2 Keledăp, Twelfth Year of the 371st Ăstraya
Federation Year 2359
When fifteen-year-old Hirhul Mendral and his classmates had first descended upon the Central Avenue Holosuite Parlor that Saturday afternoon, he could have sworn the woman at the counter looked at them somewhat askance.
He’d assumed then it was nothing but the usual confused glances that accompanied his presence—not only was he of a species few of them had seen before, but oftentimes the mere sight of the clothes he wore in the six-month Phoenix summer was enough to make humans and other warmer-blooded species squirm uncomfortably.
His only exposed skin was on his hands, neck ridges, and face. It was 40 degrees Celsius outside, and he was a walking solar collector and loving it. True, he probably could have worn short sleeves outdoors and been comfortable…but indoors wasn’t typically so comfortable on this planet. And today’s holonovel had been planned to occur at a much lower temperature than outside.
Today, in addition to the long, black hair that flowed down behind his neck ridges until it just touched his shoulders, he wore twenty-first century style black jeans, a long-sleeved, black undershirt, and T-shirt with blocky white letters that spelled out, ‘KILLSWITCH ENGAGE.’ These hung loosely over his lanky frame—he’d deliberately replicated both a size too large, to accommodate his sweeping neck ridges without completely ruining the period look.
And that still blew his mind. They’d replicated these outfits for one use without batting an eye. Hirhul Mendral had been on Earth for over a year now—and after a year of private tutoring, he’d been in public school for a month. Even now, the casual ease with which people replicated and discarded clothing and other props for a one-day trip to the holosuite astounded him. Just over a year ago, if he’d come across an outfit like this, in such pristine condition, and so well tailored to his entire body except the neck ridges (but that he would’ve easily forgiven), it would have immediately become one of his most treasured possessions.
When Damon’s birthday-party invitation showed up in his inbox, he’d regarded it with trepidation. But his guardian, Spencer Singh—cousin to the man who had smuggled him and his older brothers out of Bajoran-occupied Cardassian space, had encouraged him to go.
Even if it’s not your favorite thing to do, Spencer had said, it’s a cultural experience. Just try to relax and enjoy the company of your classmates. If you show them you’re willing to make the effort to understand them, that’ll encourage them to keep reaching out to you.
Now Hirhul stood on the roof of a Chicago high-rise…one of the many buildings that had been obliterated in the ECON nuclear strikes of the Third World War. Wind swept through his long, loose hair and he shivered—but only part of it was the cold of the Windy City. A few of his braver classmates—three of them human, one of them Vulcan—stood on what looked like the empty air on the other side of the ledge. That was the beauty of the non-participatory type of holonovel: the impossible vantage points, the powerful effects, and incredible actions that an untrained participant would have little hope of emulating.
After a minute or so to acclimate to their latest vantage point and choose their positions, a twenty-first century helicopter rumbled close overhead: close enough for the intense prop wash to sweep over them. Glad I’m not standing between buildings! Hirhul thought. These holosuites weren’t calibrated to account for a Cardassian bioelectric sense, and he found that pervasive sense of forcefields slightly disconcerting—but as long as he stayed on solid ground well away from the ledges, he could live with it.
And right now, this was actually pretty cool, as his Earth-raised classmates would say.
Two ropes dropped from the helicopter and from them rappelled a team of four—three male, one female, clad in black, padded special-ops uniforms and whipping M-16 rifles off their shoulders and into a ready position. They took off running across the roof.
Almost immediately, with the impeccable timing Hirhul had gathered was standard for these sorts of action holonovels, which had their ancestral roots in Earth’s 2-D movies like Die Hard, The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the renegade couple burst out onto the roof, just in time for a dramatic showdown.
Tracy Ping was one of the hottest holonovel stars these days, and so was her colleague, Roman Diaz. The pair now reprised their roles for the second time as Xiao Ai-Li and Adrian Garza, anti-Khan rebels fighting in the underground Eugenics Wars of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Xiao/Ping and Garza/Diaz whipped out their Glocks and started firing at the genetically-enhanced agents closing in on them. Then Xiao/Ping leaned forward, and…
“Computer—freeze program!” called Damon.
The blond human circled around the frozen image with an appraising look in his eye. Her pants stretched tightly across her derriere, leaving little to the imagination, and her shirt hung down just enough to provide the teenage eye with quite a view. And when he came face-to-face with the hologram, he knelt down and started to reach forward—
It was creepy. It was just…wrong, on so many levels. True, he didn’t find this particular woman all that attractive; perhaps as a Cardassian, he had a slightly different aesthetic in mind. And even now, he still felt his neck ridges flush, though not uncomfortably much. But he couldn’t even imagine behaving in such a degrading manner towards an image of the most gorgeous specimen of feminine Cardassian beauty he could imagine.
“Damon!” Hirhul heard himself calling out. “Can we please just watch the movie?”
He stood up and cocked an eyebrow at the Cardassian. For a moment Hirhul feared he hadn’t even been understood; due to the stunting effect they would have on language development, universal translators weren’t generally permitted to minors, so he had to speak Federation Standard. His grammar and vocabulary were quite strong, thanks to his eidetic memory—but he knew his accent could still sometimes interfere.
Damon’s response, however, left no doubt he’d understood exactly what Hirhul said. “Hey, I am watching. This is half the fun—I mean, Tracy Ping is hot!”
“I don’t know…”
“Different tastes—that’s cool,” Damon said with an easy smile. “We’ve got five more here. Maybe her?” He gestured towards the female special-ops agent. When Hirhul didn’t react fast enough, he pointed to Garza/Diaz. “Or him?”
“That’s not the issue.”
He could feel Damon’s eyes—and twenty other sets of eyes—bearing down on him as Damon launched his next salvo. “I understand…not all species mature at the same rate—”
“Damon!” Now his cheeks burned and he flushed from jaw ridge to ear tip. “It’s not that!”
“Then what is it?” snapped Damon’s best friend, Jay.
“It’s not right,” Hirhul answered, his voice lower. “You wouldn’t do that if you saw Tracy Ping walking down the street, would you?” If this sort of thing happened frequently…dear Oralius, he could hardly imagine what it must be like for the holonovel stars. Could they even walk around in public knowing that their ‘fans’ had subjected their likenesses to such lewd scrutiny? How could they bear the eyes on them, regarding them as though they were nothing but those images?
It wasn’t the art itself. Up until now, he’d been enjoying himself quite thoroughly. Like most things, it wasn’t the existence or the use that was the problem; in fact, it was written in the Hebitian Records that the arts were one of the ways an Oralian believer could exercise and give thanks for the spirit that she had breathed into the people. The trouble was the misuse—the twisting of that art into something that did her no honor.
“Of course I wouldn’t do that,” Damon retorted. “So why should it bother you?”
“Because I believe that the ca—” He stopped himself; he’d almost said ‘cardasdanoid.’ “I believe that the humanoid form is sacred…and deserving of respect. You’re wrong if you think I can’t feel anything. But that’s sacred, too. Oralius has created those things with a purpose—and I can’t cheapen them.”
He recalled a book by a twentieth-century American president that he’d read last year, while Spencer tutored him and his brother…there was a line that wouldn’t stop running through his head right now: I almost literally looked down into my open grave. Friendships, position…were about to be swept away by the breath of my mouth, perhaps forever. Maybe it wasn’t forever—but four years until he went away to college. Hirhul had basically consigned himself—and possibly his brothers Arjan and Lopar by extension—to a very isolated social circle…at least when it came to the majority of the human kids. He might have received a sort of exemption for his convictions before, being Cardassian rather than human, but now he’d spoken too openly even for an alien. He’d spoken with too much certainty. The looks on their faces confirmed it: in their eyes, he’d gone over the line.
But he couldn’t take it back. And as bad as he felt about bringing down the mood of the party, and the social damage he’d done to himself…he knew that given the choice, he wouldn’t take it back.
“I’m sorry, Damon…I think maybe I should go.”
In a voice barely above a whisper, he ordered the computer to show him the exit.
Though the light of Sol embraced him with its comforting warmth, Hirhul still felt badly about what had transpired. And dreadfully alone, just like those first few days on Earth. He didn’t understand these people at all—and now the thought of understanding them frightened him.
They allowed many things that were quite foreign to the Cardassian mainstream, yes…he’d known that from the first day he’d arrived. Even his own people allowed more under the secular side of the law than a Guide would ever condone. But in Cardassian society, you could openly raise the debate. You might disagree on how Oralius saw this matter or that, you might disagree on how to apply the standards—but at least there was the shared knowledge that there was a right or wrong answer beyond the confines of the self. He’d set the other kids on edge as soon as the word ‘right’ had escaped his mouth.
So deep was he in his somber thoughts that he didn’t hear the footsteps behind him. Nor did he hear her call him the first time.
Most of his classmates had struggled with the Cardăsda ‘rh,’ even the native Spanish speakers—for the sound was more than just a trill of the ‘r.’ It came with a simultaneous release of breath that lent a pronounced hiss to the trilling sound. So after the first day, he’d given them a human name Spencer had suggested, a Sanskrit word they would find easier to pronounce. Unfortunately, his mind still wasn’t quite tuned to the sound of it.
The second time, it actually registered that he was being addressed. He spun around. Much to his surprise, he saw Selina, one of the few girls who’d been invited to Damon’s party. Following Selina was the quiet Vulcan boy, Sorvin.
“That was a brave thing you did,” Selina said as soon as Hirhul stopped walking. “You had a lot of guts to stand up for what you believe in. And what they were doing in there—it was gross. And wrong.”
“Your conclusion was surprisingly logical,” added Sorvin, “even if the means of arriving at it was decidedly not so. The ethics of treating a simulacrum of a living being in that manner are questionable at best.”
Hirhul stared at his sneakers. “I…well…thank you,” he reluctantly stammered. Part of him almost feared this was a trap…had Damon and Jay sent this group out to further his humiliation? Sorvin’s presence, however, shot that theory full of holes.
“You’re welcome…” Selina paused. “Hirroul.” Immediately she winced at herself. “That was terrible.”
The fifteen-year-old Cardassian gave a faint smile. It sounded like a hybrid of Spanish and English with just a passing resemblance to Cardăsda, but it was the thought that counted. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I still have an accent like a Scotsman with a speech impediment sometimes…well, several speech impediments.” Maybe the ‘Scots’ thing wasn’t entirely accurate—but the point remained. And it got exactly the laugh he’d been after. “So who am I to criticize? If you really want to know, I can try and teach you.”
“I’m up for it.”
Selina grinned, and Hirhul found a broader smile this time to match it with.