[LEFT]I expect some won't be happy with this. But this is what I felt moved to write, so this is what I present to you... [/LEFT] Star Trek: Sigils and Unions Catacombs of Oralius: Captives’ Ransom Author’s note: This story takes place in what I’ve termed the “Catacombs of Oralius” universe—the same one from last month’s entry, “Sacrifice,” as well as in the TNG episode “Parallels.” In this universe, the Bajorans, under the influence of the Pah-Wraiths, have violently occupied their neighbors of a rivaling faith…the Cardassians, believers in the Oralian Way. This story takes place a few months after “Sacrifice.” Readers of Sigils and Unions may well recognize one Hirhul Mendral… USS Enterprise-D December 6, 2370—Second Sunday of Advent Journal of Ensign Sam Lavelle I never really understood the meaning of Christmas until now. I mean, I knew the history just like any other kid raised in a traditionalist family—how the holiday is preceded by four Sundays of Advent, which represents the waiting for both First and Second Coming…but it never really sank in just what that meant until now. And of all the people to teach me… Sam couldn’t help but smile at the sight before him. His friend grinned back, finally comfortable in the heavy winter coat Sam was sure he had no intention of removing once inside the sanctuary. He wore a red knit cap over his thick black hair, pulled down just far enough to reach the ends of his grey ears. A red-and-white scarf encircled the neck—one of the old-fashioned, home-knitted kind from the looks of it, and with a bold snowflake print, no less…this had been the best solution Lavelle could think of, since getting Mendral into a turtleneck would have bordered on the impossible. “And what about the tip of my nose, Sam?” Mendral pleaded, great big doe eyes peering out from equally widened hooked ridges. “Well, if it starts to turn black and it falls off, I’ll think about raising the temperature,” Sam quipped. The Cardassian reached just behind Sam and scooped a pile of snow into his gloved hands from a bush just outside the sanctuary. Quick as a phaser bolt, he grabbed the hair at the back of Sam’s head to lock it into place. There was no escape. With his other hand, Mendral shoved the snowball into Sam’s face. “Owww!” Sam burst out as the cold sting hit him square in the nose. Only the fact that they were about to walk up the church steps—and everybody was already staring at them—stopped Sam from sentencing the helmsman to forced snow angel creation. That did not, however, stop Mendral from resuming his place in line, hands tucked into his pockets as the nearly-freezing water soaked into his gloves—serves him right! Sam thought—and with a very innocent look on his face, glancing over and then quietly whistling something that sounded suspiciously like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” As the bell rang from inside the sanctuary, everyone else around them assumed a reverent silence—including Mendral. Still, Sam could have sworn that just a faint hint of a self-satisfied smirk traced its way across the Cardassian’s face: victory, it said. Hirhul and his eidetic Cardassian memory! I should never have taught him all those Christmas carols last night, Sam silently groused as they ascended the steps. The tip of his nose still stung—and probably was virtually aglow. He had to admit Mendral was being more than a good sport about this whole thing…it was only fair, considering Lavelle had just last week toughed it out with Ensign Mendral and the three other Cardassians on the Enterprise in the simulated heat of an underground recitation chamber where the faithful of the persecuted Oralian Way gathered to pray and read from the Hebitian Records. Lavelle had never donned the recitation mask, and Mendral abstained from Communion, but this exchange of presence was enough to show the kind of friends Sam and Hirhul had become. The truth was that for all the differences between their faiths, Sam found it much easier to understand the Cardassian’s way of thinking than that of the vast majority of his own people aboard the Enterprise. There was a similar core of principles, a similar conviction that there was more to this vast and wondrous universe than that which the eye could see and the sensor could detect, and that no matter what the struggles of their lives, no matter how much chaos and death seemed to dominate, that they lived with purpose and that purpose was good. That was what they affirmed by their mutual respect for each other’s traditions. Sam and Mendral passed into the holographic replica of the old, small-town church. The ornate, turn-of-the-twentieth-century style stained-glass windows threw the remnants of the day’s dimming light onto the pews in shades of orange, yellow, and pink. The original sanctuary back in Tennessee had seen two world wars and known its zenith years in the first few decades of the twenty-first century...then witnessed the near-collapse of everything it had been built for in the wake of the Third World War and the rise of humanity into the stars. Thankfully, its place on the historic register and reputation as a favored wedding spot had saved it from destruction, allowing the holographers to give this simulation nearly the fidelity of real life. The congregants, Mendral included, all wore clothing from those glory years of the twenty-first century. He knew all thirty-seven of the other official members of the Enterprise fellowship, as well as Mendral and the other five to ten non-member guests who showed up from time to time on any given Sunday. Interestingly, nearly a third of them, pastor Sandik Fitzpatrick included, had at least some blood from another world, with a few, like Rigellian chief Inkudi Varysh, having no blood tie to Earth whatsoever. Sam appreciated the tight-knit feeling of the small community, but the rows of empty pews to their sides and to the back couldn’t help but remind Sam of all they had lost. Advent candles sat in a wreath at the altar, three of them purple, the fourth—the Christ candle—in pink. Sam smiled. He couldn’t wait to see all four lit just two weeks from now. This was always an exciting time of year for him, a time of joyous anticipation. In his house growing up, his parents had kept one of the old-style Advent calendars, the kind where each evening the family gathered to open a little door marked just for that date, and behind it find a piece of chocolate or some other treat. And of course it was the countdown to Christmas morning, when everyone—early risers or not—got up at 8:00 AM sharp for reasons no one, to this day, could ever remember, and gathered around the tree to open presents. Sam had well understood, ever since adolescence, that it wasn’t about the receiving so much as it was about the giving—nothing warmed him more than the look of surprised delight when his parents or his sisters tore off the packaging to discover one of his unexpected and very often non-replicable gifts. There was no great commercial season in the 24th century—such things had fallen by the wayside with the rise of replicator technology and post-scarcity economics, not to mention the consensus among the majority of the population that the commercial reasons were the only reasons left for the holiday. The Lavelles, however, had retained the holiday, and it had always been a time for family gatherings, and yes—gift-giving, though within reason. In some ways, the lack of a public bonanza made the holiday that much more sacred…but, he had to admit, also a tad bit isolating. Just then, Brother Sandik stood and called the Enterprise ‘parishioners’ to worship with a beautiful, basso rendition of “Surely the Presence of the Lord Is in This Place.” They didn’t have anywhere near enough members to form a choir…there was always someone who suggested conjuring up a holographic one, but the majority always came to their senses very quickly about the idea: there was something disingenuous about it. It hadn’t surprised Sam that on his visit to the holographic Oralian catacombs, Mendral had expressed the same sentiment. Instead, the musical duties fell to the half-Vulcan minister, and to those in the congregation brave enough to volunteer for a solo or small ensemble. Sam, for his part, was quite happy to let his voice blend into the general congregation. Once Sandik finished singing, he greeted the assembled worshippers. “In the name of the Son I welcome you—as it is written, ‘For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.’ We may be few in numbers, but let that be no reason to stop offering our praise and gratitude to the Lord—especially now in this season of hope.” Next came the lighting of the Advent candles…two this time—just two left until Christmas. Following this, Sandik said, “Let’s turn in our hymnals to ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.’” Both ensigns reached down into the pockets on the back of the seats in front of them and grabbed the old-fashioned, hardback books that sat there. Mendral might be of another faith, but he certainly loved music and took great delight in singing along. He’d even taken the time to learn the basics of Earth musical notation for the purpose…not much, but enough for a basic grasp on pitch and timing. The Cardassian quickly scanned over the lyrics as Chief Hakizimana picked out the first few bars on his guitar. Sam loved this hymn—to him, it all boiled down to the refrain: Rejoice, rejoice--Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!“O come, O come, Emmanuel, And ransom captive Israel, That mourns in lonely exile here Until the Son of God appear…” Something sparked crystalline in Sam’s peripheral vision as he sang, something falling in a blur of movement almost too fast to see. His eyes darted sideways. It was gone now—but what he beheld now was unmistakable. Spreading out from its focal point on the open page of Mendral’s hymnal was a tiny liquid dot, soaking into the page. His Cardassian friend, who just a few minutes ago, had been sparring and laughing with him in the snow, was in tears. Sam’s first instinct was to tap Mendral on the arm—but he restrained himself: especially in times of emotional distress, Cardassians didn’t react well to being touched without warning. Instead, Sam leaned over and whispered in Mendral’s ear. “Hirhul…are you all right?” “Rejoice, rejoice…” everyone else sang—but Hirhul Mendral, a child of the Cuellar refugee camps, could not. Nor could he answer Sam. Sam’s grey-scaled friend had fallen silent, his face a stony mask except for the shining rivulet of water that traced its way down from his eye to the ridge below, and from there to his cheek where it had fallen. “Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel…” Every scale and ridge on Mendral’s face telegraphed one aching plea: When…? “I’m so sorry, Hirhul…” They sat alone in the sanctuary’s choir loft, just behind the altar. Everyone else had left the holodeck but Lavelle and Mendral. “I didn’t even think,” Sam stumbled. “I mean, I know the history, but it didn’t even occur to me what it would mean to you…” Hirhul spoke in a low, rough voice. “You’ve been fortunate, Sam.” Ensign Lavelle’s cheeks reddened as though he’d been slapped. Seeing the unintended effect of his words, Mendral mustered up a faint smile. “I don’t say that to demean you—I don’t mean it that way. I say it because it’s factually true. The worst your Way has ever brought you is scorn. For me…my parents risked everything to flee Cardassia Prime when they had me. The Cuellar camps were bad, but at least the Bajorans were spread too thin to really consolidate their hold on the place. Mother and Father had a chance to send me and my brothers away, and they took it. That’s why I’m here. “I’m grateful for the opportunity…don’t get me wrong. But I want so badly to go home. I want to be with my people. I want to know that someday we’ll be free. But just a few days ago…I got word that the Resistance found the bodies of Skrain and Ziyal Dukat, dumped out in the middle of the Fireplains of Revakian. They were our brightest hope—and now they’re gone. I don’t know what’s going to happen to us, Sam. Some of the Bajorans…as far as they’re concerned, we’re just ‘slope-necked freaks with scales instead of flesh and blood like real people.’” Lavelle had little doubt, from the bitterness in Mendral’s voice, that the helmsman was quoting something that had been spoken right to his face—maybe even aimed right at him. “I think someday, they’re going to tire of the Occupation. They’re going to realize they can conquer our people but they can’t destroy our faith…and when that day comes, they’re going to kill us all.” “I don’t know what to say, Hirhul…” Sam mumbled. “I had no idea about the Dukats. If I had…” What a terrifying time it must’ve been for the ancient Israelites, he thought. There they were under the thumb of Earth’s strongest empire, with no idea if they’d ever be free. That’s what the Advent really was. That's what's meant by the hopes and fears of all the years, that's the kind of world where the Nativity unfolded... “It’s all right,” Mendral suddenly declared. “You didn’t know. Don’t regret it. You couldn’t have…news out of Bajoran-occupied areas is spotty at best. It took months even for me to find out. You can’t beat yourself up over something you had no way to know.” The Cardassian helmsman paused, deep in contemplation. Sam held his own silence as Mendral’s eyes stared out over distances untold. Finally, he straightened slightly. “Maybe…maybe,” Mendral mused, “that’s why it had to be you.” “To do what?” “To remind me to have hope. I believe. And as long as I have that…there is hope. There has to be.” I never really understood the meaning of Christmas until now. I mean, I knew the history just like any other kid raised in a traditionalist family—how the holiday is preceded by four Sundays of Advent, which represents the waiting for both First and Second Coming…but it never really sank in just what that meant until now. And of all the people to teach me…it had to be Hirhul Mendral, a man who professes a faith from a world so far from my own. But maybe that’s exactly what it took—eyes capable of seeing the meaning without all the baggage that comes with it back home. There’s no doubt. Hirhul gets it. And now, through him…so do I.