|Title:||Beyond Gloomy Chaos|
|Series/Codes||DS9 (post-WYLB) with some TNG; Q|
|Summary||Following Sisko's entry into the Celestial Temple in "What You Leave Behind," the Q find themselves facing a dilemma that could result in interplanetary catastrophe. Can Picard, Kira and Data retrieve the mysterious Book of the Resurrection before all hell breaks loose on Cardassia?|
ARCHIVING/ASC AWARDS NOTE: This story may be added to the ASC Archive. Interested individuals may likewise save, share and/or print this as they wish, provided all headers remain intact. Do NOT include this story in ANY list connected with the ASC Awards. It is NOT to be made eligible for voting or comment.
DISCLAIMER: Paramount owns the Star Trek universe and all it contains. This story is a work of fan fiction, and as such is not intended to infringe on any copyrights. Portions of this story originally appeared in draft format on ASC under the title "Perein Chaeos Zopheroio" (which is simply "Beyond Gloomy Chaos" in Greek) in late 1999.
The entire work was published as a novella (with a magnificent cover illustration by Lauren Francis--go to http://weekelpie.com/trek/bgc.htm to see it) by Orion Press in October 2000.
AUTHOR'S NOTES: At the time I am posting this, I no longer have Internet access. I took a leave of absence from ASC about a year ago that evolved into a complete LOA from the 'Net so that I might better dedicate myself to other interests. I would not even be here now, except for two rather unfortunate circumstances: 1. Orion Press closed its non-TOS franchises less than 6 months after the publication of "Beyond Gloomy Chaos"; and 2. the original masters were lost, which means I couldn't pass them on to another 'zine publisher. Furthermore, before my departure several people had expressed an interest in reading "Beyond" but were unable or unwilling to fork out the dough for a 'zine. So, this is for them, and for all those people who were so supportive of me and my literary aspirations during my time here.
Please do not e-mail any comments to me, because I won't get them. My mother was gracious enough to allow me to use her 'Net account to post this story while I was in town, and once I'm done I'll be hitting the road for the 3-hour drive back home. It's not that I wouldn't welcome the comments or appreciate the time and effort in providing them, but I'd hate for anyone to think a lack of response from me was a deliberate act of discourtesy. So, instead, I hope you'll simply read this story, enjoy it, and encourage others to read it.
Thank you -
|Chapter One||Chapter Eleven|
|Chapter Two||Chapter Twelve|
|Chapter Three||Chapter Thirteen|
|Chapter Four||Chapter Fourteen|
|Chapter Five||Chapter Fifteen|
|Chapter Six||Chapter Sixteen|
|Chapter Seven||Chapter Seventeen|
"In truth at first Chaos came to be, but next wide-bosomed Earth, the ever-sure foundation of all the deathless ones who hold the peaks of snowy Olympus, and dim Tartarus in the depth of the wide-pathed Earth, and Eros, fairest among the deathless gods....And Earth first bore starry Heaven, equal to herself, to cover her on every side, and to be an ever-sure abiding-place for the blessed gods."
In the beginning, there was Chaos, and Chaos was with the Continuum, and Chaos was the Continuum.
Shouts of anger and outrage, some high-pitched, some low, rang across the boundless gathering space, filling the void with portents of foreboding and expectance as storm clouds gathered on the galactic horizon. "Blasphemy!" one of the assembly bellowed with the fury of a supernova. From across the room came a loud cry of, "Anarchy!" followed by echoes of "Treachery!" and "Tyranny!" Underlying them all, like the incessant knocking of the cosmic metronome, came the steady pounding of a gavel as a solitary voice, a voice belonging to the one they all knew as their Moderator, called for order and reason.
In the midst of all this tumult stood Chaos personified, the glittering in his dark eyes belying his serious expression. Even as he observed his brothers and sisters arguing amongst themselves unto the brink of violence, he knew he could command their immediate and undivided attention with the snap of a finger. Nevertheless, he could well have done without their attention.
Their collective inattention to the affairs of the galaxy and all its various mortal and sentient species had led to the convening of this very meeting, after all. Had his brothers and sisters concentrated on maintaining the preordained order, as they had been obliged to do since time immemorial, rather than waste their energies on petty, internal affairs, then he might not have been compelled to step forward and demand their collective attention. He sighed at the irony: out of Chaos, comes Order.
From somewhere within the assembled ranks a woman stood and approached him, her haughty demeanor marred by the crease of worry across her high, sloping brow. "See what you've done, Q?" she asked, arching her sculpted eyebrows at him.
At the sight of his mate, Q tuned out the cacophony of his brothers and sisters. "Don't blame me, Q," he objected, pursing his lips in a vague semblance of contrition. "I'm not the one who started this mess in the first place."
His excuse was pitiful, and she knew it. "For once."
"At least I'm trying to do something about it," he sulked.
Q crossed her arms over her chest, allowing her long, tapered fingers to drum against the inner crooks of her elbows. "No you're not."
"I am too!"
"No, you're proposing we let that pathetic, underdeveloped, scrawny excuse for a sentient being resolve our dilemma. That you think we should ask for help from a Human, of all things, is humiliating enough, but him?" She sighed. "Well, at least you didn't suggest Janeway. The last thing we need is her pointy little nose poking around in our business again."
Q grinned and nudged her rib cage with his elbow. "My dear, I do believe you're still jealous."
"Hmph," was the only reply he would have the satisfaction of hearing, but for the moment it was enough.
"What do you have to say for yourself, Q?" boomed the voice of the Moderator, his stentorian tones rolling across the gathering place like a massive sonic shock wave. In the wake of his question, silence descended on the unruly assembly with the finality of death. All eyes focused on their wayward, rebellious brother.
Q pressed his palm against his chest. "Me? Why am I to take the blame? I didn't start this!" He looked helplessly at his mate, who shrugged her shoulders in unsympathetic reply.
"No, but you're determined to finish it!" accused one of the throng, re-igniting the agitation that had smoldered since the call to order. Once again, insults rained down on Q like a meteor shower. "Just like you've tried to finish the Continuum for millennia!"
"You're going to ruin us!" another voice cried.
"If it weren't for your meddling in mortal affairs, we wouldn't even be in this mess!" yet another charged.
Q took a few steps toward his accusers, his eyes wide with frustrated innocence. "My meddling? I had nothing to do with it!"
His mate tapped him on the shoulder and leaned close. "In case you forgot, you are the one who first promoted the idea of making Qs out of mortals," she whispered.
"Once," he snapped. "I tried it once. You saw what a complete failure that was." He turned his back to her and muttered, "I should never have put my faith in that overgrown, hairy Boy Scout. I should have gone for the Klingon. He wouldn't have let omnipotence go to his head, it would've been dishonorable. Or maybe that android Picard's so fond of. His ethical programming would've kept him in line."
Q grasped his elbow and spun him back toward her. "Maybe it was a mistake. You still set a dangerous precedent by acting without considering the consequences. Didn't it occur to you that someone might try to follow up on your experiment?"
At the slump in his shoulders, she shook her head. "You never learn, do you? You didn't learn from your experiment with the Borg, you didn't learn from the disaster with Guinan, you didn't learn from I-don't-know-what-you-were-thinking with Janeway...you just never learn, do you? Now, thanks to you and your foolish experiment with Riker, the P have invited a mortal-a Human-to join our company."
"Now, wait a minute," Q insisted, shaking his finger at his mate, determined to make her understand that he was not in any way at fault. "He hasn't entered the Continuum. He's in the wormhole. That's not the same thing. And I'm not the one who gave the wormhole to the P to begin with-that was a decision made by the entire Continuum despite my objections!"
She brought up her hands, temporarily conceding his point. "All right, I owe you that much-you did argue that giving the wormhole to the P would prove disastrous, and you've been proven right." As Q's expression brightened, however, she planted her hand against his chest. "This is no time to gloat over one small victory, Q. You're still the one-the only one-who thinks the only way to get that Human out of our ranks is to rely on another Human for help. If giving the wormhole to the P was a mistake, placing our fate in the hands of that self-important hairless ape with the tea fetish is an even bigger mistake."
Q shrugged. "Well, Jean-Luc is very good at that sort of thing. He relishes the idea of playing the hero, especially if it means he gets to teach me a lesson or two about moral consequences. He's perfect for the job!"
Before his mate could agree or disagree, the crowd erupted in rancorous debate yet again. "Those Humans are a dangerous, unpredictable race," one of them shouted. "No telling what they might try!"
Q paced back and forth, clenching and unclenching his hands in irritation. "And the P aren't dangerous? They're the ones trying to dilute our ranks!"
His accuser guffawed. "This from the Q who tried to breed with a Human?"
"Another one of your harebrained schemes the P emulated," another reminded them all. "Can you imagine what they might have done if Janeway had actually agreed?"
"So the dilution isn't quite as bad as it could have been-at least Sisko is only half-Human."
"This isn't getting us anywhere," his mate intervened, addressing her remarks as much to the gathering as to Q. "The truth is, we're all to blame, and we all have to take responsibility."
"Do you have a solution?" the Moderator asked.
"I don't, but Q does."
"His solution involves a Human!" Q's most vocal opponent objected yet again.
Q's mate glared at him. "So does our problem. I don't see any of you coming up with a better alternative."
"We already know the Humans will help us, given the right incentive," Q reminded his brothers and sisters.
"The right incentive?" one cried.
"All the more reason not to do it again!" another argued. "Before long, they'll catch on to our weaknesses."
"Don't be a fool," Q said. "The Humans have known about our weaknesses for a long time. Do you honestly think they believe we're omnipotent? Nobody's fallen for that ruse since the Age of Enlightenment! In their eyes, we're as relevant as hieroglyphics."
"Should we just sit by and watch the P grow in power and influence?" his mate asked the assembly. "How much longer before they start meddling in Vulcan affairs, or completely eradicate the Cardassians from existence, or abandon the wormhole permanently and move freely about the galaxy? If we wait another million years, as you would have us do, then we'll be too weak to do anything. We've got to act now."
"Your eloquence is as dazzling as your beauty," Q gushed, blowing her a kiss.
"Quiet, Q," she hissed, then turned back to the gathering. "We've all known for a very long time what a mistake we made in giving the P the wormhole, but none of us have stepped forward and offered to do something about it." She glared at her brothers and sisters as they sat in ashamed silence.
"Their crimes against the galactic order, against two corporeal races, against us, have gone unpunished for too long. Someone has got to stop them, and that someone is Q." At the murmur of protest, she raised her hand, and silence resumed. "Listen to him. His plan is dangerous, I agree. However, it's the only plan we have."
Back To Top
Every April, the air in Provence becomes a veritable effluvium of aromas, with the intermingling of the clean newness of spring lambs, the floral essence of lavender and thyme and heather and rosemary, and the mustiness of freshly-plowed soil, all sharply underwritten with the exotic scents wafting in on a northerly Mediterranean breeze. These smells could not be found in the fathomless vacuum of space, or in the pristine sterility of the corridors and offices at Starfleet Command; these smells testified to the perseverance of humanity, of mortality, of vitality.
Picard paused in pruning the muscat arbor and closed his eyes, opening his mind to the welcome assault on his olfactory sense. Tempted, he opened his mouth and imagined he could taste the roast lamb, braised in thyme and rosemary, or the as-yet unsowed yams he would grow this summer, or the soon-to-be fried cuttlefish not yet pulled from the sea, or the barrel of Noveau Picard Blanc aging unhurriedly in his cellar.
His stomach growled in protest. Picard opened his eyes just in time to see the first wisps of smoke curling from the chimney resting atop the cottage at the bottom of the hillside. He chuckled, pleased with himself and with his housekeeper's prescience. Life was very good to him.
His subconscious sensed the newcomer's presence long before his optical nerve acknowledged the flash of light, and he groaned inwardly. So much for life's bounty.
"Bonjour, mon capitain."
"Qu'est-ce que vous voulez?" Picard asked, returning his attention to the gnarled vine with its tender green shoots.
The gentle tut-tutting did not disturb Picard from his work, nor did he look up when a pair of pruning shears appeared magically and the interloper took a wayward tendril between his long, slender fingers and snipped it off. "Tu me vouvoies?" he asked, sounding hurt. "Mon ami, c'etait longtemps."
Picard tried to contain his sigh. This would not be a short or uncomplicated visit. "Pas assez de longtemps," he muttered, then turned on his unwelcome guest and jabbed the pruning shears in his direction. "Q, what do you want?"
Undaunted by the threat, Q beamed. "Jean-Luc! And here I thought you didn't remember me." He extended his arms, prepared to embrace Picard, but Picard ducked under the arbor to escape. When he straightened again, Q had rematerialized beside him and was frowning at him. "What's the matter, Jean-Luc, can't spare a little hospitality for an old friend?"
"For an old friend, yes," Picard acknowledged, "but not for you."
Dropping all pretense at congeniality, Q returned Picard's hard stare. Only then did Picard notice the supposedly immortal, omnipotent entity who had hounded, harassed and bedeviled him ever since he first took command of the Enterprise, over fifteen years ago, appeared...older. Picard would almost say Q looked haggard and careworn, but such notions seemed foolish. Q's appearance must have been another one of his childish attempts to mock and ridicule Human mortality; how else could Picard explain the deep lines in his face, the gray streaks in his thinning hair, or the slump in his shoulders?
Self-consciously, Picard straightened and squared his own shoulders, steeling himself for whatever nonsense Q had up his omnipotent sleeve. "What brings you here, Q?" he asked again, determined to keep his tone even.
"Not even a 'How have you been, Q,' or a 'My, I sure have missed you, Q'?" Q asked, his voice uncharacteristically plaintive. "You still haven't forgiven me for that Borg incident, have you?"
Picard sighed. "All right. If it's the only way to get you to leave sooner: how have you been?"
"Hurrah!" Q crowed, throwing his hands up with glee. "Jean-Luc, I thought you'd never ask." He draped an arm around Picard's shoulders. "The truth, mon ami, is that my life has taken a turn for the worse. The situation is grim indeed." His eyes grew wide. "The galaxy itself could be at stake!"
"Really?" Picard asked, at once curious and disbelieving. "Why don't you just snap your fingers and fix everything?"
"Oh, believe me, I would if I could. Unfortunately, I can't. Rules are rules, you know, Jean-Luc, even if they are stupid rules." He cast his eyes upward, and for a moment Picard thought he looked nervous. "Which is why I'm here, actually."
"Rules, Jean-Luc, always rules. My hands are tied, there's nothing I can do to stop this crisis." Q leaned forward and lowered his voice. "You see, mon ami, I'm here because I need your help."
"Thank you, Margaret, that will be all for now," Picard said to his housekeeper, taking the steaming kettle from her. The old woman peered nervously at Q out of the corner of her eye, but as Picard remained silent, waiting for her to leave, she finally nodded in acquiescence and shuffled off. "I'll call if I need you," he called after her, reassuring himself as much as her.
As soon as the door had closed behind her, Picard turned to Q. "Tea--?"
"--Earl Grey, hot?" Q finished for him. "Don't mind if I do." Before Picard could tip the kettle, Q had already filled both cups to the rim.
Restraining his urge to make a rude remark, Picard placed the kettle on a warming plate and sat opposite Q, who was amusing himself by waving his finger above his tea, causing the steam to curl upward like ivy climbing a tree trunk. Picard took several sips of his tea-perfectly flavored, he noticed-while Q continued his miniscule pas de deux, then placed his cup down and folded his hands before him. "All right, Q," he said, pausing until his guest looked up at him, "just what the devil is going on here?"
Q leaned back in his seat and studied Picard, his fingers steepled neatly beneath his chin. Then, smiling, he said, "Ah, mon ami, if you only knew just how close to the truth you already are. The devil, indeed. The devil, my friend, is what's brought me here."
"Care to explain?" Picard prodded. As much as he considered Q's occasional intrusions into his life annoying, there was no question the entity engaged and challenged him as no other could.
"Hm," Q thought aloud, his fingers pressed against his lips. "How shall I put it? In Human terms, Jean-Luc, the Continuum has been infected. A nasty virus, a plague, if you will, has entered our midst and threatens to destroy us all."
"A plague has infected the Continuum?" Picard repeated, his mind exploring the numerous implications of Q's circumspect revelation. "I thought you were omniscient, bound neither by time nor space. Shouldn't you have seen this plague coming, and taken steps to prevent its incursion? For that matter, why didn't you use your oft-professed omnipotence to get rid of it?" He leaned forward, challenging Q. "What does your...disease...have to do with me?"
Q waved his hand in the air. "We might have detected the oncoming danger in time, had we been paying attention, except we were a little distracted at the time."
"By what?" Picard wanted to know.
Q hemmed and hawed, then finally admitted, "A civil war."
Picard's eyebrows shot up. "A civil war? I thought such trivialities were beneath the Q."
"They might have been, once," Q harrumphed. "Times change, people change, immortal entities change. You of all people should know that change is inevitable. Even the Q are subject to change over the course of time."
Picard's eyes narrowed. Q was notorious for his ambiguity, and as a result Picard had learned to listen for what Q was not saying in order to understand his underlying motivations. This time, however, for all his opaqueness, Q was being uncharacteristically blunt. On the other hand, he was also being even more defensive than usual, a sure sign that, whatever trouble he might be in, he was somehow responsible for creating it. The way he idly played with the corner of his napkin was proof enough of his culpability.
"You...started this war, didn't you, Q?" He knew by instinct he would never get a straight answer to that question, and pressed on. "I presume, by your presence here, that the war is over. Why, then, haven't you managed to get rid of the disease?"
Q sighed. "Two reasons. First, it was some of our own-not me, so you can block that assumption from your mind right now-who brought the plague into our midst." He paused and chewed his lower lip.
"And the second?"
Q sighed again, then mumbled, "And the second is that the disease is a Human. A Starfleet officer, in fact. Someone you know. Or knew, rather." He looked up at Picard from beneath lowered lashes.
Despite the vast, cosmos-rattling ramifications of Q's revelation, Picard's first thought was to wonder who among his fellow officers had been allowed to join the Continuum. He wondered why he had not been so honored. As much as he hated to admit it to himself, he envied his unknown comrade-in-arms.
"I like you better just the way you are, Jean-Luc," Q said softly. Picard started, unaware he had uttered his inner thoughts, and embarrassed if he had. "You didn't, and you have no reason to be," Q continued, causing Picard further embarrassment. "It's a natural and perfectly understandable wish, to want to be part of a race as advanced as ours."
"Q, stop it!" He took several deep breaths, trying to empty his mind of those distracting thoughts and focus on the crisis at hand. He wondered if the anxiety and urgency he felt was being projected on to him by Q.
"My apologies, mon ami. Your mind is just such a fascinating, unexplored territory that sometimes I can't help myself. Oh, and no, those are your own, natural, perfectly understandable feelings. This is a time of great anxiety for us all."
Wondering if he might be taking his life into his hands, Picard stretched forward and rested his hand over Q's. "Tell me," he ordered gently.
Q sat silently for a moment, studying the table. Then he took a deep breath, withdrew his hands from beneath Picard's, and sat back, crossing his arms over his chest. "You must understand, mon ami, that I wouldn't be coming to you like this if I had any other choice. If it were up to me, believe me, I would restore everything to its natural and proper order in the blink of an eye."
"But you can't."
Q shook his head. "Protocol forbids my intervention." He gave Picard a lopsided grin. "You see, we have our own version of the Prime Directive in the Continuum. The Q can't interfere in the affairs of other immortal, omnipotent species, and we can't take steps to rewrite over a million years of recorded history."
Picard could not contain his gasp. "Are you suggesting that I can?" he at last managed to say.
Q snorted. "Not without my help."
"I don't understand."
"You shouldn't. Not yet, at any rate. Given time, however, even a being of limited intelligence such as yourself should be able to put two and two together and come up with five."
Picard frowned at the thinly-veiled insult, but gave Q the benefit of the doubt and continued to listen. "As it happens, Jean-Luc, this situation is one that can be-that must be-resolved by a mortal, but you'll need my guidance." He leaned forward and spoke quietly but emphatically. "You'll need to go on a trip."
"A trip? What kind of trip? Where?"
Picard sat upright, the hackles on the back of his neck bristling with suspicion and alarm. "Cardassia? Why?"
"I know you haven't had the most pleasant experiences with the Cardassians," Q said with unfeigned sympathy, "but there's an important artifact buried deep beneath the surface you must find for me."
"You want me to lead an archaeological expedition? Why don't you ask Vash?"
Q grimaced. "The last thing I, or you, or anybody, needs is for this particular artifact to fall into the hands of Orion black marketeers. The Bajoran Vedek Assembly would be outraged, to say the least."
"The Vedek Assembly?" Picard was even more confused than before. "What do they have to do with anything?"
"Nothing, if we're lucky," Q said, "and I intend to be very lucky. If they get wind of what you're up to, however --"
"Why should they care?"
Q mumbled something under his breath.
"What was that? I didn't hear you."
"I said, it's an ancient Bajoran artifact you need to find. Older than any artifact found to date. Older even than the ruins of B'hala. Older than Bajoran civilization itself."
Picard needed time to think. He took a sip of his tea, then grimaced to find it already cold. Unsettled, he rose and crossed to the bookshelf against the opposite wall, his gaze wandering idly over the titles. Moby Dick. Horatio Hornblower. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Robinson Crusoe. Gulliver's Travels. The Odyssey. He stopped at the last and retrieved it, his fingers running lovingly along the edges of the gilt, dog-eared pages. How many times had he imagined himself a modern-day Odysseus, condemned by a capricious deity to wander across the known universe, each day's journey pushing him that much farther from home? Ten years at war in a foreign land, followed by ten years of aimless wandering, came to twenty years of homesickness. Picard knew the feeling well.
Nevertheless, he knew he would be a fool to reject Q's plea for help. He knew, without Q's having said so, that Q would not have dared ask unless he were truly desperate. Picard also knew that the mysterious connection between a Bajoran artifact, Cardassian archaeology, and the 'disease' infecting the Continuum posed an irresistible challenge. Despite his instinctive reluctance to go to Cardassia, despite the vague possibility of inciting the fury of the Vedek Assembly, despite the charm of April in Provence, Picard knew he would not-could not-say no.
He returned the book to its proper place and turned back to Q. "I want Data to accompany me," he said.
"Done." Q seemed to have expected the request. "There will be others joining you down the road, but I can't tell you who yet. The less you know now, the better. I'll tell you what you need to know only when you need to know it."
Picard smiled grimly at Q. "Why am I not surprised?"
Q rose and crossed to him. "Jean-Luc, I know you're having second thoughts. That's only natural. There'll be many more doubts to come. In the end, though, I promise, you won't regret this."
Picard sighed. "I only hope you're right."
Q laughed. "When have I ever led you astray?"
Back To Top
Picard took a deep breath as he mounted the steps to the station commander's office. The last time he had been to Deep Space Nine, his mission had been to transfer several officers to then-Commander Sisko's support staff. Then, the station was still in orbit around Bajor, a world just beginning to dig itself out from under decades of oppressive Cardassian rule; the wormhole to the Gamma Quadrant was still just a collection of random neutrino particles in the Denorios Belt; and Wolf 359 was still a recent memory. So much had changed.
"Captain, is there something wrong?"
Picard glanced at his companion and smiled inwardly at the perplexed frown wrinkling the ageless golden skin. "No, Data, nothing's wrong," he said. "I was just reminiscing about my last visit to DS9."
"Ah. I see." Picard thought he could almost see the arcing between Data's artificial synapses as he processed this new information and stored it for later reference. "Do you need more time to reminisce?"
"That's quite all right. Commander Kira is expecting us." He took the last two steps in a single bound and activated the signal announcing their presence. From within the office a crisp, female voice ordered the door to open and Picard and Data crossed the threshold.
Among the many changes to DS9 since Picard's last visit was the makeup of the station command staff. Once a Bajoran station under Starfleet command, DS9 was now run almost entirely by the Bajoran Militia, with only a few Starfleet personnel assisting in engineering and science. Heading the operation was Kira Nerys, who held parallel ranks in both the Bajoran Militia and Starfleet as a symbol of her challenging mission to preserve the often-fractious alliance between Bajor and the Federation. As Kira rose from behind her desk to greet her visitors, Picard noticed she wore the gray and red of Starfleet, no doubt a concession made in honor of her guests.
"Captain Picard, Commander Data, come in," she said, gesturing to the two seats before her desk.
"Colonel," Picard began, deliberately addressing her by her Bajoran rank, "there is no need for formality. Jean-Luc and Data will suffice."
"Really?" she asked, the slight jangling of her earring betraying her doubt and distrust.
"We are not here in an official capacity," Data replied before Picard could explain. "As you see, we are not in uniform."
"I noticed," Kira said, her gaze shifting back to Picard. "Why not?"
"I am aware of the recent tensions between Bajor and the Federation in regard to Cardassia," Picard began, keeping his voice smooth and even. "I understand Bajor's reticence to allow Federation observers inside Cardassian --" Her upraised hand stopped him.
"Bajor has no objection to the presence of Federation observers on Cardassia Prime," she retorted. "What we do not want is Starfleet overseeing our rescue and restoration efforts." Clasping her hands before her, she added, "Cardassia is Bajor's responsibility."
"I do not think Bajor can adequately support Cardassia," Data said simply but honestly. "Bajor is still recovering from the Occupation."
"Perhaps," Kira acknowledged with a tight, thin-lipped smile, "but the Federation has its own recovery to worry about."
Picard stopped Data before he could respond. "I assure you, Colonel, that Data and I are aware of Bajor's position on this matter, and that our intent is not to undermine that position or your efforts toward helping Cardassia recover in any way."
"Then what do you want?" she asked.
Glancing at Data before answering, Picard said, "We wish to undertake an expedition of sorts."
Kira's nose wrinkled. "An expedition? What kind of expedition? What are you looking for?"
"I can't say," Picard said. At her continued silence, he added, "I don't really know for sure."
"You don't really know for sure," Kira repeated. Leaning forward to retrieve a spherical object from the top of her desk, she asked, "You want me to give you permission to enter Cardassian space so you can undertake an expedition without knowing why or what it is you're after?" The object, balanced between the tips of her index fingers, seemed to hover in midair. "I'm sorry," Kira said, shaking her head, "but you'll have to be more specific than that."
"All I can say for sure is that I'm not looking for any thing at this point. My goal is...knowledge. Specifically, knowledge about ancient Cardassia, perhaps even older than the Hebitian era."
Kira tossed the object from hand to hand as she spoke. "Sounds like an archaeological expedition."
"It is --" Data said, before Picard again cut him off.
"It might be, eventually," Picard dissembled. "I won't know until I begin my search."
"Let me guess," Kira said, "you'll know what you're looking for once you find it."
Picard smiled grimly. "Something like that." At her rolled eyes, he added, "I would tell you more if I could, but I've already told you all I know."
"Captain, Commander," she began politely but firmly, "you must understand my predicament --"
Picard would never have imagined a matter-based being could move so quickly. By the time he blinked, there was no doubt in Picard's mind Kira had dropped the object she had been toying with and unholstered her phaser and aimed it at Q before the brilliant flash of light announcing his arrival had vanished. "Q," he warned.
"Hush, Jean-Luc, the good colonel-or do you prefer 'Commander'?" he asked the seething woman, "--already knows me."
Picard looked at Data first, then at Kira. "You do?" he asked, curious.
She nodded, never lowering her weapon or her guard. "He visited here once, about ten years ago. He was with a woman, a treasure-hunter of some sort." The snarl in her voice told Picard all he needed to know what Kira thought of Vash. "She'd better not be anywhere within twenty light years of this station," she threatened, "or you'll regret it."
Q snapped his fingers, returning Kira's phaser to its holster. "No need to worry. Vash and I have long since severed our connection. As it happens, I'm here because Jean-Luc is here."
Kira's gaze slowly shifted to Picard. "He is?" she asked. She looked back at Q. "Somebody'd better start explaining, and fast, 'cause no one's leaving this office until I have some answers." Picard clamped his hand over Q's forearm, forestalling the anticipated gesture. Giving them little more than a scowl, she went on, "I don't care who goes first, just so long as somebody starts talking."
Picard turned to Q. "You're the one who sent us here on this fool's errand," he said. "You're the one who knows why we're here."
"And why the lovely colonel has to join you on your mission to Cardassia," Q said.
"Excuse me?" Kira interrupted, echoing Picard's own thoughts.
Q sauntered over to her desk and leaned his hip against the edge, looming over her diminutive form. "Oh, yes, this mission of mercy cannot be accomplished-cannot even be attempted-without your help."
"Captain," Data said in the closest approximation of a whisper he could manage, "I do not recall your mentioning Colonel Kira's participation in this expedition."
"That's because I didn't know about it myself," Picard whispered back.
"Dear Nerys," Q was saying, not even acknowledging Picard's remark, "are you familiar with the Book of the Kosst Amojin?"
The sight of the blood draining from Kira's face alarmed Picard, and he took a quick step forward, prepared to come to her aid should she need it, but Q's upraised hand stopped him in mid-stride. After a moment, Kira licked her lips and nodded. "The Book of the Pagh-Wraiths."
Q mocked her growl with one of his own. "Ah, yes. The Book of the Pagh-Wraiths." He waggled his eyebrows at Picard.
"What about it?" Kira asked, the strain in her voice betraying her rising tension.
"Well, it was destroyed...except for the missing chapter, that is."
Kira's brow wrinkled even more as she stared at Q in confusion. "Missing chapter? What missing chapter?"
Q sighed and spoke to her as if he were speaking to a small child, "There was a coda, known as the Book of the Resurrection."
"I've never heard of a 'Book of the Resurrection'," she protested.
"You've never heard of it because it's been on Cardassia."
"On Cardassia --?" she wondered aloud. Then she nodded. "Of course, it must have been stolen during the --"
Q waggled a finger in front of her face. "Ah, ah, ah, Nerys," he warned. "Jumping to conclusions is a dangerous sport best left to professionals. Just because a purportedly Bajoran codex is on Cardassia does not mean it was taken as booty during the waning days of the Occupation."
"Then how else --" she insisted, struggling to rise, but Q's hand on her shoulder kept her seated.
"History between Bajor and Cardassia extends much further than your meager humanoid memory can grasp," he said. "For now, suffice it to say that the Book of the Resurrection is on Cardassia, where it has been for the past 500,000 years, because it is supposed to be there."
Picard could no longer hold his silence. "If it's supposed to be there, Q, then why do you want us to retrieve it?"
Q twisted to study Picard, contempt written across his face. "Who said anything about retrieving it, Jean-Luc?" he asked. "Stop thinking in such two-dimensional terms! I merely want you to find it."
"What are we to do with it once we have found it?" Data wanted to know.
"That, my golden friend, will be revealed to you at the appropriate time."
"Q," Picard growled in annoyance and frustration. Q merely raised an eyebrow at him.
"How will we know what we are looking for?"
"I think I can answer that question, Mister Data," Picard said. "We'll know it when we find it." He looked at Q. "Am I correct?"
Q beamed. "Quite so, mon ami! Quite so."
He raised his hand, about to make his grand exit, but Kira stopped him. "You didn't explain why you need me to go," she said. "Captain Picard and Commander Data seem quite capable of accomplishing this expedition on their own, provided I grant them permission to enter Cardassian space."
Q pointed at the PADD on her desk. "You've already done so," he said, and with a snap of his fingers the PADD appeared in Picard's hands. Picard confirmed the official-if unwillingly granted-imprimatur giving him and Data right-of-passage into Cardassian territory. "As for you, my dear," Q continued, "you're going because you have no choice in the matter, because I decided long ago you were the Bajoran chosen for this mission, because it is your destiny." Before Kira could open her mouth to reply or protest, Q was gone.
"No doubt," Data concluded to himself as much as to the two other people still in the room, "Q thinks Colonel Kira will be able to provide a valuable service in the course of this mission."
"No doubt," Kira grumbled. "Well, one thing's for sure," she continued, rising, "if he's involved, I'm not about to let you two go unescorted to Cardassia, destiny or no destiny."
Quark watched Kira drag herself into his bar and ease on to a stool. Before he could even pour her a glass of spring wine, her usual post-shift drink, she said, "I need something stronger today. Something with a little kick to it."
"Problems upstairs, Colonel?" he asked, sidling closer and waiting for her affirmation to continue. "I know there are a couple of Starfleet officers visiting the station, and not just your ordinary run-of-the-mill Starfleet officers, either."
Resting her chin in one hand, she asked, "Oh, yeah, Quark? And what else do you know?"
He grinned in triumph and started looking through the array of bottles before him as he considered what would give the lovely colonel just the right 'kick.' Selecting a short, squat decanter of amber liquid, he said, "Oh, just that the former captain of the infamous USS Enterprise and his former operations officer, the only android in Starfleet, are anxious to get to Cardassia."
Kira rolled her eyes. "That's hardly big news. Half of Starfleet wants to get to Cardassia. They're going to have to go through me first to get there, though."
Quark nodded as he retrieved a tumbler and poured two finger-widths of the amber liquid into it. "True, but has half of Starfleet been captured and tortured by none other than Gul Madred?" The deepening of the lines around her mouth told Quark he had her attention, even if she wanted him to believe otherwise. "It's true. Captain Picard was taken prisoner during a top-secret mission about ten years ago. I hear Madred did everything he could to break Picard, but failed before Starfleet convinced the Cardassian government to release him."
Kira shrugged, but her affected nonchalance did not fool him. "Name a Bajoran over the age of thirty who wasn't also tortured by Cardassians," she said. "Madred was no better or worse than any other."
"Add to that the fact that Captain Picard is a respected amateur archaeologist," he continued.
"Old news, " she snapped. "Quark, if you've got something to say, then say it. Otherwise, just fix my drink and go away."
"Feeling a bit testy today?" he ventured with a toothy leer as he added a dash of yellow syrup to the tumbler. "All right, how's this for something you don't hear every day: have you ever wondered why and how Kai Winn, Captain Sisko, and Gul Dukat all managed to disappear at virtually the same instant?" The sight of her suddenly rigid posture was more than ample reward, not least for the fact that her doing so made her breasts more prominent. Quark absently rubbed his left lobe and purred. "Aha, it appears I've touched a nerve."
"Don't be ridiculous," she said, slouching back down and studying the thick, golden concoction he placed before her. "What is this?"
He ignored her feigned indifference for the moment. "It's called a 'Shapeshifter.' Here, watch." He took the tumbler and turned it upside down.
"Wait, don't --" she cried, then stopped and watched in fascination as the 'liquid' coalesced into a single, gelatinous strand and slowly insinuated its way downward. Long before the tip could come into contact with the surface of the bar, however, Quark righted the glass and the strand insinuated its way back into the glass. "How on Bajor am I supposed to drink something that can do that?" Kira asked.
"Try it and see," was all Quark would say.
Dubious, Kira took a tentative sip, then suddenly started choking and sputtering. Quark reached across the bar to thump at her shoulder, to little effect. As soon as the spasms in her throat abated, she scowled at him. "That's got a kick, all right," she rasped, examining the contents of her glass. "How do you make it change consistency like that?"
"Bartender's secret," he said with a grin. "Actually, it's your own saliva that causes the change from semisolid to liquid. Like it?"
Kira shook her head and slid the tumbler back across the bar. "Too strong. I'll settle for a Black Hole."
"One Black Hole, coming up." He waited for the inevitable follow-up to the bombshell he had dropped a few moments earlier. Much to his satisfaction, he did not have to wait long.
"What makes you think there's any connection between all three disappearances?" she asked without any prelude, drumming her fingers against the countertop.
"Don't you think it's a little too coincidental to ignore?" he said. "After all, all three of them disappeared at virtually the same time, just as the war was coming to an end, and none of them have been seen dead or alive since."
"That doesn't mean anything. Lots of people disappeared during the war. That's what happens in wartime."
One of his waiters brought a tray of glasses, steaming fresh from the washer, and placed it behind the bar. Quark took a cloth and began wiping them dry, making sure not to miss any water spots. "Ah," he said with a discerning look, "but Kai Winn had nothing to do with the ongoing war effort, and both she and Captain Sisko were last seen on Bajor, far from the front lines."
"And I suppose you're also going to tell me that Dukat was on Bajor as well?" Kira harrumphed and drained her glass. "Next thing, you'll be telling me that Dukat kidnapped them and sacrificed them to his little pagh-wraith cult." She must have repeated what she just said in her mind, because she paused to stare into space for a moment, her glass tilted in mid-air toward her mouth, then shrugged the thought away and drank.
Cackling, Quark said, "Oh, I don't know, that sounds a bit far-fetched even to me. But --" he leaned over the bar, and beckoned her closer "-- a reliable source tells me that Dukat was indeed on Bajor at the time of the kai's and captain's disappearances."
Kira snorted. "Dukat on Bajor? Not on your life. He'd have been recognized and arrested the minute he set foot on Bajoran soil."
"Not if he was in disguise." He smiled to himself at her frozen expression.
His victory was short-lived, however, because she leaped over the counter, grabbed him by the lapels, and dragged him to within centimeters of her face. "What do you know, Quark?" she snarled. "Spill everything, now!"
With a squawk of alarm he struggled to free himself, but with the tenacity of a boa constrictor her grip tightened even more. "Colonel, please, you're hurting me," he gasped. "Let me go and I'll tell you what I know."
Shoving him with such force he fell against the back counter, knocking several of the newly-dried glasses to the floor, Kira sat back and crossed her arms over her chest. "There. I've lived up to my end of the bargain. Now talk, or I'll personally drag you by your nostrils to a holding cell."
Quark rubbed at his sore throat and glared back at Kira. Making sure he stayed well out of her reach, he finally said, "My source tells me that Dukat had himself surgically altered to look like a Bajoran not long before the war ended."
"Uh-huh," she said. "Go on."
"And that he managed to worm his way into Kai Winn's inner circle...possibly even into her bedroom." Kira's face suddenly went pale, but she nodded for him to continue. "According to my source, Dukat convinced the kai to open some book of evil spells or something. Soon after that, both he and the kai, and Captain Sisko, disappeared without a trace."
He was tempted to summon Doctor Bashir; Kira was not only pale, but trembling so hard she had to sit down rather abruptly. After several minutes of hard, heavy breathing-which he could not quite bring himself to be concerned about-she finally looked up at him and asked, "How did you find any of this out? I thought Winn's apostasy had been kept completely under wraps."
Now he had been caught off guard. "You knew about this?"
Kira nodded. "It was supposed to have been kept secret-not even the Vedek Assembly knew about it. Only the head of the Central Archives, who reported her questionable interest in demonography to us in the first place, the president of the Vedek Assembly, Shakaar and myself knew. Until now." She looked up at Quark with moist eyes. "Do you realize what this means, now that the truth is out in the open? This could be devastating for Bajor. That even the kai, the leader of the faithful, could turn to evil-no one will believe in the supremacy of the Prophets any more."
Inexplicably worried, Quark took a cautious step closer and patted Kira's hand. Only too late did he realize his error.
With more speed and grace than a bat'leth slicing through flesh, she had once again grabbed him and hauled him halfway across the bar. Her teeth clenched so tightly she was spewing droplets of foam in his face, she hissed, "If you breathe one word of this-one word-to anyone else, dead or alive, I'll string you up by your ears, pin you to the sensor array, and use you as a weather vane. Am I making myself clear?"
"And you'd better make sure your 'informant' is clear on this as well, because if there's even a hint that this little item of slander is spreading, you'll be the first one I'll come looking for. Got that?"
"Good." She released him again and wiped her hands along the sides of her uniform, as if the very feel of him was distasteful to her. For his part, Quark just lay where he was, afraid to move lest he further incite her wrath and bring down more pain and humiliation upon himself. With a tense smile, Kira said, "Good night, Quark. Don't forget what I warned you about." Then she left.
"Yes, Colonel," he mumbled to her retreating back. Then, carefully, he eased himself down from the counter and made a half-hearted attempt to put himself back in order. "Whatever the colonel wants, the colonel gets," he muttered, slowly beginning to feel better. "Aye, aye, Colonel, yes, ma'am!" he cackled, giving a jaunty salute to the air.
"Having fun?" a voice asked from the end of the bar.
Quark whirled. "Oh. It's you," he said.
The patron smirked. "Yes, Quark, it's me."
"Did you hear what she said to me? She threatened me, all because of you!"
"Tsk, tsk, my fine Ferengi friend, what did you expect from a Bajoran? Did you actually think she'd give you oo-mox in gratitude for what you told her?"
His lobes tingled at the thought of Colonel Kira giving him oo-mox. "Can you blame a man for wishful thinking?"
"No, I suppose not," the patron sneered. He tossed a pouch into Quark's waiting hands. "Here's the latinum, as we agreed. You've more than earned it."
Quark fished around in the pouch, retrieved a bar, and bit down on it, to be sure it was genuine. Satisfied, he closed the pouch and slipped it inside his vest. "There's no favor too small for latinum," he said.
"That's what makes you Ferengi so useful for stirring up trouble."
Quark grinned and rubbed his ear. "Speaking of trouble, have you seen Vash lately?"
Kira went straight to the shrine from Quark's. She needed to meditate. For the past several weeks restless sleep punctuated with bizarre dreams had haunted her. Visions of friends, family, loved ones, fading in and out with the tide of her consciousness, each of them speaking in a language of encrypted metaphors she could not even begin to decipher. Sisko, her mother, Bareil, Opaka, Jadzia, all faces she was overjoyed to see again but whose ghostly visits left her with a lingering sadness and confusion. What was happening to her?
She was relieved to find the shrine empty. Most of the Bajorans on the station used it only for community services, but on occasion a visiting monk might seek solace in meditation after hours. Tonight, however, she had the shrine to herself.
The glow of the burning candles cast eerie, dancing shadows on the walls, giving Kira the impression she was not completely alone. Refusing to give in to her innate superstition, she knelt on the floor before the mandala and closed her eyes to concentrate on her breathing.
As each breath grew deeper and more even, she felt her awareness of the surrounding environment grow distant, fading into the background of her mental landscape. Breathe in, hold, breathe out. Open the mind to the Prophets. Breathe in, hold, breathe out. True understanding comes when questions answer themselves. Breathe in, hold, breathe out.
Corporeality faded, and the crackling of the flames became the buzzing of nerve endings. The hard floor beneath her became a lush Bajoran meadow. Voices, hidden within the hum of the forcefield protecting the resident orb, whispered to her. The steady, ceaseless thrum of the station core became the beat of her own heart. Peace and stillness filled the vacuum left by her fleeing cares and worries.
The whisper was so soft she almost did not hear it. The faint sibilance on the final letter in her name, however, was familiar and unmistakable. It was also impossible. He could not be here.
Kira slowly opened her eyes, only to close them again to shield herself from the dazzling whiteness surrounding her. The cosmic heartbeat that accompanied an orb experience echoed in her head.
No. It cannot be him. Not here. Not now.
She opened her eyes again. This time, she was back in the shrine, but she instinctively knew it was an illusion. She rose and turned in place, looking for the source of the voice, hoping beyond hope it, too, would prove to be an illusion, a trick played by her overfatigued mind. "Where are you?" she asked, her voice sounding strangely resonant in her head. "Show yourself."
"Here I am, Nerys." The owner-or borrower, perhaps, or thief-of the voice stepped out from behind a column and into the dancing candlelight.
"Dukat," Kira hissed, taking a step backward, her hand reaching for her absent phaser. He was not the Dukat she remembered, though. This Dukat was grossly malformed, part Bajoran, part Cardassian, his entire body blackened as though he had just walked through fire. Only the familiarity of his voice and the livid blueness of his eyes betrayed his identity to her.
The apparition-or nightmare-nodded. "It's been a long time, hasn't it?"
She refused to play his-its-games, and ignored the question. "You're supposed to be dead."
He tilted his head to the side in an all-too-familiar gesture and smiled. "Dead according to your limited understanding of the word, perhaps," he said, spreading his arms to indicate himself, "but, as you can surely see, not truly dead."
"What do you want with me?"
"Ah, Nerys," he laughed, mirroring her efforts to move away from him, "you've never been the sort to waste time on small talk. No time for reminiscing about the good old days, is there?"
"What do you want with me?" she repeated through clenched teeth, trying not to show her fear.
"Great danger lies ahead of you," intoned a new voice. Kira whirled to see the late Kai Winn-at least, she presumed it was Winn, although the half-melted appearance of her face made it impossible to be sure-standing behind her, her hands folded over her ample abdomen. "The path you have chosen has many obstacles."
Beginning to suspect the Prophets had nothing to do with this eerie visitation, Kira said, "I'm not afraid." To convince herself she really meant it, she repeated the refrain: "I'm not afraid."
"You will be," Dukat said, circling Kira to stand beside Winn.
So much for convincing herself. She felt like a gettle cornered by ravenous predators. "Why should I believe you?"
"You shouldn't," Winn said. "But neither should you ignore us."
"The path you have chosen will lead you away from the Prophets," Dukat said.
"They will try to stop you from straying," Winn said.
"How do I know you're not trying to lead me astray?" Kira asked. "I know you don't speak for the Prophets."
"The Prophets speak only for themselves," Dukat said.
"They care not for Bajor," Winn said.
Kira snorted. "They cared far more for Bajor than you two ever did."
"False," Dukat said. "They care only for what they can take-your world, your devotion, your allegiance...your Emissary."
"No," Kira insisted, shaking her head. "The Prophets didn't take Captain Sisko, he went to be with them."
"They gave him little choice," Dukat said, stalking Kira. "Join them, or suffer the same fate as I."
"They could have restored him to life," Winn said with a solemn nod. "They chose not to."
Kira had no doubt anymore who, or what, her accosters were; she did not need blood-red eyes or red armbands to identify them as the embodiment of evil. She felt her pagh recoil in disgust and horror at the thought the pagh-wraiths had deigned to 'honor' her with a visit. Steeling herself for the inevitable backlash, she pulled herself to her fullest height and declared, "I refuse to stand here and listen to this!" Then she walked briskly between them toward the exit, her head held high, her eyes focused directly ahead.
As her sole means of escape neared, she began to think she might also have escaped the pagh-wraiths' wrath. Just as she reached the exit, however, Dukat said, "If you go to Cardassia, you will die."
With the pagh-wraith's threat echoing in her head, Kira almost relented. She knew they would stop at nothing to achieve their evil goals. On the other hand, she also knew they would stop at nothing to tempt her to stray from the path the Prophets had laid out for her before the dawn of time. If the pagh-wraiths were so determined to keep her from going with Picard they would even kill her, then she knew she had only one choice. Without turning around, she said, "Then I will die." Then she passed through the exit and her vision, and back into the realm of corporeal affairs.
As soon as Kira was out of sight, Dukat turned to Winn. "Do you think she bought it?"
Winn folded her arms over her chest. "She might have, although that crack about dying could have ruined the entire charade." She shook her head. "I never realized Bajorans were that superstitious. No wonder the P have grown so powerful."
Dukat nodded. "Now you see why it's so important we stop them before it's too late." He gave his mate a pleading look. "Can I count on your good word with the assembly?"
She sighed, but gave him a slight smile. "Yes, Q, I'll tell them that you've been following our plan to the...letter."
"Good! I knew you wouldn't let me down." He leaned over and gave her a peck on the cheek. "You'd better go, then, before they start to wonder. As for me," he looked down at his sorry-looking faćade, "I want to get out of this form."
"That makes two of us." In a flash of light seen only by the dancing shadows cast by candlelight, the two entities disappeared.
Back To Top
Picard leaned forward and gazed through the main viewport as Kira cut the runabout's impulse engines and glided over the Cardassian capital. From his vantage point, at a kilometer above the surface and descending, the city, which had been flattened during an eleventh-hour rampage by retreating Dominion forces, looked to be a vibrant, bustling interstellar metropolis. Most of the more prominent structures were newly built, their designs revealing a recent infusion of Bajoran aesthetics. The air, once believed to be the most polluted in the quadrant, looked clear and unimpeded by haze. Small orbit-to-surface vessels zipped across the skyline like worker bees in search of nectar, bringing engineers, craftsmen, social workers and entrepreneurs from Bajor and points beyond.
As the craft neared the spaceport, however, Picard's optimism faded. Closer to the surface, beneath the impressive skyline, squalor and desperation held court among the millions of demoralized, disenfranchised Cardassians who flocked to the capital in the wake of the treaty, only to find even less waiting for them than what they had left behind. Inoperable ground cars cluttered the streets. Storefronts stood unoccupied while street vendors hawked everything from potable water to narcotics to themselves. Bajorans buzzed industriously around half-finished building projects while the natives lurked in alleys, hopeless, directionless.
"It would seem that media reports about conditions on Cardassia Prime have been greatly understated," Data remarked, and Picard turned to see him looking out on the same scene. He wondered how much more detail Data's cybernetically enhanced eyes could make out, feeling in the same instant a measure of gratitude he was but a mere Human. Better was not always better.
"It's no worse than the rebuilding of Bajor," Kira said without looking at either of them. "It'll pass in time, once the Cardassians get back on their feet."
"If they get back on their feet," Picard said, pitching his voice low enough so only Data would hear. He knew the android would share the sentiment with or without his emotion chip.
Picard refrained from further comment, however, as Kira engaged the retro thrusters and guided the runabout to a waiting landing pad. Before she had even turned on the engines' cooling fans, he and Data were out of their seats and gathering their equipment and packs for disembarking. They waited by the rear hatch while Kira activated the release switch and slung her single duffel over her shoulder, then the three of them stepped forth into the hot, humid Cardassian air.
The hosteler narrowed his eyes and studied Picard for several unblinking seconds. Then, in turn, his gaze shifted to the left first, then right, as he subjected Data and Kira to the same scrutiny. For a second, Picard thought he saw a flare of hostility in the Cardassian's face when he looked at Kira, but in the midst of all those scales and ridges it was hard to tell the difference between a glower and a leer.
Data's voice broke the silent standoff. "Will you be able to provide housing for us?"
The hosteler cleared his throat, then keyed several commands into his antiquated computer console using two of the three remaining fingers on his left hand to peck among the pads. "Sharing okay?" he asked.
"That will do," Picard said. "We only need a place to sleep."
"Hmph," muttered the hosteler, then typed in a few more commands before inserting an isolinear rod into the main data port. After a few seconds, the computer ejected the rod, which the hosteler then handed to Picard. "Room 4-beta-7, on the fourth floor," he said. "This'll get you in the front door after hours as well as into your room. Community bathroom's at the end of the hall, behind the stairs. Lights out at 0100. I recommend you store your valuables in my safe," he added.
"Just how stu--" Kira began, but Picard interrupted her.
"We have nothing of value, but thank you for the offer."
The hosteler sniffed. "If it's portable, it can be stolen. If it can be stolen, it can be sold." He gave Picard a toothy sneer. "For food and other items of real value."
"Nevertheless, we will not require the use of your safe."
Data led the way upstairs, and as Picard fell into step behind him, he noticed Data's phaser, nestled in the holster at his hip, had been activated. No doubt Kira had done the same with her weapon. Picard began to wonder if this mission would entail far greater hazards than Q wanted him to believe.
Once they were in the room, with the door safely secured behind them, Data took the packs and equipment to one corner and began inventorying everything, making sure nothing was missing or damaged. While Data sorted through their gear, Picard crossed to the sole, eye-shaped window and gazed down on the street below. Now that he could study it near to ground level, Picard found the devastation almost unbearable. He had seen the worst the Cardassians had inflicted on Bajor, but this was beyond anything he could have imagined. What made it even more intolerable was the knowledge that Cardassia had presumably been rebuilding itself, with Bajoran help, for over three years now. Cardassia barely qualified as a warp-capable civilization any more.
He could not be sure who he was more angry at: the Cardassians, for bringing this cataclysm on themselves by waging war after pointless war against insurmountable odds; the Federation Council, for not demanding the right to position observers and relief workers in the capital to forestall such widespread humanitarian rights abuses; or the Bajoran government, for adamantly refusing outside assistance and almost severing all ties with the Federation. So much needless suffering, all in the name of pride. Such utter stupidity, when the solution was so simple and so plain.
"We should try to find someone who knows the city," Kira said from behind him. Still transfixed, Picard simply nodded. "Even better, someone who knows a little about Cardassian history."
"Do you know anyone who fulfills those requirements?" Data asked.
"No," she said.
Picard turned away to look out the window again. Night's heavy mantle had already descended over the city. Meanwhile, rain had begun to fall, although it had little more effect than to evaporate into a dense mist rising from the water-slickened streets and walkways as they reflected the light cast from lamps and passing groundcars. Even in the relative comfort of the hostel, Picard could feel the humidity growing more oppressive, leaning heavily on the people outside as they scurried to keep out of the drizzle.
Across the street, a gaudy sign in the shape of a buxom woman flashed on and off, then on again, a lurid invitation to lonely men and women in need of companionship for an hourly fee. Picard watched as a well-dressed Bajoran approached, then stopped when a scrawny Cardassian girl, probably not even out of her teens yet, sidled out of the shadows cast by the wolfishly winking sign. The man spoke briefly to the girl, then she linked her arm through his and led him inside. The last Picard saw of them was the man's beefy hand groping at the girl's backside.
Depressed, Picard looked farther up the street, trying with limited success to block the beacon of Cardassia's humiliation from his vision. At the corner stood a pub of some sort, or possibly a gaming house-in any event, it was the only business establishment within view lacking windows or advertising, yet there was an almost constant stream of Cardassians coming and going. No Bajorans entered, from what he could see after a minute or two.
"We'll probably be able to find someone there," he said to no one in particular, pointing to the building as Data neared.
"It appears to be a drinking establishment of some sort," Data said.
"I came to the same conclusion. I haven't seen any Bajorans coming or going, so, if we're lucky, we might find someone who can lead us to the oldest parts of the city."
"If what we're here to find is even in the city," Kira commented from behind him.
"That is a reasonable conclusion," Data said. "It is likely the codex is buried deep beneath the surface, perhaps among the ruins of a pre-Hebitian civilization."
Picard shook his head in wonder. "Q must be expecting a miracle from us, if he thinks we can find this 'Book of the Resurrection,' whatever it is."
"What makes you say that?" Kira asked.
"Q has never been know to present easy puzzles with easy solutions," Data reminded them.
"Agreed," Picard said. "As far as this particular puzzle is concerned," he continued, "there's no evidence of a civilization that predates the Hebitian Empire. None. Which means that either the Hebitians completely eradicated or absorbed all aspects of the aboriginal culture, or that the people conquered by the Hebitians lacked any sort of advancement. Either way, the chances of finding the codex are almost nonexistent."
"Well," Kira said, pulling a long, black cloak from her bag and standing to drape it over herself, "I didn't come all this way simply to turn around and go back. Q seemed sure we would find the book, even without his help. So, instead of standing around wondering how many different ways we can fail, I suggest we head for the bar and see if we can find someone who can help us." As she finished, she raised the hood and pulled the drawstring tight around her neck until her features were completely enshrouded. Unless someone removed the hood, no one would know the cloak hid a Bajoran inside its heavy folds. "And the sooner we get started, the sooner we can finish and return to Deep Space Nine."
Data looked at Picard, who nodded. "You are right, Colonel," he said, accepting the pack Data handed him and slipping his arms through the straps. "If we find a guide tonight, before the curfew begins, then we can get an early start in the morning." He gestured toward the door, which Data opened. "After you." Then he followed his companions down the stairs and out into the night's oppressive gloom.
Back To Top
Too much noise.
Why did they refuse to understand? How could it be so difficult to make them understand how much the noise hurt? No matter where he went, sound assaulted him from all directions. Even in the darkest corner of this tavern, as far from the constant noise of the street as he could get and still be able to catch the bartender's eye when he needed a refill, his head throbbed at the tiniest sound. Shouts, laughs, glasses clinking, fists pounding, footsteps, screams, explosions, curses, phaser fire, all undercut with the persistent rhythm of his pulse clanging in his ears, all of it drove him deeper into despair and deeper into silence. He no longer even knew the sound of his own voice begging them to be quiet. Desperate for peace, he hunkered lower over his glass and contemplated the mysteries contained within.
Only the unexpected sound of silence drew him away from his musings. His fog-enshrouded mind sought the cause of the silence, somehow recalling that it had fallen immediately after three new patrons entered the tavern. His one unobstructed eye searched for the strangers, eventually finding them by following the direction of every other gaze in the room.
No wonder the newcomers attracted so much attention. One was undeniably Human; beside him stood a humanoid male with golden skin. The third, however, could not be identified, not even so far as gender, thanks to a dark, hooded cape covering it from head to toe.
Then, as he watched from across the room, as everyone else remain transfixed by the sight of this strange trio, the hooded figure leaned forward and whispered in the Human's ear. No one could possibly have heard what she-as he now knew for certain the third stranger was female-said, but he heard the sound of her voice, and he knew with a flash of unidentifiable memory he had heard her voice before. In a city where he knew no one, not even his own name, on a world where his disfigurement brought him ignominy, he had at last found a key to unlock the door to himself. If he knew her voice, then surely she would recognize his.
Ignoring the stares of those around him, he heaved himself to his feet and lurched forward, his hand stretched out in supplication, desperate to reach the strange woman from his memory before she left. At the last moment, however, he faltered, and then one of the patrons stuck a leg out and tripped him, sending him sprawling. His hands flailed blindly, groping for something, anything, to slow his descent before his battered head crashed to the floor.
A gasp resounded in his ears, aggravating the ringing already there from his collision. Then he realized his face rested on something soft, and he lifted his head to discover he had not, as he feared, blinded his good eye, but instead had landed on a pile of black cloth. Confused, he craned his neck up as far as his disfigurement would allow and found himself staring into the Human's kindly face.
"Are you all right?" a strangely-inflected voice boomed as if from a distance. "Are you hurt?"
He saw the clean, well-manicured hand extend toward him and gratefully accepted its offer of assistance, testing the golden man's strength as he tried once again to stand.
"You're bleeding," the strange-sounding voice boomed again. "You should see a doctor."
He paid no more attention to the Human than he did to the resurgence of noise from the tavern's other patrons. For the first time in as long as he could remember-which was not very long-his mind shut out all outside noise, allowing him to focus on the face-the Bajoran face-swimming in and out of his visual range. He blinked, forcing the fog to dissipate, and took a step closer. He knew her. Whoever she was, he knew her.
What was her name?
He had to know. He closed his eye, trying to concentrate, to sort through the jumble of images flashing through his mind. The images slowed, and a name surfaced. He opened his eye again to be sure she was still there. She was.
Then, with a determination he had never, until this moment, suspected he possessed, he took another step forward, grabbed the woman's hands in his, and croaked, "Ziyal?"
Kira's breath caught in her throat. What were the odds of someone on this Prophet-forsaken world confusing her with her long-dead friend? Who would know of the connection? Garak, perhaps, but he would not even speak of his own relationship with Gul Dukat's daughter, much less hers. What possessed this badly disfigured vagrant, reeking of filth and sickness, to call out Ziyal's name? Kira peered closely at the man's face, studying him for any hints. Underneath the scar tissue covering most of the left side of his face, he bore a vague resemblance to someone she had once known, a man whom she had despised and later came to respect. This could not be that man, however; years ago she had seen his chest torn apart by a barrage of disruptor blasts.
"Colonel, do you know this man?" Picard asked.
She shook her head, feeling an unexpected rush of pity. "I've never seen him before in my life."
"He seems to think he knows you," Data said.
She had nothing to say to that. Her pity blossoming into compassion, she continued searching the man's face for clues, hoping to find something, anything, she could use to help him. Despite her scrutiny, however, he stood passively, his mouth moving in an inaudible dialogue with whatever demons possessed his mind while his right eye remained focused on a spot just beyond her shoulder. Unable to bear the mystery any longer, she finally asked in the gentlest tone she could muster, "How do you know Ziyal?"
The eye shifted and refocused on her as his mouth opened and his gray, swollen tongue protruded past his thick lips. "Ziyal?" he repeated.
"Yes, Ziyal. She was my friend."
"Ziyal. Friend." He nodded.
"Did you know her?"
Realizing she was getting nowhere but still determined, Kira sighed and tried again. "How did you know her name?"
"Perhaps we should ask him what his name is," Data said.
Kira nodded, never taking her eyes off the man's face. The more she looked at him, the more familiar he became. The more familiar he became, the more her compassion grew. "What is your name?" she asked, pointing at him.
Her question seemed to distress the poor creature. His hands reached up and clutched at his ears as he bent forward and began to moan unintelligibly, the sound issuing forth from his throat little more than a drone. "Nnnnnnnnnnnnn...." he wailed, crouching lower and lower until his knees almost touched the floor.
Alarmed, Kira knelt beside him and drew her cloak from where it had been pulled to the floor to gently drape it around his shoulders, all the while trying not to touch him any more than necessary. "Sh," she crooned, trying to reassure him. "It's all right, no one's going to hurt you."
"It would appear that he does not know his name," Data said.
"Look at his scars," Picard said. "He probably took a severe blow to the head and has been suffering from amnesia ever since."
"Then he will not be able to help us." They turned to walk away.
"We can't just leave him here!" Kira snapped with vehemence that surprised even her. Her companions turned back and stared at her with matching expressions of surprise and puzzlement. She steadfastly returned the gaze, trying to will them to agree. "Look at him," she pleaded. "We have to help him."
"Colonel," Picard said gently, his hand clasping her shoulder to pull her up, "there's nothing we can do for him. If he's managed to survive this long without our help, then he can take care of himself."
Kira Nerys was the last person anyone who knew her would have expected to feel pity for a Cardassian, and the first person to wonder internally at her inexplicable determination to help the broken man whimpering beside her. What was wrong with her? This was not normal behavior, no matter how pathetic he seemed. Yet, despite the utter improbability of her compassion, she could not allow herself to abandon him. She felt as drawn to him as she did to the people she loved most, as if removing herself from his presence would sever her very life-line.
"Just like Cardassia, right?" she asked Picard, wondering where the thought had originated even as the words were passing her lips. Feeling pity for a Cardassian was one thing; defending Cardassia was something entirely different. Nevertheless, she had seen Cardassia in the aftermath of the Dominion withdrawal, and the devastation that, despite her insistence to the contrary, outmatched Bajor's after the end of the Occupation a hundredfold.
Picard withdrew his hand. "I beg your pardon?"
Gesturing to the man as she pivoted on her feet to wrap an arm around his shoulders, Kira said again, "He's just like Cardassia-there's nothing we can do to help, so we should just leave him alone and hope for the best. Isn't that the official Federation policy?"
"One might say the same of Bajor," Data said.
"One might," she agreed, nodding emphatically. "Your Federation couldn't be bothered to help Bajor when we were broken and helpless, either."
"That is not what I meant," Data said.
"Then what did you mean?" she asked, challenging him with her defiance.
Her challenge had little effect. Data replied, in the same evenness of tone he used in all his speech, "I meant simply that Bajor is as blameworthy as the Federation of denying Cardassia the help it needs."
Kira leaped to her feet, eager to throttle Picard's pet project and his smooth, unassuming neutrality, even though she knew he could lay her flat with a single glancing blow. "How dare you --"
Picard grabbed her shoulders and forced her to direct her fury toward him, not even flinching as her fist made contact with his chest. "Colonel, this is neither the time nor the place to debate diplomacy. The simple truth is that there is nothing we can do to help this man, and curfew begins in ten minutes. If we're to find someone who can help us, we need to do so quickly." He turned to Data. "Mister Data, if you would--?" Data gave a brisk nod and walked away to speak to the bartender.
With great effort, Kira managed to wrestle her anger to within reasonable limits. Nevertheless, she would not concede Picard's feigned helplessness. They could, and would, help the stranger. Resting her hand on his shoulder, she insisted, "We're taking him with us."
Picard's brow furrowed. "What?"
She gritted her teeth. "You heard me. We're not leaving him here, not when he's like this. We're taking him with us."
"Just what do you propose we do with him?" Picard asked.
"In the morning, we can take him to a refugee center. But we're not abandoning him." She bent down and wrapped an arm around the stranger's waist, then helped him stand, all the while trying not to let his overpowering aroma permeate her nostrils too deeply. Cardassians smelled bad enough, in her opinion, but this man was filthy beyond tolerance. As soon as they returned to the hostel, she would send him straight to the washroom with strict instructions to scrub himself until his scales gleamed.
A fusillade of harsh laughter distracted her, and she looked up to identify what had caused the disruption. As she watched in astonishment, Data backed away from a corner table, his expression devoid of any semblance of fear or anxiety, his regress motivated by the steady advancement of a hulking mountain of a Cardassian. Feeling exposed all of a sudden, Kira inched toward Picard, even though she knew he could no more protect her than she could protect herself.
"You dare wave your Federation scrip in my face?" the mountain thundered at Data, the deep, rolling tones of his voice causing the bar's other patrons to look up and enjoy the show. "Your latinum means nothing to me!" He held out his hand, palm up, and with a display of strength Kira had never before seen, slowly closed his hand around the latinum bars he held until silvery goo seeped out from between his fingers. Then he reached out and wiped his messy palm across the front of Data's tunic.
"Sir," Data said, "I believe you misund --"
"There's only one thing I understand, Golden Man," the mountain rumbled, grasping Data around the throat and lifting him off his feet, "and that's that I work only for what I can use or sell. I don't work for Federations, I don't work for Bajorans, and I don't work for you!" Then, with the ease of a child skipping stones across a pond, the Cardassian threw Data across the room, until gravity brought him down, heavily, on a gaming table.
How the mountain had heard Kira's gasp in the midst of the turmoil that erupted immediately following Data's short flight and abrupt landing was anybody's guess. All that mattered was that he had heard, and directed his attention to her and Picard. Moving with extreme caution, taking care she did not back herself into a corner, Kira edged backward, tugging Picard along with her. Behind them and off to the side, Data was involved in a melee that only someone with his enhanced abilities could survive; even if such had not been the case, Kira was far more concerned with saving her own skin at the moment.
Only too late did Kira realize the Cardassian had maneuvered her and Picard into the bar; with a rush of fear-induced adrenaline she spotted the door out of the corner of her eye, four meters away. Too far. She would never be able to complete a dash for safety. She would have to stand and fight.
With a single fluid motion, she snatched a bottle of kanar from behind her, smashed it against the edge of the bar, and waved the jagged edge in the mountain's face. For his part, Picard had laid claim to a citrus knife, aiming the serrated blade at the Cardassian's abdomen. "Back off!" she growled, then spat every epithet she had ever learned during the Occupation.
The Cardassian laughed, the reflection of light on his large teeth filling Kira with sickening dread. "I've done worse things than eating Bajoran shit," he rumbled, leering at her. "I've eaten Bajoran pussy, and nothing tastes worse than Bajoran pussy."
"Colonel..." Picard warned under his breath, anticipating her lunge.
His admonition proved unnecessary, however; before either of them could act, the vagrant who had accosted them when they first entered materialized in front of them and threw himself at the mountain with a loud war-cry, his fists, feet and teeth a blur as he drove his countryman back, step by step. Again, from out of nowhere, Data appeared by their side, looking a little disheveled but otherwise none the worse for wear. "Captain, I believe now would be a prudent time to leave," he said.
"Agreed, Mister Data. Colonel?"
"You'll get no argument from me," she said, never taking her eyes of the stranger as he continued to pound at the larger Cardassian with unrelenting fury.
Dropping his knife, Picard grabbed her arm and dragged her away from the spectacle. "Then let's go!"
The oppressive Cardassian humidity had never before felt so welcome to Kira than when it hit her full-blast in the face as she made her escape. She followed Picard and Data around the corner and collapsed against the side of the building, her chest heaving.
"That was a close call," Picard panted beside her. "Finding a guide may not be such an easy task."
"Oh, no," Kira cried, stricken with guilt.
"Is something wrong?" Data asked.
"That poor man-we left him. He saved us, and we left him."
"No we didn't," Picard said gently.
"Look behind you."
"Ziyal," a vaguely familiar voice rasped.
She turned, and with a flood of relief saw the stranger standing behind her, his face and hands cut and bruised, his ragged clothes torn, but otherwise in one piece. "You're okay," she said. "Thank you for rescuing us."
"Captain --" Data said.
"I know, Data. Colonel," he said, taking Kira by the elbow, "we need to go."
Before Kira could turn, however, the stranger had taken her by the other elbow. "Ziyal. No go. Come. Come, come." He tugged her away from Picard and beckoned her to follow with his other hand. "Come. Help."
"But-But," she protested. "We need to go --" she tried to move in the opposite direction, toward the hostel, but the stranger's grip tightened.
"No go," he repeated. "Come. Danger. Help. Come."
"Perhaps he can help us after all," Data said. "At the least, he seems to think there is danger in the opposite direction."
"Yes," the stranger said. "Danger. No go. Come." He pulled Kira after him as he headed down the street, away from the bar and the hostel. She had no choice but to go with him or hurt him, an option she found unappealing at the moment. Her only comfort was that, after a brief conference, Picard and Data followed soon after. Where the stranger would lead them was anybody's guess.
Back To Top
The Cardassian led them through several abandoned streets, then made an abrupt turn down an alley and began a new journey through the narrow, winding passageways between buildings. It was a side of Cardassia's capital offworlders seldom saw, although Kira had spent many nights prowling through alleys like these when she helped Damar's resistance movement sabotage the Dominion. Even so, she had no idea where they were; the passages bore no distinguishing markers, and after a while all the buildings looked the same: dilapidated and abandoned.
To Kira's relief, Picard and Data were able to match the stranger's breakneck pace, although she could tell from the heavy breathing behind her that Picard was beginning to tire. She was too, but she had no intention of showing it. Starfleet weakling, she thought with an inward scowl. They have the resources to control an entire quadrant, but put them in the field for any length of time and their weaknesses will come to the surface just as surely as a Bajoran has nose pleats.
She tried to imagine someone like Picard trying to survive the Occupation, or even Cardassia in its current condition. The thought almost made her laugh out loud. Picard was as helpless as a baby without his android friend to protect him. Quark's 'source' must have been wrong; no chance Picard survived an interrogation by Gul Madred. He was too soft, too refined, too...Human. She would have to watch out for him, lest Starfleet send an entire squadron of investigators to undermine her authority on DS9. As for Data...well, his abilities were impressive, but he was only a machine. A remarkably lifelike machine, but a machine nonetheless. She would not trouble herself with concern for him; from what she had seen, he could fend for himself.
Kira found herself yanked back to the present when her Cardassian guide stopped abruptly and dropped to his knees to pry at a metal door built into the pavement. It looked to be the sort of door once used by deliverymen to access storage cellars, or perhaps it led to an underground shelter, built by a fearful citizen some time ago during Cardassia's bellicose past. Whatever the door's origin or purpose, Kira guessed they were in one of the oldest sections of the capital. She knelt to help the man with the door.
After several minutes of struggle, the door finally opened with a thump and a screech of rusted hinges protesting the disturbance to their indeterminate slumber. Kira rose, wiped the grime from the door on her pants, then pulled a wristlamp from her pack. She activated the lamp and angled it so the beam cut into the darkness below. A steep ladder, its rungs frayed and rusted by time and the elements, led from the opening, but she could not see how far it extended. Kira was not one to let uncertainty or the unknown get the best of her, however. She strapped the lamp to her wrist, slipped her arms through the straps on her field pack, and carefully swung her legs over the edge. The tip of her boot caught against a rung, and she used the toe-hold to maneuver herself into place.
"Colonel," Picard said. "Be careful."
Without replying, she hooked one arm around a rung and removed her phaser from its holster with the other. Then, with a small sigh of aggravation, she descended into the gloom.
She could only estimate how far down she had to climb before her feet touched solid ground again, but judging from the tiny square of light far above her head, it was some distance. "Come on down," she called, cupping her hand beside her mouth and waving her lamp above her head to signal the others. "It's about thirty meters."
"What do you see down there?" came Picard's voice, diminished by distance.
Kira grumbled. "Hang on a second," she said. Turning carefully, her phaser at the ready, she shone the light all around her.
"By the Prophets," she whispered.
Picard could barely contain his excitement as he descended the ladder. Kira's astonishment carried across the distance more strongly than her voice, and he was anxious to see for himself what had her so agitated. She did not strike him as the sort to be surprised by much of anything.
He leaped down from the ladder when he was little more than a meter from the surface, Data and the Cardassian not far behind. His eyes widened at what lay before him. Their guide had not led them to an underground shelter, or even into the city's sewer system, but to a vast subterranean city that extended as far as he could see. This was no crude footpath he stood on, but a paved thoroughfare, lined on both sides by solidly-built structures of all sizes and types. Yet, as far as he could discern, this city had been uninhabited for millennia.
Picard presumed the stranger called this place home; despite the gloom and the undercurrent of mildew and decay, anyone in need of shelter and safety would find it welcome. For his part, however, Picard was eager to hear what stories the walls and foundations had to tell. "Mister Data, what do you make of all this?" he asked.
Data, his eagerness to learn more almost equal to Picard's, had activated his tricorder the moment he stepped off the ladder and was busily scanning in every direction. "These buildings are over 50,000 years old," he said. "The architecture is consistent with what little we know about Hebitian architecture."
"This is a Hebitian city?" Picard almost yelped. To date, all that had been found of the ancient Hebitian civilization consisted of little more than a few plundered tombs, although the Cardassian National Museum of History and Art boasted an impressive collection of pottery and jewelry-all off-limits to non-Cardassian scientists, of course. Nothing of this magnitude had ever been reported in any archaeological journal.
Picard sighed. His mentor, Professor Galen, would have given his right arm to see this. Awestruck, he ran his palm across the faćade of a nearby building, hoping to feel a spark of that long-dead culture arc from the hand-cut stone into his own body, revealing to him in an instant the answers to all his questions.
"This city looks to be relatively intact, like it was just abandoned yesterday," Kira said. "What happened to the people who lived here? Did they just disappear? Why didn't the Cardassians just move in-why did they build on top?"
By way of answering her, Data angled his wristlamp upward to shine it on the ceiling. "There is a high concentration of basalt up there."
"Basalt?" Kira and Picard asked in unison, both of them craning their necks up to see. Then Picard nodded. "Of course. Basalt is an igneous rock-it came from a volcano. This city was buried under meters of lava and volcanic ash."
"A volcano did this?" Kira asked, disbelief evident in her voice. "Then how did these buildings survive?"
"I am not certain," Data said. "It is possible a pocket of air protected these buildings. We may find an impassable wall of lava and rubble a hundred meters from here."
"And the people?" she pressed. "Why aren't there any skeletons?"
Again Data replied, "I cannot say for sure. Perhaps they all managed to escape in time. Perhaps the heat incinerated their remains. Perhaps superheated steam boiled them until nothing was left." Both Kira and Picard shuddered at the image. "There is not enough evidence to say."
"Do you think the Cardassians built their capital here without knowing an entire city lay beneath their own?" Picard asked.
"That is likely, Captain," he said. "What is certain is that some of them, at least, know about it now." He removed his phaser from its holster. "We should proceed with caution."
Nodding in acknowledgement of Data's warning, Picard removed his own phaser and began walking away from the ladder, confident the others would follow, impatient to discover what lay ahead, suspecting Q had somehow set events in motion to bring them, against all odds, to this exact place.
At that moment, the Cardassian, who, in his excitement, Picard had completely forgotten about, rushed to the head of the line. "Go now?" he asked, directing his question more at Kira than at Picard. "Come?"
"Do you know where this path leads?" Picard asked, enunciating each word.
The young man nodded. "Know go. I take. Come, come." Then he once again took Kira's arm and strode briskly ahead, not even waiting to see if Picard and Data would fall in step behind him.
Picard looked at Data. "He seems to know where he is going," he said.
"As usual, Mister Data, you are correct. After you." They took off after the Cardassian and Kira at a brisk trot.
Picard walked through the streets of the ancient city in silent wonder. Human civilization was little more than six thousand years old, still in its infancy compared to many of the civilizations he had encountered during his career. To think that, while Humans were still hunting long-extinct beasts with crude spears, the Hebitians were building cities, working with precious metals, designing some of the most beautiful pottery ever found in the Alpha Quadrant, even keeping meticulous star charts, was to stand nose-to-nose with stark humility.
He wondered what the Hebitians must have been like. Their level of advancement indicated they were humanoid, but they had not been inclined toward self-representation; no portrait of a Hebitian had ever been discovered. Their decorative arts revealed a highly developed aesthetic sense with a flair for the abstract, but archaeologists lacked a Rosetta Stone that would unlock the secret to decoding their equally complex hieroglyphics. The ornate tombs suggested at least a rudimentary belief in the afterlife, but the nature of that belief remained unknown. What was Hebitian family life like? What did they eat? What industries had the economy been based upon? So many questions, yet so few answers.
Above all else, Picard wondered what had happened to the Hebitian civilization. One popular theory was that they had died out naturally, perhaps by a series of cataclysms, either natural or man-made. Some archaeologists argued they might have abandoned Cardassia and colonized another world, perhaps voluntarily, perhaps as slaves eventually assimilated into another culture. For an instant Picard thought of the Borg, and could not contain his instinctive shudder. The most prevalent theory was that the Hebitians had been conquered and eliminated by the Cardassians, but that theory posed as many questions as it answered: where had the Cardassians come from? Were they natives of this world? Had they once been enslaved by the Hebitians? Were they natural descendants of the Hebitians? Not for the first time Picard wished Professor Galen were here, to debate the merits and faults of the numerous theories.
Picard also wondered about their young Cardassian guide. How he had first discovered and managed to navigate this course with limited visual acuity, diminished mental aptitude and no light source was beyond Picard's capacity for guessing. Keeping his attention firmly focused on his feet lest he stumble on the uneven, rock-strewn path, Picard asked their guide, "Where are you taking us?"
Picard cleared his throat and tried again. "You there. Do you know where you're going, or are you just leading us on a wild goose chase?"
The young man's answer was not what Picard expected, but it was an answer nonetheless. He turned sharply to the right and entered a narrow passageway between two buildings. The alley dead-ended in front of a low stone wall, but the stranger neatly hurdled it. After a moment's hesitation, Kira first, then Data and Picard, followed him.
The wall seemed to border what may have once been a courtyard; in the center, an immense fountain sat, untouched by time or the elements. Picard noticed as he passed by that it still held water in its enormous basin. On the far side of the courtyard stood a long, low building, its intricately carved entablature supported by a series of massive columns. In between them Picard saw light flickering through.
The young man seemed unconcerned by his surroundings or the mysterious light. He ascended the smooth steps three at a time, then turned to face his companions. "Come," he said, patting the column nearest him. "Home." Then he turned and entered the building.
Picard instantly recognized the building's ancient role: whatever the Hebitian religion may have entailed, this had once been a temple. "Mister Data," he whispered, at the same time wondering why he felt compelled to lower his voice, "is your tricorder handy?"
"Yes, of course, Captain," he replied in like manner, removing his tricorder from its pouch and activating it. "But why are we whispering?"
"No matter." With his lamp extended stiffly before him, Picard ascended the steps and passed cautiously, almost reverently, between the columns.
A second set of columns stood between him and the inner sanctuary. These columns appeared to have been fashioned out of some unidentifiable type of wood, carved by long-dead artisans into almost grotesquely abstract fetishes, then lacquered to prevent time and nature from eroding the material and thereby bringing on the collapse of the ornate roof. With an ever greater sense of awe Picard crept past the looming totems and into the main sanctuary.
In the center of the temple a large fire blazed smokelessly. Who built this? Picard asked himself. And why?
At one end of the temple stood a low table surrounded by stone benches. Picard headed toward it, eager for discovery. Data knelt before the table, his tricorder beeping excitedly. "Captain," he said, "there is a drain beneath this table."
"And blood stains on top," Picard said. "This was clearly an altar. The drain existed to allow blood and other liquids to escape. It also means the Hebitians may have had an advanced sewer system," he added, trying to rein in his growing excitement. "As with many cultures, the priest probably slaughtered an animal here, using a special libation cup to catch the blood, opened the carcass to read the entrails, then roasted the remains on that fire for the temple officials to eat."
"Oh," Data said. Then, "Why would the priest read the entrails?"
Picard had to smile, despite the gruesome image his friend's question evoked. "In many primitive cultures, it was believed one could see into the future by studying an animal's intestines."
"Oh," Data repeated.
Picard could see he was not satisfied. Forestalling the anticipated follow-up, he said, "Don't ask me why. The practice died out on Earth a few thousand years ago."
"Yes, Captain," was the disappointed reply.
Only then did Picard realize they were alone. "Mister Data," he asked, "did you see where Colonel Kira went?"
Genuine puzzlement creasing his brow, Data looked around. "No, Captain, I did not," he finally said. He re-activated his tricorder and scanned the area around him. "There is a residual biosignature matching the colonel's in the direction of that small building," he continued after a few seconds, pointing toward a squat-shaped chamber at the opposite end of the temple.
Picard wondered why he had not noticed the structure before; its simple, unassuming design made it seem out of place in the midst of such imaginative dZcor. Perhaps that had been intentional-perhaps the temple's designers had meant for the chamber to be overlooked. He followed Data.
"This is not what I expected to find," Data said, almost apologetically, as Picard came around the corner.
For a moment, Picard shared the sentiment. Rather than a doorway or fourth wall, instead he found a large, marbled pit, shielded from prying eyes by the structure, its steep sides decorated with images of fantastic creatures. In each corner, someone-or someones-had neatly stacked crates of food and water, tools, equipment, anything that might be necessary for an extended stay in this hidden shelter. But where was Colonel Kira? Where was the Cardassian who led them here? Had they walked unwittingly into a trap? He checked the setting on his phaser to reassure himself. He did not relish the thought of a group of marauding Cardassians taking them captive.
He was beginning to fear the worst when Data, after checking his tricorder, leaped into the pit. "Look, Captain" he said, indicating a small, round hole in the center, "there is a drain here as well. Do you suppose this is where the Hebitians would have sacrificed very large animals?"
Picard knelt down and thought for a moment, rubbing his chin as he did so. "Perhaps, or perhaps even people. But I doubt it." He followed Data into the pit and traced his hand along one of the sides. "Do you see these animals painted along the walls? What do you think the wavy blue lines surrounding them indicate?"
Data tilted his head to one side as he studied the figures Picard pointed to. "I do not know," he admitted.
Smiling both at Data's innocence and his own intuitive realization, he said, "Water, Mister Data. These decorations were meant to simulate an underwater environment. This pit was built to hold a large amount of water."
Comprehension glowed in the android's eyes. "Such as a pool?"
"Possibly, but more likely a bath. The priest would have wanted to purify himself before conducting any sacrifice, and then of course afterward he would need to cleanse himself of bloodstains, both real and imagined."
"Imaginary bloodstains?" Picard believed he could hear Data's artificial brain shifting into overdrive in an effort to make sense of it all. "Why imaginary bloodstains?"
"Guilt, mostly." He sighed at the blank expression on Data's face. "You see, when we...kill someone or something, even if that killing was somehow unavoidable or necessary, we feel guilty about it. So we do whatever we can to 'cleanse' ourselves of that guilt."
Data remained silent for a moment or two, absorbing the information. Then he nodded. "I see. So, when you went to live with your brother and his family after Commanders Riker and Shelby rescued you from the Borg, you were --"
"-- atoning for the guilt I felt at having caused so many deaths, yes," Picard said, feeling a resurgence of that familiar tight, tingling sensation in his chest. No matter how he tried to expunge it, he would always carry the guilt of Wolf 359 with him. However, he had long ago learned to live with the guilt, and not let it paralyze him. "In this case, the priest felt guilt at having slaughtered an innocent animal, so he would purify himself in this bath."
"Then why --"
"Because the gods demanded it."
Picard had to disagree, but he kept his opinion to himself; he saw no sense in encouraging another round of Data's preternaturally probing questions. Instead, he knelt down to study an odd crack in the floor. As he got closer to the irregularity, however, he realized that was not a natural crack in the marble, but rather a deliberate seam. "Help me with this, Data," he ordered, trying to slip his fingers between the tiles.
With the precise, unresentful sort of obedience that could only come from a creature like Data, he knelt at Picard's side, slipped his fingers through the crack and lifted a large cluster of tiles welded together to form a false door built into the floor of the bath. Picard held his wristlamp before him and peered into the darkness. A short ladder led from the opening to the floor two meters below. He swung his legs over the rim, about to enter the hidden passageway, when Data's strong grip on his arm stopped him.
"You should let me go first," he said, removing his phaser from its holster and adjusting the setting. "That equipment was left here fairly recently. We do not know who or what we may find down there."
"Nor do we know who built that fire. We should proceed with extreme caution." He waited for Data to descend the ladder, then followed him down. "I only hope no harm has come to Colonel Kira."
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Kira had no idea how far the Cardassian had led her through the seemingly endless tunnel, but she suspected they had long since passed beyond the limits of the capital city and well into the next day. Picard and Data were far behind, their progress no doubt delayed by their incessant chatter about ancient civilizations. For all she cared, they could have been carried off by a pack of rabid voles, she was so glad to be free of their typically Human superiority. As far as she was concerned, she felt as if she had been running from unseen specters for hours on end, only adrenaline pushing her onward. She had to stop and rest, and as much as she resented their presence, she needed to give Picard and Data a chance to find them and catch up.
"Wait," she called out to her escort, clutching his arm in an effort to slow him down. "I can't go on any further. Let's stop here and rest a while."
The Cardassian gave her a blank look, his lips pursed in a distorted simulation of deep concentration. "Stop?" he asked. "No go?"
"No go," she agreed, nodding vigorously. Her chest burned as she sucked in great draughts of air. Shadows danced before her eyes, making her dizzy. "Food," she said. "I need to eat. I need water." I need to pee, she thought, but kept that request to herself. "Stop, please, just for a little while. Rest."
Comprehension dawned in his disfigured face. "Stop. Rest," he said excitedly. "Know rest," he continued, once again taking her hand.
"No, please, no more," she begged, trying to pull free. "I can't go on any further."
"Is okay," he insisted. "Rest. Not far." Then, tugging her gently, he led her into an alcove neatly secreted off the corridor. Judging from the blackened pile of stones in the center of the floor and the rags scattered around it, the alcove had been used as a shelter fairly recently, and fairly often.
"Is this your home?" Kira asked, wondering why the Cardassian would choose such a remote and distant place to call home.
"Home, yes," he said, guiding her to the largest pile of rags and indicating she was to make herself comfortable.
To appease him, Kira made a show of stretching out and pretending to make herself at home. Once he seemed satisfied she would not abandon him, he settled himself in the opposite corner without a word.
Kira knew the stranger continued to watch her warily from his dark corner, waiting for her implicit approval of his meager hospitality. She was restless, though, and the aroma from her 'bedding' was almost too much to bear. Easing to a seated position, she pulled her field pack to her and rummaged through it. From within she retrieved a canteen, two field ration packets, and a shirt, which she tore into strips.
She attended to her most immediate need first and guzzled noisily from the canteen until water dribbled down her chin. Once her thirst had been slaked, she attended to her hunger pangs with a tasteless but filling ration square. Next she held one of the cloth strips to the canteen's mouth and gently tipped it forward, soaking the cloth. Then, moving slowly lest she startle the stranger, she crept across the floor. The Cardassian remained as motionless as a statue, the light from her wristlamp reflecting in his unscarred eye as it followed her movements the only sign of vitality.
Kira knelt before him and studied him in silence, wondering yet again why he seemed so familiar to her. After a few moments she opened a ration pack, tearing at the wrapper with her teeth and removing the chewy, tasteless square inside before handing it to her host. Then she waited to see what he would do.
His response made her smile. First he studied his 'meal,' turning it over and over to examine it from all angles. Next he sniffed at it, wrinkling his nose in apparent distaste. Then his tongue poked out of his mouth and grazed the surface, before disappearing behind his lips and teeth. Finally, having determined the ration square to be non-toxic, if a bit unpalatable, he opened his mouth and crammed the entire thing in.
What followed was a litany of loud chewing as his teeth tried without much success to grind the square into a size and consistency suitable for swallowing. While he was otherwise occupied, Kira took the damp rag, wrung out the excess water, and scooted closer. Then, moving with utmost caution, she leaned forward and stroked the rag across his cheek.
He froze, but to her relief he did not jerk away. She reached up again and repeated the gesture, aware of his flinch as she brushed against a bruise he must have acquired in the attack in the bar. On the other hand, she could already see the results of her efforts to remove the accumulated dirt and grime. Pleased with her success so far, Kira remoistened the rag, grimacing at the sight of the blackened water running free as she wrung the cloth, then set herself to her task with utmost dedication.
For an indeterminate length of time Kira worked diligently, scrubbing at the man's face and neck, replacing the strips as necessary until her canteen was empty. When her task was complete, she took out her phaser, adjusted the setting as high as it would go, and ignited a pile of rocks in the makeshift hearth, suffusing the alcove with light and warmth. When she turned, she found herself facing a completely new man-a man she recognized, but could not name. Most likely they had crossed paths during the Occupation, or perhaps he had been on Dukat's staff during the Dominion War, but she still found his familiarity unsettling. Who was he?
Kira gave him a nod of approval and tossed the filthy rags into a pile, then sat down beside him. He tensed for a moment, still unsure of himself, then acquiesced and shuffled closer, sitting stiffly erect and looking straight ahead.
She studied him in silence for a long time, trying to think of the best way to question him. Finally, she asked, "Was Ziyal a friend of yours?"
His overlarge head pivoted on his stalklike neck with such speed Kira feared he might topple over. Instead, he exclaimed, pointing to himself with exaggerated emphasis, "Ziyal. Friend. My friend."
Kira sighed and shook her head sadly. Pointing to herself, she said, "My name is Kira. Kira Nerys."
That seemed to puzzle him; he looked away, licked his lips, and repeated her name several times. After several moments he looked back at her and asked, "Not Ziyal?"
"No," she said. "Not Ziyal. Ziyal was my friend."
"Not Ziyal," he repeated. The realization that he had been mistaken seemed to distress him. Then, tentatively, he asked, "Kira friend?"
She tried to reassure him with a smile. "Yes, I am your friend. I promise to help you."
A broad, childlike smile creased his un-childlike face as he asked, "Ziyal help?"
Kira sighed again. "No, no, not Ziyal. Kira." A wave of sadness engulfed her as she said, "Ziyal is dead."
At first, he did not respond, and Kira wondered if he misunderstood, or if his simple mind lacked the ability to grasp the concept of death. The melancholy she felt in Ziyal's absence fueled her growing compassion for this anonymous, shattered man, and she slid closer to rest her hand over his where it rested atop his thigh. Unsure if she should repeat herself, Kira held her breath, concentrating all her energy on observing his reaction.
The first sign he had heard, and, indeed, understood, was a single tear that escaped his eye, paused as it reached the valley of his eye ridge, then navigated an erratic course through the scales, scars and creases giving character to his face to drip off his chin and land on her hand. Then he swallowed rapidly, removed his hand from her gentle clasp, and leaned his elbows on his knees, folding his hands before him. Still he said nothing.
Still Kira waited, determined to see this through to the end.
He curled up on his side, facing the warm, glowing rocks, and watched her as she slept. She was exhausted, he knew; so was he, but his mind had endured so much stimulation in the past several hours he could not free himself from the maelstrom of thoughts and emotions and achieve the peace he sought. So, instead of forcing sleep to come, he tried to concentrate his thoughts on a single object.
Whoever she was, she was not Ziyal-whoever Ziyal was. She knew who Ziyal was, however, which must mean they may have even known each other in his distant, unrecoverable past. Who was Kira Nerys? He had to find out. He needed to remember.
Frustrated by the lack of answers and his own limitations, he rolled on to his back with a loud sigh. He ached all over, both from the beating he took in the bar and from the limits he had pushed his mind and body to ever since she entered his narrow world. Perhaps, he hoped, after they had both rested they could try again. He closed his eyes and closed his mind to all thoughts and feelings.
Consciousness returned with a jolt, as if he had been thrown from a cliff into a pool of ice-cold water. With a sharp cry he jerked awake, convinced he would open his eyes to find his limbs scattered to the four winds. Instead he found everything exactly as it had been before, with the fading orange glow of the hearth and Kira's bright eyes staring at him through the darkness the only evidence of the passage of time.
Your name is Damar...
"Are you all right?" she asked, worry tingeing her voice. "You kept crying out in your sleep."
"Damar..." he murmured.
She sat bolt upright with a gasp. "What did you say?"
"Damar..." he repeated. The name felt strangely familiar to his tongue. "My name is Damar."
You were the leader of Cardassia...
"Nonsense," Kira said. "Damar is dead. Stop talking such nonsense."
"I was the leader of Cardassia..."
"Stop it!" she snapped. "Go back to sleep." She lay back down, but even in the dim light he could see the tension emanating from her.
You killed Ziyal...
He could not understand why he felt compelled to repeat everything the strange voice in his head told him. Nonetheless, he found himself saying aloud, "I killed Ziyal..."
There was a blur of movement on the other side of the alcove. By the time he blinked, Kira had drawn her phaser and aimed it directly at him. "What did you say?" she ground out through clenched teeth.
"I-I --" He took a deep breath, trying to make sense of the jumble of images and voices jostling for supremacy in his mind. "My name is Damar, Legate Damar. I was the leader of Cardassia, before...before...," he struggled to grasp the elusive memory, "...before the Jem'Hadar slaughtered 800 million of my people. I was an adjutant to Gul Dukat, before his disappearance during the withdrawal from Terok Nor. I killed his daughter because she was a traitor. I --" he paused in his litany, feeling the sting of tears in his eye "-- I killed Ziyal."
With each word he uttered, with each memory he recalled, a strange warmth suffused him, as if admitting his responsibility for Ziyal's death freed him from a lifelong imprisonment. "Ziyal was my friend, and I killed her, just as I killed my family and my people." A chaos of images exploded in his mind with stunning brilliance then, but somehow he managed to locate the one specific image he required. In his mind's eye, he saw himself holding the phaser, saw Ziyal embrace her father, saw her turn for one final farewell, saw the beam of light snake from the muzzle of his weapon to the center of her chest. He saw Dukat's anguish, saw his own remorse and self-doubt, saw Ziyal die. Then he knew.
Kira stared at him as if he had suddenly sprouted a second head. For a long time, an eternity it seemed, she stared at him in shocked silence. He chose to say nothing more, to let her be the first to speak. He had already said enough. Now was the time for silence.
He remembered. What a glorious sensation, to have the dam that had been holding his memories at bay suddenly wash away, and a flood of awareness and knowledge fill the places where, for the past three years, only emptiness had been. With each passing moment, he recovered more and more of his memory.
He remembered his first assignment, on board the Groumall, and his early, ill-fated infatuation with Ziyal. He remembered Dukat's foolhardy alliance with the Dominion, and his own arrogant belief that he could hold Weyoun at bay until the war with the Federation had weakened the Dominion forces and Cardassia could reclaim her mastery over her own worlds. He remembered his shameful love affair with kanar. He remembered his defection and rebellion, and Rusot's stupidity, and the arrival of Kira, Garak and Odo. He remembered the murders of his family. He remembered all he hated about Kira, and all he admired about her. He remembered why she hated him, and why she agreed to fight for his cause. He remembered the phaser beams striking him, burning his clothes, scorching through layers of flesh until he felt as if his very intestines were ablaze. He remembered losing consciousness, and awakening beneath layers of debris, bereft of companions and identity. He remembered everything.
Through the dim glow from the hearth he saw movement. Kira had placed her phaser beside her, within easy reach, and was now rummaging through her pack. When she pulled her hand free, he saw it held a dermal regenerator.
"There's only one way to find out if you really are who you say you are, or if you're just crazy," she said, inching toward him. "Will you let me?"
He knew if he refused he lost any chance of gaining her confidence, and so he nodded, keeping his movements as slow and deliberate as possible, lest he give her cause to use her weapon on him. He had already regained too much to risk losing it all.
She, too, moved with extreme caution, but soon enough she was kneeling before him and taking his chin in her hand. "This may take a while," she said. "I'm no medic, and the scarring is pretty extensive."
"Take all the time you need. I'm not going anywhere."
She smiled grimly. "No, you're not. Not until I have some answers."
He sat still as a Breen glacier while she administered to him, although his heart pounded so fiercely with anticipation he wondered if she could feel his pulse racing beneath the gentle grip of her fingers. If she did, she said nothing, her concentration focused entirely on excavating his true identity.
The only time he moved was when the regenerator's beam broke through the lowest layers of scar tissue. The sudden, blinding brightness of the laser was the first light to touch his damaged eye in three years. The pain was excruciating, and despite his best efforts to control his response he recoiled with a cry of protest.
"I'm sorry," she said. She set the regenerator on the ground beside her, then turned back to him. "Hold still and let me get a close look at you."
He obeyed, although when she directed the beam of her wristlamp toward his face he was forced to turn away, his newly-opened eye was still so exquisitely sensitive to the harsh light. Undiscouraged, she pressed her palms on either side of his face, taking care not to press too firmly against the tender flesh, and stared at him. After a moment or two of rapid blinking, he willed his gaze to return her scrutiny.
She released him with a sharp intake of breath. "By the word of the Prophets," she murmured. "You are Damar!"
Q could not help admiring his beloved mate's fourteen slender, hairy legs as she used them to maneuver across the alcove's ceiling toward him, her bulbous body with its triple pairs of multifaceted eyes balanced precariously on top. "My dear," he said, his own arachnid form quivering in delight, "I never would have guessed how much the shape of a Cardassian barking spider compliments your already stunning beauty!" He woofed a couple of times for effect, and because he could not help himself.
She waved a couple of forelegs at him in reproof. "Darling, your silk is showing."
"Oh my." He blushed-as only spiders can blush-and retracted the deceptively thin filament he had inadvertently released. Once he had collected himself, he asked, "What brings you here, my love?"
Q growled, and not just because of the physical form he had assumed. He had expected this. In fact, he was surprised they had given him so much leeway. They must be desperate for his success, otherwise they would have put their collective-and rhetorical, since the Q had no use for feet when in their natural state-foot down long ago. He would have to remember that; it might prove useful, especially when manipulating uncooperative Humans like Picard. "They think I'm interfering, don't they?"
Since all but four of her limbs were actively engaged in fashioning a web, Q simply nodded. "They were willing to overlook the Dukat-Winn charade, since I was there to keep you in line, but restoring Damar's memories was too much."
Q scoffed. "Pah! What do they know? He would have regained his memory eventually. All I did was shorten the process a little."
"Which you shouldn't have done, inevitability or not." She put down her knitting to creep closer. "You weren't even supposed to arrange that oh-so-coincidental 'meeting' in the bar!"
"Now wait just a minute!" Q blustered, his body bobbing up and down in agitation. "I had nothing to do with that!" At her unblinking, iridescent stare, he continued, "I'm telling you, that wasn't me!"
"Mmm-hmm," she murmured, obviously not believing a word he said. "Fine, believe that if you want to. The point remains the same: stop interfering before the Continuum censures you."
"Yes, ma'am!" he saluted smartly, using half of his legs to execute the maneuver. Q just shook her head in silence, then disappeared.
Q skittered across the ceiling. When he stood above the two one-time adversaries, he anchored himself to the ceiling with a wad of silk, then carefully lowered until he dangled a few centimeters from Kira's head. "At least," he whispered to his unsuspecting audience, "they haven't caught on that I'm the one who spared Damar's life three years ago."
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According to Data's quick reconnaissance, the cramped passageway opened up into a large corridor, high enough for them both to stand erect, a few meters beyond the secret entrance. Picard closed the trap door behind him, just in case the owner of that equipment happened to be following, then crept behind Data into the main corridor.
"Look, Captain," Data said, pointing to one of a series of objects affixed to the wall.
Picard shone his wristlamp on the object. "A lantern?" he asked, neither expecting nor needing an answer. "Do you have your phaser handy?"
Data dutifully adjusted the setting on his weapon, then aimed it at the lantern and fired. The wick sputtered and smoked at first, then began to glow bright orange before bursting into a bright, white light, filling the corridor with illumination. Picard was about to thank Data when, as if on cue, one by one each subsequent lamp flashed to life. "Well, then, I guess we won't be needing these," he said as he de-activated his wristlamp and put it in his pack.
"There appears to be a fuel line connecting the lanterns on each side," Data said.
"I figured as much. It must mean these passageways were used often."
"They are recent additions," Data said, lifting his tricorder to scan one of the lanterns. "This fuel is only a few years old."
Picard turned around in place and studied his surroundings. "I wonder if this underground city might have been used as a bunker by some of the higher-ranking officers in the Cardassian government," he mused. "I suspect that if civilians used this place, there'd be more evidence of their presence."
"Perhaps the Obsidian Order used it as a base of operations. There may even still be agents in hiding down here."
Despite his best efforts, Picard could not control his shudder. One run-in with the Obsidian Order was more than enough to last a lifetime. He did not relish the thought of meeting up with one of Gul Madred's former colleagues. He would do whatever was necessary-even violate his own high moral standards-to prevent any such occurrence. "Are you sure?" he asked, nonetheless glancing around suspiciously. "If the Obsidian Order survivors had taken refuge down here, I doubt they'd have left their gear out in the open like that. I also doubt we'd have made it this far unscathed."
"Perhaps," Data conceded. "However, there is little reason to suspect that any Central Command officer would have been equally careless. Furthermore, I do not think our location qualifies as 'out in the open'."
"Point taken, Mister Data. Obviously this place is a very well-kept secret, and whoever uses it would not expect to find us down here. That makes our situation all the more precarious. Keep an eye out."
Picard knew he could rely on Data to protect him at all costs, but he was reluctant to encourage the android to take any unnecessary risks. He found some solace in the bright illumination provided by the lanterns-anyone hiding down here had probably been alerted to their presence, but the limited confines of the passageway would hamper any attempt at an ambush. Even while he kept his senses on high alert, Picard also allowed the explorer in him to emerge and take note of their surroundings.
The walls were clearly man-made, although he saw no evidence of the origins of the tunnel itself. Had it been carved out of the bedrock by ancient miners, or was it a product of nature?
A series of intaglia had been arranged on the walls in a precise and orderly pattern, columns of three stacked floor to ceiling interspersed with a single, centered plaque, each approximately 2 meters apart. They were uniform in size and shape, but the similarities ended there. Each bore unique and distinctive images, no two exactly alike, although many motifs appeared again and again. Some of the images and motif clusters looked vaguely familiar, whereas others Picard remembered having seen decorating the temple.
Unable to suppress his archaeological instincts, he stopped before one of the clusters of intaglia. "Data," he said, "What does your tricorder say about these plaques?"
Eager for the answer, Picard hovered close by while Data scanned the relief. The precise arrangement along the walls, coupled with the ornate embellishments distinguishing one from another, raised several questions in his mind that, he hoped, a tricorder reading could answer.
"At least one of these hieroglyphs appears to be Cardassian," Data finally said after studying the readout. Before Picard could prompt him for more details, he pointed to a lotus-like symbol in the center of the plaque. "This is almost identical to the Cardassian state emblem."
Picard almost groaned aloud at his own blindness. He had seen several varieties of that particular image on many of the tablets. No wonder he had fixated on it-no wonder it had looked so familiar to him. "The Cardassian government must have chosen this symbol to represent the state after finding it in those Hebitian tombs they uncovered. The symbol would have implied a direct line of succession between the ancient civilization and the modern one."
"I do not think that is the correct conclusion, Captain," Data said, guiding his tricorder's scanning beacon around the edges of the tablet. "If these readings are correct, this tablet is not just a plaque, but a cenotaph. I am detecting evidence of humanoid remains behind it."
"What?" Picard asked, ecstatic. "Are you saying we stumbled into Hebitian catacombs?"
"Yes, Captain," he said, unruffled as usual, "except they may not be Hebitian. Although the age of this crypt is synonymous with that of the temple, these bioreadings indicate the remains are analogous to those of the Cardassian genotype."
Without a second thought, Picard removed his field pack and rummaged through it until he found the tools he needed: a stone mason's hammer and chisel. Twenty-fourth century archaeologists had much more modern tools to work with, but Professor Galen had always encouraged his protZgZs to use hand-held instruments. "An archaeologist without dirty hands and scraped knees is a treasure hunter, not a scientist," was one of Galen's favorite adages. As Galen's star pupil, Picard had taken his mentor's advice to heart, and never went on any expedition without his hammer, chisel and whisk broom.
"Give me a hand here, Data," he said, wedging his chisel between the plaque and the wall. Data retrieved his own chisel from his pack and mimicked Picard's movements, placing his tool several centimeters above Picard's. Once both chisels were in place, Data drove them further in with a few good blows from the hammer. Then, each man gripping the handle of his chisel, they pulled as one.
At first, the plaque refused to budge. They pulled again. Still nothing. And again, but this time Picard thought he felt something give. He planted his feet firmly against the ground. "Pull!" he commanded, clenching his teeth and pulling with all his strength.
With a growl of protest and the hiss of an ancient broken vacuum, the tablet gave way with such force it threw Picard to the ground and sent Data staggering. An object tumbled free of the crypt and landed with a hollow thud in Picard's lap.
For an instant, Picard was too stunned to do much more than shake his head to clear his vision. As soon as the fog lifted, however, he looked down at the unfamiliar weight in his lap.
It was a Cardassian skull. The cranial ridges were less pronounced than in modern Cardassians, but there was no questioning the species of humanoid this skull came from.
Picard picked up the skull and stared into the empty eye sockets. "Alas, poor Yorick," he murmured. Then, "Mister Data, do you realize what this means?"
Data knelt beside Picard to examine the skull. "No, Captain. What does it
mean?" he asked guilelessly.
Picard smiled in grim triumph. "It means we've been wrong all along. The Hebitians weren't replaced by the Cardassians-they were the Cardassians' direct ancestors!" His gaze returned to the skull. "But why would the Cardassians want to conceal that?"
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Kira could not believe her eyes, but the truth was undeniable: Damar, whom she had seen fall under a hail of disruptor fire three years ago, was alive. She had uncovered him herself, buried beneath years of dirt, scar tissue and fractured memories, but she still did not believe it. "I can't believe it," she said, shaking her head as if to clear her vision of a troublesome hallucination.
Damar gave her a lopsided grin; the newly-regenerated flesh on his face was obviously still quite tender. Hallucination or not, Kira wished she had something to treat his discomfort. "What can't you believe?" he asked. "That I'm not dead?"
She laughed humorlessly. "That's a start. Pick something, anything. I can't believe you're not dead. I saw you die! I can't believe that out of all the people on this planet to run into, I ran into you. I can't believe half of what I've seen or heard tonight. I-I --" she raised her arms, palms up and looked around her "-- I can't believe we're down here...wherever here is."
The grin that had creased his face slowly faded as he, too, looked around. "Yes..." he murmured. "I'm surprised we're here myself. I guess instinct helped me remember."
"What is this place?" she asked. "Why did you bring us here? Have you known about it all along? Why didn't you bring us here during the war-do you realize how much more effective we could've been if we'd known about this place then? We could've --"
His upraised hand halted her barrage of questions. "Slow down" he said. He took a deep breath. "I don't know why I brought you down here tonight. All I know is that something was driving me here-instinct, subconscious memory, alien possession, I don't know. If I knew..." he sighed again. "I wish I knew why."
Leaning forward to rest her hand on his knee, Kira asked, "Do you know where we are?"
He nodded. "Oh, yes, I definitely know where we are."
Kira waited. When nothing else was forthcoming, she asked, "Do you intend to fill me in, or am I just going to have to guess?"
Damar slowly stood and crossed to the narrow fissure leading to the main tunnel. He folded his arms over his chest. Kira remained where she was, waiting impatiently for his answer. After a long, tense moment, he finally said, "The reason why I never brought you and Garak and Odo down here is that, many years ago, I took an oath-a blood oath-promising to protect the people who live here with my life. I gave them my word of honor, Colonel-I swore to them that I would never bring them harm, even at the cost of my own life. Had I revealed this place, even to my own men...it would've meant the end of them. That was a sacrifice I wasn't willing to make."
He turned back to her then, but kept his gaze focused on the ground, his lower lip sandwiched between his teeth. "I can't even begin to imagine why I felt compelled to bring you here now. I --"
This time, Kira silenced him with an upraised hand. "Wait. Stop," she said. "Hold that thought. What people are you protecting?"
He flinched as though stung. Still refusing to look directly at her, he returned to her side, picked up her phaser where it sat, forgotten, by her knee, and aimed an intense beam of energy at the pile of rocks in the center of the floor. Then, squatting before the fire with her weapon dangling idly in his hands, he said, "The Kerdish."
"The Kerdish. They're...tribesmen, nomads. They are...they're the descendants of who we once were."
"You mean they're Cardassians?"
He nodded. "Yes. No. Both, and neither."
Kira groaned in frustration. She had thought she was finally beginning to understand, but Damar's equivocating caused her head to hurt. "Are they Cardassians or not?"
He pursed his lips in thought. "They are to the casual observer," he said, fluttering his hands about his face. "They look like Cardassians-scales, ridges, third eye, the usual characteristics. But the similarities end there. The Kerdish distinguish themselves by living in accordance with the old ways-the way my people lived thousands of years ago."
"When the...Hebitians were in power?" She was beginning to wish she had listened more carefully to Picard's nattering about archaeology.
"Even longer," he said.
"And you felt obligated to protect them? Why? From what?"
"Central Command. The Obsidian Order." He gave a slight shrug. "The official policy against the Kerdish was one of extermination. The old ways-the ways of the Kerdish-are an embarrassment to most Cardassians, especially those in the military and government. They are a reminder of how primitive and unsophisticated we were once."
Kira would have laughed, had his rationale not been so familiar to what her people had endured at the hands of his people. "Why you, then? You were in the military-you were the leader of Cardassia! Why did they trust you?"
He looked at her then, with an expression so full of melancholy it almost broke her heart. "My wife was Kerdish," he said.
"Sweet Prophets," Kira murmured. "No wonder you were so determined to protect them-they were your family."
"Exactly." He leaned back and sat down, crossing his legs before him. "I just wish I knew why I felt I had to bring you down here now."
Kira sat beside him, and together they both stared into the fire's red-orange depths. "Maybe it has something to do with why I'm here," she said after a while.
He turned his head to study her. "Why are you here? I'd have thought you'd have retired to Bajor long ago."
She snorted. "Sometimes I wish I had, but someone has to keep Starfleet from over-running the station."
"You mean Tero-I mean Deep Space Nine? You're still there?" She nodded. "And Bajor never joined the Federation?" She shook her head. "You still haven't told me why you're here."
"I'll tell you as soon as I've figured it out for myself. Never mind that," she said when he gave her a quizzical look. "Captain Picard and Commander Data are here trying to find some sort of ancient relic-a book of some sort. I'm here to make sure they fail."
He gave her a long, hard stare, his eyes never blinking until she squirmed and looked away. "I find that hard to believe. You're as eager to find that book as they are." He paused for a moment, then continued, "Why? What's so important about this book it'd bring a Human-much less you-all the way to Cardassia?"
Although her cheeks were warm, Kira's hands felt cold, and she held them out toward the fire, spreading the fingers to expose more of her skin to the heat. Even so, she shivered at the memory of the two pagh-wraiths' 'visit.' She took a deep breath to calm her nerves, then asked, "Do you know anything about Bajoran religion?" His sneer was answer enough. "Dumb question. Okay...well, apart from the Prophets, there are these creatures known as pagh-wraiths. Their 'leader' is known as Kosst Amojin: the Evil One."
"Kosst Amojin," Damar murmured. "I know that name."
Kira nodded excitedly, intuitively knowing what stirred his memory. "Dukat..."
He shuddered violently. "Yes, Dukat!" He ran his hands over his face, taking care around the newer surfaces. "Dukat, he..."
"He became a devotee of Kosst Amojin."
"You mean he became a devil worshipper." Oddly, his voice carried no sense of sarcasm or condescension.
"You could say that." She hugged her knees to her chest, feeling another chill pass through her despite the heat emanating from the rocks. "Some say it was a case of like meeting like."
He scoffed. "I can't imagine who on Bajor-or on DS9-would say that." This time, the sarcasm was all too evident. "But I still don't see what this has to do with why you're here."
One of the rocks splintered beneath the intense heat, sending several small stones tumbling toward them. Kira kicked one away with the toe of her boot, leaving a black streak along the well-worn leather. "There was a book, called the Book of the Kosst Amojin, that supposedly had the power to unleash great evil on Bajor."
She felt, rather than saw, Damar turn to look at her with incredulity and scorn. "You don't actually believe any of that nonsense, do you?" He shook his head. "I thought you, at least, were above all that."
"The book exists, Damar." She turned to him, her eyes wide with the fear and uncertainty that had haunted her ever since that day they found Kai Winn's remains in the fire caves. "Dukat, with the help of...of..." she paused, willing herself to ease the storm brewing in her imagination and focus on the moment at hand "...of our most venerated religious leader, found it."
"Maybe so," he shrugged, "but obviously it doesn't have this 'evil power,' or else you wouldn't be here talking to me."
"There's more," she said. "There's a missing chapter."
Silence fell upon them, dark and suffocating. Even the fire seemed to wane a little. After a long, tense moment, Damar said, "That's why you're here. That's what you're looking for." She knew he saw her nod, even in the dim light. He licked his lips and swallowed noisily. "This...'great evil' you mentioned...do you know exactly what that means?"
Despite her own anxiety, she could not help teasing him. "Don't tell me you believe any of this nonsense. I though you, at least, were above all that."
His laughter rang loudly and falsely throughout the alcove, eventually escaping through the fissure to reverberate in the corridor beyond. Her own accompanying laugh sounded hollow in her ears, and she cut her mirth short. "I have no intention of falling victim to any of your superstitions," he said, leaning his head back to look up at the ceiling. "But..."
"But the Kerdish have a legend that is disturbingly similar."
"Really?" Kira asked, interested in spite of herself. Then, lest she appear overeager, she continued, "I've heard that similar legends can be found all across the quadrant. Did you know than ancient Humans even believed in their own version of the Emissary?" At Damar's upraised brow ridge she almost went on, then thought better of it. "I'm sure it's just a coincidence."
"Oh, I have no doubt you're right," he said, leaning back and then shuffling himself around until he was stretched out on his side, catlike, before the fire, his head propped on one hand. "However, the Kerdish also have a legend about their ancestors having been evicted from Paradise thousands of years ago. These ancient people were forced to wander from world to world, searching for a place to call home. Apart from their personal belongings, all they carried with them to remind them of where they had come from was a sacred book. According to the legend, a day would come when someone chosen by the Kerdish gods would open the book, thus revealing the secret that would restore them to Paradise."
As Damar recounted his tale, Kira had leaned her weight back on her hands and closed her eyes, letting her imagination summon up a vision of broken-spirited Cardassians in search of their lost Paradise. Despite her long-cherished antipathy toward Cardassians, the vision was too similar to present reality to bring her much pleasure.
When he finished, she opened her eyes to see him looking up at her with a strange expression that seemed to encompass both longing and compassion at the same time. She shifted, uncomfortable beneath the intensity of his gaze. "Is that it?" she asked when he turned his face back toward the fire.
"No, that's not it," he said quietly.
He looked back up at her, but this time the raw emotions had been replaced by apprehension. "In the legend, Paradise is known as Ha-Bajra."
After returning the skull to its final resting place and carefully resealing the crypt with a low-res beam from a phaser, Picard and Data continued on. The string of lanterns-and the catacombs-came to an end after several hundred meters, leaving them once again with nothing but their wristlamps and Data's hyperacute vision to guide them through the darkness. Picard's unease returned as thoughts of a possible ambush invaded his thoughts, but he forced his fears to the back of his mind.
His first priority, at the moment, was to find Colonel Kira. Once he had accomplished that task, he would have to sit down with the data they had collected and saved to Data's tricorder and analyze it. He hoped to return here soon and conduct a full-scale excavation; in light of the current political situation on the surface, he doubted the Cardassian government would be in any position to object. The Bajorans, on the other hand, might cause problems. He would have to ensure the colonel's support and tacit approval before submitting his proposal.
He was so deeply involved with his aspirations that he failed to notice that Data had come to a stop. Consequently, Picard walked right into him.
"Such grace," came the sardonic comment.
Picard sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose, which stung from the collision. "I suppose I should have expected to run into you at least once," he said.
Q chuckled at Picard's unintended pun. "TouchZ, mon ami." Then, with a snap of his fingers, a soft, warm glow bathed the chamber. Picard looked around, but saw no visible light source. He looked at Q questioningly. "Call it 'divine radiance'," Q said with a twinkle in his eye.
Picard scowled. "All right, then, perhaps you'd care to shed a little light on where we are and why we're here?"
His hands pressed to his sides, Q roared with laughter. "Ho, ho, ho, my pet has gone and found himself a sense of humor! What is the world coming to?"
"I do not see the humor in all this," Data said without reproach. "We have lost our guide and Colonel Kira. Furthermore, we do not know where we are nor how to return to the surface without retracing our steps."
Picard recognized the expression on Q's face as he listened to Data. He had seen it once before, when Q had been reduced to mortal limitations and Data had risked his own precious life to save Q's. For all the pomposity and arrogance Q might exhibit toward Picard and other mortals, he reserved genuine respect and admiration for Data. It was perhaps the only truly honest emotion the insufferable entity ever felt.
"A genuine concern, to be sure," Q said to Data, "but not a cause for worry. You are, as you have always been, on the right track. And, soon, I promise you, you will be reunited with Legate Damar and Colonel Kira and return to the surface for the final leg of your journey."
A thousand questions sprang to mind. Picard could not possibly prioritize them all, so he leaped to the most obvious one. "Legate Damar? Who's Legate Damar?" He secretly hoped Legate Damar had not been a colleague of Madred's; the name was familiar enough for it to be possible.
Q gestured vaguely in the direction they were heading. "Oh, just that flea-ridden spoonhead you picked up."
"Do you mean the same Legate Damar who led the Cardassian revolt against the Dominion?" Picard breathed a sigh of relief, now that Data had reminded him why the name seemed familiar.
"The one and the same." Q beamed at Data.
"But Starfleet reported that he had died hours before the cease-fire."
Q shrugged. "Death is a state of mind."
Data opened his mouth, then reconsidered and snapped his mouth shut. In the opening he left, Picard spoke up. "You mentioned the final leg of our journey. Are you saying we're close to finding the Book of the Resurrection?
Q gave a slight nod. "Close, yes, but you still have a long way to go."
Picard turned to Data. "Sounds familiar."
Q sputtered in exasperation. "What would you have me do, Jean-Luc? Give you a map leading you directly to the book, complete with a giant red X indicating where you're supposed to dig?"
"That would be nice."
"Maybe in your limited understanding of reality," Q scoffed, "but I can't. I've given you enough help as it is. Too much, in fact-not only is the Continuum screaming bloody murder, but the Prophets are on to you now."
Picard's upraised hand brought a halt to Q's hurried, breathless rationalization. "Excuse me-the Prophets? You don't mean the aliens that live in the Bajoran wormhole, do you? The aliens the Bajorans think of as their gods?"
Q rolled his eyes in obvious disdain. "Yes, Jean-Luc, those Prophets. Certainly not those crazy men with long beards and unkempt hair scampering about the desert in your pitiful history."
Ignoring the puerile attempt to anger him, Picard pressed, "What do the Bajoran Prophets have to do with any of this?" A fragment of a memory flickered in the back of his mind like a warning light.
His arms crossed over his chest, Q looked down his long, thin nose at Picard. He was already several centimeters taller-no doubt by design-but this stance only made him seem to grow even taller. Picard refused to feel inferior, however, and glared back at him. "Well, Q, are you going to answer me or not?"
Q furrowed his brow until a crease appeared just above the bridge of his nose. Looking all too much the part of a strict schoolmaster, he finally said, "I'm tempted to say no, just to spite you. But I'm above that sort of childish behavior." At Picard's derisive snort he paused only for a second, then continued, "The 'wormhole aliens,' as you high-minded Starfleet types are so fond of calling them, are at the very heart of this crisis. They are the ones who infected the Continuum-and they are the reason why I need you to find the Book of the Resurrection."
The warning light flashing at the back of Picard's mind suddenly became a full-fledged red alert. The fragment of a memory, a line item in a border patrol report he had read years ago, leaped, fully-formed, from his subconscious into stark reality. "I remember..." he began, trying to put the memory into words. "The Bajorans...they believed Benjamin Sisko was a religious figure...a messiah of some sort." The gleam in Q's eyes prodded him onward. "He disappeared right at the end of the Dominion War....I recall something about a trip to Bajor, then he was never heard from again." Picard almost gagged on the realization. "He's the one! He's the Human you brought into the Continuum!"
Q shook his head, his expressive mouth turned downwards. "You were so close, Jean-Luc, you could almost taste it. But you missed by a mile. Sisko is the source of the infection, but no Q is responsible."
"No Q--?" Picard thought aloud. Then it hit him. "The Bajoran Prophets are part of the Continuum! They're Q!"
"Actually, they're P, but close enough." Q clapped a hand on Picard's shoulder. "You realize what that means, don't you?"
"They have the same abilities as the Q," Data answered on Picard's behalf.
"Very perceptive, my gilt friend." He turned his attention back to Picard. "The only advantage you have is their limited understanding of linear time. Unlike the Q, they haven't grasped the awareness that the cosmos advances outward in infinite directions from a single point. To them, time and space are wholly relative. With Sisko there to instruct them, however...." He let the implied threat hover unspoken. "If they choose to send Sisko to stop you, then you have no advantage at all."
"But you --"
"No." Q shook his head firmly, but his expression was mournful. "I cannot help you. You'll have to rely on your own resources to stop whatever the P send after you." He gave Picard a weak grin. "Why do you think I turned to you? If anyone can succeed-if anyone has a fighting chance-it's you." Then he disappeared in a flash of white light.
Picard turned to Data. "Well, that answers that question." He sighed. "What do we do now? Keep walking?"
"Actually, Captain," he said, pointing in the direction of a ladder that, until then, Picard had not realized was there, "I think we can return to the surface that way."
"Thanks, I think," Picard grumbled to himself as he followed Data.
Back To Top
"Damar," Kira whispered. "Are you sure you know where you're going?" She cursed her inattention, and not for the first time since she left Deep Space Nine; she had not kept a close eye on the power cell in her wristlamp, and as a result she had been forced to rely solely on Damar's dubious knowledge of the dark subterranean passage.
The gentle squeeze of his hand around hers reassured her a little, but not much. "Don't worry," he said. "Cardassians can see in the dark, remember?"
"Maybe so," she grumbled as she tripped over an unseen obstacle. "But Bajorans can't."
"We'll be returning to the surface soon, I promise," he said. "There's an access door just a couple hundred meters away."
"What do we do once we get to the surface?"
"If I remember correctly, there's a herd of riding hounds pastured not too far from there. We'll take a couple and ride across the Zanathian Desert to find the Kerdish."
"I thought you said the Kerdish lived underground." She wondered why they had not seen any during their sojourn in this strange clandestine world; the Kerdish must have developed an aptitude for camouflage over centuries of persecution.
"They do, but I guess in my witlessness I overlooked the season. At this time of year they make a pilgrimage to the foot of the Boudat Mountains. It's some sort of holy place in their mythology."
"Lovely," she muttered. "I'm sure they'd be just thrilled to have a Bajoran riding into their camp and demanding to see their holy book."
Damar chuckled softly. "I don't know, Colonel. I think you'll find the Kerdish to be much more accommodating than you give them credit for. They've been on the receiving end of governmental prejudice for centuries."
"All the more reason not to upset them even more." She chose not to remind him that the purpose of her interest in the Kerdish and their holy book was to determine if the book was, in fact, the same one Picard sought and, if so, to destroy it before Picard had a chance to use it against Bajor. Nonetheless, she knew Damar understood her intentions precisely. Odd, she thought, considering his profession of loyalty to the Kerdish, but then nothing about this trip had met her expectations. 'Odd' was hardly the word for it anymore.
Rather than reply, he stopped and craned his neck upward. Then, reaching out with his free hand, he said, "Here we are."
"There's a ladder right in front of you. This is how we get back to the surface."
"I'll believe it when I see it." Kira reached out blindly, waving her arms in front of her and hoping she would not fall flat on her face. Instead, one hand came into contact with a hard, tubular object-upon closer examination, she realized, a ladder almost identical to the one they had come underground on. "You knew this was here all along?"
She stepped up on the first rung. "Is this where you intended to bring me before...before you recovered your memory?"
She heard the rustle of fabric as he shrugged. "I guess so. I can't imagine any other reason why I would have brought you down here. Unless, that is," he added with a soft laugh, "I had some simple-minded notion to kidnap you and make you my wife."
Kira stiffened. Coming from anyone else, his comment would not have been funny by any stretch of the imagination. Coming from a Cardassian, however-and a Cardassian who had her at a complete disadvantage-the insinuation was chilling, to say the least. "Don't ever make a crack like that again," she said, drawing as far away from him as she could without losing her balance and tumbling from the ladder.
"I'm sorry, Colonel," he said. She could hear genuine remorse in his voice, and relaxed a little. "I shouldn't have said that."
"It's all right, Damar," she said, trying to reassure him. "I know you didn't mean anything. It's just..." She tried not to think of her mother.
"I know," he said sadly. "I forgot for a moment, but I know."
Kira let it pass. There would always be misunderstandings and missteps between her people and his, as long as anyone who remembered the Occupation and the Dominion War still lived. "Forget about it," she said. "I will if you will." She looked upward, straining her eyes in a futile effort to penetrate the darkness. "Are you sure there's a trap door up there?"
"Positive." She felt him climb to stand on the rung beside her. "Better let me go ahead." He brushed past her to ascend the ladder. Once the way was clear, she clambered up behind him.
When the ladder's frame ceased shaking beneath his greater weight, she knew he had stopped climbing, and did the same. "Are we at the top?"
"One moment," he said with a hint of strain in his voice. Beyond him, Kira heard the grinding of metal against metal. Then there was a whoosh of inrushing air and a sliver of light appeared above her head.
"Can I help?"
The sliver of light became a broad band streaming directly into Kira's eyes, blinding her with its brilliance. She turned away and shielded her eyes with one hand, holding on to the ladder with the other.
"Damn, it's bright out," Damar said. "Hard to believe it'll be night in just a couple of hours."
"You're kidding me." Still squinting, Kira ascended to the top rung to stand beside him and look out at the acres of sparse, scrubby vegetation that passed for a Cardassian meadow. Far in the distance she could see the hazy skyline of the capital. "Holy Prophets," she said in amazement. "We must've walked at least fifteen kilometers."
"Sounds about right," he said. "Don't forget that more than half the city was completely decimated by the Jem'Hadar. It didn't use to look so far away." He turned at the waist and pointed behind them. "That way's west, so you can see how late in the day it is."
Kira turned to gaze at the glowing disk on its final descent toward the horizon. Surrounding it like demure ladies-in-waiting, three yellow moons in various phases floated in the carnelian sky. "I never realized you had such beautiful sunsets on Cardassia," she said with unfettered honesty and admiration.
She felt his scrutiny, but their close quarters allowed her no room to move away. "There's a lot of beauty to Cardassia you've never seen," he said quietly. Then he looked away. "You should see the sun set in the city-the pollution in the air turns the sky every imaginable shade of red!"
Pointing toward a vague and irregular outline along the horizon beneath the setting sun, Kira asked, "Is that where we're headed?"
Damar nodded. "Yes, the Boudat Mountains. In between here and there is the Zanathian desert. It'll take us all night to cross it-that's why we need a hound. They're the best way to cross a desert, barring mechanized transportation."
With a grunt, he heaved himself off the ladder and on to solid ground, then squatted down to extend a hand of assistance. "Let's get going before it gets too dark. It's quite possible that herd of riding hounds is long gone, which means we'll have to find another way to cross the desert."
Although he had better sense than to say so to Kira, Damar was surprised to find the herd pastured in their usual place. Whatever the cause, he was grateful for this small stroke of good fortune. The trip across the Zanathian Desert would be arduous, even with the magnificent hounds to ferry them across.
Kira squatted beside him as he knelt behind a hedge, searching for the largest and hardiest of the herd. "Surely you don't intend for us to ride one of those creatures, do you?"
He turned to see her wide-set eyes grow larger with apprehension, and felt a resurgence of emotions he wished he could ignore. This was neither the time nor the place, never mind his race and his personal history with this woman. On the other hand, she was still here-on Cardassia, and with him. Nothing wrong with a little wishful thinking. It was not as if he had much else to hope for.
He grinned at her teasingly. "Surely the fearless Colonel Kira Nerys, heroine of the Bajoran and Cardassian resistance, isn't afraid of a little puppy ride?"
"'Little'?" she spluttered. "I've flown suborbital ships smaller than those animals!" Her eyes narrowed. "How are we supposed to catch one anyway?"
He had asked himself the same question. "I don't suppose you've got a replicator in that pack of yours?" She glared at him in reply. "Guess not. So much for a saddle and bridle. How about a rope?" This time, she shook her head.
He sighed. Then an idea came to him, and his mood immediately brightened. "You have salt tablets, don't you?" She was bound to have a substantial supply of salt tablets-it was the only way Bajorans could cope with the oppressive heat on his planet.
"Of course I do," she said, giving him a strange look. "What do you need them for?"
"Give me four or five," he ordered, holding out his hand and wiggling his fingers impatiently. While she searched in her pack for them, he explained, "Hounds love them. Offering salt to a riding hound is like waving a bar of latinum in a Ferengi's face. Once they get a whiff of this stuff, we'll have the pick of the litter to choose from."
"You sure that's such a good idea?" she asked, handing him the required tablets. "These hounds don't look at all tame."
He rose to a half-standing, half-crouching position. "Don't worry about it. We'll be fine. I know what I'm doing." At her unblinking stare he asked, "What? Don't you trust me?"
"Oh, I trust you just fine." She jabbed a finger toward the herd, some of which had already detected the scent of salt and were cautiously moving closer, their muzzles stretched forward, their nostrils quivering in curiosity. "It's them I don't trust."
"Well then," he said as he slowly unfurled himself to his full height and stepped out from behind the hedge, "I guess you'll just have to walk."
"Walk?" He knew she had followed after him, and grinned to himself in mischievous satisfaction. Nothing like a challenge-from a Cardassian-to bring out the best in her.
"You've got two choices, Colonel," he said, trying to rein in his laughter. "You can ride across the desert on the back of a riding hound, or you can walk. Or," he added thoughtfully, "you can stay behind."
"The hell I will." Her voice was firm but not angry. "I'll ride, if that's the only option I have. But I'll be damned if I'm going to like it."
Now that the herd was almost within arm's reach, Damar stopped. There were a little more than a dozen, many of them with nursing pups peeking out shyly from behind their mothers' legs. Standing apart from the rest of the herd, a dog watched Damar's movements with wary, distrustful eyes, ready to command the others to flee at the first sign of danger. They all looked sleek, well-fed and at least half-tame. Good enough for him.
He slowly stretched out his arm and opened his hand to reveal the source of the enticing scent. The hounds did not move, instead tensing their powerful leg muscles. However, their necks were extended forward as far as possible without actually coming into contact with him. Despite his eagerness to get moving, Damar knew impatience would ruin his chances. He held perfectly still, waiting for them to make the first move.
A bitch, an enormous hound with a dappled coat and large, intelligent eyes, pushed forward from the back of the herd. Damar took a step or two closer. The other hounds backed away, but the bitch stayed where she was, her ears pricked high and forward, her tail slightly lifted. Damar took another step closer.
The soft velvet of her lips caressed his palm where she gently lifted the tablets out of his hand. Then a wide, wet tongue licked off any remaining residue. While her attention was pleasurably diverted, Damar carefully raised his free hand up toward the crest of her mane, then just as slowly slid it downward toward her withers. Before she had licked the last grain of salt from between his fingers, he had leaped gracefully on to her back.
He felt her muscles go suddenly taut between his legs and wrapped his hands in her scrubby mane, preparing himself for her flight. For a moment, he thought she might actually bolt-then she relaxed and craned her neck to look around at him, her soulful eyes clearly indicating she was prepared to do his bidding.
Damar almost laughed out loud; even after years of freedom, her training was so deeply ingrained he needed to give her only a moment's notice before socialization overcame nature. He glanced down to see Kira gazing up at him in wonder. Perhaps unconsciously, perhaps not, his ridges swelled with pride. "How did you do that?" she asked, obviously awestruck. "You just --" her hands fumbled in the air as she tried to recreate the scene "-- and you...then you...just like that!"
He shrugged with false nonchalance. "It was nothing. You just have to be able to anticipate their reactions."
He chuckled, then leaned down, his arm held out. "Need a boost, Colonel?"
She scowled, then rolled her eyes and muttered something inaudible-a prayer, he guessed-and grabbed his forearm. When he pulled her up to straddle the hound behind him, even with her assistance her lightness surprised him. There were birds on Cardassia that weighed more! Yet he knew, all too well, that beneath that petite, fragile exterior she had the strength of the finest titanium alloy. He had the memories of a black eye, fractured jaw and several cracked ribs to attest to her strength.
"You ready?" he asked.
He felt her shift behind him, then her arms came around to clasp tightly at his waist. "As ready as I'll ever be."
"Then let's go." In response to a click of his tongue and a gentle nudge from his boot, the hound took off at a long, rolling lope.
Damar stood motionless and watched as the sun sank behind the distant mountain range, the sky above him mutating from orange to pink to pale indigo in a matter of minutes. Above him, Kira shifted herself into a more comfortable position astride their mount.
When Cardassia was still in her prime and Damar was one of her highest-ranking officers, he could have easily acquired a shuttle to ferry Kira across the Zanathian Desert in climate-controlled comfort. On the other hand, were things still as they once had been, he doubted he would have been inclined to help a Bajoran in any way. Since the collapse-since his defection even-his attitudes had changed and motorized transports had become available only to the opportunistic thieves and pirates who had stolen Cardassia right out from under his nose. Perhaps, he thought as he turned to tighten the cinch holding their stolen saddle on the hound's broad back, he could reclaim Cardassia and restore her to her former glory. She would not be the same Cardassia, however; the new Cardassia, the Cardassia of his dreams, would welcome change, welcome openness, welcome strangers.
Millennia ago, before his people took to the stars, riding hounds had been bred for the vast deserts that covered most of Cardassia's major landmasses. His people had once been wanderers-until they were enslaved by the Hebitians and forced to settle in cities and turn away from the uncertainty of the nomadic life-and the courageous hounds had served them in good stead. Now these majestic beasts were little more than pampered pets, gifts to children from overindulgent parents, although some in the upper classes trained the hounds to hunt or race for sport.
The hound stirred, snorting and pawing impatiently at the ground. "Easy girl," he murmured, raising his hand to scratch beneath her chin. "We'll be going soon enough." He gathered the reins in one hand, wondering at yet another stroke of good fortune: they had come upon an abandoned stable and found a fully-stocked feed and tack room. Coincidence had turned in his favor so many times in the past two days he was beginning to wonder if he was being set up for a fall.
He looked up to the sky and saw Cardassia's three moons, known in myth as the Witches of Korashnavar, shining high and bright in the starless sky. Damar shivered against the sudden chill of the night air and rubbed his hands together beneath the folds of his robe, stolen, like their tack, from the clutches of chance.
The hound tossed her head, causing the metal links on her bridle to jingle tunelessly. She then pushed her muzzle toward him and grabbed a lock of his hair between her velvety flews.
Kira laughed as Damar pulled free to place a foot in the stirrup. "I guess now's as good a time as any," he announced. "Trust me, Colonel, you don't want to be caught out in this desert during daylight hours."
"Won't you be too cold, riding at night?" she asked.
Her concern for his comfort warmed him as much as his thick robe did, but he merely nodded at her, then pulled himself up into the saddle. "I'll be fine. You'll soon find out how well-suited to desert climates these gettle's-hide robes can be."
"No need to tell me," she said, leaning forward to once again wrap her arms around his waist. "I already feel as if I'm sitting before a roaring fire with a hot cup of raktajino in my hands and a wool blanket covering my feet."
He whistled to the hound, noting with pleasure how quickly she responded to his commands. "Hold on to that feeling. You'll be needing it sooner than you think." Then, with a nudge from his boots and a sharp cry, he commanded the hound into a full gallop.
Her broad, flat paws barely marked the soft desert sands as she skimmed across the surface with a grace any starship designer would envy. Damar applied gentle pressure to her flanks and leaned forward over her withers, drawing his legs up and wrapping his hand in her mane. She responded to his unspoken encouragement with a series of loud, joyous barks and a surge forward, her pace quickening with each long-legged step. Kira clung to him for dear life; he could feel her heartbeat hammering fiercely against his back.
Damar could not help grinning. Despite the chill and the throbbing in his head, the feel of the wind rushing past, the tiny grains of sand embedding in his still-tender cheeks, and, above all, the circle of Kira's arms around him and her warm breath in his ear, invigorated him, reminding him that he had once again cheated death. Now that he had been given yet another chance, the time had come for him to stop cheating life.
The first sign of trouble came when a bolt of lethal photonic energy streaked past Kira, jangling the adornments on her earring. "Damar..." she called in his ear, her voice audibly strained.
"I know!" he said, jerking downward when another phaser bolt hissed overhead. "Hang on."
The warning was unnecessary; she had already felt the hound's powerful muscles coiling beneath her, preparing for a surge in speed. Kira tightened her grip around Damar, pressing her body closer to him as he bent low over the hound's withers and urged it to run faster.
The ground flew past. Wind burned Kira's eyes, wrenching moisture from her tear ducts. All she could hear was the steady pounding of the hound's paws against the sand and her own heartbeat hammering in her chest.
A third phaser bolt flashed past, then a fourth and a fifth. Kira's heart sank. The discharges were coming from different directions; whoever they were, the assailants had them surrounded. Even as Damar drove the hound away from one unknown danger, he led them into another.
She chanced a look behind her, hoping she might see one of their attackers approaching. All she saw were several indistinct shapes, mounted on riding hounds as she and Damar were, racing toward them beneath the first glimmers of dawn. She turned her head to the right, then the left, and saw more riders. Escape was futile. Their only hope was to stand their ground and fight-to the death, if that was the Prophets' will.
"Damar," she said, almost choking as the wind rushing past forced her breath back down her throat, "slow down. We can't outrun them all. There's too many of them."
Almost immediately she felt the hound slow to a canter, then gradually reduce its pace to a walk. Kira ached with pity for the animal; she could feel its exhaustion as its sides expanded rapidly in an effort to regain control of its breathing. Thick, yellow foam covered its muzzle and its head drooped so low Kira thought Damar might topple forward over its neck. She hoped the animal would not drop dead beneath them.
Damar reined the hound to a stop. "We'll let them come to us," he said.
They did not have to wait long; in a matter of minutes the shapes on the horizon coalesced into a band of six or eight riders. Almost as soon as Kira could see them well enough to distinguish features, they slowed, then divided into two groups that diverged in a wide band to encircle the threesome. Then, apparently obeying some unseen signal or predetermined plan, they tightened the noose.
The riders, their mounts blowing great clouds of steam into the chilly dawn air, took up stationary positions around them. They were visibly well-armed, each rider carrying a phaser rifle across his lap, a pistol holstered at each hip, and knives strapped to knee-high boots. One of them also had a vicious-looking split-bladed saber sheathed behind his back. This was no simple scouting party; whoever they were, these riders were trained to kill. Kira's only question was, what were they waiting for?
Kira thought Damar's demeanor was unusually calm, in light of their situation. Not that she expected him to panic-he had been too well-trained for such recklessness-but she could not help noticing the absence of tension in his shoulders. In fact, he had completely dropped the hound's reins to let his hands rest placidly on his thighs. Was this some sort of ploy of his, an attempt to disarm the outriders? If so, she wished he had filled her in. For her part, she was prepared to take down any one of the riders who dared to lay a hand on her.
Once the outriders were in place, the Cardassian wielding the saber-presumably the leader-coaxed his mount forward until he was little more than a meter from Damar and Kira. Then he guided his hound in a tight circle around them, studying them from all angles with a critical, appraising eye. Throughout the stranger's examination they remained silent, although Kira's back throbbed with the discomfort and resentment she felt. All she could do was glare fiercely at the rider's brazenness, but she knew her silent hatred carried no weight. Her fingers itched for a phaser.
At last the head outrider finished his investigation and returned to his position before them. With a gravity and majesty of movement that in anyone else might have passed as mocking, he returned the massive rifle that had been resting across his thighs to its holster and crossed his arms over his broad chest. Then, finally, his mouth cracked open, allowing the dawning sunlight to glint off his teeth. "I thought I told you never to set foot on Kerdish lands again," he snarled.
Kira stiffened. If they were not so thoroughly outgunned, she would have reached for her phaser. Damar seemed unmoved, however. His voice far more even than anything Kira could have mustered at that point, he said, "You told me never to come back unless I was dead."
The outrider's eyes narrowed. At some unseen signal from him, his hound sidestepped closer, affording him the chance to lean forward and peer at Damar. "You don't look so dead to me."
Kira was a bundle of nerves, a lit fuse about to explode with destructive force. Damar, on the other hand, was as calm as a spring-fed lagoon. "You never said anything about my resurrection," he said.
The outrider jerked back on the reins when his mount leaned over to nibble at the other hound's neck, causing both animals to shy away. For a moment, Kira feared losing her seat. Then Damar managed to regain control, and once again both hounds and riders stood opposite each other.
"Why didn't you 'resurrect' her too, brother?" the outrider asked, his voice quavering. "Hm? Why are you the only one so honored?" He shifted his phaser rifle until the muzzle was aimed directly at Damar's abdomen. "Why are you still alive, while my sister still lies in some unmarked grave hundreds of kilometers away?"
Sitting so close to him, Kira felt the wave of sadness and regret wash over Damar, almost engulfing him. She had been there when he learned of his family's execution; she remembered how deeply their loss had affected him, and how his desire to avenge their deaths had spurred him finally to stand firmly on the side of righteousness. She also remembered, with profound contrition, how she had mocked his grief, and how soon she had been forced to swallow her scorn.
A deep, shuddering sigh racked Damar's body. Then he raised his head to look up at the outrider and said, "If it would bring her back, then I would gladly sacrifice my own life."
With a blur of movement, the outrider had unsheathed his saber, swung it over his head and pointed it at the center of Damar's throat. Kira froze. The right amount of pressure could drive the twin blades through Damar's neck and straight into her own, killing them both with a single thrust. "Damar..." she whispered.
Ignoring her, the outrider leaned slightly against the pommel of his weapon. "Well, then, why don't we see just how devoted to her you really are." His upper lip lifted in a sneer. "The Tellers will tell my tale for many generations, because I killed an outsider to avenge my sister's death."
Kira felt the gurgle of fear in the pit of Damar's stomach. "You'll be told for what you are, Dorek," he said. "A coward who executed two unarmed guests. Is that how you want the Tellers to remember you?"
The outrider stared hard at Damar, his jaw clenched so tightly the muscles in his cheek trembled. Then, his movements as rapid and graceful as before, he pulled back and sheathed his saber. Feeling Damar's exhalation of relief, Kira released her own inheld breath.
She immediately regretted her action when the sound of her sigh caught the outrider's attention and he turned to stare at her. His gaze lingered too long for her comfort, and she looked away. Her face grew hot at the sound of his deep, throaty laugh. "Since when did you start consorting with aliens, brother?" he asked Damar. Kira's fists clenched.
In direct contrast to her ire-not to mention all that had just passed between them-Damar gave a hearty laugh and reached out to grasp the man's proffered arm. "Brother!" he cried. "It is good to see you again. It's been a long time."
"Too long," the outrider agreed with a toothy smile. "Our hearth has seemed less warm without you." He leaned forward and whispered loudly, "Although I doubt some of our kinsmen miss your propaganda as much as I do." He leaned back and released his grip on Damar's forearm to gesture toward his face. "It looks like you have new tales to tell. What the hell happened to you?"
"Consequences of being a revolutionary," Damar said tersely. After a long silence, he asked, "Kormet?"
The outrider nodded. "As domineering as ever. And expecting you...and your companion." He trained a leering gaze on Kira, causing her to wish once more for a weapon, for deterrence if nothing else.
Before she could protest, Damar said, "Don't even think about it. Colonel Kira is well out of your league."
"Colonel Kira?" he asked, grinning widely. "My, my, brother. You've always moved about amongst the elite, but what did we do to deserve a personal visitation from such an august personage?"
Kira felt Damar's shoulders shaking with repressed laughter. Rather than unleash her irritation on him, she asked the outrider, "What do you mean we're expected? How did you know we were coming?"
"She's right," Damar said. "How did you know we were coming-and don't tell me that the ancestors whispered it into Kormet's ear."
At that, the outrider threw back his head and laughed uproariously, his amusement resounding off the mountain walls Kira now saw, in the encroaching sunlight, were only a few kilometers distant. Once he had contained his laughter, the Cardassian grinned at Damar and spat against the ground. "Let's just say we have a couple of your friends in our custody at the moment."
Damar craned his neck around to look at Kira. "Do you think--?"
"Captain Jean-Luc Picard and Commander Data?" she asked the outrider. "One a Human, the other an android with gold skin?" The outrider nodded. "You haven't hurt them, have you? If word of this gets back to Starfleet --"
"Colonel," Damar said, "if Captain Picard and Commander Data are guests of the Kerdish, I can assure you they are perfectly safe."
"You'll forgive me if I find that difficult to believe," she snapped. She took a deep breath to calm herself. "After what I just witnessed, I'll be amazed if any of us lives to see the sun set."
The outrider guided his mount closer to them, so he could address Kira directly. "You'll have to excuse that small display of unpleasantness between Damar and myself," he said with unconvincing sincerity. "I think you'll be much safer riding into camp with me." He extended a hand toward her.
"I'd sooner walk barefoot in the middle of the day," she said.
"Colonel!" Damar said, although his tone suggested amusement more than reproof. "Forgive her behavior. You know how Bajorans can be."
"Indeed," the outrider said with a smile. "Even so, you'd better have a good reason for bringing her here. It's bad enough we've had to dodge our own people for centuries, now we'll have to contend with offworlders poking their noses into our business."
Damar grunted. "She's looking for something. That's the same reason Picard and Data are here. We got split up down under."
The outrider's eyes narrowed and his mount pranced nervously, disturbing the other hound in kind. "What are they looking for? Or do I want to know?" He looked at Kira, his head cocked to one side. "Oh, no. She's not after the--?"
Damar nodded. "I can't be positive, but from what she's told me, it sounds like that's exactly what they're after."
"You know Kormet will never agree to it."
"I know. But we had to try."
The outrider snorted in reply, agitating his mount once again. He quickly calmed the beast by pulling up on the reins and stroking its flank. The hound's ears rotated back at the sound of his murmurs, then whickered once and grew still. "Do you realize what this could mean for us? Do you have any idea what you've done?"
Rather than wait for a reply, the outrider simply gave Damar, then Kira, another long, hard stare, then whistled to his mount and turned it around in a tight circle, spurring it to a gallop in the same instant. Without a word, the others followed suit, leaving Damar and Kira alone. Confused, Kira asked, "What do we do now?"
Damar reached forward to gather up the forgotten reins, then slapped their hound on the rump. As it took off after the others with a loud bark he called behind him, "Follow them. The rest is up to Kormet. We can't do anything else until we see her."
Back To Top
Data was the first to spot the cloud of dust that heralded the riders' approach. "I believe they are returning, Captain," he said.
Picard strained his eyes, but saw nothing other than an endless expanse of pale browns and oranges rising up to meet another endless expanse of pale browns and oranges. "Are the colonel and Legate Damar with them?" he asked.
"They are too far away to tell," Data said. They continued to stare at the horizon.
After several minutes, the dust cloud entered Picard's field of vision. He looked at Data for confirmation. "Yes, I do believe Colonel Kira and Legate Damar are with the riders," he finally said.
Picard felt a measure of relief, and relaxed his posture slightly in response to it. How he and Data and the colonel and Legate Damar had become so widely scattered was a puzzle with no easy solution presenting itself. He could not remember any branches leading off from the main underground corridor. How had he and Data managed to pass them by-or was this another one of Q's sleights of hand? Anxious for their arrival, he trotted down to the cliff base, Data close behind him.
The brash young man they had first encountered at the point of his double-bladed saber upon emerging from the underground city galloped past, slowing just enough to throw Picard a jaunty salute before entering the gorge that led to the Kerdish encampment. The youths he called his Companions followed, each one nodding gravely as he passed Picard. Finally, bringing up the rear on a riding hound that looked to be on its last legs, Colonel Kira and Legate Damar straggled in.
"Colonel, are you all right?" Picard asked, stepping forward to assist her, if needed.
Kira climbed off the hound's back and jumped to the ground, untangling herself from the heavy cloak that covered her. She was caked in dust and sweat, but looked otherwise unharmed. "I'm fine, Captain," she said, looking around nervously as she ran her fingers through her damp hair. "How about you? They haven't hurt you in any way, have they?"
"Who?" Picard was momentarily puzzled. Then he realized who she meant by 'they.' "The Kerdish? No, not at all, I assure you."
"I told you the Kerdish wouldn't let any harm come to them," her companion said, dismounting to stand beside her.
Picard studied the young man, recognizing him for the first time now that his face was no longer half-hidden by scar tissue. As best as he could reckon, Cardassia's former leader was less than forty years old-not even middle age by Cardassian or Human standards. Yet, to look at the shadows flitting behind his eyes, he had already endured several lifetimes worth of heartache. So this is the legacy of men like Madred, Picard thought.
"I believe I owe you a proper introduction," he said to the Cardassian, extending his hand in greeting.
The young man hesitated, then accepted his hand with a wary smile. "None is necessary, Captain. I know who you are. But...how did you--?"
"Let's just say I have friends in high places," Picard said. He saw the Cardassian and Kira exchange a look and a shrug. He wondered what had passed between them during their long time alone. Friendship between Bajorans and Cardassians? Not impossible, but certainly unexpected, given Colonel Kira's past. But, then, he knew nothing of Damar's past. Perhaps the colonel knew something Picard did not.
"Tell me something, Legate," he said as they trudged through the gorge, Damar leading the exhausted hound with a loose grip on the reins. Perched on the opposite bluff high above them, a sentry kept a watchful eye out for oncomers.
"Please, just Damar. Legate Damar died with Cardassia three years ago. I have no desire to bring him back to life."
Picard understood how Damar felt. He had often felt the same way: after he had been assimilated by the Borg...after he had been tortured by Madred...after Q had forced him to relive the defining moment in his life....He had buried 'Captain' Picard more times than he cared to count. "My deepest apologies," he said with almost fatherly sympathy and affection. "I hope you don't mind my asking, but I understand you have some connection to these people. Is that true?"
Damar nodded. "Yes, I've known the Kerdish for many years."
Picard could barely contain his curiosity. "How so? Obviously they're not part of mainstream Cardassian society-whereas you, obviously, are."
Damar gave him a strange look. "You, obviously, know a lot more about Cardassia and her people than most aliens."
"The leader-Danal Kormet-explained a little about her people to me last night," Picard said.
Damar stopped and turned, his eyes bright. "Kormet? You've seen her?"
The haste and tenor of his response set Picard aback. "Well, yes," he said, unsure if that was the right answer or not. "We --" he swept his arm around to indicate all four of them "-- we're her guests for as long as we wish to stay."
Damar turned back and resumed walking, his pace quickening with each step. When he was out of earshot, Kira said in a low voice, "His late wife was Kerdish."
"Ah," Picard said, inclining his head. Her cryptic response still did not explain how a career military officer came to be affiliated with these people, but it did at least explain the depth of his connection to them. If the Kerdish could indeed help Picard find the Book of the Resurrection, as he suspected they could, given Q's active and personal interest in the success of this mission, then Damar would be a useful and welcome intermediary.
The remaining threesome rounded a bend in the gorge and came upon a broad, fertile valley completely protected by the forbidding rugged peaks of the Boudat Mountains. At the near end, the herds of riding hounds the Kerdish used as transportation and beasts of burden grazed freely on the thick vegetation that carpeted the valley. Beyond them, a dozen white-peaked tents had been pitched on the banks of a small stream fed from deep within the highlands. From this distance, Picard could see the Kerdish milling around the encampment and smelled the smoke of their cookfires.
It was not really a camp, nor was it their true seasonal residence; as elsewhere, they chose to inhabit a network of caverns created in the west-facing bluffs when, over the course of millions of years, water hollowed out dwelling-sized pockets in the vast limestone deposits found here. The tents erected aboveground were merely temporary, to give the Kerdish a place to escape the sun's oppressive heat while they conducted the business of their pilgrimage. At night, or so Kormet had told him, they gathered to hear the legends of their ancestors told in much the same way the first storytellers recounted the legends of Achilles and Odysseus, of Gilgamesh and Jacob and Sigurd and Arthur.
Ahead of them, Damar, no longer encumbered by the hound, sprinted toward the camp. Picard was tempted to follow him, but, understanding that this was a reunion of sorts for the young man, withheld his eagerness.
At the sound of Kira's astonished cry, Picard remembered his own awe and amazement the first time he saw this scene, when Dorek and his Companions had escorted Picard and Data to Kormet's tent. In all his years of traveling from one end of the quadrant to the other, in all the unimaginably diverse alien civilizations he had encountered, despite all he knew-or thought he knew-and understood about the Cardassians, nothing in his experience could have prepared him for the Kerdish. This was certainly not Madred's vision of the ideal Cardassian society. Picard could not even begin to imagine what Kira, with her limited exposure to Cardassian civilization, must be thinking. He turned to her. "Colonel, did you have any idea--?"
She seemed incapable of articulating speech at first as she stared all around her, trying to take everything in at once. Finally, she managed to ask, "These are the Kerdish?"
Before he could answer, a tall, slim figure emerged from a large tent on the outskirts of the camp and approached them. Picard recognized the man as Dorek. Apparently, so did Kira; she stopped to slide her field pack from her shoulders and reached inside.
Instinctively guessing her intentions, Picard grasped her arm in an attempt to stop her. "Colonel," he said.
She shook him off and pulled out a Bajoran pistol-not the regulation Starfleet phaser she had carried before-and activated the 'kill' setting.
"Colonel," Picard repeated with greater urgency. "Nothing's going to happen to us. The Kerdish have made it quite clear that they are more than happy to help."
"You can believe that fantasy all you want," she growled, holstering her pistol, then slipping her arms through the straps and rising to adjust the pack, "but I refuse to be so na.ve."
"Colonel," Data asked, "were you and Damar threatened out in the desert?"
Kira nodded, then hastened to add, "That's not what worries me, though. Whatever grudge he --" she nodded toward the oncoming figure "-- holds against Damar is none of my business. What is my business is that Damar thinks he knows where we can find that book."
"The book?" Picard asked. He felt his jaw drop open. "The Book of the Resurrection."
She nodded. "That's why we came here." She leaned forward and whispered, "It's a Kerdish holy book." She took a step closer and lowered her voice even more. "Captain, it's here."
"It's here? Where? How do you know?" He had so many questions he hardly knew where to begin. A Kerdish holy book? That made no sense. Q had said nothing of the sort when he first solicited Picard-but, then, neither had he said anything about Cardassian nomads. Q had a lot to answer for.
"I don't know exactly where the book is," Kira explained. "I can't even say for certain that it really is here. However, if Damar is right...." Her voice faded away.
"If Damar is right...." he repeated. If Damar was right, then the Kerdish were undoubtedly not as eager to help as they seemed. From now on, they would have to be very careful about what the revealed of their quest.
Picard looked up to see that Dorek come to a stop and was waiting impatiently for their attention. "Captain," he said with a broad, toothy smile at Picard's raised eyebrow. "Commander, Colonel --" he stressed Kira's title. "Danal Kormet asked me to invite you to her tent. Please, come. Now that you are all reunited, she is eager to hear your tale."
Q perched on the edge of the cliff, dangling his legs dozens of meters above the sheltered canyon where the Kerdish tribesmen had pitched their tents, and watched Picard and Kira head for a nearby tent, Data bringing up the rear.
He anticipated, rather than heard, the slight attention-getting cough behind him. "Not you again?" he sighed.
"I'm so sorry to interrupt your idyllic musing," was her sarcastic response, "but this is urgent."
The tension in her voice compelled him to turn and look up at his mate. "Am I being recalled?" he asked gently, worried by her pallor and the deep lines around her mouth and eyes.
Q shook her head. "No. Worse."
"What?" He suspected he already knew.
"It's the P, Q. They've sent someone to stop you."
He dropped his chin to massage his forehead with his fingertips. He had anticipated this, but had nevertheless hoped to forestall it a few more days. "Dare I ask who?"
He already knew, but her delicate snort confirmed his foreknowledge. "You can probably guess. They've sent Sisko."
Q turned away from his mate to stare thoughtfully at the miniature drama unfolding below. "Then we must act quickly," he said with conviction. "From now on, all bets are off. I will do whatever I have to, to make sure Picard succeeds." He paused, understanding as only an immortal omnipotent entity could the cosmic ramifications of what he was about to swear to, swallowed, then continued hoarsely, "No matter what the cost."
The slight pressure of her hand on his shoulder reminded him why he loved her so much, and he reached up to entwine his fingers with hers. "I'll be with you every step of the way," she promised. "No matter what the cost."
Outside, the fierce sun had already begun to bleach the sky white-hot as it continued its circadian ascent. Columns of evaporating dew further mired the air in a gauzy, diaphoretic haze. Inside Kormet's tent, however, it was blissfully cool and dark. Picard perched on a pile of plump cushions opposite the old woman, Kira to his right, Data behind them. Damar, he saw, was seated next to the woman so closely their shoulders touched. Who are these people? he wondered yet again.
Since he had already met Kormet, Picard assumed the responsibility of introducing the two formidable women. "Danal Kormet," he begun, bowing his head in greeting, "please allow me the pleasure of introducing you to Colonel Kira Nerys. Colonel, this is Danal Kormet, the leader of the Kerdish tribes."
"Kormet," she said, lowering her chin with unexpected grace and diplomacy. "It's an honor to meet you."
"Not half as honored as it is to meet you!" the crone cackled gaily, her voice as high and cracked with age as her teeth were black. She peered at Kira through brown eyes narrowed by squinting, a habit that made the ridges around her eyes and across her temples even more prominent. "It's not often I get to meet the source of some of my wildest stories."
"Kormet is a Kerdish storyteller," Damar explained with a smile. The old woman reached over to pat him on his arm.
"You're a storyteller?" Kira asked, amusement and vanity evident in her voice. Picard saw her glance quickly at the grinning Dorek, seated on Kormet's other side, then look away. "And you tell stories about me?" This time, she smirked at Damar. "I suppose I have you to thank?"
He laughed. "Don't look at me! Kormet's imagination far outstrips the truth."
Picard could not help laughing with the others at the elderly woman's outraged but good-natured splutter. For reasons he could not yet define, he felt at ease in the presence of this woman. Perhaps it was the lively eyes that seemed to take in everything at a single glance, or the simplicity in her hair and attire, so unlike most of the Cardassian women Kira had known, or the quick, agile mind that sensed exactly where to draw the line between teasing and mockery.
The object of his admiration leaned forward on her knees, her mirth evaporating as quickly as it had appeared. "Now that you are all here," she said, "perhaps you can explain what brought you on this long journey." She steepled her fingers before her chest and pointed them at Picard. "What are you seeking?"
After what Kira had told him, Picard was hesitant to respond. He did not want to reveal too much about the true nature of their mission, but he knew Kormet would see through any clumsy subterfuge. He glanced at Kira, who nodded encouragement in return. After another moment's hesitation, he finally said, "We're actually hoping to learn more about ancient Cardassian history. We know so little about --"
"How ancient?" Kormet interrupted. "How far back do you want to go?"
"Well --" he hedged "-- how far back does your history go?"
A ripple of amusement stirred through the tent. Although her expression remained stern, even Kormet's eyes twinkled. "How far back, indeed!" she said. "You found our ancient capital. Isn't fifty millennia old enough for you?"
"But," Data said, causing Picard to cringe inwardly, "the evidence indicates that the underground city predates the infusion of Cardassian culture by several thousand years."
"What evidence would that be?" Dorek asked, his expressive face all hard lines and angles.
"The iconography on the crypts," he said. "The skeletal evidence itself, in fact, suggests that Cardassian civilization is comparatively new." Picard wanted to find someplace to hide.
The Cardassian leaped to his feet, his neck ridges darkening with fury. "You desecrated our ancestors' graves?" he roared. "Who do you think you are, going where you do not belong?"
"Sit down, Dorek," Kormet said. "They cannot be expected to understand." She stared at Picard. "You should not have opened the crypt. However, since you did, in fact, desecrate our dead in your quest for information, you should perhaps have done a more thorough examination, so you could avoid insulting the living."
Picard saw Dorek tensing out of the corner of his eye. "How so?" he asked.
"Had you taken the time to broaden your investigation and remove those blinders you are so fond of calling 'perceptions,'" she said, "you would have found that the influx of Hebitian culture came late in the course of our civilization, and was relatively short-lived. However, because the Hebitians enslaved our people and made such a profound impact on the development and evolution of our history and culture, not to mention our very appearance, it is widely and erroneously assumed that the reverse was, in fact, what took place."
Picard felt about four centimeters tall. "But...but...I don't understand."
"Of course you don't," she said without accusation or contempt. "You're Human, and that binds you to a specific set of subjective perceptions. Because you-and you, too, Colonel," she added, nodding toward Kira, "know our people only as aggressors, you assume that is all we have ever been-all we are capable of being."
"But Central Command --"
"Of course Central Command promotes that image!" Dorek said. "It serves their purpose to portray our ancestors as fierce and warlike, as Klingons with brains. Do you think we could have survived if the people Central Command constantly waged war against discovered we were actually peaceful desert nomads?"
"'Peaceful desert nomads'?" Kira scoffed, rocking back and forth on her knees. "You've got the 'desert' part right, but I'll kiss a Ferengi before I'll fall for the 'peaceful' part!"
"Colonel!" Picard barked, furious and ashamed at her outburst.
"Oh, shut up," she shot back. "If there's one other thing they're right about, it's how your Human morals blind you to everything you can't stuff --" she molded her hands in the air, shaping the images she tried to articulate "-- into perfect little square jewel boxes!"
Before Picard could rise to his defense, Damar stepped into the fray, even rising to approach Kira and squat before her. "What about you, Colonel?" he asked quietly, intently studying her. "Do you think you're immune to the same preconceptions?"
Kira fumed in silence for a long time, her angry gaze never wavering. Then, finally, she said, "No. I don't. But I have a reason to think of Cardassians as aggressors-you invaded my planet and tried to ruin it!"
"I invaded Bajor?" He clasped his hands between his knees, pointing the index fingers toward her. "Do you blame me for the Occupation?"
"No," she said, her anger abating. "That's ridiculous, I know you aren't old enough to have served on Bajor. But --"
"But what? But I'm Cardassian, therefore just like the Cardassians who invaded Bajor?" Kira's jaw clenched, but she refused to reply.
"What he means, Colonel," Kormet said, "is that all you know about our people is what Central Command meticulously arranged for you to know. The Occupation was a military exercise under the auspices of the Obsidian Order. It had nothing to do with Cardassia as we have known it for thousands of years."
"And the Federation-Cardassian War? The Maquis conflict?" Picard asked.
"Also orchestrated by Central Command," Dorek explained. "What you suffered at the hands of Gul Madred is no different than what many of us suffered for protesting his barbarism." He stood and crossed to Picard, then pulled away the collar of his tunic to reveal several centimeters of a brutally purplish scar that, Picard guessed, covered most of his chest. "A man not much different than Madred gave me this just for being Kerdish."
"What about him, then?" Kira asked, pointing at Damar. "He's as anchored to Central Command as they come-Prophets, he was Gul Dukat's protZgZ! Why trust him?"
Both Dorek and Damar turned to look at Kormet. Although Picard could not see their faces, he did see the shadow of grief that crossed hers. Moving as one, both men rose and returned to her side.
"We were plebes at the Cardassian Military Academy," Damar began. "That's where we first became friends."
"For a long time I didn't want to trust him," the other continued. "I knew too well the consequences of revealing my heritage, and Damar seemed to be too much a by-the-book soldier to confide in."
"What happened to change your mind?" Picard asked.
Damar grinned while Dorek scowled. "My sister is what happened," Dorek finally said.
"She came to visit him one weekend, when most of our class had been given leave."
"As usual, we were restricted to grounds for failing to keep our marks high enough," Dorek explained.
"Not that it mattered. Dorek had a 'friend' in town he couldn't stay away from, and so I was alone in our quarters when she literally climbed in through the window." A wistful expression crossed his face even as Dorek rolled his eyes.
"As you can imagine," Dorek said with mock sourness, "keeping my heritage a secret was an impossibility after that. Damar hounded me every waking moment-and even a few sleeping ones, too-trying to learn more about her."
"What did you do?" Data asked.
"I bound him to a blood oath," Dorek said. "I made him swear never to reveal anything he learned about my people. By then, I knew Damar well enough to know he would never violate a promise sealed in blood-he's far too idealistic. The Academy does all it can to freeze idealism out of its cadets, but Damar's is too deeply ingrained. He would --"
"Sacrifice a promising career out of loyalty to a beloved mentor?" Kira asked, raising her eyebrow.
Dorek snorted. Damar looked intensely uncomfortable. "Something like that, yes." Kira nodded, as though she already knew the rest.
"I never met a more passionate defender of Kerdish life after that," Dorek said. "You'd have thought he'd been born one of us. Whenever one of the inquisitors used us as an example of everything a 'good' Cardassian should abhor, Damar would be in his face, calling him a blind, cowardly fool. The other cadets took to calling him 'dish-lover after a while."
"What was that song?" Damar asked.
Dorek chuckled. "'The 'Dish and the Spoon'." Both men laughed. Then Dorek sighed. "Damar forced me to re-examine my own prejudices. Until I met him, I never allowed myself to see Cardassians as anything other than brainwashed automatons, all marching in perfect lock-step to Central Command's tune. Thanks to Damar, I learned to broaden my perceptions. Until he was assigned to Dukat's staff, that is. Then it was as if we'd never met." Picard saw Damar lower his head in visible shame.
"For a long time, after he had fallen under Dukat's influence, we thought we had lost him for good," Kormet said, resting her hand on his shoulder. "We feared Central Command had finally managed to destroy his idealism."
"We feared he would eventually betray us to Central Command," Dorek said. "Then, five years ago, I was arrested on suspicion of treason." He looked at Picard. "You can imagine what they put me through."
"Only too well," Picard said grimly.
Dorek nodded. "They would have killed me, too, if Damar hadn't used his new promotion to secure my release."
"And your sister?" Kira asked.
Dorek scowled again. "They were united three days after he escorted me home."
"What about the Dominion?" Data asked. "Did they not consider the Kerdish a threat?"
Kormet shook her head. "From what I've been told, we were considered more of a threat to the Cardassian infrastructure."
"So they left you alone," Picard said.
"Yes," Damar said. "It wasn't too hard to convince Weyoun how much I feared the Kerdish's corrupting influence." A slow, sly grin spread across his face. "As long as he thought they were more of a threat to Cardassian sovereignty alive than dead, he made sure the Jem'Hadar stayed away from them. And I made sure my men stayed away as well."
"And now?" Kira asked. "What will you do now?" Picard could not tell if her question was intended for Damar or the Kerdish.
"For now?" Dorek asked. "For now, we do as the rest of Cardassia: we rebuild."
Kormet reached over to clasp Damar's hand, her face glowing with joy. "And we welcome home our prodigal son."
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Kira lost all track of time inside Kormet's tent. When she stepped outside for a breath of fresh air after their Kerdish hosts withdrew to attend to the obligations of their pilgrimage, she found the sun already well past its zenith and midway to twilight. The lateness of the hour awakened long-dormant hunger pangs, and her stomach growled noisily.
Almost as if on cue-unless the protestations emanating from her midsection were even louder than they seemed-Picard emerged from the tent with a platter of food. "Kormet left these to tide us over until she returns," he said, proffering the dish.
Kira helped herself to a handful of fruit. "Thanks," she mumbled through a mouthful.
For several minutes she ate hurriedly and noisily, albeit without embarrassment, while Picard stood beside her and gazed off into the distance. When her hunger was satiated, she wiped her hand on her pants. After a brief hesitation to gather her thoughts, she asked, "So it's true you were held captive by Gul Madred?"
Picard flinched, as though she had just touched a raw, exposed nerve. "Yes," he eventually said.
"Oh." She licked her lips, then blurted-before she could argue herself out of it-"Listen, about the things I said in there --"
His upraised hand silenced her apology. "Let's not talk about it right now."
"Fine." Another discomforting silence hovered over them. When she could stand it no longer, she licked her lips again and said, "We need to find a way to get to that book."
He turned to her then, giving her a strange look. "We will, when the time is right. I see no point in rushing things and offending our hosts, if they are indeed the key to finding it."
"I thought Q said this was urgent."
Picard nodded. "I'm sure it is. But don't forget that Q is immortal. Time doesn't mean the same thing to him that it does to you and me."
"Hmph." Obviously, this line of argument would get her nowhere. She could not very well explain the reason behind her impatience; Picard would not trust her for an instant if he even so much as suspected she intended to destroy the Book of the Resurrection. She would have to consider another angle.
"What if we followed the Kerdish the next time they go off on one of their pilgrimages?" she asked, waving her hand vaguely and dismissively toward the mountains, where she knew Kormet and the others had gone. Ignoring Picard's stricken look, she continued, "Damar told me that these mountains are a holy place to them, so it's pretty safe to assume that we wouldn't have ended up here unless there is some reason for it. The book must be out there, and I bet, if we followed them the next time they go off to pray or...do whatever they do, we'll find it."
Picard straightened his posture, subsequently tugging down on the hem of his tunic. "We will do no such thing, Colonel," he said firmly. "You may have no respect for the cultures and traditions of others, but I do, and I will not dishonor the Kerdish or their traditions for the mere sake of retrieving a book that may or may not be the one we've been sent here to find." Before Kira had a chance to retort, he turned on his heel and strode back into the tent.
"Well," Kira said when she was once again alone. "I guess that settles that." She flung the now-empty platter, disc-like, into the sand, and stalked off toward the stream. The heat, the food, and her tension had made her thirsty.
Fingers of indigo and purple grasped the sky above Kira's head when she turned back toward the encampment. The mountaintops, glowed with the red and gold splendor of the sun setting behind them. Beyond the remnants of the camp, across the desert and beyond, thick, black clouds hung low on the horizon. Kira thought she saw flashes of lightning and heard the ominous rumble of distant thunder. A breeze picked up, stirring the sand into miniature maelstroms until granules nipped at her exposed skin. She thought she could smell the distinctive aroma of charred air wafting past her nose.
The time she had spent alone had served her well. By the banks of the stream she had attended first to her thirst, then washed the caked dust and sweat from her face, neck and arms as best she could. Then, feeling refreshed, she drew a circle in the dirt and knelt within it, facing the direction she guessed Bajora to be in, and prayed, the first time she had done so since her...encounter with the pagh-wraiths in the shrine on DS9.
She was unaware of precisely how long she stayed there, but when she roused herself from her meditative trance, many of the Kerdish tents were gone, leaving behind only the vague imprint of something having once been there. The Kerdish themselves were leaving as well; when Kira looked up, she saw them making their way into the mountains, their backs laden with all their worldly goods.
Only a few tents remained standing, but Kormet's was one of them. Kira diverted her course just enough to retrieve the discarded platter, then lifted the canvas flap and ducked her head to enter.
The scene was virtually unchanged from before. Kormet, Dorek and the other Kerdish had returned and were seated as they had been earlier in the day; Damar reclined beside the old woman. Captain Picard and Commander Data remained in their previous spots, although Picard seemed to have found a slightly more comfortable position to sit in.
"Ah, Colonel Kira!" Dorek cried with far too much enthusiasm and hospitality for her liking. "Welcome back. Please, join us." He almost seemed as if he expected her to sit beside him.
Kira glanced at Damar, her eyebrow raised in an unspoken question. He simply smiled and nodded. With an inward sigh, she seated herself on the unoccupied pile of cushions beside Picard. "Did I miss anything?" she asked him.
"Nothing that would interest you," he said under his breath. "Kormet's just been explaining a little bit about Kerdish history."
Even though he was right, Picard's insinuation irked her. Determined to prove him wrong, she smiled tightly at Kormet. "Did I understand you correctly when you said earlier that your appearance is a Hebitian trait?" she asked.
The crone tittered. "Very good, my child! I see you were paying attention. Yes, it is true that we-that all Cardassians-owe our good looks to our former masters."
"Before the Hebitians conquered us," Dorek said, "we looked a lot like Bajorans. Although our ancestors did not have the nose pleats like you do, we had not yet developed the scales and ridges that distinguish us now."
Kormet pointed to the teardrop-shaped depression in the center of her forehead, the trait Cardassians called a 'third eye' and everyone else called a 'spoon.' "This is the only reminder of what we once looked like," she said.
"How long were the Hebitians in power?" Commander Data asked. "Such a dramatic alteration in phenotype must have taken thousands of years."
Dorek nodded. "Our ancestors were Hebitian slaves for about seven thousand years."
"Seven thousand years?" Picard exclaimed. "I thought you said the Hebitian influence was short-lived!"
"Tsk, tsk, Captain," Kormet said, waggling a long, gnarled finger at him. "Pay attention. I said their influence was relatively short-lived. We've been here for well over 100,000 years. Over such a long time, seven thousand years is but a blink of the eye."
"Bajoran civilization is about 100,000 years old," Kira said, half to herself, half out loud.
"Indeed it is," Kormet replied in a tone that made Kira look up at her. "I think, Colonel, that if you open your eyes, you will find we have much more in common than anyone realizes."
Kira grunted in reply. She was tired of hearing about how much Bajorans and Cardassians had in common. That had been one of Dukat's most precious justifications for the Occupation. If he was right and Bajorans and Cardassians shared a common ethos and mythos, then Prophets help them all. Fortunately, however, he was wrong, as he had been wrong about so many things.
"I hope that I am not intruding on forbidden ground," Picard said, interrupting Kira's musing, "but what was this world like before the Hebitians came? Have you retained any vestiges of that aboriginal civilization?"
Kira wondered at the glance Kormet shared with Dorek and Damar. Had Damar already revealed the reason for their being here? She shifted slightly, just enough so she could reach for her weapon at a moment's notice, if necessary.
"You are looking at most of what remains of what we once were," Kormet said. "Our ancient capital is actually quite new. We were nomads long before we began to build cities, and now we are wanderers again."
"It is the burden we have borne since long before we came to this world," Dorek said.
Kira was not the only one who gasped as the full force of Dorek's revelation hit head-on. "What?" she and Picard yelped in unison.
Outside the tent, the wind picked up, causing the canvas to bulge in and out. One of the Kerdish rose and tied the door-flaps closed.
Data, although no doubt surprised by the news, managed to continue the line of inquiry before either Kira of Picard could regain their composure. "You are not from here?" he asked, his head tilted slightly to one side, his eyes wide but unblinking.
Imitating his posture, Kormet smiled, her eyes twinkling as the light from a nearby lantern reflected off the black-brown irises. "No, we are not," she said.
"Then where are you from?" Picard finally managed to ask.
"How did you get here?" Kira wanted to know. "Cardassians have only been spacefaring for the past few centuries."
"We're not Cardassian," Dorek reminded her, as if he thought that made any difference to her.
"That does not explain where you came from or how you arrived here," Data said. Kira smirked at Dorek.
"I am afraid that those questions may never be answered," Kormet said, her ever-present gaiety fading. "We do not know where we came from, or what-or who-brought us here. Those memories have long since faded from our consciousness, and now we have only the tales we tell our children."
"And what do you tell your children?" Picard asked. Kira was not fooled by his placid expression; the whiteness of his knuckles as he gripped his knees and the quivering in his biceps as he leaned his weight forward more than betrayed his enthusiasm.
Kormet looked over at Damar, who nodded, then slapped her hands on her knees. "All in good time, Captain," she said, gesturing to one of the other Kerdish. "As our guests, you must make yourselves at home. You must be exhausted from your trip across the desert! Tonight, after you have eaten, rested and changed your clothes, I will tell you all you need to know."
Later, Kira found Damar out with the herd, sitting on the ground with his back propped against the side of the hound they had crossed the desert on. It looked much better now as it grazed contentedly on the scrubs of vegetation sprouting haphazardly around it. She suspected Damar had personally seen to the animal's care, rinsing the dirt and sweat off, brushing and oiling its wavy fur, and combing the snarls out of its mane and tail.
He, too, had cleaned up. His long hair was now neatly combed back, held together at the base of his skull with a strip of leather. He had found another set of clothes as well, exchanging his ratty, filthy rags for the simple tunic and leggings favored by most Kerdish. If she had not known him from another time and place, she might have thought he belonged here in this idyllic scene, far from any military base.
"Her clothes suit you," he said.
She jumped. Even as she studied him, she had not realized he was doing the same to her. Once she regained her composure and registered what he said, she looked down at her own costume, which one of Kormet's attendants had silently offered her to wear. "Whose clothes?" she asked dumbly.
The shadow of melancholy flitting across his face answered her question. "Oh...I'm sorry, I --" she searched for the right words. "Kormet said they were her granddaughter's. I didn't make the connection. I can find something else to wear."
He waved her offer away as he leaned forward to pluck a blade of grass. "It's nothing. You're just the last person I expected to see walking about in my wife's favorite tunic."
Kira felt her face grow hot with embarrassment. She looked off into the distance, stubbing the toe of her boot into the soft ground. Far off, but closer than before, lightning flashed in the sky. She counted to six before she felt the ground rumble.
"What brings you out here?" Damar asked, breaking the tension that had begun to build.
"I don't know," she said, sitting cross-legged in the grass opposite him. "I felt uncomfortable, surrounded by all those...Cardassians. No offense," she hastened to add.
He laughed. "None taken. But if being with all those Cardassians made you uncomfortable, that doesn't explain why you're out here...with a Cardassian."
This time, she laughed. "Fair enough. But...well..." For some reason, her tongue tangled itself into knots yet again.
"Better a known foe than an unknown ally?" came a voice from out of the darkness.
Kira whirled, almost losing her balance. She cursed herself for not having remembered to bring her phaser when she saw Dorek walk up and squat before them. She could see he still had his twin-bladed saber strapped to his back, and momentarily wondered if he slept with it.
"Relax, Colonel," he said, rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet. "If I wanted to kill you, you'd be dead by now."
"I wouldn't be so sure of myself if I were you," she snarled, half-turning away from him.
"I don't know, Colonel," Damar said. "I've been on the opposite end of both your hands and his minetsa saber. I hate to fault your prowess in the martial arts, but I have to say that Dorek has a definite advantage."
Dorek howled with laughter. Even Damar grinned. Kira, however, scowled at them both. When Dorek had quieted enough to hear her, she said, "You'd be singing a different tune if I had a phaser."
Sobering almost instantly, Dorek asked, "You think so?" With a fluid, graceful movement resonant of his actions earlier that day he unsheathed the saber and held it out for her to examine. Light from the approaching storm reflected brightly on its micro-beveled edges as he balanced it on his palms. "It's made of titanium alloy. You think a puny personal-use phaser can penetrate these blades?"
She shrugged with mock bravado. "Why should a phaser bolt have to penetrate the blade when it can just go past it and right between your eyes?"
"You'd have to be one hell of a fast marksman to be able to get a phaser bolt past my blade."
"Care to try me and see?"
"All right, you two, the war ended a long time ago," Damar said, physically coming between them before they could come to blows. Although Kira relished the thought of decking the arrogant, ridge-necked narcissist, she was glad for Damar's intervention. At the same time, she found herself wondering why he always seemed to attract the same sort of people. Dukat and Dorek could very well have been cut from the same cloth.
"How long has it been since you last picked up the minetsa, Damar?" Dorek asked, as insouciant as if nothing unusual had just happened.
"Too long," he said, rising and wiping the sand from his trousers. "Probably not since the Academy." He bent down to assist Kira to her feet.
Dorek did the same, but she ignored his offer to accept Damar's hand. Unperturbed, he smiled, his teeth flashing in the darkness. "Ah, of course. The term championships?"
As one, they walked toward the remaining tents. Kira slowed her pace, allowing herself to fall behind as the two Cardassians reminisced about their shared youth. The last she heard, before a long, slow roll of thunder drowned out their voices, was Dorek crowing over Damar's second-place finish to himself.
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While the storm approached with increasing speed and ferocity, they had dismantled Kormet's tent, led the herd to shelter, then, guided by flashes of lightning, picked their way through the brush and outcroppings to the Kerdish 'village' nestled high above the valley. Damar stayed close to Kira, acting as her eyes almost as much as he was shielding her from Dorek's interest. He could sense her growing edginess, and feared what it might lead to.
In single file they passed through the central grotto, its floor and ceiling studded with shiny limestone columns, and into the central gathering place beyond, an ancient, extinct volcano. For all he knew, this may well have even been the volcano that buried the long-abandoned capital, banishing the Kerdish to the desert once again. The gently sloping walls created the perfect ampitheatrical effect just as the rim of the cone high above their heads provided cover from the elements even as it allowed the air inside to remain fresh and clean.
Obeying a gesture from Dorek, Damar led Kira, Picard and Data to a cushioned bench near the arena, where they would be able to witness all that took place. He did not want them-least of all Kira-to miss anything. Tonight, he knew, Kormet would tell the Kerdish tale of creation, a tale that could only be told once a century, only once in a Teller's lifetime. With no Tellers to follow in Kormet's footsteps, this could be the last time any of them would ever hear the tale of their beginnings. He wanted Kira to remember this tale, and carry it back to Bajor with her. He did not want it to die out here in the Cardassian wasteland.
Across the chamber he saw a spark, then another, then a flame sputtered to life, revealing Kormet's wizened, somber face in its glow. She held the torch high as she stepped to the center of the stage, where a pile of wood awaited its fate.
"My children," she began, addressing not only those five who had entered with her, but the hundreds of Kerdish seated all around them, each one of them eager to hear her story-their story. "My children," she said, her voice deep and sonorous as it echoed off the high, curving walls, "here we are, gathered once again in the sacred hall of our ancestors, ready to pay homage to our honored dead and the divine flame that burns within each of us. As we have done every year for time immemorial, we have come together, to this most holy place, to renew ourselves and our covenant with the eternal fire that remains forever separated from us."
She turned to the wood then, extending her arm until the tip of the flame on the torch she held licked at a protruding branch. "I call upon this assembly to bear witness to the tales I have to tell. May this fire that burns so brightly ignite in each of us a flame that can never be extinguished!" The wood snatched at the flame when she thrust the torch deep into its heart, roaring to fiery life with all the fury of a warp core meltdown.
All around him Damar heard murmurs of the ancient prayer. Although he did not believe in the efficacy of prayer, he nevertheless felt compelled to join them, and heard himself saying aloud, "May the fire that burns so bright ignite an eternal flame in me." Out of the corner of his eye he saw Kira turn to stare at him, but he ignored her. There would be ample opportunity for explanations later.
Her invocation complete, Kormet returned to the bench where Dorek sat and picked up a gnarled staff topped with bones, hollow reeds and shells threaded along several woven leather strands. The Kerdish called it the Telling Staff, passed down from Teller to Teller for nearly three thousand years. Kormet could tell her tales without the staff, but she liked the traditions and memories it evoked, and the rattling of the gewgaws as she paced a circuit around the now-raging bonfire provided an effective musical accompaniment to the measured cadences of her voice. Besides, as she had once told him with a wink, a woman of her advanced years needed something sturdy to lean on.
There was a rustle of movement, rising and falling in waves as the enraptured audience settled in to hear Kormet's tale. Damar slid a little closer to Kira and leaned forward to clasp his hands between his knees. When the movement died down and all that could be heard was the rumble of thunder and the fire's crackling and popping, Kormet began to weave her story.
"In the beginning," she began, her speech as measured and rhythmic as her steps, "there was no beginning, or middle, or end. There was no was or was not, no here or there, no before or after, no light, no darkness, no life, no death, no stars, no planets, no people. Nothing. And in this nothing rested the seed of all the everythings the universe has come to recognize. This seed was very small at first --" she pinched her fingers to demonstrate "-- so small not even the greatest scientific minds in all of history could find and identify it. Yet despite its size, despite its puny insignificance, despite its infinitesimal nothingness, it was a profoundly fertile seed, straining to release the potency contained within its shell.
"One day-although it was not really one day, because not even time existed in the great void-the seed burst into bloom. Where once there had been nothing, now existed everything." She tapped her staff against the ground until the shells clinked against each other. "Out of nothing, comes everything."
Before continuing, she crossed the arena to pluck a large, hibiscus-like flower from a young woman's hair. Kormet sniffed the bloom, smiled, then crossed the arena again to hand it to Kira. "An ordinary seed," she explained to Kira as much as to the entire assembly, "first puts forth one tiny shoot, then another, and another, until finally it uncurls its leaves to the sun and opens its petals to the sky. This cosmic seed-this fertile microcosm-erupted from nothingness into full flower in less time than it takes to blink your eyes. Suddenly the nothingness had been transformed into beginning, middle and end, was and was not, here and there, before and after, light, darkness, life, death, stars and planets, and the first signs of sentience the universe had ever experienced."
Once again she tapped her staff against the ground until tiny puffs of dust escaped from beneath the knobbed tip. "Out of nothing, comes everything.
"Gradually, over time-now that Time existed and its passage could be observed-the sentience began to take shape." She turned away from Kira and toward the fire, kneeling before it and blowing across the surface of the flames until they jumped and danced before the force of her breath. "'I am Wind,' the sentience said one day to nothing in particular as it blew across the plain putting forth the first green shoots of vegetation."
Next she skimmed her hand across the flames, seeming to capture a tiny flame in the palm of her hand, then releasing it into the sky. "'I am Fire,' the sentience said the next day, pouring its heat onto the plain until the tender plants turned black and their leaves became crumpled and charred."
She then scooped a ladle from a nearby water bucket and poured its contents on to the fire until it sputtered. "'I am Water,' the sentience said the third day as it cooled the scorched plain.
Then she knelt down to scoop up a handful of dirt, which she then sprinkled over the flames. The granules ignited, causing the flames to spark and hiss. "'I am Earth,' the sentience announced on the fourth day as it brought forth new life." Once again the movement of her staff preceded her prayer: "Out of death, comes rebirth.
Kormet rose now, turning to face the assembly as she stretched her arms before her. "And so the sentience continued to take shape, becoming the earth beneath our feet, the air that we breathe, the birds in the sky, the fish in the sea, and the animals that move over the ground. This continued for many thousands upon thousands of years." She shook her staff. "Out of nothing, comes everything; out of death, comes rebirth."
At this point Kormet halted her narrative. She stood before Picard, taking this opportunity to clasp her hands around her staff and smile at him. Damar craned his neck to see around Kira and observe Picard. "Do you know what happened next?" Kormet asked, clearly expecting a particular response.
Picard shook his head. "I'm afraid I don't."
She paused again and looked around at her rapt audience. Damar watched Picard become aware of his own attentiveness and sit back, tugging at the hem of his tunic to mask his mild embarrassment. Then Damar noticed a faint droning noise, not too unlike the sound of a swarm of bees. Confused, he craned his neck, trying to locate the source of the sound, all the while realizing that it grew louder each second.
After a few seconds, Kormet began to tap her staff against the ground, punctuating the drone with a steady staccato tattoo accompanied by the clatter of the ornaments hanging from her staff. Once a tempo had been established, she continued with her story, but this time, rather than simply narrate the unfolding events, she chanted in a high, singsong voice, repeating her earlier refrain:
"Out of nothing, comes everything. Out of death, comes rebirth. Nothing, everything, everything, nothing. Death, life, decay, regeneration. As the river flows to the sea, as the fire consumes the wood, so are we thus destined."
The droning stopped. Once again the chamber fell into total silence, broken only by the roll of thunder and the crackling of burning wood. Damar returned his attention to the small but vibrant figure, the woman to whom so many courageous men and women had sworn their absolute devotion and loyalty, standing at the center of the arena. If an eternal flame burned in any of them, it burned in her.
Kormet ceased tapping her staff against the ground and resumed in her normal voice, "For millions of years, the spirits looked on their creation and found it perfect and complete. Then one day, without any warning, the sentience saw itself as incomplete, as unfulfilled, as...imperfect.
"And so Water poured itself upon fertile Earth to make clay, and Fire heated the clay until it took shape and hardened, and Wind blew on the hot clay to cool it. When the sentience had finished its task, it stepped back to admire its handiwork. The sentience liked what it saw, but realized the creation lacked one vital element. Thus the sentience wrapped itself around the new creation, breathing into its nostrils and thus enveloping it with complete self-awareness, including the knowledge of its origins.
"And thus was Woman born."
A man on the far side of the arena shouted, "Took 'em long enough!" Laughter rippled through the crowd at the man's ribald insinuation. Even Kira chuckled, turning toward Damar with a bright gleam in her eyes and her face flushed. His ridges swelled and grew warm at the sight.
Kormet laughed as well, throwing her head back to release her mirth into the night. Then she raised her staff high and once again commanded the assembly's attention.
"And so Woman, seeing that she alone of all creatures lacked a mate, took a piece of driftwood and hollowed it out and carved it and scorched it and polished it with sand until it assumed a shape similar to, but distinct from, her own. Then she lay the wooden figure on the ground, knelt beside it, and prayed, 'O creator spirits that gave me life, give life to my creation.' The sentience, hearing Woman's supplication, granted her wish.
"Then Woman took Man and showed him all that the sentience had given them. She showed him where to find edible nuts and berries and how to cultivate grains. She taught him how to fashion weapons and hunt the animals of the forests and the meadows, then she showed him how to prepare their pelts for clothing and their flesh for food. She taught him where to find shelter, and how to warm himself on cold nights. She taught him about the courses of the sun and the moons through the sky, and named the constellations for him.
"Most importantly, she taught him about the elements that gave them life and watched over them: about Wind, and Earth, and Fire, and Water. She showed him how to build an altar, and taught him how to pray. And, after she had taught him all this, Woman again took Man by the hand, led him to their newly-made bed, and showed him how to make love."
Kormet paused then, once again crossing the arena to stand before Kira. This time, however, she rested her staff in the crook of her elbow, thus freeing her to take first Kira's hand, then Damar's, and bring them together within her firm grasp. With the three of them bound together thus, she continued softly, as if her tale was for them, and them alone:
"Several months later, without experiencing any of the fear or pain or bloodletting that we have endured for eons, Woman brought forth their first child. She named her son Kresht Amidgen: He Who Questions."
Damar heard Kira suck in her breath and felt her pull free. He wanted to turn to her, to see what had disturbed her, but, irrationally, he feared the truth of what he might find as much as he feared the confirmation of his growing suspicions. So, instead, he trained his gaze on Kormet, and hoped he was more wrong than he had ever been in his life.
"The child was strong and robust, and the spirits delighted in him. Wind would tickle his skin until he giggled, then ruffle his hair like a loving uncle. Water would take the little boats the boy built of bark and leaves and carry them downstream, then, when the boy least expected it, dash itself against a large rock to drench his clothing in its embrace. Earth would sneak itself into his shoes, one grain at a time, and when it thought the boy had slept too long on its grassy surface, would gently jostle him awake again. "
Sadness surrounded her with such potency even Damar felt her grief wash through him. "Of the creator spirits, only Fire refused to play with the boy. It thought the boy was too rough and careless, and whenever he tried to entice it to play with a stick it would threaten to burn him. In time, a deep rivalry grew between them.
"This grieved both the other spirits and the boy's parents, who knew they needed each other to grow and thrive. Despite all their pleading, however, the hatred grew. Nothing could bring about an end to the enmity between Kresht and Fire.
"In time, Woman brought forth another son, whom she named Kardasht Amidgen: He Who Answers. He, too, brought joy to his parents and the creator spirits. Like his brother, he grew to be strong, healthy and full of curiosity about the world around him.
"Unlike his brother, however, he did not fear or despise Fire. Once he recognized Fire's destructive power, he sought ways to tame and control it."
Kormet crouched before the fire and extended her staff toward it, concentrating all her attention on the tip until it glowed bright orange. Then she stood and raised the staff high above her head, then lowered it to waist level and drew embered curlicues in the night air before turning the tip toward the ground and tamping out the embers.
"First Kardasht observed how Fire reacted to different materials. From that, he learned what to feed Fire when he wanted to make it strong, and what to feed it when he wanted it weak. He learned how to create Fire for himself. He used his knowledge of Fire's behavior to build machines to warm himself and cook his food. Although he never held absolute control over the fire, the boy did learn how to use it to his advantage. Because of his diligence and his respect, Fire grew to love Kardasht as he loved it.
"Kresht quickly became jealous of his brother's accomplishments. As so often happens, his envy also fed his hatred of Fire. Rather than accept Kardasht's gift of a warming device, he chose to wrap himself in heavy layers of clothing. He ate only foods that did not require cooking. His devotion to the other spirits remained as steadfast as ever, but his hatred of Kardasht and Fire was implacable.
"Thus the fate that has befallen so many brothers throughout the history of the cosmos came to pass. Envy turned into animosity, animosity into hatred, and hatred into bloodshed.
"A terrible war broke out between the brothers, a war that lasted for many generations, a war that would have destroyed this world had it been allowed to continue unchecked. For generations this terrible and bloody war remained a stalemate, with neither one side nor the other gaining a decisive advantage. The brothers and their allies were evenly matched in their might and their hatred.
"Then one day the tide turned in Kresht's favor. Three strangers appeared in the midst of his encampment. They were beings the likes of which no one had ever seen. They spoke in riddles and demonstrated great feats of power, blotting out the sun's light at midday and causing the ground to open up at their feet. Through their riddles, the strangers promised to help Kresht and his army win the war in return for their loyalty. Being tired of war, he quickly agreed, not realizing the damnation he would soon be bringing down upon his brother-and, eventually, upon himself.
"One of the strangers, a man with skin as dark as burnished copper and a head as smooth as a stone polished by water, cupped his hands before his chest. A light, brighter than that of the sun, shone forth from between his fingers, and the people fell to their knees in fear and alarm. When they looked up, the stranger's hands unfolded to reveal an hourglass-shaped object that seemed to be made out of stars. The stranger told Kresht that if he held the orb before him the next time he marched into battle, his enemies would know only defeat. Then the strangers disappeared as quickly and as mysteriously as they had come."
Damar looked up at Kormet as she paused in her narration. The flickering shadows cast by the fire as it consumed the last of the wood made her look worn and haggard. Her back hunched over like that of a very old woman, she hobbled over to sit on a bench opposite him. "The next day dawned upon the battlefield," she continued in a low, dull voice. "Kardasht ignited the torch that served as his standard and wielded it at the head of his army. On the opposite side of the plain, Kresht mounted the orb, secured within a silver-plated chest, on a table carried by two of his men as he took his place at the head of his army. Then, as if in obeisance to an unseen signal, the two brothers and their allies marched to their destiny.
"Kresht's men trembled in fear and hatred at the sight of the flame behind which Kardasht's army marched, but Kresht ordered them to stand firm. Then, when the two armies were no more than a river's span apart, Kresht threw open the doors of the chest, lifted the glowing orb high above his head, and cried, 'Behold! The time of our victory is at hand!'
"Suddenly Kardasht and his army found themselves in a stark, white room without doors or windows. Kresht, his army, and all that was familiar to Kardasht was gone. From out of nowhere a voice proclaimed, 'You are not of us. You have blasphemed us with your heresy.'
"What had his brother done? Despite the fear clutching at his spine, Kardasht had the courage to ask, 'Who are you to accuse us of heresy?'
"The voice told him, 'We are the gods on high, the true gods of this people and this world. We are of Paradise. You are not of us.'
"Kardasht spurned their contention that he suddenly no longer belonged where he had lived all his life. Paradise was his rightful home! 'If you are truly our gods,' he said, 'then you would not be afraid to reveal yourselves, that we may worship you.'
"'It is heresy, to demand congress with us,' the voice said.
"'I refuse to worship a god I cannot see or touch!' Kardasht insisted. 'I might as well worship nothing, for that is what you are to me.'
"'Blasphemy!' the voice cried. 'For your sin, you and all your progeny will be branded with a third eye, so that all who look upon you will know of your sinful blindness.' At that, Kardasht and his army felt themselves plummeting through frozen darkness, with nothing to grasp on to and arrest their plunge.
"For what seemed to be a lifetime they fell. Then, with the jolt of a nightmare interrupted by wakefulness, their fall came to an abrupt and jarring end. When the blurring in his vision cleared and he was able to look around him, Kardasht discovered that he, and his army, had been taken from the only home they had ever known, a paradise created and preserved for them, and dropped in the middle of a barren and desolate wilderness."
"Their disgrace did not end there. With Kardasht gone, the strangers ensnared Fire and threw it into a deep, dark hole, sealing the hole with the weight of a thousand mountains. No longer would Fire bring comfort and warmth to Kardasht and his companions; no longer would they be able to celebrate its ability to bring about new life through its destructive power. Because of their devotion to Fire, the strangers decreed, Kardasht and his descendants would forever long for warmth. Because of its hatred of Kresht, Fire would remain forever imprisoned, until the descendants of the two brothers reconciled.
"Then the strangers turned their attention to Kresht. 'You have betrayed your brother,' the said. 'That is an unforgivable sin. For your sin, you will be condemned to eternal torment.' Then, in full view of his army, the strangers encased Kresht in a pool of molten rock, where he would be forever surrounded by heat and flames, and flung him into the bowels of the earth, with nothing but the memory of all he had sacrificed to keep him company."
Kormet looked up at the assembly. "And so we remain, forever branded with the third eye of blindness, forever separated from our brethren in Paradise, forever chilled in the absence of the life-giving flames that Kardasht loved. Someday, as we have hoped for so long, we will return to the beginning, and be as the creator spirits intended us to be. Until that day comes, however, the most we can do is hope, and remember, and pass our hopes and memories on to our children."
She rose, slowly, like an old arthritic woman, and crossed the arena, leaning heavily on her staff. "Now, as our tradition demands, the time has come for me to step down as your Teller and appoint a new Teller to take my place as the keeper of our memories." A murmur swept through the assembly. Even Damar was disturbed. Who could possibly replace Kormet in the hearts and minds of the Kerdish? Kormet raised her staff to quell the noise, although Damar could sense the assembly's unabated restlessness.
Kormet stopped in front of Kira. "You all know it would come to this," she said. "Once a Teller has told the tale of our creation and damnation, a new Teller must take her place." She lifted the staff to hold it before her. "For many years I have searched high and low for your new Teller. As I look around at you, one person stands out at me-one person reveals to me the eternal flame dwelling within her, the flame of hope and remembering. She is the one who must take my place." Then, much to the astonishment of everyone present, Kormet extended the Telling Staff to Kira. What shocked Damar even more, however, was that Kira stood and accepted it.
The sky split open with a ground-shaking crack, and light filled the assembly hall. All around Damar, people leaped for cover. When the light faded, a tall, dark-skinned man in the garments like those of the Bajoran kai pointed toward Kira and Kormet and cried, "NO!"
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It seemed as though time stood still, as though everything had been frozen in place. To his left, Kira remained standing, reluctantly accepting Kormet's nomination. Just beyond them Damar remained locked in a half-crouch, his gaze fixed on some distant point. Picard turned and saw Data likewise situated, as though he, too, had spotted the unknown threat and had instinctively leaped to his feet. Picard turned around and around, searching for the smallest sign of movement from the assembly, but saw nothing.
"Jean-Luc," came a voice from behind him. Picard whirled.
"Q! I should have known this was your doing."
Q brushed aside the thinly-veiled insult to grab Picard's shoulders. "Listen, Jean-Luc, we haven't got much time," he said without a trace of irony. "I've yanked you out of the timeline to warn you of what's about to happen." He glanced over his shoulder, almost fearfully, Picard thought, then came a step or two closer, his gaze burning with intensity. "That point in space Damar and Data are so preoccupied with? That's Sisko. He's come here to stop you from locating the Book of the Resurrection."
"It doesn't really matter," he said. "Although I suggest you get out of this crater as soon as possible. Make sure the colonel, Damar, and Danal Kormet get out, too. If they die, none of this will have mattered."
"Listen to me!" Q's face drew so close their noses almost touched. "I can't help you. Tell Kormet why you're here. Tell her you're here for the book. She will know what to do."
"But..." He felt like a half-trained parrot, squawking the same nonsensical phrase over and over.
"Hurry, Jean-Luc! Time is almost up. Get out of here, and get that book!"
Picard returned to temporal reality with a jolt. Pandemonium surrounded him. On all sides people were screaming and running for cover as molten rocks and lightning hailed down on them. Beside him, Data tugged him to his feet. "Captain," he said with urgent calmness, "I must get you to safety."
His thoughts racing, Picard rose. What had Q told him? He searched the chamber and found Kira and Kormet running toward the exit, the staff still held tightly between them. Several meters away, Damar and Dorek faced down a tall, imposing figure, a man with skin as dark as the storm clouds looming above, who stalked through the chamber, heedless of the tumult he left in his wake. "Sisko," Picard breathed.
Only the man was not the Benjamin Sisko he remembered, as he realized with another cold-water shock of reality when the figure turned and trained its electrifying blue eyes on him. Not Benjamin Sisko, but a Prophet. A Prophet in all its divine power and fury, hell-bent on thwarting his mission.
"The Picard must be stopped," it commanded, its voice resonating throughout the chamber. "The Picard will fail."
The sharp tang of sulfur burned Picard's eyes and nose, momentarily blinding him. Beneath his feet, the ground rumbled, shifted with an ear-splitting groan, then grew unnaturally warm. With horrified realization he knew what Sisko intended. "Come on!" he shouted to Data, squinting his eyes against the burning yellow haze as he hurtled across the ever-widening cracks in the floor.
A woman towing two small children tripped and fell to her knees before him, almost tumbling headfirst into a bubbling, hissing pool of lava. "Get them out of here, Mister Data," he ordered, helping the woman to her feet. "Tell everyone to go deep into the mountains, get them to higher ground, as fast as you can, before this volcano blows!" He took comfort in the knowledge that Data would fulfill his orders with alacrity and efficiency. With Data responsible for their safety, the Kerdish just might have a chance.
Picard then turned his attention to the two men valiantly challenging the Prophet. They looked almost ridiculous, Dorek with his saber and Damar with a blazing branch, but their determination to prevent the entity from harming the Kerdish was very serious. Picard picked up a rifle that had been discarded in the mźlZe and aimed it at Sisko as he slowly walked toward the standoff, taking care around the incoming missiles and heaving floor. "Captain Sisko!" he barked, infusing his voice with every ounce of 'command tone' he could muster. "You are hereby relieved of duty. Stand down!" A ridiculous gambit, he thought, but he hoped to stir the Prophet's memories of the Human it had once been.
Once again Sisko focused its electric stare on him. Picard swore he could see energy stronger than that of a thousand stars glowing within the Prophet's unnaturally blue irises. Awestruck, he wavered. Q, where are you when I need you? he thought desperately, hoping his antagonist was close by, watching and listening, waiting for his grand entrance.
"The Picard is a fool if it thinks it can stop us," the Prophet said, its voice even more resonant than that of the physical form it appropriated. "The Picard is no match for the Sisko."
"The Sisko is a fool if it thinks it can slough off the real Benjamin Sisko so easily," Picard said. He was tempted to raise his weapon to chest level, but suspected the consequences would be fatal. "The Benjamin Sisko I knew would never maliciously attack innocent people."
"There is no innocence here," it said. "The Picard seeks to destroy us. The Picard is not of Bajor. We are of Bajor. The Sisko is of Bajor. The Sisko must defend Bajor."
"Then what are you doing here?" Dorek asked through clenched teeth. He started to raise his sword, but Picard waved him down. "Why don't you go back to Bajor where you belong and leave us alone!"
"We must defend Bajor from the evil ones," the Prophet insisted.
"What evil ones?" Damar wanted to know. "The Kerdish aren't evil! Cardassians aren't evil!"
"The book is evil. The book must not be opened. The book must be destroyed."
"The book--?" Picard wondered aloud. Pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place. "Do you mean the Book of the Resurrection? The book Q sent me to find?"
"The Q seek to ruin us. The Q would have us abandon Bajor."
Picard took a step toward the Prophet, hoping that maybe he could reason with it. "Q isn't interested in Bajor, or in you."
"The Picard must not find the book. The book will destroy Bajor. The book will destroy us."
"The book isn't intended to destroy anything," Picard insisted.
"Captain?" Damar said. "He might be right."
Forgetting the very real danger he faced, Picard lowered his rifle to turn and stare at Damar. "What?"
The Cardassian nodded. "According to Colonel Kira, there's a Bajoran legend that says that when Cardassians regain Paradise, it will usher in Bajor's death. If I've understood everything correctly, the book you're looking for is the key to restoring Cardassia to Paradise."
"The...Book...of the...Resurrection..." Picard murmured. He glanced up first at Damar, then the Prophet. "The 'resurrection' refers to Cardassia?" he asked no one in particular. "And it's supposedly a coda to the Book of the Kosst Amojin --"
Before he could say another word, Sisko uttered a high, heart-wrenching wail. "The Evil One! The Picard must not speak of the Betrayer!" Blue light glowed, halolike, around the Prophet, its intensity increasing with the Prophet's agitation. "The Picard must not open the book, or the Evil One will be allowed to walk free forever. The Picard must find the book, and destroy it." In a flash of blue fire echoed by a powerful rumble from deep beneath their feet, the Prophet disappeared.
Suddenly the ground heaved, throwing the three remaining men off balance. An enormous boulder, glowing bright red from the heat pushing it, thrust skyward, knocking Picard sideways down a shallow incline toward a sea of lava. Picard scrabbled at the ground in an effort to slow his descent, but found nothing to gain a purchase on. He tried to turn himself then, to orient himself feet first, in the hope he could grab something, anything, before the molten rock reduced him to cinders. He could already feel the heat melting the soles of his boots.
Seemingly from out of nowhere, a gray, scaled hand appeared before his face. Picard looked up to see Damar stretched to almost impossible lengths, Dorek behind him, anchoring him to a solid chunk of rock. How long that rock would remain stable, however, was anyone's guess. Picard grabbed Damar's hand, using his feet to push himself away from the lava and toward his would-be rescuers.
Their neck ridges blue-black with exertion, the two Cardassians strained to pull him out of danger's path. For a moment, he thought they would fail, sending all three of them tumbling to their fiery deaths. Then Dorek let loose with a howl of triumphant defiance and, pulling so hard his face turned almost purple, freed them from the clutches of gravity.
"Thank you," Picard gasped, his chest burning, as he slumped against the rock.
"Plenty of time for gratitude later," Dorek wheezed. Damar stood off to one side, doubled over with hard, heavy breaths. "This volcano's going to erupt any minute. If you don't mind, I'd like to get the hell out of here while I still can."
"Agreed," Picard said. Damar raised himself up enough to shake his head in agreement, then the three men sprinted for the exit.
Kira paced back and forth beneath the outcropping that now served as a temporary shelter for the refugees. She was furious with herself. She could not decide what angered her more: her silence when confronted with Kormet's outrageous lies about the Prophets, or her cowardly flight from the Emissary. What sort of Bajoran was she? She may not have been particularly religious ten years ago, when she had more important matters to deal with, but she thought she had grown out of that youthful agnostic rebellion. Was she backsliding? She hoped not, but it seemed to be the most logical explanation for her recent ambivalence toward the Prophets.
Or-she sucked in her breath at the thought-what if the two pagh-wraiths who had visited her back on Deep Space Nine had infected her soul? What if her infidelity had been engineered by them, so that they could use her to accomplish their evil goals? They had been known to seduce devout, Prophet-fearing Bajorans before, as the fate of the last kai demonstrated. They had even been known to inhabit the bodies of non-Bajorans such as Keiko O'Brien, Jake Sisko and even Gul Dukat, in an effort to terrorize Bajorans. What if...what if...she shuddered at the possibility. What if Captain Picard, or perhaps even Damar, Prophets forbid, had fallen under the influence of the pagh-wraiths? Prophets preserve us she prayed as she stared into the darkness, watching the ribbons of lava course down the slopes of a distant mountain and hoping they had survived the eruption.
She looked down at Kormet's staff, which she still held in one hand. Why, of all the people gathered to hear her story, had the old woman chosen Kira to be her successor? Why had she given Kira the staff? More importantly, why had Kira accepted it? Was it a secret sign of some sort, a token of the covenant between the pagh-wraiths and their devotees? In accepting it, had Kira sealed her fate among the damned?
With renewed horror and self-doubt she looked at the staff again. For all she knew, those trinkets dangling from the top could be pagh-wraith fetishes. Her heart full of indignation and fury, she raised it high and smashed it down on her bent knee, splitting it into two pieces with a thunderous crack. Then she flung the pieces into the night, holding her breath until she heard them clatter on the rocks below.
"Couldn't have done better myself," said a voice behind her. Kira spun to see Kormet approaching, a torch held in one hand. "I've been wanting to do that for years. You know Cardassians, though: we just love our relics and symbols and traditions." She walked to the edge of the cliff and peered over the precipice, then wedged her torch into a crack in the rock.
Kira stared at her in distrust. Finally she summoned enough courage to ask, "Who-or what-are you?"
Kormet turned to her with an enigmatic smile. "I am exactly what you see: an old Cardassian woman who has long outlived her usefulness."
Unswayed, Kira pressed, "Who sent you here?"
"Who sent me?" Kormet seemed perplexed. "No one sent me. I've been here all along. The question is, who sent you?"
Intensely discomfited by Kormet's acute perception, Kira turned away. "I thought I knew, but now I'm not so sure. I thought I'd come here to serve the Prophets. But what if --" her eyes burned with unshed tears "-- what if I've been sent here to do evil?"
She felt a gentle weight settle across her shoulders. Despite her fears and doubts, Kira found comfort in Kormet's touch. "What if it was not the Prophets who sent you here, but the pagh-wraiths?" Kira nodded. "Do you think the pagh-wraiths are evil?"
Kira swiped the tears from her face. "Of course I do! The Prophets --"
"The Prophets told your people that the pagh-wraiths were evil, and of course you believe them." Kira nodded again. "Despite what they would have us believe, gods are not all that different from us. They suffer from jealousy, just like we do. Why do you think the first law of nearly every religion is 'thou shalt have no other gods before me'?"
Kira stared at her, dumbfounded. "Are you saying the Prophets are jealous of the pagh-wraiths?"
"No, not at all. But they are fiercely protective of their realm and influence. For every Bajoran who turns to the pagh-wraiths, the Prophets lose some of their relevance as gods. What's the point in being a god if no one will worship you?"
"The Prophets told us the pagh-wraiths were evil so we wouldn't worship them?" She shook her head. "How do I know you're not a pagh-wraith trying to seduce me?"
Kormet patted her shoulders. "For centuries, Central Command told Cardassian civilians that the Kerdish were evil because we chose to uphold ancient customs they claimed were riddled with superstition. As a result, we were driven from our homes and persecuted until we sought refuge in the desert and underground." Her watery blue-eyed gaze seemed to bore through Kira's skull. "Do you think we're evil?"
Stifling a snort, Kira said, "I don't know if you are or not."
Kormet's gay laughter echoed across the mountain range. "Good answer! You are closer to the truth than you realize." She squeezed Kira's shoulders more firmly, forcing Kira to turn and face her. "Evil rests in the eyes and the heart of the beholder. Do not let anyone tell you, 'This is evil,' or 'They are evil.' Let your heart decide what is and is not evil. Trust your judgment. If a thing or a person is truly evil, then you will know."
She hushed Kira by pressing her hand to her lips. "Don't let yourself get caught up in 'but whats.' Do what you know is right, even if it contradicts everything you'd known before. Did the Prophets send you here? Maybe. The pagh-wraiths? Perhaps. Until you know for certain whose path you walk on, though, all you can do is to walk in the path of righteousness. Do right, and evil will vanish."
"You make it all sound so easy," Kira muttered. Try as she might, she could not block the images of Dukat on Empok Nor, leading a group of Bajorans in a mockery of everything she held to be true and righteous, from her mind's eye. If ever she had known evil....She closed her mind to those unwelcome memories.
Kormet's bright eyes flashed in the torch's wavering light. "Dorek says the same thing. He says I see too much goodness where I should see evil. But --" she shrugged "-- all things considered, my life has been rich with blessings. Why shouldn't I see goodness, when I have known so much joy?"
"How can you say that after all Cardassia's been through-after what happened tonight?" Kira asked, incredulous.
"Tell me something," Kormet said, sliding her arm off Kira's shoulders to clasp her hand. "Were there days, when your people were struggling against mine, when you wished you could go to sleep and never wake up?"
Kira bit her lip, almost overcome with emotion as long-repressed memories flooded through her. Before the tears took away her power of speech, she nodded. "Yes."
Kormet wrapped her other hand around Kira's, enveloping it with warmth and kindness. "I have days like that, too." She looked off into the distance. "In the past few years, there've been more and more of them."
Kira took a deep, shuddering breath before speaking. "How do you deal with them?" she asked.
Kormet's gaze shifted back toward Kira. She raised a gnarled hand to rest it against Kira's cheek. "How did you cope during those dark nights on Bajor?"
"I..." Kira sought to remember what had driven her so much. "I didn't want the Occupation to outlast me. I was determined not to let the...the Cardassians defeat me, by staying on Bajor longer than I stayed alive. I was going to see Bajor a free world before I'd give in to the despair."
The older woman's soft smile filled her with hope and peace. "As I have done," Kormet said. "Each night, when the blackness comes and I wonder if it's worth it to go on, I tell myself that the next day is a brand new day overflowing with possibilities. One day Cardassia will be born anew. I want to live to see that day."
A memory, separate from those of Dukat and the Occupation, jogged at the back of Kira's mind. Hoping she was not about to make a fatal mistake, she asked, "What if Cardassia's rebirth means Bajor's death?"
Kormet tilted her head to one side as she studied Kira at length. "You mean, what if the myth of Ha'Bajra is true?" Unsure how to proceed, Kira nodded. "What if it is?"
Kira gaped. "I should think that would be pretty obvious, even to you!" she snapped, her instinctive distrust resurfacing with a vengeance. "Let's get one thing straight: I will not let you, or anyone, do anything to put Bajor in danger. Whatever it takes, I will stop you." She folded her arms over her chest and took a step toward Kormet, to add weight to her oath.
If the old woman felt threatened, she showed no sign of it. "Colonel," she said without any hint of concern or disapproval, "your loyalty to your people is commendable. If anything, it demonstrates the sincerity of your motives in coming here. Your anger, however, is misdirected. We Kerdish have no interest in Bajor. Cardassia is our home. If there is indeed a Ha-Bajra-a Paradise-then it is here. Not on Bajor, not on Earth, not on Vulcan, but here, where we have lived and died for over 100,000 years." She grasped Kira's arms in her long, bony fingers. "Our legends say nothing about the restoration of Paradise bringing on another world's death. That is your people's interpolation."
"Maybe your version is incomplete," Kira muttered.
"Maybe," Kormet said. "But I think that if that were the case, you wouldn't have come here to look for the Book of the Resurrection." Kira's jaw dropped. "If the truth resided on Bajor in its entirety, then the book would have been there as well."
"How...How...?" Kira stammered.
"How did I know that was your objective?" Kormet laughed merrily. "Dearest Colonel, Damar told me what brought you here within minutes of your arrival!" She continued to chuckle, squeezing Kira's arms in her humor.
"Leave it to a Cardassian to be indiscreet."
Kormet patted her shoulder. "Not at all. He was concerned for our safety-rightly so, I should say," she added with a meaningful look at Kira.
"Why didn't you take his warning to heart?"
"Who says we didn't? We've had you and Captain Picard watched from the outset. We're not na.ve."
If she did not already respect Kormet's precaution, Kira would have been more offended. Even so, she could not help bristling. "Why didn't you just lock us up where we couldn't cause trouble, or dispose of us? No one knows we're out here. You could easily have gotten away with murder."
This time, Kormet bristled with indignation. "And play right into your prejudices? We're Kerdish, Colonel, not agents of the Obsidian Order. We cherish all life."
"Even the lives of the Prophets?"
"Even the lives of the Prophets."
"Even though, according to your mythology, it was the Prophets-my gods-who banished your ancestors from Paradise?"
"What's done is done. Revenge won't undo past injustices." She stared at Kira. "How many times will I have to assure you that we mean you no harm?"
Kira planted her hands on her hips. "As many times as it takes to convince me."
"I see," Kormet said. She turned to walk a few meters away from Kira. "What of your motives?" she asked. "What assurances can you give me?"
Kira felt a sudden chill. "What do you mean?" she asked, dissembling, hoping to throw Kormet off course.
The old woman's snort told Kira she had failed to persuade Kormet of her ignorance. "Don't play games with me, child," she said, her voice full of warning and menace. "Damar didn't just tell me why you came here. I also know what you intend to do with the book."
Kira decided to try to bluff the old woman. There was no point in concealing the truth anymore anyway. "You can try to stop me if you want, but I will not rest easy until that book is in cinders."
"That book that you would so blithely toss into a pyre is our most sacred relic!"
"It is a book that promises nothing but evil!"
Kormet whirled, her eyes blazing, her fists clenched, her ridges raised and pulsating. "How dare you accuse us of evil? Have you learned nothing tonight?"
"Oh, I've learned plenty," Kira said. "I've learned that you will say anything to pollute my mind-anything to turn me against the Prophets."
"Turn you against the Prophets? I don't give a damn about your Prophets!"
At that point, her bluff collapsed. With utter conviction she shot back, "And I don't give a damn about your holy book!"
For a long time the two women glared at each other in furious silence. Kira had sworn she would do anything to protect Bajor and the Prophets. She suspected Kormet had taken the same oath to defend her people and her traditions. Despite her antipathy and distrust toward the Cardassian, Kira had to admire her fierce maternal instincts. She doubted anyone could have done better than Kormet in protecting, preserving and upholding Kerdish civilization and culture during Cardassia's recent tumultuous past. Surely that was worth something?
Did it really matter? Picard was determined to find the book, and if he was anything like the other Humans she had known, not even a volcanic eruption could stand in his way. One way or another, he would find it. When he did, one way or another, Kira would destroy it.
Damar followed Dorek and Captain Picard up the narrow steps an enterprising climber had cut into the side of the mountain centuries before. When they came around the escarpment, they found Kormet and Colonel Kira in a silent standoff illuminated in the glow from a solitary torch.
After fleeing the volcano only moments before the lava pushed completely through the surface and up into the cone, Dorek had led them through a petrified forest to the base of a flat-topped mountain he said was the most likely place the Kerdish would have sought shelter in. While ascending the steep trail they had heard Kormet's clear laugh echoing above their heads and known they were on the right track. Not long after, they began to hear indistinct sounds that soon grew into voices. The closer they came, the more they could hear of Kormet's and Kira's conversation. Damar realized then that the colonel would be furious with him for betraying her motives to Kormet. If Picard already knew of her plans to destroy the book, Damar could not tell. As far as he was concerned, he had made the right choice. When the voices grew sharper and more heated, Dorek increased his pace. They almost raced up the steps when the argument fell suddenly silent.
Damar was relieved to find the two women simply glaring at each other, rather than tearing out each other's hearts. On the other hand, he knew that the stakes had just been changed, and not necessarily for the better. It was likely, perhaps even a certainty, that Picard, Data and Kira would now be turned away empty-handed. He had a feeling neither of them would give up quite so easily. That could mean trouble-and he had a sinking feeling he would be caught right in the middle of it.
Before any of them could say a word, however, there was a blinding flash of white light in their midst. Damar quickly turned away, shielding his eyes. Had Sisko returned to wreak further havoc on the Kerdish? He had felt like such a fool, challenging Sisko with a burning stick, Dorek right behind him with his minetsa. It was a wonder Sisko had not banished both of them to perdition right then and there for their audacity and stupidity. Not even Weyoun had managed to emasculate him so successfully. Damar's anger and despair over his helplessness in the face of such incomprehensible power grew.
When the spots cleared from his vision and he looked up, he beheld a strange sight. In the interval, Dorek and Kira had each freed their weapons and aimed them at a tall Human dressed, incongruously enough, in an old Starfleet uniform. Kormet and Picard, in contrast, seemed to be neither amazed nor alarmed as they approached the stranger from opposing angles. "Q!" they said as one. Oddly, neither one seemed surprised that the other knew the stranger. Damar did not know what to make of the situation.
"Dammit, Q, what do you want this time?" Picard asked.
"You're behind all this?" Kormet asked in turn.
Bewildered, Damar looked at Kira in the hopes of finding an explanation. If she saw his distress, she ignored it; she was too focused on keeping the stranger in her sights. That, in itself, should have been sufficient, but Kormet's familiarity with the stranger unnerved him. Most disturbing of all, he could have sworn he had heard the stranger's voice before, but for the life of him he did not know where or how.
The stranger looked at Kormet with a mixture of arrogance and compassion. "I told you the Continuum would come to your aid," he said.
She guffawed. "You've been making that promise for thousands of years!"
He shrugged. "Better late than never."
"Q," Picard said, interrupting their exchange, "what is the meaning of all this? How do you know this woman? What is she talking about? What has any of this got to do with why you sent me here?" As if on cue, Q and Kormet raised a hand to silence him.
Damar crept around them to stand behind Kira. "Do you understand any of this?" he asked, keeping his voice to a whisper.
"I don't have to," she said through gritted teeth. "I already know all I need to."
If Damar was supposed to feel reassured, he did not. In fact, his headache increased. He did not like what he was seeing and hearing. Unlike his mentor, who relished complexity with the same enthusiasm he had for Bajoran women, Damar was a simple man who preferred simple problems with simple solutions. The last time he had had to wrestle with an ethical conundrum, he had instead sought refuge in the bottom of a bottle of kanar. He would prefer not to go that route again, but this was indubitably a complex situation that even Dukat would have found disturbing. Damar did not even know where to begin to search for answers to this dilemma.
"You can shush me all you want," Picard said, refusing to back down, "but I refuse to walk away from this with unanswered questions."
"Fine," Q said, "you want answers? I'll give you answers. The Human you once knew as Captain Benjamin Sisko and that the Bajorans revere as their Emissary has taken up residence in the Celestial Temple. We want him out. Furthermore, the Kerdish want their gods freed from the prison the Prophets have kept them in for over 100,000 years. We promised the Kerdish thousand of years ago that we would help them. Unfortunately," he sighed, "when you're an immortal being, a thousand years is gone in a snap. And, of course, we had other affairs to attend to. So now we are going to-as you Humans are so fond of saying-kill two birds with one stone."
Kormet stared at him in unabashed shock. "You're finally going to fulfill your promise to us?"
Q nodded. "By setting your gods free, we can simultaneously force the Prophets out of the Celestial Temple, where they never should have been in the first place-and never would have been, if anyone had bothered to listen to me, which they didn't, which is why we're here now."
"Like hell you will," Kira growled, stalking toward him.
"Well, yes, no doubt hell will play a significant role in this little Homeric epic," Q said. "The P will certainly raise holy hell trying to stop you from freeing the W."
Who are the P? Damar wondered. Who are the W? For that matter, who are the Q? He doubted he would like the answer.
"Stop us?" Picard asked. "Don't you mean stop you?"
"No, Jean-Luc, I mean stop you. I told you before that I can't get involved. All we humble Q can do is issue edicts and make decrees about the natural order of the cosmos. It's up to you mortal beings to --" he chortled "-- 'make it so'. If we did all the dirty work, it'd be deus ex machina this and deus ex machina that until your head spins."
"Good," Kira said. "Then you won't stand in my way when I burn that book."
Q steepled his fingers and frowned at her. "I'm afraid I can't allow you to do that. An edict has been issued and a decree has been made. The book will be opened, the Prophets will leave the Celestial Temple, and I will fulfill a long-standing promise to the Kerdish."
"We'll see about that," Kira said, her face twisted in a scowl Damar had not seen since Terok Nor had last been under Cardassian control. "Those aren't 'gods' you intend to unleash on the universe, they're the pagh-wraiths."
"Dear Nerys," Q said, clucking his tongue like a disapproving instructor. "If you would just let go of your prejudices long enough to listen, you would see that this will ultimately benefit Bajor. I mean, really: this whole 'sky god' bit is just a bunch of nonsense. Why would anyone want to waste their time on a sky god? It's just a cheap way of rationalizing equivocation by people who think they're too advanced for religion, yet aren't quite advanced enough to completely give it up. A true god is bound to the world and the people it guides and protects. How anyone can be a proper god from several hundred thousand kilometers away is beyond me." He scrutinized his fingernails, oblivious to the look of horror on Kira's face and the look of amusement on Kormet's.
"A very poetic speech," Picard said, his arms folded across his chest, "but you're omitting one small detail: you're a sky god."
Q harrumphed. "As usual, Jean-Luc, you're comparing Bajorans and Cardassians. I'm not a god. I'm a Q. There's a cosmos of difference between the two." Damar could not be sure, but he thought he heard Picard mutter something about a walking and talking duck. "Nonetheless," Q continued, as if he had not heard Picard's aside, "it's time for the P to leave the Celestial Temple and set up housekeeping on Bajor, where they should have been all along. The W will stay here, with the Kerdish, where they belong."
"I suppose you expect me to believe you," Kira said.
"You can call me a liar all you want, dear Nerys, but the Q will make sure everybody stays in their proper place." Picard snorted.
So did Kira. "The instant your back is turned, the pagh-wraiths will be back on Bajor making our lives a living nightmare."
"Look, you frozen little pleat-nosed shrew," he snapped, his eyes flashing with irritation and anger, "you can complain until you're blue in the face, but like it or not, this is what's going to happen-and if you so much as raise a finger to stand in my way, I'll lock you up with Kosst Amojin myself!" Kira, her face ashen and her eyes wide, took a quick step back.
Before the argument could begin anew, Damar said, "So then we're agreed that we're to go after the book?" surprising even himself with his bold decisiveness.
"I'm game," Q said, rubbing his palms together. "How about you, Jean-Luc?"
"Does anyone even know where the book is kept?" Dorek asked.
"I do," Kormet said. "But we're not going tonight. It's late, we've all had a very long and tiring day, and the road ahead of us is treacherous. We will leave tomorrow, after we have rested and I have had the opportunity to reassure my people. I won't leave until they are confident I've left them in good hands."
"A fair decision," Picard said. "One more day in 100,000 years won't hurt. I'll instruct Mister Data to stay behind tomorrow, in case the volcano erupts again." Kormet nodded at him in grim acceptance. "Does that suit you?" he asked Kira.
She, too, nodded as she holstered her weapon. "Just so long as I can get my hands on it before you use it to ruin Bajor, tomorrow morning is as good a time as any."
"Good, then it's settled," Q said. "Now you run along nighty-night, and I'll meet you at the finish line." With another blinding flash, he disappeared.
Back To Top
The sky glowed a thick sanguine red where the first rays of dawn managed to pierce the smoke clouds hanging low over the mountain range like a shroud. The air was thick and hot, supercharged by the distant volcano belching lava down its slopes and the rising anticipation of what lay ahead. Picard doubted he had slept more than twenty minutes all night. He admitted to himself, even if to no one else, that he was afraid.
In the past, when he had shepherded first the Stargazer and then the Enterprise through the darkest frontiers of space, he had almost always known what to expect. Alien races, no matter how alien they might seem on the surface, were, in their fundamental needs and desires, remarkably alike. Over the years Picard had learned to guess with reasonable accuracy which species would most likely prove to be aggressive, which would be peaceful, which would be hostile, and which would be hospitable. He could think of only two occasions in his career as a Starfleet officer when he had been forced to act without any idea of what reaction to expect.
The first occasion had been fifteen years ago, when he and his crew had first come to Q's attention. The second had come a year later, when Q had flung the Enterprise across thousands of light-years, right into the waiting arms of the Borg Collective. On neither occasion had Picard been able to assess his adversary's mindset, and on both occasions he had paid dearly for his ignorance. Now here he was again, fumbling his way blindly through a situation over which he had no control, once again at Q's mercy. Picard was afraid, and with good reason.
They breakfasted quickly and quietly, only Kormet even bothering to sit while the others alternated between picking at their food until it grew cold and pacing about. In much the same manner they saddled the hounds and loaded their gear. As they had agreed the night before, Data would stay behind with the Kerdish. Picard could tell that Data was displeased, but he knew he could count on Data to do anything necessary to keep them out of harm's way.
Damar swung into his mount's saddle, the others quickly following suit. Picard was amazed at the ease and agility with which Kormet leaped on to her mount's back. Even though she had been a nomad all her life, she nevertheless must have been well into her 90s. Picard hoped he would still be as spry in thirty years.
Kormet clucked to her hound and led the way into a narrow gorge cut into the forbidding bedrock by a small stream that now wound its burbling way around the hounds' paws. Steep rocky walls soared high above their heads on both sides, giving Picard a sensation of claustrophobia he found unfamiliar and unwelcome. Once the group passed through the tight opening, the path widened enough for them to ride two abreast. Kormet and Damar rode side-by-side in the lead, followed by Kira, with Picard and Dorek taking up the rear. Silence descended upon them as the canyon walls closed out the volcano's steady rumble.
Suddenly and without warning a stone broke free from high above, tumbling down toward the group and showering them with golden-brown fragments. Startled at the sudden noise, Picard looked up, then gasped at what he saw. Beside him, Dorek jerked his head up.
Both sides of the canyon rim were lined with the members of Kormet's tribe. Even Data stood there amongst them, silently bidding his captain farewell.
Ahead of them, Damar had reined his hound to a stop and turned, his face lifted up, his chest rising and falling. After a moment he cried out, "Remember the tales of our ancestors! Today is a new day-a day of new beginnings-a day of rebirth-for the Kerdish-for all Cardassia! As long as there is blood in my veins and air in my lungs, I promise you, we will find the sacred book of our ancestors and usher in the Age of Paradise. We will return!"
There was a long moment as Damar's emotional speech echoed across the canyon. Then, before the last syllable had faded away, there arose such a tumult from the Kerdish that Picard feared their acclaim might start an avalanche. They shouted, clapped, stamped their feet, whistled, even a few fired their phasers into the air, the sound of their pride and exultation washing over Picard and his companions in a series of waves, each one seemingly more joyful than the first. Even the riding hounds seemed to take part, tossing their heads up and down and barking excitedly.
Dorek laughed and clapped back at his people, his own pride swelling his chest. "You see, Picard," he said, "as long as there are Kerdish, there will be a Cardassia."
"And if we fail to find the book?" Picard asked.
Dorek's exuberance faded a little. "We must make sure that does not happen."
With one last shout and wave, Damar turned his mount back in the direction they were headed. "For Cardassia!" he shouted, then spurred his hound to a gallop.
"For Cardassia!" Dorek repeated, reaching out to smack Kira's hound on the rump before he, too, took off in pursuit of glory and redemption.
They rode until nightfall, when Kormet ordered them to stop and make camp. Above the canyon rim Picard could see the reddish ribbons of lava coursing their way down the volcano's slopes. Beneath his feet, the ground continued to rumble. He hoped Data and the Kerdish remained out of harm's way.
In near silence they unsaddled and fed the hounds, ate a simple meal, and stretched out beneath the starless sky. Only the steady subterranean rumble and the occasional coughing from his companions reminded Picard of the impending calamity. For him, it was another night of fitful sleep.
Picard awoke several hours later to the sounds of nearby snuffling. He opened his eyes, only to find a pair of gentle eyes set far apart in a broad, furry face looking down at him. The eyes blinked once, then a tongue emerged from the hound's mouth and licked Picard's face from ear to ear. With a friendly groan Picard sat up and wiped his face. He looked around to see the others stirring. Dorek and Kormet, accustomed to rising and retiring in accordance with the sun, had already saddled their mounts. Behind them he saw the dark gaping maw of a cavern and realized their journey was about to take them deep within the heart of the mountain range. Despite the danger, his passion for exploration overrode his caution and he leaped to his feet, causing the hound to shy away with a nervous yelp and a wag of its scrubby tail.
"Easy, boy," he murmured, walking slowly toward the beast. "I didn't mean to frighten you." The hound huffed once, shook its head, then stretched toward Picard's extended hand. As soon as he felt its cold nose touch the tips of his fingers, Picard took another step forward and grasped the reins. The hound, responding to its training, immediately grew still.
"You learn fast, Picard," Dorek said, admiration evident in his voice, "for a Human."
"Thanks," Picard grunted. "I've had some practice." Then he asked, "Will we be able to take the hounds inside?"
Kormet nodded. "For a ways, at least. We'll have to tether them at the head of the falls. From there we'll make our way down on foot."
"Falls?" Kira asked, the first Picard had heard from her since the storm two nights ago. "Are you telling me this little trickle we've been following actually turns into a waterfall inside there?"
"Guess you'll just have to follow me and find out for yourself," Kormet said, leaping on to her hound's back with more of that agility Picard had admired the morning before.
Kira, for her part, scowled at Damar, who shrugged, then settled herself astride her own mount. "All right then, let's go," she said.
Both Kormet and Dorek laughed at Kira's bravado. "I like this one," Dorek said to no one in particular.
In a matter of minutes camp was broken, leaving only a jumble of foot and pawprints as evidence anyone had been there, and the team had fallen into single file behind Kormet and followed her into the belly of the mountain.
The path inside the mountain, once they had passed beyond the last gasps of daylight reaching in, was narrow, steep and strewn with stones. The hounds picked their way carefully, their broad, padded paws giving them extra stability on the water-slickened rock even as the walls hemmed in so closely Picard's knees scraped against them. There would be no turning back.
Picard could hear a steady roar coming from somewhere ahead of him, but the confined space made it difficult to tell just how far ahead the source lay. The air quickly grew cold in the damp, dark tunnel, and soon his Cardassian companions were donning thick, heavy cloaks. Not long after, he, too, put on his coat. Kira quickly followed suit. Damar, ahead of Colonel Kira, and Dorek, behind Picard, each ignited a miners' glowstick and held them at shoulder's-height to illuminate the way. The flickering light glistened against the damp walls.
After over an hour of riding, the roar had grown to be almost deafening. The path had not once eased its sharp descent, and Picard's lower back ached from adjusting his posture to balance his weight on his mount's back. The hounds were also obviously quite tired, judging from their heavy, labored breathing and their drooping heads. Picard was relieved when the path began to widen. His knees were scraped almost raw.
An ice-cold mist dampened his face and neck, causing him to hunch his shoulders and tuck his chin into his chest for warmth. Ahead of him, he could see that Kormet and Damar had raised the hoods on their cloaks. He wished he had brought a hat to cover his head.
The farther they progressed, the heavier the mist and the more deafening the roar grew. Colonel Kira's hair dripped down her back, where her jacket clung to her skin. The roar was so loud Picard could not even hear the snorting of the hounds as they blew moisture out of their nostrils.
The narrow tunnel caused by the rock formations suddenly widened. When Picard rode forward abreast of Kira to get a better view of what lay ahead, the spray hit him full-on in the face like thousands of tiny ice needles, nearly blinding him. Kira turned to him, her eyes blinking rapidly against the spray. "Have you ever seen anything like it?" she asked.
He held his hand against his brow to shield his eyes and looked up. And up. And up. The waterfall, at the base of which they now stood, reached so high into the mountain's hollow heart he could not see its top. Within his range of view, the spray caused by the water's merciless pounding at the rocks below, carving an ever-deeper trench through the eons, rose several meters above his head before falling back down, creating a constant rainfall-like effect.
Kormet had already dismounted and beckoned the others to do the same. When Picard stood once again upon solid ground, she led her mount over to him and shouted in his ear, her voice still barely audible above the fall's thunderous roar, "There's an opening beyond the fall. We can leave the hounds there."
With a nod to indicate he had heard and understood, he gathered the reins in one hand and fell in step behind her, motioning to Kira to follow. The surface, worn as smooth as glass by millennia of friction, was treacherous. He had to be careful not to lose his balance; the path was narrow enough that one false move could send him tumbling to his death between the crashing water and the waiting rocks.
Kormet led them beyond the cascade and through a crevice in the rock behind it. Inside, away from the mist, it was warm and dry. A spasm shook Picard's body as it adjusted to the rapid change in climate. Behind him, Kira sneezed and blew her nose. He thought he even heard teeth chattering.
There was a brief flash of light as Dorek ignited a fresh glowstick and thrust it into a crack in the stone wall. The chamber, as revealed in the glowstick's luminescence, was small but not cramped. The five hounds, as large as they were, would be comfortable here. Each rider took out a small satchel of dried food and laid it on the floor for his or her mount to partake of as needed. Water was in abundant supply. Picard had to chuckle to himself; a horse, as magnificent an animal as it might be, would never think to venture beyond the chamber. It would die of thirst within meters of several million kiloliters of fresh, pure water.
After unburdening his mount of its tack and piling the gear in a corner with the rest, Picard hefted his pack onto his shoulders, adjusting the straps to center its weight, then waited until the others were ready. Once Kira had exchanged her soaked jacket for a dry one, Kormet led them out of the chamber and away from the cascade.
The path they followed, although level, took so many switchbacks and hairpin turns they had soon passed beyond the spray's range, and before long even the roar of the falling water was little more than a fading rumble. Soon, however, a different sound reached Picard's ears, a sound that reminded him of a winter holiday he had once spent on the Dakota prairie.
He remembered being awakened one night by an unearthly, bone-numbing howl just outside his bedroom window. When he went to see if a wounded animal had sought refuge in the cabin's shadow, he found the entire world erased to a blank, white oblivion. He had heard about the notorious Dakota blizzards, but nothing could have prepared him for that absolute nothingness or the hideous wail of the blowing wind. Sleep became a foregone conclusion then, and he spent the rest of the night huddled by the fire, drinking cup after cup of scaldingly hot tea and praying he would not go mad before he could contact the ranger station and request a beam-out. The sound he now heard reminded him of that long, terrible night and the howling of the wind that stabbed at the base of his spine.
The farther they walked, the louder the wail grew. Desperate for relief, Picard tore two small squares of fabric from his coat lining and stuffed them in his ears. He could still hear the sound, but at least its pitch had been lowered to a moan. The Cardassians seemed to be unaffected, a result, no doubt, of their lower auditory range; if Kira was affected, she showed no sign of it. No doubt she had heard far worse during her years fighting for the Bajoran Resistance.
They squeezed through a narrow fissure-so narrow, in fact, that Damar had to turn sideways to pass through it-dropped to their hands and knees to crawl beneath a low overhang, then turned a corner into another enormous cavern. The wail had become a shriek by now, and as a gust of wind flattened Picard against the wall he understand why: thanks to the unpredictable movements of the tectonic plates that gave birth to this mountain, the cavern they now stood in had become a veritable wind tunnel.
Ahead of him, he saw Kormet say something to Damar, then gesture for him to pass it on to the others. When it was his turn, he removed the stuffing in one ear to hear Kira shout, "No matter what, keep close to the wall." He nodded, then passed the message to Dorek.
Once they had all received their instructions, Kormet held herself with her back against the wall, then inched sideways, one step at a time. Picard soon appreciated her caution; less than a meter beyond the entrance, the other side of the path they were on turned into a sheer drop-off, plummeting to unknown depths as it left them with only a half-meter-wide ledge to stand on.
The wind tore at them with the fury of a banshee, searing Picard's skin and wrenching tears from his eyes. He turned his head to one side, leaving only half his face exposed. Even with the wadding in his ears, the shriek was by now so high-pitched his skull seemed to vibrate with sound. Even the Cardassians had grown uncomfortable, and soon they had all followed his example.
Suddenly, the wind stopped and the shriek fell silent. The air became calm and still. Puzzled, Picard craned his neck forward to see how Kormet responded to the abrupt change. Kira, however, was more bold; she took a step away from the wall to peer into the chasm.
"Get back!" Kormet shouted, just as the wind returned with a vengeance. It caught Kira broadside, almost knocking her off the ledge with gale force. She would have fallen to her death, if Picard and Damar had not both acted quickly, each grabbing an arm and yanking her back to safety. Even so, the wind was so powerful Picard thought it would tear his arms from their sockets.
Kira plastered herself against the wall, her chest heaving with fright. For a moment, Picard thought she might even have been crying. Then he saw Damar take her hand in his and squeeze it tightly. Soon her breathing eased and her face lost its deathly pallor, and they resumed their cautious creep along the ledge.
The ledge ended before a sheer wall of stone after approximately thirty meters. The wind had died down some, so Picard leaned forward at the waist to study the precipice. Scaling it would be an impossible task, he deduced; any attempt would fail without climbing gear, and they had not brought any. He then looked down at the drop-off only centimeters from his toes. No telling how far down it went, and it looked to have been worn smooth by the rushing wind. As far as he could tell, there was no place to go but back they way they had come.
Kormet, however, had yet another surprise up her sleeve. In the length of time it took Picard to blink, she had disappeared. He blinked again. Where had she gone? Then Damar disappeared with like speed. When Kira sidled forward to where they had been, he saw the fissure between the two perpendicular cliffs, and realized where they were going. After Kira had sucked in her breath, taken one step away from the wall and ducked into the fissure, he quickly followed after her.
Through eons of subterranean seismic activity, the rocky floor had shaped itself into a staircase of sorts. As Picard followed the light of Damar's glowstick down the dank, confining steps, he thought of medieval castles and dungeons. He would not have been surprised to have come across a cell filled with instruments of torture, or debt-ridden prisoners and their entire families in chains. He tried not to imagine what Madred would have made of this place.
As they descended deeper beneath the surface, the air grew warmer and more stifling. Kira was the first to shed her outer garments, then Picard, and finally even the Cardassians found the heat uncomfortable. They stopped often to appease their thirst, but even that did not slow the perspiration from beading on Picard's brow and the back of his neck. Within minutes he was as soaked as he had been at the foot of the waterfall. Just thinking about all that icy cold water made him even more miserable. He longed for a gust of wind to find its way through the fissure and blow across his prickly, sweat-soaked skin.
When first Kormet, then Damar, then Kira, and finally himself and Dorek dropped to their bellies to crawl through a small hole leading to an adjoining chamber, Picard realized why it had grown so unbearably hot. As he wriggled his hips through and climbed to his feet, he saw a river of fast-moving magma less than ten meters away.
"We must hurry," Kormet said, wiping her bare arm across her brow. "The magma is flowing. That means it has found someplace to go."
"You mean the volcano?" Kira asked, her voice rendered a mere gasp by the heat.
"Not just one volcano," Kormet said. "Many volcanoes."
"Are we in one of those volcanoes right now?" Picard asked. The air was so hot it scorched his throat when he opened his mouth to speak.
"Yes," Kormet said. "So we must hurry. Time is running out." She broke into a trot that paralleled the magma river.
Despite his extreme exhaustion, Picard managed to keep pace with her, although his inability to breathe as deeply as he needed made the going even more arduous. Before long he felt light-headed, and slowed, then stopped, to ease the burning in his chest.
Dorek came to his rescue, grasping Picard's elbow and pulling him along. "Come on, Captain," he said. "Just pretend there's an Obsidian Order agent chasing us." Despite the grim imagery of Dorek's exhortation, Picard drew strength from it and renewed his pace.
The trail took a sharp curve to the right, away from the magma. Although Picard still felt as if he were on Q'onoS at the height of summer, the air cooled significantly. They traversed a narrow ledge with a fathomless drop-off on one side, then came to a naturally-formed bridge spanning the chasm. Kormet turned to them then and said, "You must wait here. I will get the book and bring it to you." Then, before anyone could protest, she sprinted across the bridge with a speed and grace that defied her age and disappeared into the opposing wall.
In the absence of anything else to do until Kormet returned-and not knowing how to return to the surface-they waited. Kira chose to pass her time by stalking back and forth along the ledge. Dorek lighted three more glowsticks and wedged them into various cracks in the stone faćade, then leaned against the wall and watched Kira. Damar sat down on the edge of the precipice, preoccupied with his own internal thoughts and struggles.
Picard sat beside him and took his canteen from his pack. He offered it first to Damar, who refused, then took several long, deep swallows from it. Henceforth he would have to be careful about rationing his water; he had no way of knowing how long they would be down here. Once he had slaked his thirst, he took out the tricorder Data had given him and held it out over the abyss. The device chirped for several seconds before a figure appeared on the screen. Picard sucked in his breath.
"How deep?" Kira asked, pausing momentarily on her circuit.
"You don't want to know," he said. He leaned back to look up. If there was a roof to this cavern, he could not see it. He had traveled far and wide in his career in Starfleet, even as far as the Delta Quadrant, thanks to Q, but not even in the endless expanse of uncharted space had he felt so...small. It was a deeply unsettling and humbling sensation, and one he would be happy to leave behind.
The sound of voices stirred him from his musing, and he sat up straight. Kira stopped her pacing to walk several steps across the bridge. Presently Kormet returned whence she had come, a bundle held tightly in her arms and Q right behind her. Picard was not surprised-Q had said he would meet them here-but he would have loved to hear the story of their relationship. He suspected it would be just as full of mutual provocation and confrontation as his own relationship with the entity.
As Kormet approached, Picard saw that the bundle she carried consisted of a scroll wrapped in heavy fabric. Of course, he thought, mentally chastising his presumption, a book that old probably wouldn't be a 'book' in the classic sense. Eager for a closer look at this controversial artifact, he clambered to his feet, as did Damar.
Not surprisingly, Kira reached Kormet before the others did. She laid her hands on the bundle and asked, "Is this it?" Kormet tried to turn away from her, but Kira held on, moving with the old woman. "Is this the Book of the Resurrection?" she asked again.
An ear-splitting crack shook the cavern then, as though a giant had taken hold of the mountain and beaten it with a hammer. The force of the movement threw them all, even Q, to the ground. Rocks tumbled down from high above, and Picard ducked his head under his arms as they battered his body.
Even as the echoes of the quake reverberated throughout the cavern, Picard looked up to see that Kormet had lost her grip on the scroll. It now lay between her and Kira, unguarded and unprotected. Picard leaped to his feet to go after it before Kira could, but Dorek beat him to it, throwing his body over the precious bundle. "I will not let you destroy it!" he shouted at Kira. She swore loudly, in much the same way she had sworn at the giant in the bar, and lunged at him, intent on ripping him to shreds before she did the same to the scroll.
Another report shook the cavern. Before anyone could react, the Prophet's familiar voice thundered, "Give us the book!"
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Kira felt her heart leap with joy and relief. The Emissary had returned! She would not fail the Prophets now. She would not run like a spooked gettle again.
She tried to roll Dorek aside, so she could retrieve the book and hand it over to the Prophets, but he refused to budge. Determined, she kicked him in the ribs. He groaned when one of them cracked against the toe of her boot, but still would not yield. "Help me, Emissary!" she cried as she tried to wedge her hands beneath Dorek.
Wind whistled past her ear, then Dorek was flying backward across the cavern. The far wall stopped his flight with a bone-shattering crunch.
Despite his protestations to the contrary, Q knew the time would come when he would have no choice but to intervene. When his insides churned at the sight of the Cardassian's brutally broken body, he knew that time had come. With a brief prayer, in the hope that something more powerful than himself was watching, he hurled a bolt of energy at the Prophet.
Picard helped Kormet to her feet again. He had already begun to assist her when Dorek's fatal flight forced them back down. He felt sick at what Sisko had done, and now knew for certain the Prophet shared none of Captain Sisko's moral sensibilities. If this is what being a god is all about...he thought with disgust.
They had all been so shocked by Dorek's fate that no one realized the scroll once again lay unguarded. Thinking as one, Picard and Kormet went after it.
Only the instantaneous link between thought and action all Q possessed saved Picard from sharing Dorek's fate. To Q's great regret, however, he could not deflect the Prophet's power in time to save Kormet. Soon she, too, lay shattered and broken on the opposite ledge. If he survived the confrontation with Sisko-and he understood only too well the possibility of failure-he would mourn her loss.
Damar lurched to his feet, his insides roiling. First Dorek, then Kormet...he had long since grown accustomed to the casual brutality of death, but the viciousness with which Sisko had murdered them...he hoped he would never again have to witness anything so horrific.
Still shaking, he staggered across the ledge to the span, hoping he could get to that damned book before Kira did. As dear as she was to him, he would not allow Dorek and Kormet to have died in vain.
Kira stared at the Emissary, stunned. What had happened to the Captain Sisko she had grown to admire and even love? What had become of the Prophets she worshipped? The cruelty with which he had killed Dorek and Kormet was more characteristic of a Cardassian, not of the Emissary of the Prophets!
She saw movement out of the corner of her eye and turned her head. Damar was only a meter away, bending down and reaching for the book, which she could now see was actually a scroll. Despite her revulsion at what the Emissary had done, she could not allow the book to fall into Cardassian hands.
With a loud cry of protest, she flung herself at Damar, knocking him down and the scroll out of his hands. A jumble of arms, legs and parchment, the three of them tumbled down the bridge's gently curving arch.
Q saw the window of opportunity open. He knew it was the only opening he would get. Before Sisko could act, he erected a sphere of cosmic energy around Damar, Kira, and the scroll. Now that all the actors were in place, the most he could do now was wait for them to play their parts, and hope he could hold off the Prophet's destructive fury long enough.
When the first bolts of white-hot Prophetic fury lashed his body, he feared 'long enough' would come much too soon. Q...he cried out in silent supplication when another bolt struck him, hoping at least one of his brothers and sisters would come to his aid before it was too late.
From within the safe confines of the Continuum, Q's mate watched the unfolding disaster with growing horror. "Help him!" she cried, turning to the Moderator. "You must send someone to help him!"
The Moderator shook his head sadly as Sisko threw bolt after bolt of energy at Q. "There is nothing we can do. Q knew the rules. He should not have interfered. Now he must pay the consequences of his disobedience."
In agony, Q watched her mate falter, his pain all too evident. If she went to him, she knew the consequences. Nonetheless, she could not let Q die all alone down there. "You can take your rules and go to hell!" Q snapped in reply, just before disappearing.
Damar disentangled himself from Kira and looked up to find an oddly shimmering wall of white separating them from the fierce battle beyond. As though seeing through murky water, he watched as Sisko pelted Q with jagged streaks of energy while Q struggled to uphold the barrier protecting Damar and Kira. Then another Human appeared mysteriously beside Q, a woman with long red hair and a uniform like Q's. Damar watched as she joined her energy with Q's, then recoiled in apparent agony as she also joined him in his suffering.
The book! a voice resounded in his head. It was the same voice he had heard when his mind awakened from hibernation. Q's voice. The book? He had momentarily forgotten it. It lay, unrolled, next to Kira. He reached for it, curious that such an unprepossessing document could incite such warfare.
"Don't." He glanced up to see Kira also reaching for it.
"I just want to see what it has to say."
"Then we'll do it together." She gave him a hard, unblinking stare as she pulled herself to a sitting position next to him. "I'm not going to let you use it against Bajor."
"I have no desire to use it against anyone. I just want to find out for myself what could cause so much hatred and suffering." He lay the yellowed document across his lap and Kira's, smoothing out the creases left over millennia of storage.
"Where are the words?" Kira asked. "There's nothing on it!"
He could see that for himself. Thinking that perhaps the scroll was incomplete, and the writings were closer to the beginning, he completely unrolled it. Still nothing. Surely the ink had not faded into oblivion? Is this what they had come for-a blank page? Still searching for an answer, he turned the parchment over.
"Wait!" Kira said, excitedly pointing at the scroll. "I see something."
The print was tiny, so small he had to squint to see it, but she was right. He held the parchment close to his face and read: "And so we return to the beginning." Confused, he looked at Kira, who had bent over the scroll and was mouthing the words to herself.
He never saw the blow coming.
"Just...a few...more seconds!" Q said through clenched teeth, trying to stave off the pain threatening to tear apart his quintessence.
"Can't...hold...on...much longer," his mate gasped, her body shaking violently as the Prophet assaulted her again and again.
"We must destroy the book!" Sisko thundered. "There must be no turning back."
"Over...my...dead...body!" Q said, just as a bolt of energy hit him broadside, knocking him off his feet. He fell to the ground with a jarring thud. He cried out when a second shockwave sent his mate sprawling, leaving Damar and Kira unprotected. Unable even to raise his head, Q closed his eyes when he saw the final, fatal ball of light form in the Prophet's hand and felt the world shake violently all around him. He had failed.
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Damar lurched to his feet, desperate for any signs of life from his companions. Kormet and Dorek were dead. Kira sat slumped against a fallen boulder, the object of their quest lying open in her lap, her eyes frozen in catatonia, her jaw locked open in a futile effort to utter the first syllable of the mysterious text. Picard, knocked unconscious by Prophetic wrath, lay nearby. On the opposite ledge the two entities named Q lay unmoving in a crumpled heap. For all Damar knew, they too were dead.
Of them all, only he remained standing. Only he remained to bear witness to their failure.
Light flickered in the direction whence they had come, where the river of magma churned and seethed. Damar trained his sight on it, hoping for the best, fearing the worst. Sisko had promised that none of those who pursued the book would ever leave alive. He had already fulfilled that promise against at least two of them, and by Damar's reckoning there were still at least two more to dispatch. He pressed his back against the cliff, wishing he had a weapon even though he knew any would be futile if the Prophets were determined to kill him.
The light approached, its flickering now a steady glow. Within it Damar could see a dark form advancing upon him. Then a voice he thought had been silenced forever echoed with heart-stopping substantiality in his head: "Damar. It's been a long time."
Ice formed in Damar's veins. He shook his head, partly in disbelief, partly to dislodge the hallucination that haunted him. Of all the infernal specters to torment him with, the Prophets had chosen well. He gulped noisily, then licked his lips. "Dukat."
That unnerving laughter he had once found so intrinsically Cardassian filled the cavern as his former mentor came into view. Damar could not help recoiling at the sight of this man he had once revered more than he did his own father, now rendered horribly, fantastically unreal, his eyes glowing demonically red out of his fire-blackened face while tongues of fire caressed him like a lover's hands. "No..." he whispered.
"What's the matter, Damar?" Dukat challenged. "Where's that sneering, servile sycophant who used to fantasize about fucking my daughter? Have you forgotten how to show respect for your superiors?"
"Y-You're not D-Dukat," Damar stammered. He forced strength into his voice. "You're not the Dukat I knew."
"The Dukat you knew never existed! He was nothing more than a product of your pathetic idealism. That Dukat never existed. I am Dukat."
His pronouncement, as unbelievable as it sounded, drove Damar back even farther. With growing alarm, he realized the light that had heralded Dukat's entrance had taken on a life of its own. It filled the cavern, plumes of unnatural fire careening off the walls like gusts of wind, blanketing the bodies strewn about the ledge, brushing past his head and entwining around his legs, catlike, with sensuous murmurings of promises no man could resist. For a moment, Damar thought he heard Weyoun's voice tickling at his ear, but when he swatted at the phantom it drifted away.
Whatever this creature claiming to be Dukat might be, Damar had no doubt its intent was to hurl him, and his companions, straight into the bowels of hell. Damar vowed to himself that if such were to be his fate, he would take this wraith with him. Emboldened by his resolution, he asked, "What are you?"
Another laugh, this one deeper and more menacing. "Oh, I suppose it depends on what you are," Dukat said. "The Prophets who sent me here know me as the Adversary, the one who does their dirty work. On Bajor, I am called Kosst Amojin, the Evil One. The Klingons call me Fek'lhr, guardian of Gre'thor. On Earth, they call me Ha-Shaitan."
A small voice on the other side of the chasm croaked, "The devil."
Damar whirled. Picard had regained consciousness and was struggling to sit up. If he were not already otherwise occupied, Damar would have gone to his aid. Instead, he turned back to Dukat. "The devil? That's just superstition. There is no such thing as a devil."
"Hm," Dukat said with a leer, swaggering even closer, stalking Damar like a bloodthirsty beast. "Oh, but I can assure you, there is. The betrayer. The prince of darkness. The destroyer of souls. The lord of hell. The father of lies. The serpent of death." His eyes gleamed ravenously. "I am all of these things."
A light flashed at Damar's feet. Fearing the worst, he leaped to one side, only to lose his footing and stumble on the rocky ledge, almost plummeting into the abyss. At the last moment, however, a beam of fiery light shot out from Dukat's hand, snaking around Damar's waist like a lasso and pulling him upright before releasing him. "Not yet, my old friend," Dukat said. "The Prophets may have sent me to escort you and your friends to hell, but I intend to teach you a lesson first. Stand to," he ordered, and a flash of light coalesced into a long, starkly curved minetsa saber in his hands.
Damar looked down at his feet to find a similar weapon lying there. He obediently picked it up, judging the weight and balance as he hefted it in his hands. "Why this?" he asked as he turned it left and right, observing how the light reflected off the razor-sharp edge. "Why not phasers, or bare hands? For that matter, why don't you hit me with one of those bolts of fire?" Although he had not wielded a minetsa in many years, the weapon felt good in his hands. He raised it high above his head, then released it to the pull of gravity, catching it at the last moment to swing it around his head.
Dukat imitated his movements, barely missing Damar's chin when he flipped the saber from hand to hand. "The Prophets don't let me out very often, and never for such a valuable prize. I've been waiting for this moment for an eternity. I intend to make the most of it." He swung his weapon high in the air, then brought it down with immortal force, curving harshly to the right at the last second as he aimed straight for Damar's head.
Damar barely had time to raise his saber and deflect the blow. The force of Dukat's attack sent him reeling, but with a series of quick feints he managed to maneuver himself toward the center of the ledge, away from the precipice. At least here, with room to move freely, he had a fighting chance at success.
It was the only chance he had.
Picard ached all over from the blow Sisko had given him. He had been a fool, he realized with a flood of regret; he had stupidly assumed Sisko the Prophet shared the same concerns and morals as Sisko the Starfleet officer. Now, as a consequence of his arrogance, Dorek and Kormet lay dead, Q and his mate probably mortally wounded, and Colonel Kira frozen in a state of unimpeachable catatonia.
Metal clashed against metal with a shower of sparks. Picard looked up from his self-recrimination to see two Cardassians locked in fierce hand-to-hand combat. The younger one, Damar, wielded his weapon with greater skill and agility, but Picard could see he was fighting a losing battle.
His opponent, the one who had so brazenly proclaimed himself the devil incarnate, fought with what Picard could only describe as immortal speed and strength. Each time his blade slashed through the air it flew with increasingly greater speed and force, until the whirling weapons were little more than a blur. Damar fought off each attack with spirit and courage, but Picard could see he was tiring.
He would soon fall.
"I must say, Damar, that I am disappointed at how you've let your training lapse," Dukat almost crowed as he leaped on to a nearby boulder, depriving Damar of the advantage of weight by attacking him from above. Damar knew he could taste his approaching victory. "What happened to that nimble young soldier who placed second in the middleweight championships?"
"That was eight years ago," Damar grunted as he slashed at Dukat's legs, "and I've been dead for the past three."
Dukat jumped back down, forcing Damar into the defensive once again. "Pah! Death is nothing. I've been in hell for over 100,000 years, nearly a third of which was spent locked in a stone tablet with Sisko. Can you imagine what that must be like?" He grinned fiendishly as he sideswiped Damar, tearing a diagonal gash across his upper arm. "You'll be finding out soon enough!"
Damar howled in agony as the beveled blade sliced through skin and muscle, leaving the sensation of icy-hot fire in their wake. The pain was so fierce tears sprung to his eyes, further endangering him from Dukat's lethal onslaught. Rather than succumb to the pain, however, Damar fed on it, nourishing his fury. Uttering a loud cry of murderous outrage, he drove Dukat backward with a mercilessly rapid succession of lunges and counter-strikes.
He knew he would eventually lose.
Picard jerked, looking about. Where had the voice come from?
He recognized the voice, but when he looked over to where Q had fallen with his mate, he saw no sign of movement.
"Q?" he whispered. "Where are you?"
The voice grew weaker. Picard realized the entity was dying, and had summoned up the last reserves of his once-boundless vitality in a final plea for help. "What do you want me to do?"
Picard looked over at the two combatants. What the devil does he expect me to do from all the way over here? he wondered. He could not very well get up and leap across a ten-meter chasm to take up arms in Damar's defense. Phasers were out of the question. What was he supposed to do?
He had an idea.
Damar threw himself, body and soul, into the fight of his life-for all he knew, the fight of the cosmos' life. He fought for himself. He fought for Kira. He fought for the Kerdish, for Dorek and Kormet and his long-dead wife and child. He fought for all the Cardassians slaughtered in the waning hours of the Dominion War, and for all the Bajorans tortured and murdered during the Occupation. He fought for those who yet lived, who had no idea their lives were about to come to a final, horrible end. He fought for Garak, and Rusot, and Mila, and Ziyal, and for the Dukat he had once cherished as a father. By the faith of the gods, by the blood of his ancestors, he fought for them all.
Slowly but surely, step by incremental step, Dukat drove him back.
Damar knew he was losing-knew he had already lost-but still he fought. As long as there was breath in his lungs, he would fight. If only he could gain one small advantage. If only...
The voice came from the other side of the chasm, from...Picard. Damar hesitated, afraid a second's inattention would hasten his doom.
Damar saw his opportunity and seized it. Summoning every remaining microcosm of strength he had left, he swung the minetsa straight for Dukat.
Dukat turned back to him at the very instant the blade cleaved through his neck, irrevocably severing the serpent's head from its body. The expression of surprise flash-frozen on Dukat's face at the moment of impact would haunt Damar's memory for all eternity.
The force of the blow sent Dukat's head flying into the abyss. For a moment, Damar remained frozen in place, his chest heaving, his muscles burning, his heart hammering, his gaze fixed on the decapitated corpse standing before him, smoke rising in wisps from the cauterized stump.
Overcome, he fell to his knees. He had done it.
Then a bellow exploded forth from the depths of the abyss and a wall of flame leaped sky-high, the force of the eruption hurling him backward into the cliff. For a long time, he knew nothing but the sensation of extreme heat, rocks pelting him from all directions, and the violent shaking he felt sure would tear the mountain in half.
When Damar emerged from the shelter of his arms and looked up again, all that remained of Dukat was a pile of ashes.
He had won. He had defeated the Kosst Amojin: he had defeated the Prophets!
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Picard staggered to his feet and wiped the sweat from his face. He walked unsteadily to the cliff edge and peered into the abyss. Still dazed, he could not quite understand what he had just witnessed-for that matter, he was still unsure what he had just witnessed. Whatever may have taken place, however, he was quite certain he would never forget it.
"Captain." He looked up at the sound of the semi-strangled voice to see Damar still cowering on the opposite ledge. "How is Kira?"
Colonel Kira! He had forgotten all about her. He hurried over to her, still crouching to protect himself against the occasional falling missile, and checked her pulse. Faint. He held his finger beneath her nose. Nothing.
"She's dying." He knew they would have to free her from her catatonia before she strangled. But how? He shook her vigorously, hoping that would rouse her, but she flopped like a rag doll in his arms and remained frozen. Desperate, he slapped her. Still no response.
"Q!" he barked as a last resort. He looked over his shoulder at the two crumpled entities, silently begging them to live. "Q, please, you have to help us."
Picard refused to admit defeat. He knew that, somewhere deep within his quintessence, Q had enough vitality left to perform just one more miracle. "Q, after all we did, after all we've risked for you, you owe us this much."
No strength...need help...can't...
"Dammit!" He lowered Kira to the floor and bowed his head, both trying to think straight and hoping for a miracle. If only he had brought Data. If only Kormet were still alive. If only he had a communicator. If only he had never agreed to this foolish mission to begin with. If only...
"Captain, look!" Damar's excited voice interrupted his increasingly despondent musing, and he looked up.
At first, he could not believe his eyes, so he rubbed them vigorously. It was still there. A stone bridge that he knew had not been there a moment ago now spanned the gulf between the two ledges. Had Q...?
The voice was not Q's. Picard looked over to see Q's mate stretching her hand toward the precipice, her entire body shaking with the effort to bring about this last, most desperate, miracle.
"Hurry, Damar, before it's too late!"
The Cardassian needed no further encouragement. He nearly hurdled the bridge in his zeal to reach Picard and Kira. Just in time, too; the instant his foot touched the other side, the span vanished in a cloud of dust and Q's mate fell back, mortally unconscious.
Damar snatched up Kira and hugged her to his chest. It took Picard a second or two to recognize the man's profound grief as he cradled her head in his arm and rocked back and forth on his knees, letting the tears flow freely. Out of respect-although he did not fully understand what he should be respecting-Picard turned away.
Damar felt as though his chest would burst with grief. So many deaths, all of them senseless-would it ever end? His wife and child, Rusot, Mila, all those brave men and women who fought so valiantly to purge the Dominion blight from Cardassian space, Dukat...and now Dorek, Kormet and, perhaps worst of all, Colonel Kira who, more than any of them, had taught him the value of life. It seemed as if the entire universe had collapsed around him, leaving only him to pick up the pieces.
Forcing himself to regain control over his emotions, Damar gently laid Kira on the ground. He tilted her chin toward the ceiling, then pinched her nose and bent over her to force his own breath into her mouth and, he hoped, her lungs. He felt, rather than saw or heard, Picard kneel opposite him and begin compressing Kira's chest.
For several minutes the two men worked in silent tandem-one of them trying to coerce her to breathe, the other trying to restart her heart-without any sign of success. Then, as Damar held his cheek near her nose while Picard pressed down on her chest, Damar thought he heard something. Not quite speech, but more than a breath. He frantically motioned to Picard to repeat the gesture and strained his ears to listen.
Astonished, Damar looked up at Picard, hoping the Human might have an answer. Picard shook his head, obviously as baffled as Damar. Nonetheless bolstered by his limited success, Damar again forced air into Kira's mouth, then bent forward to listen while Picard massaged her chest.
Once again the two men looked at each other in silent puzzlement. Lacking any logical explanation for Kira's disembodied exhalations-or any reason not to continue-they again applied themselves to the task of reviving her.
When her head lolled to one side and her chest deflated until it was nearly concave, Damar knew she was dead. He hung his head in regret that he had not been able to do more to save her.
"'We return to the beginning'?" Picard asked. "Do you have any idea what that refers to?"
Damar raised his head. "No. It --" His gaze fell on the scroll, the object of their quest, where it lay fallen, discarded and forgotten, by Kira's side. "The book..." he murmured, distracted by the whisper of a memory. He reached across Kira to retrieve it, then ran his finger across the brittle parchment until he came to the only section with any writing on it. There he read again: "And so we return to the beginning."
"She must have read that just before we were attacked," Picard said. "The words were probably right on the tip of her tongue when Sisko-when the Prophet-locked her into catatonia."
"He'd warned us not to read it," Damar said. "So he prevented her from uttering the words."
"Then why didn't he inflict the same punishment on you?" Picard wondered.
Damar struggled to sort through the rapid sequence of events that had befallen them over the past hour-the discovery of the book, the Prophet's re-appearance, the assistance of the two Human-like entities, the Prophet unleashing his fury on them, the duel with Dukat.... "He was too late," Damar said with stark realization. "I'd already read the text. Kira was right beside me, reading along with me, when he attacked her. He couldn't stop me, so he stopped her instead."
"Even so..." Picard began. Damar glanced up from the book when he heard Picard's voice falter, to see the Human staring, wide-eyed, over his shoulder. "Turn...around...very...carefully," he said.
Obediently, Damar turned slowly to see what was behind him that had unnerved Picard so much. The sight made him drop the book to the ground.
The cavern pulsed with light. Not daylight, not the artificial glow of a lamp, not even the unholy light that heralded Dukat's approach, but a sort of living light, a light that throbbed with so much radiant energy Damar was convinced of its sentience. Where is it coming from? he wondered, and was startled to hear his own unspoken thoughts reverberating back to him in a gradually accelerating crescendo of whispers. Unlike the murmuring voices that had accompanied Dukat, however, these voices filled him with a sensation of joy and peace. In fact, they almost sounded like Kormet.
Brighter and brighter it grew, plumes of glowing incandescence swirling around them, covering every surface and all the empty spaces between. His heart swelling with uncharacteristic rapture, Damar asked silently, What are you? He almost laughed out loud at the chorus of voices echoing his thoughts in his head.
He did not feel like laughing when the light brushed across the fallen forms of Dorek, Kormet and the two Qs. In fact, it seemed to emanate such profound melancholy he felt tears spring to his eyes. Somehow, he knew, they were not entirely of his own making, and found a disquieting sort of comfort in the light's shared grief. He watched with a mixture of bliss, sadness, and wonder as the light flowed all around the bodies, blanketing them in illuminated caresses, entering them through their nostrils, ears, and mouths.
Although almost the entire cavern was by now flooded with the humming, throbbing, pulsating light, a small space around Damar, Picard and Kira remained untouched. Then Damar saw a small slipstream coursing across the floor through the ever-expanding ocean toward them. It slowed as it reached the edge, then gradually changed direction until it flowed upward, converging into a defined shape within. Then, as Damar watched in wide-eyed awe, it stepped out of the sea of light and into the unilluminated sphere.
It was Danal Kormet.
Only it was not Kormet as Damar remembered her. Like the specter of Dukat, this creature looked like Kormet, but it was at the same time fundamentally different. Could this be another wraith sent by Sisko to finish what Dukat had failed to accomplish? Suddenly fearful, Damar crept backward away from the being, at once both afraid to turn and run and afraid to stay and face whatever challenge lay before him.
The being must have recognized his terror, because it stopped and held out both hands, palms up, in a placating gesture. It then opened its mouth as if to speak, but the voice Damar heard seemed to originate from within himself as it said, "Be not afraid."
Unsure how to respond, Damar turned to Picard for advice. The Human was leaning against the cliff wall as though he were afraid he would collapse if he tried to stand on his own, and his eyes were very wide. Damar summoned what little courage he had left to turn back to the being and ask, "What are you?"
The being tilted its head as Kormet often did and smiled at Damar. A warm blanket of peace enveloped him. If this is the end, it's not an unpleasant way to go. "We will not harm you," he heard. Irrational as it might be, he believed the statement to be true. The being-or beings-would not harm him.
The being resumed its course toward him, but Damar's fear had long since vanished. He watched in almost stupefied bliss as it glided past him to kneel beside Kira's body. While he and Picard continued to watch, it passed its hands across her form, then leaned forward to kiss her in the center of her brow-right where her third eye would be, if she were Cardassian, Damar thought, at the same time wondering what made him think that.
Damar almost choked when the being moved away from Kira to reveal her body wrapped in a soft, vibrating glow not unlike the light that filled the cavern. "Wha--?" he tried to ask, but his tongue failed him.
The being turned to face him. "She helped set us free. In gratitude, we will restore her life to her." As before, its mouth moved, but the sound of its voice came from within Damar.
Apparently the sound also came from within Picard, because he said, his voice barely more than a whisper, "But she wanted to destroy you."
The being rose to its feet. Damar felt compelled to do the same. "She did not. That is all that matters."
Suddenly desperate with hope, Damar forced himself to ask, "Then you'll do the same for Dorek and...and Kormet?" He was unsure if he should name her, with her shade standing a meter away. "Can you bring them back to life, too?"
The sadness he had witnessed and experienced earlier returned, magnified by the being's closeness. It shook its head. "We cannot. Their path has ended. They have passed through the gates to Paradise." It looked at Kira. Although she still lay dormant, Damar could see a faint bloom of color in her cheeks, and his hope surged again. "Her path has not yet ended. She still has far to go."
"What about Q?" Picard asked. "After all, it was he who sent us here, and both of them came to our defense against Sisko."
The being nodded. "The Q tread an unending path. They yet live." As it spoke, Damar thought he could see movement coming from the female Q.
"You still haven't told us who or what you are," Picard said, slowly regaining his familiar self-assurance. "Are you Q? Prophets?"
Rather than respond, the being simply gazed unblinkingly at them both. For an instant, Damar thought he saw a flash of red fire in its eyes, then the flash, and the being, was gone, reabsorbed into the light. Then, while he and Picard watched in silent amazement, the light gathered itself into a massive column of shimmering, living luminescence and propelled itself upward, soaring higher and higher, like the eruption following Dukat's death, until it escaped through a miniscule patch of daylight peeking through the cavern's roof. A few small stones broke free of their moorings to tumble down into the chasm below, but the light's departure caused none of the calamities the Prophet's and Dukat's had. Instead, it left in its wake a persistent sensation of exhilaration.
"Perhaps we should have asked for a lift," Picard said, the corners of his eyes crinkling slightly. Damar smiled and lifted his chin again to gaze in the direction the light had gone.
A low moan came from behind them, and both men turned to see Kira struggling to sit up, her hand rubbing at her throat. "What...happened?" she croaked.
Genuinely elated to see her alive again, Damar knelt beside her to offer his physical and psychological support. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you," he said.
She gave him a baleful look. "Try me."
He chuckled and glanced over his shoulder at Picard. "I don't even know where to begin."
"The beginning is usually a good place to start."
So he told her, from beginning to end, everything that had taken place since Sisko knocked her unconscious. When he got to the part about Dukat's appearance, her face paled, but when he told her of his victory-with Picard's help-she rested her hand on his arm and gazed at him with an expression of utmost gratitude.
When he told her about the living light and the gift of life it has restored to her, however, she trembled and drew back. "So then I failed," she whispered, her voice breaking. "I failed the Prophets." Damar longed to wipe away the tears glistening in her eyes. He knew only too well the crushing disappointment at having failed an entire world.
"Not at all," said another voice, and all three of them turned to see Q staggering to his feet. "You may have failed to do what the Prophets wanted, but you succeeded in accomplishing the miracle the Kerdish have prayed for 100,000 years."
"What do you mean?" Picard asked.
Q grunted and waved his hand at them, as though he were shooing away a bothersome insect. "If I tell you, you'd never believe me. So go and see for yourself." Then he snapped his fingers, and he, his mate, and the cavern disappeared.
Damar blinked. Beside him, Kira gasped. Picard simply turned around in circles, his mouth hanging open. Where had Q sent them?
They were in Paradise, or at least as close to Paradise as the physical world could ever come. Life exploded all around them, in the lush green meadow they stood in, the thick forests covering the mountain range, the herds of wild animals larger than anything Damar had ever seen, the broad, clear brook burbling merrily a few meters away, and the bright sky filled with birds, so clean and blue Damar's eyes hurt to look at it.
"Where are we?" Kira at last managed to ask.
Picard stopped turning long enough to answer, "I think we're on Cardassia."
"What?" Damar and Kira asked, in unison.
Picard shook his head. "I don't believe it myself, but I'm almost positive we're standing where the Kerdish had their tents pitched two days ago."
"But...but..." Damar left the thought unfinished. Instead, he reached down to pluck a large white flower and hand it to Kira. If he remembered his paleobotany lessons correctly, that species of flower, native to Cardassia, had died out 4,000 years ago. Those herds consisted of Vikna's wapiti and tuznars, also extinct. If they were indeed on Cardassia, then when were they?
Voices in the distance provided the answer. Cresting a nearby hill was a band of Cardassians, clad in the traditional garments of the Kerdish tribes, and...Commander Data. "Captain!" he called, waving his arm.
"Data!" Picard called back. As if that was the cue they had been waiting for, the Kerdish, with Data in the lead, raced down the hill toward them, some of them hurdling the brook in their haste, some of them splashing through it, all of them laughing and crying at once.
Damar felt himself assaulted on all sides as the Kerdish clamored to welcome him back. Women of all ages kissed his cheeks, children wrapped their arms around his legs, almost tripping him, and men jostled each other to shake his hands, clap him on the shoulder, or throw their arms around him in a fierce, rib-crunching embrace. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Kira and Picard being subjected to the same joyous adulation. He only wished he knew what he had done to deserve it.
After several minutes, as the din began to lessen, Damar heard Picard's voice ring out above the noise, "Mister Data, can you tell us what happened?"
The Kerdish fell silent. "You do not know?" Data asked, clearly puzzled by their ignorance.
"No, Data. Please tell us what happened."
"We saw the mountain torn in half!" a woman said.
Data nodded, as if to confirm her account, and pointed in the direction Picard, Damar and Kira had come from. "She is right. An eruption tore off the upper half of that mountain." Damar turned to see for himself, and was astonished to see the mountain they had entered reduced to a mere foothill. "We feared the worst," Data continued. "Then, as the Kerdish debated what action to take, we saw a strange light emerge from within the mountain. Within a matter of seconds, the light had expanded to cover everything in sight. Then, before our eyes --" he spread his hands, to indicate the abundance of life surrounding them "-- everything was transformed. The desert became a meadow. Herds of strange animals appeared. Saplings emerged from the ground and grew to full size in seconds. The sky became clear. The stream filled with water and fish." He paused, and tilted his head to one side. "It appeared as though someone had detonated a Genesis device here."
"It is because our gods have finally been set free!" the woman said.
Data looked at Picard with a puzzled expression. "Captain?" he asked.
"She may be right," Picard said, lifting a young boy into his arms. "It's as good an explanation as any I can provide."
"But what of Bajor?" Kira asked. "The legend of Ha-Bajra --"
"-- has nothing to do with Bajor," Damar said, frustrated and angry. "Kormet told you that, Q told you that, I told you that. I should think that, after everything that took place in there --" he gestured toward the ruined mountain "-- you would realize the truth in what we said. But, if you don't believe me, you can always contact Deep Space Nine when you get back to the capital and find out for yourself."
Chastened, Kira looked down at the ground. "It can wait," she said. "I'm sure the Prophets wouldn't let any harm come to Bajor."
"Especially now that they have no other place to go," Picard said. "If Q was right and what happened in there served to expel the Prophets from the Celestial Temple, then naturally they would seek refuge on Bajor." He narrowed his eyes. "Q did say this would all ultimately benefit Bajor. I can't imagine anything more beneficial than a closer relationship between the Prophets and their people."
"Except, perhaps," Damar said, stepping forward to take Kira's hand in his, "a closer relationship between Bajor and Cardassia."
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The ceremony was mercifully short and uncomplicated, considering the months of planning and diplomatic maneuvering that had preceded it. Nonetheless, when Premier Damar and First Minister Shakaar, accompanied by Ambassador Kira, her Cardassian counterpart, the Bajoran kai and his Kerdish counterpart, each leaned forward with a torch to ignite the eternal flame meant to symbolize the union of the two worlds, Picard heaved a deep sigh of relief. So much could have gone so horribly wrong, and no one would be more pleased than him to see the union succeed. Both Bajor and Cardassia needed this-for themselves, and for each other.
With the diplomatic and ritual portion of the unification ceremony complete, the politicians gathered at the podium for their moment in the spotlight. Picard had seen all he had come to see, and rose to leave. Not far away, a familiar voice shouted, "Jean-Luc!"
He peered down to see Vash grinning up at him, and grinned back in delighted surprise. "What brings you here?" he asked, leaping down out of the stands.
"Are you kidding?" she asked, linking her arm through his as they walked away from the central plaza, skirting the piles of rubble and construction vehicles that signified a city about to be reborn. "When I heard that Jean-Luc Picard had taken a leave of absence from Starfleet to lead the team of archaeologists excavating the ancient Hebitian capital, I hopped on the first shuttle out of the Gamma Quadrant!"
Picard laughed, genuinely glad to see her again. "It's a lot of hard work," he cautioned. "Not much chance you'll find priceless treasure."
"Oh, Jean-Luc," she sighed, "you are treasure enough for me!"
Q chuckled as he watched Picard and Vash walk off, arm-in-arm, toward the refurbished shuttleport.
"What's so amusing?" Q asked, nuzzling at his neck.
He groaned in pleasure and slipped his arm around her waist. "Oh, nothing. I'm just laughing at Jean-Luc. He's always been a sucker for a beautiful woman." He gasped when his mate nibbled at a particularly sensitive spot below his ear. "My love," he murmured, "I believe that near-death experience has done wonders for your libido."
Her responding laugh conveyed multiple layers of meaning. "Care to find out what else it's done wonders for?" she asked, her voice husky.
Q growled lustily. "Only if it involves borrowing the Celestial Temple for the next several millennia," he said.
"Just give me a few minutes to slip into something more comfortable," she purred before disappearing.
He sighed in giddy anticipation. Before departing to join his mate in conjugal bliss, however, he took one last look around. The Cardassian capital was still in ruins, but the rejuvenation of the planet's natural resources, brought on by the release of the W from the prison the P had banished them to 100,000 years ago, had also rejuvenated her people, and a massive rebuilding campaign was well under way. In time, the capital city would surpass the magnificence of even the ancient Hebitian capital.
The Continuum would likewise be a long time recovering; the expulsion of the P had sent ripples of discord far beyond the small cosmic corner inhabited by Bajor and the Celestial Temple, and Q's brothers and sisters would be busy preventing the humiliated P from taking their revenge out on the W, imprisoning them for another hundred millennia. The P had spent so much time as sky gods, they would have trouble adjusting to their new roles as earth gods. Perhaps this was a transition Sisko could help them through. Q would have to look into that-after his second honeymoon, of course.
As he raised his hand, Q's gaze swept the panorama one more time. Just before he snapped his fingers to join his mate, he glimpsed a certain Cardassian and a certain Bajoran sitting beside each other, their hands clasped as though the union of their two worlds depended entirely on their own nascent bond. Only then did Q know beyond all doubt that he had succeeded.
Note: This story was originally archived in this format on Vash's Q Fan Fiction Library, which now appears to have gone defunct. Vash was responsible for the formatting of this story; all I've done is retrieve her copy from the Internet Wayback Machine, make minor changes to compensate for missing image files, and upload here.