serve as reminders to the spirit…this seemed perfectly sensible to him.

    He almost missed it when Rulaahan spoke to him again. “Follow me,” she said, “and I will give you a place to sleep. After you’ve had some time to rest, we will introduce you to the rest of the tribe.”

    Thank you, Dukat wanted to say, I would really appreciate that. He literally almost had to bite his lip to keep from voicing his thought aloud. Instead, he confined himself to a nod and a closemouthed smile—even a full grin seemed too much of a chance right now. He found himself wondering if over time, this would grow easier for him, or harder.

    Rulaahan and Gharumef led him back towards the center of the camp, where a few of its other inhabitants were beginning to stir. Dukat felt rather awkward as he passed them by—here he was, an ah’tekel, as they said, in his dusty city suit and boots, making his way through the camp with no explanation of his presence and no way to give one. Nor did he know these people, or have any way to ask. And above all, he was completely exhausted. The most he could manage was a tiny, reserved nod when someone made eye contact.

    They had returned now to the center of the camp. To his surprise, Rulaahan led him inside the chapel tent. For the first time, Dukat got a good look at how a Kurabda tent was constructed. It was far more spacious than he had ever imagined any naturally-made, non-permanent structure to be—even at his height, he could still stand completely straight and not feel like his head was about to scrape the ceiling. It was about the size, perhaps, of one of the smaller classrooms at Yavenn Pretam, and he imagined it could seat perhaps thirty people before the altar area. He wondered how, then, the entire tribe could worship at one time…but that question was one for whose answer he would simply have to watch and wait.

    But what really struck him was what he almost took for a skylight near the central pole. He looked up and saw that in one elliptical area, the ceiling of the tent had been woven with a bright tapestry of colors, which now that the sun had risen, spilled down into the tent itself to create a patterned mosaic on the tan rug laid on the dust at the bottom of the tent. The sight was so unexpected, so beautiful that his eyes went wide, and he opened his mouth, drawing breath before he realized what he was about to do—then quickly shut it.
    Rulaahan looked intently at him—to reproach him for trying to talk, he feared, but instead she smiled. “You’ve never seen anything like that, have you?”

    Dukat shook his head.

    “I am honored that you find it pleasing,” she said, and he confirmed her assumption with a smile of his own. “You will get to see much more of it, rest assured. For now, though…” She led him along the right side of the tent, towards the back where he saw what appeared to be another set of tents—or at least, alcoves separated by curtains. She pushed the curtain back on one of them, revealing a sleeping mat, blankets, and pillows. “This is where we shelter our guests until they are given a place of their own, for it is Oralius who gives us the duty to care for those come to us in need. For now, you should sleep…just relax until I come to wake you.”

    Dukat met Rulaahan’s eyes with his own grey ones, suddenly grown weary at the sight of a place to lay his head, then showed his gratitude with a deep bow.

    “You’re welcome,” Rulaahan replied, allowing Dukat to step into the alcove. She released the curtain and withdrew leaving the utterly exhausted young man in solitude. Dukat pulled off his boots. He hadn’t allowed himself to notice the pain during his terrible flight from Culat, but now it was all he could do to stifle a groan. Rulaahan may not have said anything about mere sounds in the oath—but to use his voice at all, he feared, would be too great a temptation…not to mention that her touch to his throat certainly seemed to imply he was not permitted any vocalization at all.

    He laid a blanket over the sleeping mat—that would be far easier to clean up when he woke than the mat itself. He was dusty and he knew it…and he hated to disturb his sleeping area with that dust—but he’d never been this physically exhausted in his life. By now, he lacked the energy to do much more than take his suit jacket off, stretch once, and curl up on the sleeping mat. For in the space of less than a full day, he had gone from university student in Culat to refugee to some sort of hybrid between religious pilgrim and warrior apprentice in the desert of Kurab.

    Please, Oralius…I’ve seen so much, and lost so much that I don’t even know what my life is supposed to be anymore. And my family—I don’t even know if they’re alive or dead! Please, wherever they are…take care of them, and give them the comfort that I’m all right! And if I’m feeling this way…I can’t even imagine how many of your children are afraid and suffering this morning.

    Help them…this position you’ve put me in…let me help…

    Dukat didn’t even have time to close his prayer—this once, he faded swiftly into dreamless depths.
     
  20. Nerys Ghemor

    Nerys Ghemor Vice Admiral Admiral

    Joined:
    Aug 4, 2008
    Location:
    Cardăsa Terăm--Nerys Ghemor
    Even before he felt the weight of Rulaahan’s hand on his shoulder, he felt it as her bioelectric field reached into his subconscious mind, jarring him awake with a start. He couldn’t remember why anyone else would be there in his dorm room to wake him, what had happened to his familiar blankets and pillows, nor how he had fallen asleep in his clothes and he very nearly shouted—until his ears picked up a hissing sound.

    As he blinked a few times, he realized it wasn’t hissing…it was the Kurabda Guide, Rulaahan, making a soft shushing sound. He remembered his oath then, and everything that had preceded it…yesterday? This morning? What day is it, anyway? He didn’t think he’d been asleep all that long, though he couldn’t be sure, and he certainly couldn’t ask.

    Now, seeing him fully awake, Rulaahan spoke. “May the song of morning fill your spirit,” she greeted him as he got to his feet.

    And yours as well, Guide. He met Rulaahan’s eyes with a rather bleary smile that he hoped still managed to convey a sense of gratitude, and extracted himself from under the blanket he’d pulled over himself just before he fell asleep.

    As he pulled the blanket back, he spotted a clear silhouette of dust on the blanket he’d laid over the mat. Regret flashed across his face, and he started trying to brush it off with his hand. “That’s not necessary,” Rulaahan chided. “You had nothing else to wear; of course you were going to get dust on things. You will be provided with more appropriate clothing soon—once we have seen you among us, we should be able to tell who is closest to your height and build, who can spare a set of robes and nightclothes.” Dukat pulled his boots back on, wincing with the pain. “And sandals,” Rulaahan added. “Now—are you ready?”

    Dukat nodded, albeit after a moment’s hesitation.

    “Then follow me,” the Guide commanded, and he inclined his head in obedience as she parted the curtain ahead of him and waited for him to step into the main chapel. He wasn’t exactly sure why, but for some reason, this introduction had him far more nervous than he normally was with meeting new people. Just what would they be thinking of this silent young city-dweller?

    The colors of the tapestry shone straight down upon the ark where the Hebitian Records were stored; he knew from this that it had to be midday. Unless he’d managed to sleep for an entire day—and it didn’t feel like he’d had that much sleep—then Rulaahan had allowed him little more than a nap. He supposed, in light of the disciplines they could have asked from him, that this was still quite generous.

    While they were still inside the chapel, Rulaahan stopped and faced him; Dukat mirrored the motion. “Some of the men are hunting; there are others who cannot leave their tasks and will not have the chance to see you right now. If they speak to you and expect an answer, this is how to respond.” Closing her mouth, she touched her own lips and throat with middle and forefinger much as she had Dukat’s that morning.

    Dukat copied the motion, thankful for the relative simplicity of this sign. He’d seen what the common sign language looked like, and though he’d learned the basic signs everyone did in school, a full conversation still looked like an intricate, unreadable blur of hands to him.

    Rulaahan nodded her approval at his imitation. “All but the younger children understand that sign. They will understand the reason for your silence and not hold it against you,” she informed him. “Now come—they’re waiting.”

    The tall young man followed the Guide, exiting the chapel tent behind her. The desert sun blazed high and red in the expansive sky above, forcing him to squint and duck his head in the first few moments, letting his eye ridges do the job they were designed for and shade his sensitive eyes. Once he could see clearly, Dukat took stock of the crowd gathered in the center of the encampment.

    All of them, male or female, wore long, flowing, layered robes of light, loose fabric; the women’s robes differed only slightly in the cut, but were easily distinguished by an elaborately-embroidered sash tied around the waist and trailing at the right side. Some, both men and women, wore simple head coverings—cloths tied to the head by beaded bands, that draped down well past the shoulders, covering what of the neck ridges the robes allowed to show. If there was a rule as to who covered their heads and who did not, Dukat wasn’t sure of it yet. Those whose hair was visible had woven ornamented cords in with tiny braids—somewhere from one to five on the same person; this custom was shared by men and women alike.

    There seemed to be more women than men, a number of them accompanied by children. “People of Kekil-haaf,” she began, still speaking in the common tongue, “in our world’s time of crisis, Oralius has placed a pilgrim from the city under our care. This is Skrain Dukat of the city of Culat, and he comes to live among us, seeking to learn more of the ways of Oralius, and to learn our ways as well. He has sought the disciplines of our people, and as such, he has undertaken a vow of silence and does not speak. He understands only the common tongue, so that must be the language of your teachings. It is my hope and prayer that you will do all you can to make him welcome among you and to teach him what you know.”

    Dukat managed a nervous flicker of a smile and a quick but deep bow as a few voices from the assembled crowd greeted him.

    Oh, Oralius…where do I start? he fretted.

    It was in that moment that Gharumef approached, lifting a hand with palm outwards towards Dukat’s shoulder, stopping about twenty centimeters away. Though he did not touch the young refugee, but the sensation of his bioelectric field made his point.

    Please don’t let me offend him, Dukat prayed, mirroring the gesture with an uncertain expression on his face, in hopes of finding out exactly what this foreign custom meant. As he brought his hand close to Gharumef’s shoulder, his hand extended the range of his own bioelectric sense like an RF antenna, drawing information about Gharumef’s physical state without requiring an actual touch. The warrior seemed alert, but relaxed; with that, Dukat figured he’d probably been well-received.

    “That’s correct,” Gharumef said. “That is the greeting between men, of one friend to another. Now come—I have just spoken with my brother Arokef, and he has kindly offered an extra set of clothing to you. It is best that you change now; what you are wearing is good for the city where you are only outside for brief periods, but not so good for living here.”

    Grateful for Arokef’s generosity, and for the Gharumef’s guidance, Dukat fell into line behind the warrior, but not before he cast one more thankful gaze at the Guide Rulaahan.



    None of this was at all what Skrain Dukat had expected. He was dressed now in the manner of a Kurabda nomad, save for the long queue he left tied back in Culatda fashion. The light material of his inner and outer robes draped around his body in an unaccustomed manner for one accustomed to the closely-tailored styles of the city, and a simple headdress draped over his head and the sensitive skin at the back of his long neck—a very useful piece of clothing, Gharumef’s younger brother had explained, given the work he would be engaged in at first, which would require him to kneel outside for a time.

    And that work was…not what Dukat had expected, either. I thought I was supposed to become a warrior, he thought to himself as he raised his borrowed knife…to peel a teliyk root—and rather clumsily at that. For what felt like the thousandth time, Reh’met was reaching over and correcting his grip, mumbling something under her breath in the Kurabda language that Dukat couldn’t understand and couldn’t ask for the translation that right now she did not see fit to provide. Probably cursing my ineptness, Dukat thought darkly, praying for the strength not reply with an unkind gaze in response. Instead, Dukat dipped his head in a gesture of apology as he allowed his hands to be guided.

    Something flickered briefly across Reh’met’s face, as her hands drew near and then made contact. “You are too tense,” Reh’met admonished as she observed his efforts to cut the outer portion of the ridged root. “This is why you cannot angle the blade correctly. You must not do this; cut too deep and you waste the useful matter inside…cut too shallow and you leave the skin, whose taste is too bitter to bear if bitten into. Relax and focus, Dukat.”

    I just watched alien invaders land in my city, they’re doing Oralius knows what back there, my family has no idea where I am or if I’m even alive, I’m running on maybe a couple hours of sleep, and you’re telling me to relax?! Dukat thought furiously, lips pressed together to avert any lapses. As if I’m supposed to just sit here and chop roots like that’s the only thing that matters? What a fine skill to add to my fighting repertoire—advanced vegetable chopping. He voiced none of this, of course, but the words still refused to cease in his mind. What was the purpose of this? Was it some kind of test calculated to drive him mad? He couldn’t object—he had no choice—but it frustrated him nonetheless.

    Dukat tried again, slicing a bit more slowly at the teliyk root this time, counting slowly in his head the way his mother had taught him to do whenever he felt his temper rising.

    Then a male voice cut across the camp, shouting Reh’met’s name. What followed was a rapid burst in the Kurabda language that Dukat couldn’t understand, but the tone sounded…tense. Exasperated. Grudgingly, with a long-suffering expression of her own, Reh’met stood, tossing only a few curt words towards Dukat to excuse herself. “Stay there—Lehnedrel will show you what to do next.” With that she strode off with the look of one girding on armor for battle.

    An odd sort of discomfort settled over Dukat and after stealing one more quick glance at the retreating form of Reh’met, he averted his eyes. It was the sense of having just witnessed something…indecent somehow. Lehnedrel made no comment; unsure what else to do, Dukat resumed his work with the teliyk root.

    The knife slipped again, this time very nearly scraping the microscales off an ill-placed finger. Finally, despite himself, Dukat let out an exasperated sigh and froze at the end of his motion. He hadn’t wanted to show his frustration in front of Reh’met, even in the nonverbal fashion available to him, but now, with his instructor absent, he simply couldn’t hold it in any longer. What is the purpose of this!? he mentally groused. And now he’d gone and alienated his instructor somehow, even before that interruption! And on top of that, she knew he was new to all of this, knew he had no way to ask questions…how could she be so inconsiderate?

    “Dukat,” Lehnedrel finally said, once Reh’met was out of earshot.

    Yes? the young man asked with a sharper nod than he intended, lifting an eye ridge.

    “Just…try.” Her accent was much thicker than that of Reh’met, her speech in the common tongue much more hesitant. “You do well, for a first try. Reh’met…try—to understand her. Her husband—” Lehnedrel jabbed a discreet finger in their direction. “He—they…are not good friends now. It is difficult…very, very difficult to Reh’met.”

    Dukat’s ears and jaw ridges burned. Forgive me, he thought, addressing Lehnedrel and Oralius both as he bowed his head. He put his hand to his heart, which beat beneath the vestigial sensory node at the center of his chest—a feature that it was believed had helped the Cardassians’ ancestors, back when that node still functioned, to sense not only external but internal bioelectric fluctuations and sort the emanations of their own fields from external stimuli. Hoping the gesture would translate in some fashion, he locked regretful eyes with Lehnedrel. I’m sorry…I didn’t realize. He pointed in the same direction as Lehnedrel had, then brought his hand back to his heart. I will pray for her tonight.

    Lehnedrel gave a faint smile in return. “You did not do this, Dukat.”

    He mirrored her expression, but his heart still refused to rest. I know…but I misjudged. I was so quick to assume her problem was with me. He glanced down again, as though she might read his thoughts through his eyes. And I was just as quick to turn that frustration right back on her.

    Dukat drew a deep, steadying breath through his nose, then released it. He took up the knife and teliyk roots again, angling his actions slightly towards Lehnedrel and raising his eye ridges. Will you help me?

    “You are nearly finished,” Lehnedrel assured him as the nearby pot of water began to boil. “These need…to be in, soon. In the pot,” she amended with a clarifying sweep of the hand. Her eye ridges furrowed for a moment, seeming almost…embarrassed, perhaps at her limited skills with the common tongue.

    He met the Kurabda woman’s eyes. You’re worried about your speech, in front of a man who can’t speak at all? His lips quirked up in a silent laugh, and she smiled—perhaps not sure what had prompted Dukat’s more genial expression, but accepting it nonetheless.

    And with that, they began again.



    Finally, as the sun dipped below the desert horizon, Dukat enjoyed the luxury of a full stomach. While Lehnedrel and Reh’met had kindly allowed him to snack on the ingredients as they’d worked, realizing perhaps that he’d had little to eat during the previous day’s ordeal, this was the first full meal he’d had since the beginning of the invasion—for that was what it had had to be. The stew that had come of their labors hadn’t been half bad, he mused…the spices were foreign, yes, but it seemed, perhaps, that his own work, however halting it had been at times, served to sweeten the taste a bit, as it were.

    The meal had been relatively enjoyable, as well. Eating was a communal affair among the Kurabda, and a small group had gathered, choosing to converse amongst themselves in the common tongue in order that the city-born pilgrim among them might feel as though he belonged. It was definitely strange, just as Rulaahan had predicted—perhaps from her own experience?—to sit amongst these people and hear their thoughts and their stories, all the while having to resist every one of his natural instincts to ask his own questions and add his commentary. He had no control whatsoever over the course of the conversation, although he’d had to admit their decision to speak Cardăsda was most kind.

    And it had taken every last shred of self-control, though, once the topic of the radio had come up. The people of Kekil-haaf had, for the past five hundred years, kept one to maintain some sort of knowledge of the outside world…undoubtedly the doing of the Kekilda townsmen, who had wanted some sort of memory of home. There was still no signal, they said, no broadcasts whatsoever on the subspace band, and only sporadic bursts of activity on the encrypted military bands, only audible as bursts of static. “There must still be resistance,” Gharumef had speculated…but there was nothing, no real news, upon which to base that conclusion.

    Oralius, please—let us still have a chance! Dukat prayed in solitude now, kneeling in the desert sand, his recitation mask sitting securely on his face as Rulaahan had permitted to him in isolation. His stomach churned as it worked on his meal, and a pang of guilt sliced through his spirit. Had his family eaten so well tonight? Were they safe from Bajoran depredations as he currently was? Why had he been singled out for this strange and bittersweet blessing?

    At last, a tear slipped free from the corner of his eye, running down his face and soaking into the inside of his wooden recitation mask. He made no move to remove the mask even though it was entirely possible they might stain the wood on the reverse side; the honest tears of an anguished and prayerful spirit were about as far from desecration of the consecrated object as one could get.

    It was time now. Now that the second day of the Bajoran invasion of Cardassia and the first day of Skrain Dukat’s pilgrimage in the desert of Kurab drew to a close, it was the time to mourn. And as he silently wept, kneeling in the sand with the mask of Oralius upon his face, he got the distinct sense that another spirit moved through him…and grieved through him…as well, for the pain of a beloved people under siege.