[LEFT]Author's note: This story contains mild spoilers for the premise of The Thirteenth Order. Further inspiration is owed to the Coldplay song, "Spies." [/LEFT] Star Trek: Sigils and Unions “Immersion” Cardassian Guard Vigilance Inquisitorium—Engineering Campus Keshat Akleen, Cardassia Prime Union Year 483 [Federation Year 2353] The water slid around the diminutive figure sitting on the lake floor under the shadow of the fishing pier. Only the bubbles rising from her underwater breather might give any indication to a surface observer that she was there—that is, if they bothered to look directly under the pier. To the transponder all students at the Cardassian Guard’s main training campus had implanted immediately upon arrival and removed only upon graduation, there was little difference except at close range between standing on the dock and sitting just over three meters under it. Beneath the surface, everything, including the grey of her skin, took on the bluish cast of the water. The scientific mind of Ragoç Zejil Rebek understood this perfectly well: the sky of Cardassia Prime might tend towards reddish hues, but water did particularly well at absorbing the red part of the electromagnetic spectrum thanks, oddly enough, to molecular vibrations that just happened to be within range of the Cardassian eye in a way that even deuterium ‘water’ could never manage. This meant that the further one got under the surface, the more everything shifted towards the blue. She reflected upon that explanation with equanimity and reverence—here, transitioning into engineering and scientific studies after a stint as a sniper on the Federation front, she was privileged to gaze directly into the deepest known mechanisms used in the creation of the universe. The creation of the universe—the Shaping. Even to suggest the possibility was a crime. To be caught in meditation and prayer…far worse. And to those caught actively propagating such opinions went the most humiliating and public demise one could imagine. They strip the significance from the universe so that in the people’s minds, they’re the only ‘living’ thing left standing, Rebek thought. If this can be called living. None of this was how it ought to be. For Rebek, the breather in her mouth offered security in more ways than one. Even alone, she should have been at liberty to vocalize her prayers if she were so moved. But just like it had been for generations, all she had was silent meditation in the most desperate of places. She should have prayed in the company of believers. Maybe she would have had a recitation mask to symbolize the drawing-in of Oralius’ spirit. She should have had the Hebitian Records before her instead of ‘reading’ it through the memory of her mother’s recitations. She should have heard about her faith from birth, instead of having it withheld until her parents hoped that Zejil was old enough to hear and believe, but young enough that they hadn’t yet taught her the ‘value’ of denouncing her own family. For if caught, she would be considered a traitor to the Union…this in spite of the fact that they weren’t traitors to Cardassia, which the Rebeks still served faithfully even if their leaders did not. Reluctantly, she rejected the bitterness. She didn’t have time for that now…this time belonged to Oralius. And it was limited. She closed her eyes and reached out with her bioelectric sense as she readied herself for the Invocation. Underwater the sixth Cardassian sense hummed with remnants of the reach and intensity the early, river-dwelling ancestors of Cardassia’s therapsids had known. Life buzzed around her…and it didn’t matter that she understood what she sensed and why it was so intense here. Knowing the timelines and the reasons and the mechanisms did not tarnish the sanctity of the design, for that it still was. To understand, to adore, to give thanks… Predator near! Rebek’s eyes flew open, ridges went wide. Fear escaped the confines of her heart, played out on her face: damning evidence. She just barely resisted the impulse to spit the breather as the shock shot down her spine and neck ridges: for too right the prehistoric instinct was. Pale scales…great, round ridges…eyes like the water— He stared—he comprehended. How easily broken was the lineage of believers. About time! exulted the twenty-two year old final-year deghilzin at the Inquisitorium as he flew down the dock. His ‘rank,’ such as it was, spoke of a tiny stone piece—a tessella, in terhăn terminology, meaningless on its own, but capable of serving as part of the strong, finished mosaic of Cardassia. The Guard inquisitors took great pains to make sure the deghi’ilzin understood their subordinate status, dictating every moment of their lives until their final year where…if they performed sufficiently…they earned one hour of leisure time to themselves, chosen from a list of acceptable activities. And finally, it was his turn. Deghilzin Berat leaped off the end of the dock—tucked his legs and grabbed them close to his body—and then—ke-prăç! Water thundered around him and pulled him in. He surfaced for a second and laughed, childlike, at the concentric rings still echoing from his point of entry and the tickling of the water as it skittered along the outsides of his eye ridges. Maybe his community-pool, splash-maximizing Srivec’piyrdbre—‘the Divebomber’—wasn’t the form the Guard would have preferred, and he would be a good deghilzin and practice a stealthier, more appropriate diving form…eventually. But he just had to do it. Right now, though…he felt like pushing his body in a different way. As he kicked at the water, he pulled on a set of goggles, which nestled just on the insides of his eye ridges. Then he drew in a deep breath, and pushed himself under. The world…transformed here. Colors changed and he swam, a creature revisiting the home to which his forbears had once belonged and which he could no longer quite possess. It was a feeling of age, of constancy—and something else…he couldn’t put a word to it. Tradition? That wasn’t quite it. It was as though reality had morphed its nature in some way he was helpless to describe. A shadow shifted overhead. A cloud? No—not this time of year…the dock. And he felt something—electric, alive, too big for a fish or even a lake-ray… She sat cross-legged on the lakebed in full diving gear, eyes closed, heedless of her environment in any way that meant anything…small and serene—beautiful, but above his station, for she seemed to possess at least a few more years than he did… This impression lasted for less than a second. There was nothing overt here, no words, no gestures, just silence and repose, head bowed as if to an invisible superior officer...but here, in isolation, this was no ordinary biofeedback meditation or martial discipline. Primitive ritualistic behavior. That was how their textbooks and inquisitors described it—the rituals of the Bajorans, and the fantasies of those few Cardassians who still clung to the ancient superstitions whose purveyors would have destroyed Cardassia at the start of the Cataclysm, if not for the brave revolutionaries led by Tret Akleen. This was an Oralian—a traitor—right in front of him. Even in hiding they were traitors, all of them—heretics against the state and all that Cardassia stood for. He didn’t even have to confront her. All he had to do was go to one of his Inquisitors, the Inquisitor would call in the Obsidian Order, he would give them the time and the place, and they would determine whose transponder had been active in the area at the time. There were only two of them…it wouldn’t be hard. He would do his duty, and it would be quite the auspicious beginning to the career of a young deghilzin, soon to assume the rank of ragoç. His family would be so proud, that their son served the Union thus… Her eyes were open now—terrified…hurt. Resolute. Look at me now: I am going to die. He had seen the faces of the condemned on the trial broadcasts with every conceivable emotion on their faces—some in futile defiance, some in hollow defeat, and every shade in between. He knew classmates who had actually watched a trial in person, from the observation loft. As a child he had spied the defeated subject of an arrest once, from a distance, before his parents whisked him away. But he had never actually seen one of the guilty up close and looked into their living eyes. No one had ever before looked at Tayben Berat in fear. He broke away, rose to the surface, and sucked in air. He pushed off against one of the pylons of the dock and kicked hard, as though the movement away might kick his brain into gear and force a decision. He couldn’t hear over the sound of each stroke what might be happening behind him. Burn it all—this conundrum was unbecoming of the officer of the Cardassian Guard he was soon to be! No one had ever said doing his duty was easy—there was a reason people spoke of sacrifice: sometimes you felt for, even loved those who had erred too gravely for pardon, but you accepted the pain and did what was required of you. If anyone figured out what this woman was doing here, if anyone reviewed the transponder records, if anyone realized he should have seen, then if he failed to report her in a timely manner, he too would be deemed a traitor. What right had he to withhold crucial information for himself? His stomach heaved—he pulled himself up onto the opposite dock just in time as the cramps doubled him over. She had done nothing to him. What had she done to anyone? He couldn’t. He couldn’t. Deghilzin Berat shook with chill and dread. This wasn’t supposed to happen. This wasn’t a soldier’s response to naked sedition—what was it? He had to stay here as long as he was scheduled to; that was the only way they’d believe he never saw anything. He had to forget…but his eidetic memory wouldn’t let him. Might of Cardassia—have I just signed my own denunciation? A day passed. Then a week, then another, and a month. The term ended, family week came, and his parents, brothers, and grandparents conducted an experiment in just how many Berats could squeeze into a tiny barracks room during their daily visits, with more and more arriving every day. After family week came and went without an Obsidian Order agent bursting into the room to demand their surrender—his for covering for an Oralian, and his family’s for raising a son who would—Tayben Berat finally breathed an inward sigh of relief. It was over. Then the new term began and he went to his first class—Theoretical Physics, Second Term. He looked up at the front row, where the highest-ranking members of the class sat, and… Oh, no—it’s her! She wore the full armor of a commissioned officer of the Guard, her cuirass naming her a ragoç in continuing education. This meant she would graduate as a full riyăk, whereas Deghilzin Berat would assume the rank she would soon leave. At least, he hoped he’d last that long. Berat just barely suppressed a gasp…and not just at the fact that the Oralian woman actually served the Guard as a career officer, not just a conscriptee. She had to have chosen that. It made no sense—they hated the Union and all it stood for, they had nearly driven Cardassia to destruction in their decadent ways, blinding them to the hard necessities… This has got to be someone’s idea of a sick joke! Either that or the Obsidian Order was giving him a final chance. But they don’t give second chances, he reminded himself. That is, unless they’re trying to take down someone else along with me. He was a good Cardassian, after all—he wouldn’t have even needed a conservator to confess what he’d done, the way it had eaten at him for the rest of the last term. But who else could they possibly take down with him? He hadn’t said a word, hadn’t committed any more even questionable acts. If they knew that much, they would have to know it was pointless to draw it out any further. He had to assume that…he couldn’t let it tear him apart, not this close to graduation. He couldn’t make any contact or give any sign. Neither of us dare. He shook his head. He didn’t like what that phrasing implied. Now, Berat walked through the Inquisitorium’s engineering library. His coursework came on isolinear rods rather than by download, as did all material given to unproven deghi’ilzin—the better to control information access. As walked past the study cubicles towards the rack the search console had indicated, something cracked across the desk next to him like the snap of plasma in a faulty conduit, an impression furthered by the irritated flare of a bioelectric field nearby. “Everything all right?” Berat asked. She’d slammed her stylus down, her other fist clenched in frustration. For the first instant she stared at her padd, a strange expression on her face…like a profound meditation disrupted. It registered then—she wore full armor, not the black and grey deghilzin’s jacket with neither rank nor station— Hăcet! he raged to himself—chaos! He’d spoken without thinking before his eyes even fixed on the source, and in a manner that invited a response—there was no evading it now. Ragoç Rebek swiveled around in her chair—and froze. She’d seen this deghilzin sitting in Theoretical Physics a few rows back from him, but he never looked up—at least, not when she was around. Those great, bright eyes stared at her like the personification of Fate, the depth of the blue bizarrely unchanged in the light of the open air. She had suspected, but by those striking irises, she knew. The Obsidian Order had been toying with her this entire time…and he must have been working for them. This was the endgame. Her stomach sank; she summoned every bit of her discipline as an officer of the Cardassian Guard to keep her face unperturbed. So young—yet he held her life in his hands. Then why did those eyes blink as though startled, the rest of his body seemingly paralyzed? Be calm, she schooled herself. Maybe this wasn’t what it seemed. Play this out…see where it goes. “Yes, Deghilzin,” she stated. “I am not in need of assistance…I release you.” She could have dismissed him far more bluntly and been well within standard protocol, but dared not--neither ally nor enemy could be safely treated thus. The youthful man’s lip quirked up ever so slightly as though amused in spite of himself—his eyes were no longer on her, but on her padd, taking in the tangled mess of equations she’d succeeded in creating over the past ten minutes. Irritation flushed hot through her neck ridges. His eyes darted off to the side, searching for an escape route and finding none. “Ragoç…” He swallowed. “Permission to speak.” Rebek inclined her head just barely. “I realize that my position is nothing compared to yours. I also realize that we are…of different specialties.” He spoke those words with a strange caution, something more than mere deference. Factually they were true; Rebek’s concentration was applied engineering—Berat, his name was, focused on the theoretical, and he had consistently outperformed her in this most frustrating of classes. “But I mean no challenge to you by offering assistance. That said, if you would rather not have it, I will obey.” His eyes pierced into hers just like they had under the lake…except this time, he seemed desperate for her to understand something. That last part had been nothing but pure ritual. But the rest… “Perhaps,” she allowed, her heart drumming a furious cadence in the center of her chest, “if I find I can’t resolve this myself, I will take you up on that. You are Berat, correct?” He nodded as though he had run out of words. “I should be fine for now, though.” Satisfied—relieved, Berat bowed and excused himself with a barely-audible mumble that might been endearing under better circumstances. Only after he’d been gone for an hour did it hit Rebek what Berat had meant. The second part had been simple enough: I mean no challenge. In other words, I am no threat to you. The first part...eventually she’d realized it was his way of telling her that he did not share her beliefs. Yet he had not…and for whatever reason, would not, denounce her. Merciful Oralius, she prayed, open eyes scouring the equations once more. I don’t know what you did—but I give thanks to you for sparing my life.