So many lives on the line tonight.
Skrain and Ziyal Dukat weren't the only ones risking everything to hitch a ride aboard the Bajoran transport to hopefully feel the warmth of Cardassia again. The Bajoran dissidents had found a Cardassian pilot, too. He'd been a riyăk, just barely out of the Inquisitorium when the Bajorans came, but the important thing was that he knew how to fly and he had actually done so in space. That was far more than the civilian Dukat could boast.
Dukat dared not lift his eyes from the ground, lest the distinctive silver-white Cardassian eyeshine catch in the starlight and grab the attention of anyone else who might be out at such a late hour...and that even though he knew he could see much more clearly out here than the Bajoran ram agent who led the cloaked Cardassian at a run between the depowered ships on their landing pads waiting until the morning for takeoff. Such an aggressive people, Dukat thought bitterly, yet they actually give a damn about things like quiet hours.
But the weight in his arms, unmoving except for her breathing, silently chastised him against that. Did she deserve such venom?
For that matter, what about Lantis, the technician and secret follower of the Prophets, running alongside him now? Or Sulan, the dissident spy in Vedek Tora's household who had first set his escape into motion? Or Adami, the spiritually-embattled woman whose safe house had sheltered him and his daughter until preparations were complete for them to make a run for it? Or those who had sheltered the pilot another set of dissidents would be bringing to the ship? No, Dukat decided. They couldn't be blamed for the evil committed by the acolytes of the Pah-Wraiths.
The hood of his cloak flew off as he ran, revealing his Cardassian features to all who might be in range. He couldn't spare a hand to lift it back up, for he needed both to carry his daughter. She's too much of a risk, Lantis had tried to tell him. She'll slow you down. But he'd insisted, and instead Lantis puffed out a sigh and reached up to fix Dukat's hood himself, Dukat doing all he could not to flinch at the unnaturally quick oscillations of his bioelectric field as his hand moved near his neck and jaw ridges in the process.
Finally, as they made it to the underbelly of a smallish cargo vessel, Lantis whispered in Bajoran, "Stop."
Silently Dukat complied, even though he had no universal translator. He knew that word from her well enough.
"We are here," he said. "You stay." Lantis shuddered as the Cardassian's eyes searched his face, and snapped, "Eyes down!" Dukat knew that with his pupils dilated in the nighttime darkness, his eyes had to be shining, and for whatever reason, even the most dedicated of the rebels found their reassuring reflections to be unnerving.
How long do we have until the spaceport's sensors come back online? Dukat wanted to ask, but he didn't have the vocabulary for it.
Lantis turned, scanning across the tarmac, Dukat wishing he could help the Bajoran. He knew he could spot the dissidents with the pilot far more readily than Lantis could. But he decided not to push his luck; he needed this man's aid and if Dukat's eyeshine bothered him, then fine. He'd live with it, as long as it didn't look like the Bajoran's fear was going to cost his daughter's life.
Finally--how long had it been?--Lantis reacted to something. Perhaps he heard the pair of footfalls before Dukat did, for he turned to Dukat and whispered, "They are here."
Daring to look up, Dukat glimpsed another cloaked figure, though one not quite as tall as him. Dukat grinned at the interplay of light and shadow of moonlight across the man's facial ridges. Aside from his daughter, this was the first Cardassian face he'd seen since the day the Bajorans caught him.
As the pilot moved closer, Dukat realized the man's hood was sitting on nothing but bare skin: the Bajorans had shaved it completely. Maybe even killed the hair follicles, if they felt like it, just for the sake of humiliating their prisoner. Dukat bowed his head without being asked. This man had been at one of the slave camps.
The former slave's eyes narrowed as they swept over Dukat. His stomach twisted as the other man growled out a Bajoran term: "The consort."
The Bajoran with the pilot snapped back in broken Cardăsda, "Quiet! Important is, take him home, away of Tora! Demons big loss have."
"Well, I have a pretty big loss," the pilot hissed in his native language, apparently not caring if the dissident fully understood him, "considering that my wife won't be on this mission thanks to him, and there may not be a second chance!"
Dukat gasped. Dear Oralius--they bumped his wife off this mission for me!
"I don't want to break up your family," Dukat sadly whispered. "I didn't ask anyone to do that." He turned back to Lantis and asked in Bajoran, "His wife not go--why?"
"No room," Lantis said. "Need pilot. Need you and child, for Pah-Wraith loss."
The pilot blinked, uncomprehending. "You'd better explain what in the frozen tundra you're saying, consort. Do you think this is funny?"
Dukat shook his head. "I asked him why they didn't bring your wife. He said there's not enough room." Dukat dared not repeat the rest. "Why? Make fit," he insisted in Bajoran, then repeated himself in his own language. "Why?" he repeated for the pilot's benefit. "Make room for her."
Lantis' shoulders hunched. So did the man who had brought the pilot. It was the latter who replied in Cardăsda, "Pod two adult hold. Another mission--another mission!"
"Where is she now?" Dukat pressed. "Did you at least get her out of the camp?"
The other man hesitated.
"What were you thinking?" Dukat burst out in an incredulous hiss. He could see from a tactical standpoint why the freedom of a pilot, and the consort and half-Bajoran child Vedek Tora had hoped to use to fulfil the dark prophecy of the Pah-Wraiths came first, but had the other Bajoran really given no thought to leaving the pilot and his wife in such a bind? "You should go back and set her free tonight. Lantis can tell you where there is a safe house in the city where this pilot's wife can rest and get stronger until that other mission--and you'd better swear there'll be another mission. Do you understand everything I'm saying?"
Lantis' eyes went wide at the sound of his name as if to say, Don't drag me into this! Dukat glowered at him.
As for the other Bajoran, he reluctantly nodded. "Free her. Now!" Dukat insisted once again for emphasis, repeating himself in simple language just in case the Bajoran had only claimed understanding out of fear. "As close to 'now' as you can! Take her to the house Lantis will tell you about. And make sure she is sent back to Cardassia Prime soon." Dukat turned to the pilot. "My group will shelter you until your wife is returned."
He did not ask either one's name. He knew better; if he were recaptured, the last thing he wanted was for the Bajorans to be able to get their names out of him in an interrogation and endanger either of them.
Dukat's advocacy did little to allay the bitterness in the pilot's eyes. And that Dukat understood just as well as if he felt it for himself.
Lantis' badge buzzed. "No more time!" he hissed in Bajoran. Dukat translated, though the reaction of the other dissident had probably made the meaning of his words clear to the pilot.
Lantis unsealed the container he'd been carrying slung on his back, pulling out two breathing masks, one for an adult and one for a child; the other Bajoran did the same.
Before they'd left, Adami had explained that they would be traveling inside an escape pod, whose atmospheric recyclers would almost certainly not be activated until takeoff. Shut inside the pod for six hours behind an airtight seal without breathers, carbon dioxide poisoning would set in quickly otherwise. And even after takeoff, the excessive drain on the recyclers would alert the bridge, despite the ship's disabled life-sign indicators, that someone was already inside the pod.
"They're going to hear that half-blooded baby!" the pilot groused, disgust clear on his features.
Dukat injected as much venom into his whisper as he could. "Shut..up...about my daughter! It's not her fault! And she won't wake up...not for a while, at least," he added, his voice falling away almost to nothing.
He'd almost thrown up when Adami carefully attached the tiny sedative pump to Ziyal's arm. Oh, Oralius, the thought of drugging his daughter, of taking that kind of risk with her hybrid physiology for what was likely to be days until the bomb exploded and forced the jettison of the escape pods--he loathed it with all his being. It made him feel even more like the worst father in all the worlds of Cardassia than he already felt. He feared what the Bajorans had done to his other three children. What if this risk killed Ziyal, undoing everything that this escape was for?
The pilot grunted, his expression softening for a moment as he glanced at the motionless, sleeping bundle in Dukat's arms. Then he slipped on his breathing mask. Dukat did the same with Lantis' help, and then secured the tiny infants' version over Ziyal's mouth and nose, switching both devices on. According to what Adami had told him, this particular type of breathing mask would function for as long as a month of near constant wear, as long as they didn't engage in any strenuous activities, and kept their speaking to a minimum.
Dukat prayed it wouldn't be that long.
With a darting glance over his shoulder, Lantis keyed open a compartment on the belly of the Bajoran ship. The door popped far louder than Dukat had hoped and a ladder unfolded down to the tarmac. Lantis boosted Dukat up the ladder as the Cardassian father climbed one-handed; Dukat silently nodded his thanks. The pilot wasn't far behind.
Dukat found a cushion of sorts, choosing one that looked to be further away from the main controls. That one he left for the pilot, who sat down next, keeping his eyes away from the other two passengers but mercifully heeding the dissidents' warnings not to waste words now that they were masked.
Then Lantis slammed the door shut with a hollow crack and a hiss as the seal re-formed that made Dukat's ears pop.
After that--nothing but near darkness except for a few panels running on reserve power, and silence only broken by the faint sounds of all three Cardassians breathing through their masks.
The bald pilot glanced at him again, his fingers twitching once, then looking away again. Dukat suspected the man had intended to sign something to him, but reconsidered, thinking that perhaps as a civilian, Dukat would not understand the military sign language. Dukat considered signing something to him--but after that caustic introduction, decided he would rather withhold that fact until later, when a better time came. And when--perhaps--both of them had had a little time to cool down after their less-than-pleasant beginning.
Dukat kept his eyes away from the pilot's as well, though with his peripheral vision he could see how thin the man was, and of course the absence of his hair.
Dukat shuddered. Vedek Tora had cut off his own queue, but at least left him with that awful, close-cropped Bajoran hairstyle. After three weeks in the Bajoran safehouse, his hair now looked a bit shaggy, but still not even long enough yet to slick back into a proper military cut, let alone the queue that was supposed to come a third of the way down Dukat's back.
Dukat pulled his daughter close. A tear slid down his cheek when the sedated, masked infant didn't coo or even shift in his arms. He set a hand on her back, letting the slow rise and fall of Ziyal's chest and the oscillations of her tiny bioelectric field reassure him that she was still breathing.
Did the pilot's head turn towards him just a bit?
Dukat didn't know. He simply closed his eyes and prayed.
Finally, the Bajoran ship roared to life and he suddenly felt another bioelectric field besides Ziyal's close to him. He instinctively flattened against the wall as he opened his eyes, then relaxed--a bit--as he discerned the pilot giving him an exasperated roll of the eyes as he buckled Dukat in.
Dukat nodded in gratitude, grateful that the dark umber breathing mask hid the fact that he couldn't muster up even a polite smile. He knew why the man was angry--Oralius knew he understood...but he couldn't help hearing the remark about his dear Ziyal still ringing between his ears.
The pilot returned to his seat and with a click, buckled himself in.
The transport pushed off of the ground with a violent shove of g-forces; Dukat at least knew enough from his cousin to realize that the inertial dampers wouldn't come on until they had cleared enough of the planet's atmosphere to go to impulse. But what mattered most was that finally, they were taking him away from Bajor.
It was hard to believe that his homeworld lay only a few days away from this demon-infested place of horrors. That for so long, the worlds of Cardassia had sat so close to Bajor, never realizing that from this star they could actually see in their own skies, from some worlds, would come conquest. But from what Adami had told him, Bajor's ascent into space again--for they were an unimaginably old civilization--had come suddenly, even more so than that of the Hebitians or the terhăn-çăs, for the Pah-Wraiths had given it their unnatural drive and direction. It was they, above all, who reached their fiery fists to the stars.
The ship lurched violently, wrenching Dukat once more out of his meditations. Two days they had sat in this damnable pod, barely removing their masks except to eat a few awful ration bars designed for Bajoran taste buds--and even that questionably so, Dukat suspected--and drink some water. He and the pilot still had not spoken since that exchange on the landing pad.
Now the pilot growled out two words, muffled and just barely audible through his breathing mask: "Hold on."
Warning klaxons sounded in the pod and presumably throughout the Bajoran vessel; he didn't have to know their language to understand that they warned of an imminent warp core breach. Dukat clutched his sleeping daughter in one arm and a phaser pistol in the other in case some of the Bajorans decided to try and board his escape pod before the automatic ejection.
Lantis had assured him this ship was running with only a three-person crew and that they shouldn't touch any of the extra pods in the ventral section. But that did little to make Dukat feel any better as boots clanged against the deckplates above their heads, loudly enough to be audible even through the sealed hatch of the escape pod.
Finally the boots went silent. Dukat hoped they'd found another pod and weren't just lying in wait while someone ran to get reinforcements against the Cardassian stowaways.
Only when the escape pod blew free of the doomed Bajoran transport did Dukat allow himself to relax--a little.
He thought about tapping the sedative pump on Ziyal's arm, letting the device begin to taper off her dosage and wake her up. Oh, Oralius, he wanted to so badly. But he dared not...he dared not until they had landed.
The pilot sprang into action, inserting an isolinear chip into one of the pod's ports and replacing some of the Bajoran glyphs on the consoles with Cardassian script. He scanned the consoles for a moment, then keyed up a new display on the main monitor. Gruffly he pointed at the pinkish blips on the screen. "Those are the other pods," he said. "We'll wait for the others to set course and then we'll start our descent. These coordinates Jarema gave me had better be good," he warned.
Dukat nodded, but did not open his mouth. Jarema must have been one of the Bajoran dissidents; after their lapse of judgment with regard to the pilot's wife, Dukat wasn't sure he trusted them all. But it wouldn't do to reinforce the pilot's memory, nor his bitterness, especially not now, as he frantically keyed in the course that would take them down to the desert sands of Cardassia Prime.
At last the pilot spoke again. "That ought to be enough time. You might not want to look," he warned. "We're going to tumble until we reach atmosphere. Don't see any other ships in the area yet, but I don't want to make it look like anyone's flying this thing, of course."
'Of course,' Dukat thought to himself, again replying with a simple nod. He might not have ever been in space other than his capture, and he'd slept through that flight just as Ziyal slept now, but he wasn't stupid.
Oh, Ziyal...he clutched his daughter close again. The pilot's eyes lingered for a moment before abruptly cutting away.
And they started their fall.
At first Dukat closed his eyes. Then the roar of re-entry swelled louder and louder with a yellow-orange flare of fire onscreen. The inertial dampers went off and the pilot tapped furiously at the console, firing reverse thrusters again and again until their speed dropped to something saner.
Dukat counted the seconds to himself until at last the landing antigravs kicked in, the deceleration completed, and they eased their way back down to the sands of Cardassia Prime at sunset.
The pilot keyed open the hatch, ripping his mask off as a blast of warm air greeted them. Dukat followed suit for himself and Ziyal, and then drew the arid atmosphere of home into his lungs.
Robed figures ran towards the "crash" site, shouting in a language Dukat recognized, but barely understood in its spoken form. The pilot's eyes went wide in alarm.
"They're Sokol-haaf," Dukat hurriedly explained. "Kurabda. I can talk to them."
Reluctant as he was to relinquish Ziyal, especially not to this man after what he'd said about her, he thrust his infant daughter into the gruff pilot's arms. Then he raised his hands to sign.
His fingers moved as rapidly as his heart pounded; he saw the hands of the Sokol-haaf edging towards their weapons. --I am Dukat of the resistance against the outworlders,-- he said in Kurabda sign, --known to the tribe of Kekil-haaf. The three of us have been prisoners on their world. We need your help returning to our place near the lands of the Kekil-haaf. We first need to move away from here,-- he warned. --I do not want this craft to endanger you if the Bajorans come looking for us.--
One of the Sokol-haaf men began to speak.
--I understand little,-- Dukat replied. --My friend understands none. If you could please sign...--
--We will take you,-- the tribesman confirmed. --The outworlders have become more and more of a nuisance to us, even here. There was an attack last year in the Kekil-haaf lands, and the rebels there moved to another cave we showed them. The Bajorans just burned the bodies with their weapons, did not even bury them.-- The tribesman shook his head at the barbarity of it.
"Oh, Oralius," Dukat moaned aloud. That had to have been his people. The Bajorans had attacked the base after he was captured...who had lived? What had they done? His wife...his three children with her...had they survived? --Let me translate for my friend,-- he signed, buying himself some time to cope with the news.
"The Sokol-haaf will take us to our base," Dukat said, "where we'll keep you safe until your wife is brought to us. But they said our base was attacked and has been relocated close to here." He didn't want to speak the words at first. But he was trembling now and couldn't hold them in. "I'm scared the Bajorans did it because of me. They took DNA from me when they captured me. And if they'd wanted to destroy all of us, they could have. Riyăk, my family...I don't know what they did but I just can't stop thinking--"
The pilot's lips pressed together in a thin line, his countenance turned to stone. Finally words emerged. "Let's pray that's not so." He cast his eyes at Ziyal one more time. His voice softened a bit more. "If you're sure we can trust these people, I think it's time to start waking her."
Dukat nodded as the pilot handed his daughter back.
She might be all he had left.