2371—The Time of the Maquis Uprising—24 hours remaining
The 2305-series Starfleet Type-I hand phaser lay in pieces on the sixteen-year-old human boy’s desk. His dad had managed to hide the old weapon from the Cardassians when they’d beamed down for their first ‘security sweeps,’ but he hadn’t exactly managed to hide it from his own son. Hadn’t even noticed his prized phaser had been gone for three days already.
It baffled the boy, as he installed the beam collimator he’d managed to scrounge up, how his father could complain about the Federation as they abandoned their people to politics, how he could complain about the Cardassian jackboots and do nothing about it. He couldn’t even be bothered to tuck tail and run when the Cardies took over, let alone stand up and fight like the Maquis were doing.
And now, the boy marveled as he clicked in a power cell he’d tweaked so it could manage just one shot before powering the weapon down, his dad was actually falling for the Cardies’ hype.
The Cardassians had a new ship parked in orbit over Volan III; they’d been trumpeting its arrival for the past two weeks, and given their near-takeover of colony media, it was inescapable. Everything was going to be different this time, they promised…just hold your fire and you’ll see: we can be benevolent overlords after all. That’s what it boiled down to, in the boy’s mind. Give the ghencardă’ăsthe—the sub-Cardassians—a few tasty treats and maybe they’ll figure out their job is to beg at their Cardassian masters’ table and play fetch for the Union when called upon.
The boy didn’t want to get his dad in trouble. That was one of the reasons he’d doctored the phaser…the Cardassians were going to try and scan for the signatures, of course. He’d carry the old parts, put the weapon back to its old configuration as soon as it was done. Even if they got hold of it, the old phaser wouldn’t match the one they were after…not with the twitchy power cell and the replacement collimator. If they looked for a DNA trace, wondered why he’d been handling the weapon, he had a story for that, too: when he’d first swiped the phaser, he’d done a bit of sport shooting out in the woods beyond the colony walls.
There…he slapped the cover back on the phaser and put the old weapon back into its case. According to the family legend, the phaser had served in the first border skirmishes with the Cardassians. Fitting, he thought, that it would soon serve again. If his dad wouldn’t carry on the tradition…then he would.
And once the Maquis found out what he’d done, they’d have to take notice. They’d told him he was too young, when he’d volunteered. Wait until the summer—then we’ll talk. Well, the Cardies weren’t going to magically stay their hand until summer. They had to be dealt with now, decisively.
And if no one else was willing to do it—he would.
2371—2 hours remaining
Cardassian Union Warship Sherouk, in orbit of Volan III
A youthful Cardassian officer set down the padd he had been reading and stood, cautiously drawing his sidearm, lake-blue eyes scrutinizing the weapon with the piercing gaze of an engineer. A former engineer, in his case…and some habits died hard. Sometimes he still couldn’t believe he commanded this ship.
Of all the guls in the Cardassian Guard, Tayben Berat had wondered as he read the mission intelligence, why was I chosen? The legates of Central Command never did anything without a plethora of reasons—contingency plans upon contingency plans, layers upon layers...and politics could never, never be divorced from their doings. Just six months ago, Berat had been a glinn, the chief engineer aboard the Vrokind. Now it was the complexities of Cardassian social systems he had to be the most concerned about, second to his ship’s mission performance.
His superior, Legate Turrel, seemed to be a different sort of leader. The idea that the Federation expatriates in the Demilitarized Zone might respond to the offer of assistance—contingent, of course, on the cessation of Maquis attacks on Cardassian interests—was one that to Berat’s knowledge, no other legate had publicly entertained and gotten away with it. That someone could speak such things without prompt action from the Obsidian Order suggested that either they too were willing to give it a try, or that Turrel had consolidated a large enough power base that they dared not intervene. At least, until the results of the mission were in.
It wouldn’t be easy. Helping the colonists to understand that their interests were now those of Cardassia would be a long process—but when Berat thought about it, Cardassia had done very little to make its new denizens feel like…
Like anything but an occupied people, Berat thought, lowering his head just slightly and casting his eyes beneath the shadows of their ridges as he finished his inspection and holstered his weapon. The burning in the Bajorans’ eyes aboard the former Terok Nor haunted him still…he’d known, when he saw that, that the ‘merciful’ hand of Gul Dukat had been unmerciful enough. And the enemies of the Cardassian Union—their hand had been merciful, even when he had deserved death for his actions aboard their station.
And that was what gave Gul Berat hope that Legate Turrel was right: with the right incentive, and a sense that someone in the Union actually regarded them as fellow cardasdanoid beings, they might well be convinced to lay down their arms and turn against whatever diehards refused.
There was still one question central in the gul’s mind. He was the youngest gul in the Cardassian Guard, and one of the least tenured…he’d even beaten Dukat’s record for an early ascension to power. And this, in a culture so reverent of years and so distrustful of youth, spoke of two possibilities: either Turrel wanted someone relatively uncorrupted by loyalty to other legates, someone less set in his ways—or he, and Central Command both, wanted a way to dismiss any failures as simply that of a young man.
Berat wondered, as he entered the transporter room, who would suffer if the mission failed: its author, or its executor?
He could only hope the same youth Central Command might hope to use as an excuse would protect him in that case. Autonomy within the Union was a function of age, and as long as the mission did not trigger a purge, he hoped he would be safe…for he had survived two such purges—just barely. Therefore he intended to keep an open commlink after he beamed down: his every word and action on-planet would become a formal part of his permanent documentation file as well as streamed live aboard the Sherouk for all officers ranked dalin and above to hear. There would be no room for accusations that he had not followed the prescribed preliminary negotiation tracks.
And that was the best he could do.
Berat stepped up onto the transporter pad. At his side was Riyăk Eret, a Federation specialist from the investigative crew—a bit too indispensable for the nature of the mission than Berat liked. That was the perverse thing about service in the Cardassian Guard: he needed the expertise of a woman like Eret, yet one always had to be suspicious of those assigned to study the enemy. The state, after all, would not risk exposing anyone less than perfectly loyal to detailed information on foreigners and their societies, so there was a strong chance in Berat’s mind that Eret was Obsidian Order.
He trusted Gor Tebal and Garheç Mavrit from his deck patrol far more. Given his horrid experience with Gul Marak aboard the Ghedrakbre, one of Gul Berat’s first tasks upon assuming command of the Sherouk had been a bloodless purge of its former gul’s deck patrol, replacing them with more principled individuals loyal not just to the state and to their gul, but to the reasons the rules existed…people who wouldn’t just stand by while some young garheç belowdecks suffered beating after beating from the people who were supposed to be his comrades. These were men who had something left in their hearts, not just in their brains and their bodies. And at least while they remained on the Sherouk, no one would knock that out of them.
Once the entire party stood on the pad, Berat glanced over at Riyăk Arvor, the transporter operator. “Ousighukum,” he commanded, his diction authoritative but his voice low.
“I obey, Gul.” Arvor engaged the transporter, and for an instant dislocated the four Cardassians from space and time.
The suspicion in Governor Soon’s eyes was regrettable, Gul Berat thought, but understandable. These people had not simply fought the might of the Cardassian Union and lost. No—for them there had been no battle, no hope that an aggrieved Federation might return someday to reclaim a conquered territory. Instead their own people had handed them over. There would be no rescue…and in their minds, what hope would they have but that which they created for themselves? That did not excuse the colonists’ terrorist sympathies, by any means…but it did at least provide an avenue through which Berat hoped he might be able to reason with them.
“I’m sure you understand why something like that would take time,” the governor was saying of Berat’s proposal. “They’ll demand proof.” He nodded at the door where his fellow colonists gathered.
“Conversely—so do we,” Berat countered. “Both Guardsmen and Cardassian civilians have died at the hands of Maquis insurgents, and we must have assurances that the attacks are going to stop. I really do want to help you become a fuller participant in the Union—a true rasgălor, with official recognition as a prefecture of the Union, not just a settlement. The Federation never granted you that status, did they?”
Soon offered no direct answer. Instead, he raised a skeptical eyebrow far higher than any Cardassian’s eye ridge could ever go. “You would grant equality to aliens?”
“All worlds within the Union must answer to Cardassia,” Berat clarified. “But in that, you would be no different. That said…if it’s Bajor’s situation you fear, I am authorized to tell you that if the violence stops, things will be different for you than that. We are even willing to assist you in solving the exchange problem and helping you enter the Cardassian economy.”
This, according to Turrel’s analysis, was one of the greatest practical problems faced by the colonists. They still had no right to attack Cardassians—or their own people, for that matter—but the remnant of ‘currency’ in the Federation was nearly worthless in comparison to the Cardassian lek. Maybe barter would suffice on-planet for these early generations...but with the exception of the few colonists who might have a few strips of latinum to their name, they had no way to purchase goods off-planet, the things their small personal replicators could never make.
Making matters worse, Federation attempts to interdict illicit arms shipments had proven ineffective—therefore the only option had been to deny all Federation ships entry if they refused to submit to Cardassian inspection. Few got through, and those that did were sorely delayed. The colonists were beginning to feel privation. And if allowing Federation shipments meant the flow of contraband—then the alternative was to give the colonists a means to purchase from a safe source…Cardassia…instead. If successful, a small outlay and some lessons in finance and fiscal responsibility could pay tremendous dividends for the Union—and the colonists as well.
Soon appeared to consider it for a moment…but he hadn’t forgotten his concerns. “And if there is an attack?”
Berat pressed his lips together, and fixed the governor’s eyes with his own. He took no joy in the words he now delivered and he hoped Soon could read his face well enough to discern that. “Then I will have no power to stop Central Command from reprisals. I really don’t want to see that—and that’s why I want to speak to your people directly. I want them to know that they have a real chance with us.”
Maybe not the chance you would have had with your own people if they had been true to you, Berat thought, but it’s more than they ever really gave you in the end.
2371—5 minutes remaining
The boy had slipped out of the settlement at the light of dawn, taking up a position in the branches of one of the tallest trees. Fortunately for him, Volan III had no predators capable of scaling the tree and leaping out to the wall to menace the colony, so the settlers had seen no reason to trim back the long, high, sturdy branches that reached out towards the structure in a natural bridge of sorts.
His chronometer vibrated against his wrist: beamdown time. Sure, something might go wrong, the meeting might be scrapped at the last minute…one never knew, but if there was one thing the Cardies prided themselves on, it was punctuality. The gul and his entourage had to be here. And for whatever conniving reason of theirs, they didn’t just want to speak to the governor. They wanted to speak to the people…no doubt insurance in case they failed to brainwash the governor into doing whatever he wanted against the will of the people.
But if his dad was any indication, too many would fall for it.
Gingerly he shuffled along the branch, gripping it with both gloved hands and between his knees until he reached the edge of the stone wall. His heart pounded as he prepared to drop down onto the wall itself and some small part of him remarked at the irony, that he so dreaded this when a far more dire act awaited.
Slowly, he loosened his grip with his left hand, reaching for the cold concrete of the wall. It wasn’t far—he was right over the wall now. As he leaned, the world seemed to swoon for an instant, and he froze, letting his head settle enough for the next step. Finally, he clambered off the branch and after a few seconds curled atop the wall in something like a fetal position to regain his equilibrium, he allowed himself a flash of jubilation. He’d practiced reaching the top of the tree before, but never actually attempted the drop to the wall until now—and he’d actually made it.
He reached for his rucksack, feeling for the shape of the phaser. Good…it was still there, and the safeties still engaged. His father always swore by these old-style weapons, before Starfleet had even started building miniature touchscreens into even their phasers—a true manual safety was far, far more reliable if you knew what you were doing. He definitely knew what he was doing…replicators were few and far between on Volan III, and it was customary to hunt in order to supplement the bland, synthesized fare. And he was a skilled hunter; his father had taught him well.
A pang shot through the boy’s stomach at the sudden shift in tone towards his father—what had Orwell called it, in that book the teachers had had everyone old enough study right before the Cardies came? Doublethink. And then another word—crimestop. Well, this wasn’t a crime, exactly, but he couldn’t let himself be distracted. That meant failure.
Now perched carefully on the wall, he eased his rucksack off and drew out the phaser. There was no more time for tests now—what if he tripped the spoonheads’ sensors? What if he drained the battery below the critical threshold? He’ have only one shot.
He’d considered an eyepiece with a heads-up display, but dismissed the idea. He was well-practiced at hitting his targets at a distance. And what was a slow-moving Cardassian compared to a Volan summerbuck? He could do this.
From on high he crouched in silence, watched the door to the governor’s residence, and waited.
Side by side the governor and gul emerged. Three Cardassians accompanied the gul—two men, one woman. As for the woman, she struck him as some sort of bureaucrat. The men looked like a couple of typical jackbooted heavies. Their hands weren’t on their weapons, but they easily could be in an instant. Coward, he sneered at the gul. Too afraid to face your subjects without an armed guard, are you? You send messages filled with words like peace and trust, but I see how you really feel.
The gathered crowd watched and waited, appraising the Cardassian commander as he spoke a few more words with the governor.
A smile, a flash of blue—the gul turned, presented his back—
He would never truly recall the exact instant he pulled the trigger…only the instant when it all fell apart.
“I thank you for taking the time out of your day to listen,” Gul Berat said to the gathered crowd of mostly terhăn colonists. Indeed, no one had ordered these people’s presence, as might have been done under other circumstances—they were all here by choice. He had just outlined the same proposal to the colonists, and now he was ready to do something that Cardassians rarely did before aliens. “Now…I’d like to hear from you.”
His gut twisted. All of it was being recorded, of course. Allowances were to be made, if the violence subsided—their words would not convict them as they would a Cardassian citizen. Of course, that was contingent upon the cessation of violence…and based on what he’d seen aboard Deep Space Nine, he wondered if these people, accustomed to a much different society, truly realized what a fine line they and Berat treaded together.
“What about the Cardassians who have been attacking us? What happens to them? You armed them!” one colonist accused, his finger stabbing at Berat as a representative of the Cardassian Guard.
“We will only permit self-defense,” Berat evenly replied. Arming the Cardassian colonists had been a mistake, not to mention a treaty violation, but acknowledging it could be his death. “Unprovoked attacks by Cardassian settlers will be punished.” The questioner muttered something under his breath beneath the range of Cardassian hearing in reply, and Berat continued as though he hadn’t noticed. “We also want to see the abolition of terhăn zones and Cardassian zones on this planet.”
“You want to kick us out of our homes!” a woman screamed.
“You will not be dispossessed,” Berat clarified. “Some of us want to join your community instead of living separately. They are the ones who will move, not you.” Then he said it. “Your Federation has already asked that of you once. No one will ask it of you again.” He wasn’t authorized to say any more…to condemn the Federation’s part in the treaty would be to condemn the part Central Command played—but he hoped…how he hoped his tone would convey the truth…!
Another voice drifted out over the crowd. “So you’d be giving us Cardassian credits…money,” she corrected herself. “That’s nice, but are your merchants actually going to sell to us?”
“Yes,” Berat said. “You’d even be able to buy the most exclusive kănar straight from the fields of Ekidor in Nevot—” Looks of disgust flickered through the crowd. “I see we still have a little work to do. It’s all right…I still have to work on my taste for grayp-wine,” he admitted, flashing a sheepish, crooked grin at the governor and the gathered crowd.
This time, he got a muted laugh.
Progress! Berat cheered. Maybe, as they got to know each other more, this really would—
A flash at the corner of his eye as he turned to address another question—
Fire exploded from a spot on his back just below the right shoulder blade—a horrible scream—whose voice? His…!
Every nerve jolted, every muscle rebelled, his breath came in gasps that couldn’t be called breathing, his heart galloped out of rhythm, out of control, and the flames burning inside him—it wouldn’t stop—it wouldn’t stop, why wouldn’t it stop…!
He saw motion, heard the voices, some in words he understood, others he didn’t. He heard his name but couldn’t answer…his voice no longer worked even for screaming. His mind formed no words—just one shriek of agony as the lightning that had shot from shoulder to toes reversed course and ran through his body again and again—
What the hell?!
This wasn’t how it was supposed to happen! The beam was supposed to vaporize instantly, before the enemy even realized what was happening. Yet that terrible cry still rang in his ears, even after he was silent. He chanced one more look as he scrambled for the branches.
Frak! The Cardassian gul convulsed now, one unending seizure…the woman crouched over him, shouting into her wristcomm, the bodyguards surged out into the crowd—
He shot off the wall with an explosive leap, almost missed the branch.
He caught hold with his gloved hands, scrambled down the tree, threw himself at the ground as soon as he could. He clambered up to his feet, running, running, running, his hands working even as he ran at the phaser. There was the swamp—he threw the replacement collimator and battery into the swamp, where any residual DNA traces would be erased, and then he ran some more until he found the cave where he’d planned to hide, and he collapsed into a heap.
No transporters whined. No footsteps pounded. No voices rang out across the forest.
He’d done it. No. He’d done…what?
In the silence the Cardassian man’s agonized shriek rent through his mind again and again and again and in his mind’s eye there he was—dying, dying, dying by centimeters—
And in silence he wept, his fingers wrapped around the dead phaser’s grip with the stiffness of rigor mortis, its minuscule weight turned to neutron star density as it seemed to pull him down, down into the planet’s core.
Golden light paralyzes, seizes as storms of the consciousness rage, their fury frozen for one isolated moment and released again. His world is made of fire and knives. Everything is slipping out of alignment. A choked cry wracks his body as they draw near—even a bioelectric field is agony. The Sherouk…beautiful Sherouk—its power too is agony to his heightened bioelectric sense…too much, too much…!
Frantic energy abounds—everybody who can stand is running, running in a strange and infinite loop…it wasn’t like this the last time. Last time the instant came, the fire ripped through him and cast him into oblivion. This time—everything is endless and wrapped in agony.
Another current rips through his body, starting from within this time—a tiny moan escapes his lips and unbidden tears roll down onto his eye ridges.
With a hiss by his ear, everything fades…
2371—Two weeks after the shooting
He had left a change of clothes, some food and water, and some Starfleet-style bath-in-a-bottle in the cave before…what he did. His parents had believed he was on a camping trip for the next few days; they hadn’t been expecting to see him at home the day—the day…that day.
He had thought it would be easy. He hadn’t planned on the terrible ringing in his mind as the sun rose and set once more. He’d planned to return, report what he’d done to the cell leader, accept the Maquis membership he deserved…
Instead, the boy had returned home in silence. The hollow horror in his eyes when his father informed him of the disaster with the Cardassian was real. So too was the dread…Gul Evek was inbound again, that bastard Evek, and God only knew what he planned to do when he got there. And it was all because of him.
They said something really had been different about the other gul. He’d been young, enthusiastic…and he’d spoken with them, not just at them. Maybe things could have really changed—they’d been right on the cusp—and they would never know.
That phaser—repaired now—was back in its case, locked away. And all he could hope was that if the Cardassians searched, the modifications would be enough. And that his father—revolted, disgusted by the shooter…by his own son, though he still didn’t know it…wouldn’t suffer for this. So many would suffer.
He hadn’t just killed the gul. Killed a man. He had tortured him. He’d hated the Cardassians for that. For being what he was now.
He still wanted nothing more than to get away from the life the Federation had condemned their people to, under the durasteel heel of the Cardassians. The difference was that now, he had no idea where to go—because even if no one else ever realized, he would always see that flash of blue…the man’s eyes, he knew now, eyes like the sky and the lake that now concealed the phaser parts. And that death cry would always echo between his ears.
2371—Three weeks after the shooting
Gul Tayben Berat collapsed onto the biobed, exhausted. Pain roared to life once again on impact—the deep neuralgic pain that had been his constant companion for the past two weeks since Dr. Hetalc finally brought him back to full consciousness. There was nothing Hetalc could give him for the pain that wouldn’t dull Berat’s mind beyond recognition…it would be with him forever. Hetalc was instructing him now in biofeedback techniques that might help him to function again—but it would be slow going.
Today was the first day he had tried to walk again. The therapy he’d undergone the first time he was shot had nothing on this. It was as though his body had forgotten everything except, thankfully, how to breathe, eat, and speak. His tremor-wracked hands couldn’t keep a grip on the metal bars patients usually supported themselves on as they learned to walk again—Hetalc and one of the nurses had to support him instead as he’d struggled to his feet, tried to put one in front of the other. He would manage a few steps in this fashion—then his muscles would spasm or his nerves would flare and his legs would go right back out from under him.
This part would get better over time, Hetalc had assured him—there was no reason he wouldn’t walk or even run again. But his hands…the tiny nerves had suffered too much damage, and he would never have full use of them again.
Central Command had already sent the discharge orders. Dr. Hetalc had also informed him that his first officer, Glinn Drevot, had had the two young soldiers and the Federation specialist sent back to Cardassia for trial—for failing to protect their gul.
Tebal and Mavrit don’t deserve that! Berat fumed. He had a feeling he knew how the attempted murderer had done his deed…that phaser, with its defective collimator and battery would have powered up for only an instant, and at partial power, before he fired, and then gone dead. No one could have detected it…no one could have stopped it. He had already sent a strongly-worded statement to Central Command about that, trying to save all three…not that he really wanted the Obsidian Order plant back, but if his attempt to save the young men was to succeed, he had to include the operative. He hoped against hope that they wouldn’t be announced in the docket soon, because the moment their trial was announced—that would be it. It was almost certainly a lost cause, but he owed them that much, even if his own appeal failed.
The traitors of the Fist of Revenge had already tried once to disgrace him, to strip him of his rank and send him away to die…and they had failed. This Federation assassin had tried as well, and failed. And even if Central Command tried—he shuddered, this time not from the neuropathy, but at the startling, maverick thought taking shape. They’ll fail too, or I’ll die trying.
He could go back to Volan III—he’d learned much about how terhăn-çăs thought, aboard Deep Space Nine, and to see him return and reach back out toward even with the tremors in his hands…he could do it. He could make peace. But Central Command had dismissed that idea out of hand. Gul Evek was already there, and that would scar the colonists far deeper even than the phaser beam that had seared him right down to his bones. Their own people had betrayed them, and now one of their own had betrayed them yet again and all of that hope he’d presented them was gone.
Part of him offered up the sardonic remark that perhaps the hardliners in Central Command liked how this had gone—they had their excuse now. That had to be the only reason he hadn’t heard anything about a trial and execution for Legate Turrel.
And there was something else he still hadn’t received word on. He hadn’t heard anything about his appeal for reinstatement. No shuttle had arrived from Cardassia Prime to take him back to the homeworld, nor had a summary execution order arrived for the failure of the mission.
A faint smile traced across Berat’s face. No one had ever averted the automatic discharge that came with this sort of injury. No one had ever commanded a starship of the Cardassian Guard with any sort of disability. And challenging the edicts of Central Command, even in the best of times, carried stiff penalties to say the least. Still…
Maybe someone’s actually listening.
I just dare anyone to tell me that’s impossible!