Author’s note: This story takes place in the pre-invasion times of the Sigils and Unions: Catacombs of Oralius AU in which Cardassia has retained much of the culture of its Hebitian forefathers, and a young Skrain Dukat grew up in a completely different world from that of his prime-universe counterpart.
Tirhem Farms, thirty kilometers outside Lakariy’ane
13 Miçoun, Thirty-First Year of the 369th Ăstraya
Federation Year 2325
The spacious room in the center of the Pearl Domicile at Tirhem Farms offered thirteen-year-old Skrain Dukat very few reminders of the reason why he was there. Sunlight showered down through the skylight in the great, two-story-high vaulted ceiling, keeping just shy of the couch he sat on, old-fashioned, hide-bound copy of Ya’ilelh’s Commentaries in his lap. He could memorize it, yes…but even if he did that someday, the feel and scent of an actual book in hand would still resonate with his heart.
By all appearances, the great room of Pearl Domicile looked like the centerpiece of any ordinary, middle-income Lakariy’anda home: furnished with, overstuffed couches with just the right balance between aesthetics and simple, approachable comfort, chairs with reading lamps behind them. Only the scale of the place gave it away, and what had seemed to Skrain at first like an infinity of real books—not just electronic files, but actual, hardbound, paper-printed books. It was hardly anything compared to the few libraries left in Lakariy’ane, to be sure…but the fact that it actually exceeded the case-study collection in his father’s study was quite enough to impress him.
Tirhem Farms had actually been the estate of a wealthy family half a millennium ago, before the Cataclysm seared the wealth from the land and the Ti’irhem themselves had been forced to divest themselves of the sprawling compound or face even more complete destitution. For the seventy-five years without its owners, Tirhem Farms had alternated between a state of total abandonment and haunting by desperate squatters. Eventually, as Cardassia began to settle into a careful tension between the resource-impoverished homeworld and its colonies and trading partners, the property had fallen into the hands of an order of Oralian devotees with the idea of turning Tirhem Farms into a place for bringing new life to minds and hearts that might otherwise slip away for decidedly less pragmatic reasons than centuries-past abandonment by the Ti’irhem.
There was a large vidscreen on the far side, but it wasn’t on right now; it would be later that evening when those who were able gathered to watch the evening news for a dose of reality, and something more edifying afterwards for a dose of something real in the way that would truly last. A few other children and teens read on the couches nearest to the bookshelves, and on the far end of the room, another group had gathered to play kotra—or more accurately, two to play, and a gaggle of others to kibitz in a way that would never be tolerated at any serious tournament. Skrain wasn’t the type to feed off of that sort of excitement; he was fine with his book, the conversation of the Guides and acolytes, and a few acquaintances near his own age that he’d made since coming here.
Besides…the truth was that he didn’t feel as though he really belonged in their company. Never mind that all of the other young people were here for their own reasons. And of course some suffered more severe disruptions to their thinking and feeling than he ever had…some couldn’t even participate in these activities if they wanted to. Like Nejran Yidal, whom no one, not the Guides, not the counselors, not even his fellow patients had been able to bring out of the catatonic state he’d been in since he witnessed the deaths of his parents in a horrific midair collision near his school. As for the doctors…there might be medicines they could try, but the consensus between the three constituencies of Tirhem Farms was that this was a problem of the spirit, and medicine would likely do more harm than good.
But for Skrain—it didn’t matter that the doctor had been so skillful with a dermal regenerator that there were no visible scars to remind him of what he had done. Or tried to do. His capacity for memory hadn’t faded as he drained away, as fear suddenly resuscitated itself in his body when by all accounts it should have done no good except to remind him at the very last of the absolute waste of what he had done.
Father, kneeling over him…
Father, shouting into a comm unit…
Transporters nearby, and darkness…
Skrain felt something thump against the bottom of the couch, breaking him out of leaden thoughts. He glanced down just as a brown-scaled tail, with the hard, fin-like end that reminded Skrain of the tail of a lake ray, hit the furniture again—not too hard…just hard enough to get his attention. Skrain slid into a seated position, and eyed the long-snouted camayrit—a ‘house gharial,’ as he’d read the creature was known on Terhăn Terăm, thanks to a wonderful example of convergent evolution. The camayrit stood a bit taller on his straight legs than the terhăn creature with its jutting knees—but the biggest difference was the species’ temperament and social behavior. The animal started scrabbling at Skrain’s leg with his clawed front feet, great yellow eyes staring up at the Cardassian boy with that permanent, hopeful smile. Pick me up? those eyes begged.
Even with the design of his legs, the camayrit was still a fairly low-slung creature, and not much good for jumping. That didn’t stop camayrit-çăs from wanting to be in high places when their owners were there. “I give up, Vratsik…you win,” Skrain finally conceded with a faint smile. He didn’t worry about bringing his hand within the reach of the camayrit’s teeth, which stuck out prominently from the jaws, sharp as needles. They might have seemed threatening to an alien visitor who had never seen such a creature before, but these were thin, fish-snaring jaws, not the kind that could take a bite out of a man’s hand or foot. The attempt would snap the small reptiloid’s jaw, and both of them knew it.
As Skrain lifted Vratsik, the camayrit thrummed happily away. Skrain couldn’t hear the sound—only with a rare combination of the right person and the right camayrit were the sounds the creatures made ever audible to a Cardassian. Camayrit-çăs knew their owners’ deafness to the sounds they made, and while no one had ever quite proven it, Skrain had a feeling that was why some, like Vratsik, so liked to be picked up and petted: only by touch could they make themselves ‘heard.’
Vratsik tromped around a bit on Skrain’s lap like a little soldier scouting the territory for a perfect camping position, then walked his long body into a circle and plopped down. Skrain gave the camayrit a gentle ‘scratch’ just above the krilătbre-yezul—the inverted teardrop-shaped protrusion on the forehead that all Cardassian creatures with a bioelectric sense shared. He was careful as always not to use his fingernails…he didn’t care one bit for the feeling of one of his own macroscales being pulled the wrong way, and wouldn’t blame Vratsik for scrambling off his lap if he erred.
“I have quite a tendency for that, don’t I?” Skrain whispered ruefully to Vratsik. The camayrit intensified his thrumming, oblivious to the content of Skrain’s words, but seeming to recognize the tone. “At least someone around here doesn’t know…” That I tried to waste all of Oralius’ gifts, he silently finished. That I didn’t even tell anybody. That I just pushed Mom and Dad away and told them everything was fine...and then…I…
He couldn’t understand why his father—the strong and dignified federal archon Procal Dukat—had taken a partial leave of absence, splitting his docket with an older archon looking to ease his way to retirement, and traveled from Culat to Tirhem Farms to spend half of each week at the Ruby Domicile, where he lived during those times and came over to visit with his second son. Didn’t Dad worry about what would happen if the media started asking questions? Didn’t he worry about the hurtful speculations they might come up with to explain his absence? True, especially as an archon he could use the laws about public dissemination of information about minors to threaten any reporter who so much as thought about running a story about the embarrassment of a son who had managed to wind up in a mental health center, and for that reason. He shouldn’t have to worry, he realized, but some reporters’ hierarchical instincts…and sense of common decency…seemed to be broken. Some of them might not stop at the thought of releasing such a story, and even with a retraction, the damage would be done. What would they think of Dad? Would they think he’d been a monster to his son and that Mom had let him? There were those here at Tirhem Farms who had suffered all manner of abuse from their parents, after all.
And thank Oralius—I am not one of those, Skrain thought. There were no horrors remembered, nor gaps in his memory. He had gotten along reasonably well in his large family, aside from the expected poking and prodding and teasing that went with being the second boy in the family. And that was what made it all the more galling to him, what he had done. How could Dad follow him here without reservations, after he’d thrown the love of his family right back in their faces the way he had?
The tears started again. He was tired of tears…they were good for the soul, his people said—even the Hebitian Records themselves said—but he had shed so many of them and he was tired of not knowing whether they came from a broken mind or a broken soul. One tear slid down, missing his eye ridge thanks to the angle to which his head was tilted, and splashing on Vratsik’s back. The camayrit cocked a gentle, curious eye at Skrain, but didn’t interrupt his gentle thrumming—water was natural to the fish-eating animal, after all.
He didn’t know whether he preferred the tears or the fire anymore—the kind that consumed the mind and drove it endlessly without rest. It could be an alluring state, yes…but…in clarity, he knew it wasn’t him either. To treat one was hard enough…to treat both…even in the reign of the 369th Ăstraya…while at the same time respecting the integrity and dignity of the personality—it wasn’t so easy. He knew he was making progress…he was in one of his low states now, but he could at least get out of bed, and his soul wasn’t completely dead to the toothy ‘smile’ of one of Oralius’ creatures.
Still…they had not yet found the right thing to completely stop the cycling. And until then, he was here. Not that ‘here’ was terrible…not like the horrors he’d heard of from the days of the Cataclysm and even a century or so after that. People treated him far better than he deserved, he thought. Especially the acolytes and Guides, who knew full well how badly he had offended Oralius and still showed him kindness anyway. It was as though he were a long-anticipated house guest, not a patient. Even the ‘family pets’ seemed to think so. But that still didn’t ease his soul.
In stark contrast, Vratsik’s eyes began to narrow with pleasure as Skrain stroked the entire length of the camayrit’s body, all the way from the krilătbre-yezul to the paddle-tip of his thick, sturdy tail. I’m going to be stuck here for awhile, Skrain thought with a hint of laughter that barely even twitched his lips…but at least it was something. No doubt: Vratsik was settling in for a nice, long nap.
Skrain was even more sure of this when Vratsik barely even opened an eye to register the approach of Derava, one of the robed Guides. Even with his eye ridge partly in the way, Skrain couldn’t have mistaken her for anyone else—for she could stand eye-to-eye with him, alone among the Guides at Tirhem Farms. Her long hair flowed halfway down her back, with the sides drawn back without embellishment, only a simple cord more comparable to what most males—Skrain included—used for their hair, than the elaborate ornamentation many women employed. That hair brushed against neck ridges wrapped in a clerical scarf high enough across her throat that only the last few macroscales just under the jaw ridges were left exposed. The more infrequent male Guides, in Skrain’s sect, did the same: for a Guide, and some very conservative Cardassians, the neck ridges were only for the eyes of one’s husband or wife as the case might be—never for the fantasies of another.
Derava gestured towards Skrain with a smile. “Ya’ilelh’s Commentaries, I see? What do you think?”
“I think Vratsik had other plans,” Skrain wryly answered. The truth was, he hadn’t been able to maintain his concentration. The Guide nodded her understanding. Maybe she knew what he was trying to say, but felt no need to force him to state the obvious.
She, however, clearly felt no such compunctions about her own words. “I think he likes you.”
On cue, Vratsik rolled his elongated little body onto its side, back leaned on Skrain, stretched all four of his legs, stubby, clawed toes splayed, then settled down again, leaving his tan belly with its sensitive secondary bioelectric node exposed for petting. Skrain couldn’t help but oblige.
Skrain found it much easier to talk to the religious devotees who served at Tirhem Farms than he did the counselors or doctors. It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with the other staff members…in fact, a few even had diagnoses of their own. Skrain would never forget his surprise the first time he saw Dr. Rhulat’s hair part in the wind to reveal the silver glint of a medical implant behind her right ear—almost the same kind that he might end up with if his condition continued to be so difficult to fully treat. He respected, even liked Dr. Rhulat…but still, to him a Guide was different.
That wasn’t true of everyone—some of the other children avoided the Guides and acolytes as though they carried an illness that would make every single scale fall off of their bodies. For Skrain…it made no sense, with the guilt he carried. Yet to him...they represented order. Sense. But the kind that warmed the heart rather than quenching its flame.
“Vratsik likes anybody who’ll give him a free stomach rub,” Skrain demurred. Which probably was one of the criteria the staff used for selecting the resident pets.
“But not everybody is willing,” Derava countered. “Not everybody is an animal person, of course. But it’s one of the ways we can express compassion. It says something about you, Skrain. Something good.”
“That’s very kind of you, Guide,” Skrain murmured flatly. Even the name of this building mocks me, Skrain thought to himself as he remembered Derava’s explanation of how the Pearl Domicile had come by its name. Because each of you is even more priceless and unique than a natural pearl…each of you is handcrafted and precious, and to be respected and loved for who you are, she’d said. Yet even in the face of that fact…just what had he done? “Still…”
Derava said nothing, simply waited until Skrain was ready to speak.
“I realize now...that I have this imbalance,” the teenaged Cardassian began. “And that at least helps me understand why I feel the way I do sometimes. But I don’t understand why I—how it is that when Oralius tested me, something so horrible came out of me. I don’t see how I’m supposed to forgive myself for that.”
The Guide paused, deep in thought. It seemed not to matter that she must have heard these sorts of things many times from who knew how many other children. The weight of the question had to be recognized. “That’s not how Oralius sees it,” Derava replied. “She is not so indifferent to life as to want people to desire the eternal tundra. No illness…regardless of what kind it is…is something that she wanted for any of us, nor are you your diagnosis, in her eyes. You weren’t in a state to make a rational choice then—your medical record is most clear on that. And above all, she does not practice entrapment. Please…don’t entrap yourself.”
Skrain nodded—though he feared the feel of his bioelectric field might somehow convey to Derava just how much he struggled with those words. No…that didn’t sound right. Feared wasn’t the word, precisely; if this were anyone other than one of the Guides, and especially Derava, he likely wouldn’t have spoken. “I’ll try my best, Guide.”
“Would you care to pray with me?” Derava invited, her hand instinctively patting the recitation mask she had been carrying.
Skrain nodded again…perhaps this might stop the arid wind from blowing through his soul.
Derava slid the mask onto her face, then rested a hand on his shoulder as she recited the Invocation. Then, in tandem, they closed their eyes. “Compassionate Oralius,” the Guide began, “we come to you in search of a sign. I ask you to show Skrain Dukat who it is you have fashioned him to be, who it is he will be as you continue to help him regain equilibrium of body, mind, and spirit—and above all, as he grows in his faith in you. Help him to recognize that sign—that moment, in whatever form it is presented to him—and to draw strength from it, and to feel his faith and his recognition of your love for him redoubled in his heart. May Fate be by Spirit so guided.”
22 Miçoun, Thirty-First Year of the 369th Ăstraya
Skrain Dukat stood before the door to Nejran Yidal’s room, on the upper floor where the children in the most serious conditions resided. It had been a long-standing custom for centuries at Tirhem Farms that those whose condition permitted them to do so joined their own prayers to the prayers and skills of the medical staff and the Oralian clerics and acolytes. One group of patients, led by Dr. Rhulat, even sang in the upper halls. Skrain had considered joining them, but lacked the confidence in his voice to try. Still, he could offer his prayers.
Tonight, he couldn’t seem to settle his mind even though he knew he had only half an hour left before lights-out, and he was tired of trying to sort out the tangled knots of guilt and illness, tired of trying to tell which was which. So instead, he had come up here to pray for Yidal. This kind of prayer, he had discovered, also relieved his heart of its own troubles as he sought relief for another. If only Yidal could rouse himself—could begin the process of knitting his soul back together…even Skrain’s own halting progress would be a blessing of inestimable worth.
As Skrain concluded his prayer, something hummed quietly at his feet. It was a hekant, he realized. “Shouldn’t you be back downstairs for the night?” Skrain whispered to the timid creature…exactly the words that should have been addressed to him, he realized with a touch of irony. Animals weren’t supposed to roam freely after hours the way they did during the day, with a few exceptions; they were supposed to be back in their kennel areas at night when only a few nurses were about. Especially not on this floor, where they should have had the eyes of a staff member on them at all times. This hekant wasn’t going anywhere, though. The furred therapsid sat on…his?...her?...haunches and sniffed at the air, limpid green eyes gazing at the cracked door to Yidal’s room.
That wasn’t supposed to happen, either. If he wanted to open his door to the hall at night—not that he wanted to hear the little sounds of running water pipes, and the footfalls of the few who were still up and about, nor did he want the light gushing into his room—no one was likely to say much of anything. There were differing degrees and types of illness, and the staff was by and large sensitive to the individual situations of each boy…or girl, in the other wing of the domicile. But up here, where such things could potentially cause much greater distress, or someone might wake and wander without realizing exactly what they were doing, it wasn’t normal.
Skrain mouthed one more prayer for Yidal and lifted his hand to pull the door to. But the hekant leaned forward at the motion with a tiny, interrogative chirrup. Towards the door, rather than away. That was odd—he’ekant weren’t normally all that keen on sudden motions. They were prey animals, after all…they barely even knew how to nip when frightened, only to leap away.
Now Skrain’s heart skipped a beat. The hekant slunk forward—in a defensive posture, yes, but still…nudging the old-style wooden door. Not enough to slip through the gap…but still, the intent was clear.
Skrain’s entire body tingled, from toes to neck ridges to the tip of his nose—even to the end of the long, black hair, loosely tied back at the base of his skull, had there been nerves there. Was this a sign? Did it mean the doctors or Guides might find a way to get through to Yidal? One grey fingertip made contact with the door, and pushed it ever so slightly…just enough that the hekant could move freely in or out. “If you’re going to go,” he whispered voicelessly, “you’d better go now.”
He turned back towards the end of the hall. He still had a few minutes before he’d be expected to be in his own room asleep, but his stomach still twisted in a knot with as he opened the door to the stairwell and began his descent.
“…can’t take her out of there,” Skrain overheard Dr. Mezrin insisting in a low voice—far from furtive, but not meant to carry across the room the way the acoustics of the great central area of Pearl Domicile were allowing in this moment. “It’s working, and I’m not about to argue with success.” Mezrin paused. The moment of eye contact almost made the nerves in Skrain’s krilătbre-yezul buzz as though the man were standing right there next to him. Oh, Oralius—he knows. The doctor turned to the robed cleric at his side. “Guide…perhaps you could handle this?”
Inclining her head, Derava rose softly, purposefully from her seat…right towards Skrain. “May we talk?” she asked as she met his grey eyes. Her tone was gentle—but her stride spoke her purpose and full authority as a woman in the service of Oralius.
Skrain bowed…not just the polite message-received signal Derava had employed towards Dr. Mezrin a moment ago, but a true gesture of submission. Derava swept her hand at the same couch where they had sat the day before. “I have news for you,” she began once they sat. “It’s very early to say for sure—but Nejran Yidal showed the first signs of improvement today that we’ve seen since he got here.”
“That’s wonderful!” Skrain burst out. “It’s an answer to my prayers. To all our prayers,” he quickly amended. So that was a sign! he rejoiced, barely holding back a jubilant laugh. Finally, some treatment, some therapy had worked!
“Indeed,” Derava confirmed. “Oralius has provided! Early this morning, one of the he’ekant was found on Yidal’s bed. And…it’s not much yet, but he’s actually spoken a few words to her. It’s the first time any of us have heard him speak since he got here, Skrain. It’s the first time he’s shown any interest in any living creature. I thought you’d want to know that.”
Now she met Skrain’s eyes with a meaningful look. “I know you were up there last night. It’s not that we want to be intrusive, but we did have to understand how the hekant got in there. It’s important that you realize…while we very much appreciate all of you who visit with and pray for your peers upstairs, you need to be with a doctor or a Guide when you do that. That way if something is out of place, there’s someone there who can handle it appropriately—according to professional judgment. Do you understand, Dukat?”
Shame coursed through the teenaged boy and his face burned from jaw ridge to ear tip: the involuntary response of the hierarchical instinct to being chastised by a woman of such authority, however gently. Keeping his eyes down as instinct and custom both required in a moment like this, Skrain succinctly replied, “Yes, Guide.”
“You can look now,” Derava assured him in a tone bereft of the firmness that had seemed so alien to her voice. “I’m finished with what I had to say. My question now is of a very different nature.”
“What is that, Guide?”
Her eyes were gentle when he met them again, adding their own smiles to that of her mouth. “Did Oralius speak to you?” When Skrain didn’t answer right away, she added, “No one is going to take your answer the wrong way.”
Skrain’s eye ridges lowered as he pondered, his head canted slightly to the right. “I didn’t hear anything.”
“That’s very rare, to actually hear her speak with a voice like one of ours, unless she is speaking through somebody—and that happens quite often if you listen closely. For my own part…except for through others’ voices, I can’t say I’ve ever heard Oralius speak aloud with actual sounds.” Derava smiled. “Being a Guide doesn’t mean you get a direct commline to her, even though people think that of us sometimes; it means you’re still learning how to hear her just like any of us. It just means we’ve given our lives over to that learning in a different way than most. But even though I’ve never heard a voice, I can still say with certainty that I haveheard her sometimes…not even using words, sometimes, but feelings, certainties deep in the spirit.”
Skrain was already nodding before Derava finished her last sentence. “I did feel something—all over my body. I don’t know how else to explain.”
Derava nodded knowingly. “That sounds like it. I had a feeling something like that had happened…so many pieces came together, all at once…” She reached out with one hand, pausing with her fingertips just inches from Skrain’s chest, waiting for him to accept the ritual gesture. Skrain nodded, and she pressed her hand to his chest, in the center just below the collarbone, where the Cardassian heart resided. “This is who you are meant to be, Skrain. This is who you are.”
Afterword: I hope there really are places as warm as Tirhem Farms out there. And if there are not, I pray that there will be, someday very soon. I also hope readers will understand that Skrain’s charges against himself were without basis and that I do not think that way of people who struggle with mental illnesses.