by Henrietta Wotton

Voted 'DS9 Best General Romance' in the 1999 ASC Awards

I. Planting the Seeds

The shrill, unpleasant blast of the wake-up siren reverberated through every corridor and cubicle of the dormitory. Elim always awoke ten or fifteen minutes before it sounded and entertained himself in the interim with speculations as to whether it most resembled the sound of a disruptor on overload, a riding hound in heat, or the dying wail of a wompat in a raptor's talons. On the morning of each weeks Ceremony of Perfection, it went off an hour earlier than on other days. Absolute alacrity in getting out of bed was essential if a boy were to avoid going without third meal that evening. Upon hearing the first decibel he sprang up and bounded down the hallway to the communal basins, arriving a half-step ahead of any other student in his cohort. He submerged his head up to the second neckbone and then splashed water on his shirtless upper torso. Usually the basins held tepid water, and there was time to dry off under the heat lamps. The Ceremony, however, required immersion in icy liquid and immediate attendance. So, like a herd of stampeded kepelars, the boys ran dripping and shivering to the central assembly hall. Most considered the cold water the beginning of their punishment, but Elim always thought it a kindness on the part of the masters. This way no one could tell whether you shivered from cold or trembled with fear.

The first boy to reach the hall passed along the day's rule of order--alphabetical, ascending. Elim paused a split second until Beremol and Endarek came into view, then seamlessly took his place between them as the rest of the line formed on either side of their trio. Every day at the Menat School had a different rule of order, which governed a boy's place in the many lines that formed between wake-up and lights-out. Day and month of birth, height, home province communicator code--the students never knew what the masters would think of next. The boys had each received complete dossiers on every other student in the cohort upon the day they arrived. The masters allowed two weeks for the requisite memorization before they began enforcing the daily rules of order. Any boy who faltered in deducing which of his fellows should stand to his right and his left under that day's rule went without third meal that evening. Elim often reflected with just a touch of melancholy that he had greater problems keeping the details of his own fabricated dossier straight than he did with those of his fellows. After all, there had been so many personal histories to learn in his sixteen years, so many names...

Tain had given him his first "public" name when he was eight and went off to a day school in a remote province. He was beamed up from his room every day to an auto-piloted runabout that beamed him down into a dense stand of bacherben bushes half a kilometer from the school and that returned to pick him up there every afternoon when school let out. How Tain had grilled him on this new identity, Jerem Kolodan, supposed son of humble larish growers, brother of three older sisters. How Tain had warned him never ever to slip and mention Tain or Mila or the house in the capital on Cardassia Prime. Since then, he'd attended three other day schools and one other boarding school, with four more falsified histories and non-existent parental addresses that mysteriously forwarded all school correspondence, progress reports, and fee statements to Tain. Currently he was Krinal Brem, orphaned at three when his parents died in a transport accident, being raised by his grandfather, Arnot Brem.

Yet underneath all these disguises lurked Elim. Was that name any more "real" than the ones he solemnly pronounced for his schoolmasters? He wasn't sure any longer. He simply knew that it was his secret name, the one he clung to in the innermost recesses of his brain, buried deep enough never to be blurted out to a stranger, the one that Tain and Mila had called him for those eight years before he ever met another living soul.

In those days he spent lots of time in his room, behind the invisible door, masked by a holo-projection that Tain alone could activate and de-activate, the door that locked and unlocked only from the outside. The room contained plentiful toys and books, yet all of them well-worn, found items, because there could be no record anywhere, even within Tain's private replicator, that a child lived in that house. Mila used to make all his clothes from big bolts of fabric that she might just as well have been using to fashion curtains or tablecloths, and he'd learned early how to help her in this task. When Tain was sure that no visitors would intrude, Elim did have the run of the big house, and, for one week every month, Mila and Elim would beam aboard the auto-piloted runabout and then beam down a few hours later into a snug cottage surrounded by grassy meadows and trees and flowers, with a stable of enormous riding hounds, and kenket fowl clucking in the yard. Whoever tended the animals when he and Mila weren't in residence never showed their faces when they were, and it made him just a little sad, because he had fantasized that they might have other children with them. Yet the sadness never lasted very long in such an idyllic setting, so bright and open and free. There he played and climbed and felt wind on his face and the hot Cardassian sun warming his hands. True, if he stepped over the little creek at the far-side of the meadow, he bumped into a force field that tossed him back rudely into the water.

This small imperfection did little to dim Elim's joy in the place, however. And one glorious time Tain accompanied them on the runabout and stayed with them for a day. In the afternoon, he led out one of the hounds and told Elim to climb aboard the huge beast and ride it back to the stable. It was very hard, and not a little frightening, for the boy to mount the animal, and he fell off again and again. Yet finally he clung on and made it all the way to his destination. Tain did not follow, but called out for the boy now to ride out to him. And the exhausted Elim clung again, with all his might, and did as he was told. Then Tain lifted him down, and took the hound's reins in one hand, and Elim's small, bruised hand in his other, and they walked slowly all the way back to the cottage. It was the only time Elim could recall Tain ever touching him.

Still, Elim's identity was so elusive. He thought back to a crisis that had arisen on that score once when he was six. Recalling it, he almost felt as if it had happened to someone else, some other boy named Elim who had overheard Tain on his comm channel, talking to someone who had greeted him as "Enabran". Elim ran to Mila in the kitchen, puzzled. "Who's Enabran, Mila?" he asked. "Why did that man call Tain Enabran?"

"What man?" Mila looked alarmed. "Where did you see a man?"

"On the computer screen."

Mila relaxed then. "Enabran is Tain's given name. Sometimes his friends call him that. Tain is his family name."

"Is Elim my family name?"

She hesitated for a few seconds. "No, Elim is your given name."

"Then what's my family name?" the boy persisted.

"When he's ready, your father will tell you your family name," she answered.

"My father? Who is my father, Mila? Is Tain my father?"

But she wasn't listening to him. She was gazing over his head, her expression suddenly one of stark terror. From behind him he heard Tain's voice. "Mila, come with me into my office," it said, the slow and calm enunciation doing nothing to disguise its anger.

Mila gestured for Elim to remain in the kitchen as she hurried to accompany Tain. Soon Elim could hear Tain's voice thundering loudly, although he couldn't make out any words. He crept down the hall and crouched beside the closed door, hugging his knees. The shouting continued, and he could also hear Mila crying, but he could only catch scattered words like "foolish", "careless", "dangerous" and "punish". Then everything went quiet, and stayed that way for a quarter hour. Finally the door opened, and Mila came out. She was breathing quite hard, and her face was as white as the snow cover that he had seen in one of his picture books about the far mountains. She bent over as she walked, and she didn't even notice him there on the floor until he called to her. "Quiet Elim!" she said, grabbing one of his hands and dragging him with her back to the kitchen. There she replicated some hot fish juice and sat down heavily at the table, drinking it in small sips with trembling hands.

"Mila, are you all right?" he asked.

"Yes, Elim I'm fine. I just need to rest for a minute."

He sat down next to her, watching her with troubled, wide blue eyes. Eventually she reached out and tousled his hair. "Don't look so worried, Elim," she said. "Sometimes Tain gets angry, but it always passes."

The boy leaned his chin on his fists, his face contorted with thought. "Mila," he began tentatively, "If Tain is my father, are you my mother?"

Immediately she grabbed him out of his seat and shook him violently. As soon as she roughly set the frightened boy down again, on the floor, she knelt and put both hands on his shoulders, holding on to them so tightly that he cried out in pain. Looking at him fiercely, she commanded, "Never speak of such things, Elim, ever." Then she loosened her grip and sunk to the floor herself, sobbing, and he crawled over, laid his head in her lap, and sobbed too...

The three masters entered the assembly hall, breaking Elim out of his reverie. He shivered at the memory, causing a few of the remaining water droplets that clung to his scales to plop-plop to the floor. The masters silently lowered the bar from the ceiling, and illuminated the one-meter diameter circle that was set within the floor. During this first phase of the Ceremony, the masters never spoke. Instead, they rang a small bell to signal its various stages. As this bell sounded the first time, it cued the boys to chant in unison, "I seek to be the perfect servant of the Cardassian state. I approach my goal but never reach its full perfection. In penance for my imperfection, I submit myself to its discipline."

The bell sounded a second time, and the first boy in line stepped into the circle of light and gripped the bar tightly with both hands, facing his line of classmates. One of the masters rose, powered up the rod of correction, and touched it to the boy's back. To stifle a rising scream the boy bit down hard on his lip, so hard that it bled.

The rods of correction certainly were ingenious instruments, Elim thought to himself, getting into the analytical frame of mind that always forestalled either fear or laughter at this half barbaric and half absurd weekly ritual. He was studying in his Information Technologies class the "industrial strength" versions of the rods that interrogators often used in the first stages of questioning their prisoners. The instrument employed sound waves calibrated to stimulate specific nerve endings, causing the person to whom it was applied to experience the sensation of painful injury when in fact no physical damage was being done at all. The pain stopped the instant its wielder withdrew the rod, and it never left the slightest bruise, abrasion, or welt behind. Of course that was small consolation during the period of contact itself. Every time the master touched the rod to his back Elim felt as if someone had struck him at full force with a whip that was tearing through skin and carving bloody marks in its wake.

The Ceremony of Perfection required that each member of the cohort receive one ten-second touch of the rod for every member of the cohort--twenty-five in all. It also required that he hold onto the bar and keep his feet within the lighted circle for the entire ten seconds. If he let go, the master waited until he grabbed hold again, delivered the unelapsed seconds of punishment, and then moved on to the next blow. Sometimes the wait for a boy to take hold again could be long indeed, but if a student didn't eventually endure the entire disciplinary regimen each week, he would be summarily expelled from the school. There was an additional requirement that a boy manage to hold on through all twenty-five blows at least once per term for every term he had attended the school.

Elim, now in his first term, had satisfied that requirement easily. Indeed he had only let go one time, that being the first time the rod had touched him. It had been the shock more than anything else. He'd known very little physical pain in his circumscribed life. The day he kept falling off the riding hound had banged him up about as severely as he had ever been, and those bumps, bruises, and sore muscles couldn't begin to compare with the excruciating dimensions of this punishment. But once he knew what to expect, he had handled the pain quite well. After all, mere physical discomfort was as nothing when placed beside the disciplinary practices of Enabran Tain, who never tired of impressing upon Elim the fact that "Agonies of the flesh can never approach the agonies of the mind".

As Brem, Elim was third in line for correction. He extended his arms upwards to grasp the bar firmly, and planted his feet half a meter apart, making sure that his balance was steady. As he counted the blows in succession, his mind drifted, as it often did, to the one occasion on which Tain had most effectively disciplined him.


The aftermath of a big meeting of Tain's colleagues at the house. Glasses and empty kanar bottles everywhere. "Take these things one-by-one to the recycler, Elim." A familiar request. Clean-up duties were one of his chores since age three.


"Look what I made, Tain. See, it's worn as a vest, and it has all these pockets for the bottles and glasses. It will save ever so many trips."


"I don't want you to save yourself any trips, Elim. Now do your chores. I told you to take the items to the recycler one at a time."


"But why?"


Tain's voice rising. "Because I said so, Elim. You know what happens to boys who ask why. You're a little old, at twelve, for the closet, aren't you?"


"I don't care about the closet. It's stupid not to save time and effort if you know how to do it."


"So you think I'm stupid, do you Elim?"


A precipice. Still a chance to step back from the edge. No, it's about time he gave me some credit for brains. I'll jump. "About this, yes."


Tain, red-faced, shouting. "Into that closet, you disobedient brat. I'll let you out when you admit that I'm right." He, shouting back, "I won't ever, because you're wrong."


Walking into the darkness, head held high, slamming the door behind him, listening to the locks being programmed. I'll show him, I won't ever ask to be let out, he'll come to get me, tell me he's sorry, that he's wrong. I just wish it weren't quite so close in here, so cold, so still, so black, so hard to breathe.


How long now? Dizzy, thirsty, panting like a winded riding-hound. Got to hold on, got to wait till he lets me out on his own.


Fainting. Nightmares


Struggling to consciousness, passing out again. How many times?


Head clear, finally, but so weak. How long? How long? Why doesn't he come?


Suffocating, going to die, got to get out


No, you're not dying, Elim. He'd open the door before he'd let you die.


No, he wouldn't. If you don't admit you're wrong, he will let you die. Tears flowing, because it's true. He'd rather have you dead than defiant.


Fine, then I'll die.


Uncountable hours. Gasping, heart pounding, terror, his spirit breaking. Crawling to the door, lifting his cracked voice just above a whisper, "Tain, you were right. Let me out, oh please let me out."


Door slides open. Light. Air. Warmth. Falling forward to gulp it in. "Get up Elim. You still have your chores to do. All the bottles and glasses are still here where you left them. Take them one by one to the recycler. And start with this ridiculous vest of yours."


Somehow pulling himself up to his feet. Then shamed. "Tain, I've soiled myself. Let me change clothes, and then I'll do the chores." "No, Elim, you will finish your chores now. When you've completed them you can shower and change, and Mila will give you some breakfast."


"Whatever you wish, Tain."

"And remember, Elim, you got yourself into this mess."

"Yes, Tain."


Cleaned up, staggering into Mila's kitchen like an automaton. She fussing over him, smoothing down his hair, adjusting his clothing, never looking him in the eye. A glass of water placed in front of him, then another and another. Then a smaller glass, poured half full with kanar. Looking up in astonishment. "Go on Elim, it will do you good."


Staring at her face, haggard and tear-stained, as he choked down the liquor. She returning with three plates piled high with all his favorite foods. Taking the napkin and tucking it inside his collar, as if he were two years old again. Grabbing both her hands in his. "Mila, how long was I--"

Her head bowed, tears making salt a puddle of yamok sauce. "Two and a half days, my poor boy. I tried and tried to make him let you out, I truly did."

He squeezing her hands and whispering, "I know you did. Don't cry, Mila, my dear, don't cry."


The bell sounded to summon the next penitent, snapping Elim back into the present. He was breathing hard, and sweat had soaked his hair and pooled at the waistband of his undershorts. His hands gripped the bar so tightly that they had cramped. Only with difficulty did he open them in order to make way for his successor. Gingerly flexing his fingers as he walked back to his place in line, he saw that the bar had impressed itself deeply on his palms, leaving ugly blue bruises. The bruises from the remembered trauma remained inside, killing in him forever the possibility of childish joy, childish heedlessness. From the moment he had crawled gasping from the darkness, no thought went unmonitored, no emotion unchecked.

Getting your time in the circle over early had its advantages, Elim acknowledged, but the big disadvantage was that you still had to stand and watch everyone else take their punishment. The frequent "releasers" and the occasional fainters could make that a very drawn-out process. A legend that always passed from dormitory to dormitory told of the time a fainter had lain motionless on the ground for two hours, and the other boys finally lost all patience and moved as one to pick him up, take him to the basins to revive him with cold water, and hand him up on the bar once more. Needless to say, the entire cohort was sent home the next morning. These exercises were about nothing if they were not about endurance and self-control.

Elim occupied himself by closely observing his peers--the way their bodies moved, their facial expressions when the rod touched them, how much noise they made--and relating this behavior to everything else he observed about them during classes, at meals, in the showers. He'd only been at the school for twelve weeks, and he had already filed in his mind complete psychological profiles of most of them. But then that's what Tain had trained him to do for as long as he could remember. When he was very small, Tain would show him a PADD upon whose screen in rapid succession four shapes appeared. Then he would ask the boy to describe the shapes in order, tell what color each was, and which Elim thought was the biggest. Every year, the tests of observation and recall became more difficult, but the boy showed a remarkable aptitude for them. By the time he was ten, Elim could survey the contents of Tain's office for one minute, leave the room, and when he returned, immediately identify the one item that his mentor had moved three centimeters from its previous position.

Once Elim went out into the world, he turned his talents to observing all the new people he met, and Tain questioned him daily about who they were, what they looked like, and what kinds of personalities they displayed. Then Tain hit on the scheme of fabricating an identity for Elim as a servant boy and sending him to work as a waiter at various parties where important men in the Cardassian military gathered. When he returned home, Elim could describe the physical appearance of every guest and repeat verbatim every fragment of conversation he had overheard. Tain smiled approvingly and said, "Yes, Elim, you have a gift for the work. We must start thinking seriously about your future."

Some gift, Elim thought, permitting himself a muffled sigh, as he watched a paroxysm of pain make Endarek's right foot slide outside the circle, just as it always did. A gift that earned him this past term and seven more of weekly being beaten and watching others being beaten too. Well, Elim, he said to himself, you got yourself into this mess, too...

Actually, when Tain had summoned him to let him know that he would attend the Menat school, he hadn't represented it as retribution for one of Elim's many failings. On the contrary, he appeared genuinely delighted. "It's a very exclusive institution, the only private academy accredited by the Ministry of Education. They only accept twenty-five boys in each class, the brightest in all Cardassia, and the screening process is completely blind. Don't think I used any of my considerable influence to get you admitted. All they had was your primary and secondary school records with a random number assigned to them. It's an accelerated curriculum, so you'll have both your secondary and advanced diplomas when you graduate in four years. Once we send them your full dossier and specify your plans for the future, they will design a course of study completely tailored to your requirements." Elim had asked him just what those requirements would be, and received the warning stare that always manifested itself when he asked such questions. "I'll take care of all that," Tain had replied sternly. But then his tone became less severe. "Once you enroll in Menat there's no quitting it, unless the masters send you down, and I certainly don't expect that to happen, Elim. Since you'll be stuck with this identity for longer than usual, I'm going to let you write your own biography this time, subject to my review of course."

Thus Elim had arrived at the school, proud and excited, representing himself as the grandson of a successful fabric importer whose tragically deceased parents had been a gifted poet and a rising star in the fashion design field. Tain had given him a very long stare upon reading that scenario, but he had gone ahead and submitted it to the masters without further comment. Elim had found the academic side of Menat to be everything Tain had promised. The instructors were brilliant, provocative and rigorous in their demands, yet also open, indeed encouraging, to questions and challenges from the students. However, Tain had said nothing of the spartan living conditions and the strict behavioral regime of which the Ceremony of Perfection formed the cornerstone. No other school that Elim had attended had ever gone to that extreme in its disciplinary practices. It was just like Tain to leave that part out, he had said to himself ruefully.

It hadn't taken Elim very much of the mandated research into his fellow students' histories to figure out what prompted the more unpleasant aspects of his new learning environment: the school served a very select and monolithic clientele. Every one of the boys was an EQ Silver whose family intended him for a career in the upper echelons of the Cardassian military or the state bureaucracy. And no EQ could ever get a security clearance for that type of position. Tain had impressed that fact upon him often enough!

He remembered his joy in showing his very first school report to Tain. Beside each of his subjects stood a Cardassian insignia glowing silver, denoting the highest possible academic achievement, far outdistancing his fellows with their blacks, grays, and whites. Yet Tain had only grimaced and given him the always dreaded invitation to "Come into my office and sit down, Elim."

"I'm very disturbed with this report, Elim," he had said solemnly. "Your TWOTS designation is EQ. That is totally unacceptable."

"But the teacher said that's because I'm inquisitive. Why is it so terrible to ask questions?"

"Because an EQ excessively questions the wisdom of the state. Haven't you spent enough time in the closet learning what happens to boys who ask why? In the future I'll expect this to change."

Yet it never had changed, hard as Elim tried not to let his frequent skepticism about his instructors' pronouncements show. As he entered his teens his discussions of the matter with Tain grew ever more heated. "Isn't it enough that I always get silvers? Why would the Order want some dim-witted white with an SP?"

"You know that I don't want you to become a dim wit, or a slavish parrot of the state. Keep your silvers, by all means. Just control your willfulness to the extent that you can earn an AW. You do accept willingly the authority of the Cardassian state, don't you, Elim?"

"Of course I do, but why does it make me an enemy of the state to point out that there's a better way to solve a geometry problem than it says in the book?" he had protested in frustration.

"Authority is authority, Elim. Question one form, you're likely to question all."

Laronen's squeals drew his attention back to the center of the room. The fellow always sounded like a Klingon targ in heat, but he always held on, too. That was the deal they offered the EQs at Menat. The masters never stated it openly, of course, but any student smart enough to gain admission had little difficulty divining the message: "We'll tolerate your questioning, boys. Cardassia needs its share of innovative thinkers. Show them a diploma from Menat, and they'll ignore those deviant TWOTS scores." That was the good part, but there was a corollary. A graffiti on the bathroom wall made it obvious: AEQ Silvers either end up in command or in jail." Indeed, rumor around the dorms had it that the Menat disciplinary regime derived from the practices at the Central Detention Facility. They wouldn't give you that diploma unless you proved to them every day that you could submit to the will of the state when necessary, that you could accept wholly undeserved punishment just because they said you had to.

After Laronen came Marritza. Today would mark the end of his sorry career at Menat. He'd never held on once, and if he didn't accomplish that feat today, during the last Ceremony of term, they'd send him home in disgrace. From everything Elim had observed, he might as well have started packing his bags. It didn't help that the boy was late in achieving his adult height, so that he had to stretch his arms out to full length and stand on the balls of his feet just to reach the bar. That disadvantage aside, however, the plain fact that Marritza was too soft, too weak, and too timid doomed him to failure. He simply couldn't bear pain, although, to his credit, he couldn't stand to see others in pain either. He seemed to suffer the agony right along with every other student in the cohort as the Ceremony ran its course. Elim bet that he was one of those boys who would come across an injured bird or animal and rush home with it, trying to nurse it back to health, even though all Cardassian children learned early that the proper response to such a situation was to find an adult to mercifully dispatch the creature from its misery. What could Marritza's family have been thinking to send him here?

Sure enough, the boy endured only three strokes before collapsing tearfully on the ground. He gamely got up in a few minutes and suffered through twenty-one more, although he released and then re-grasped on every one. Then he simply held his arms at his sides, sobbing hysterically, saying, "I'm just a coward, so let me go. Why do you have to keep hurting me when I've failed already?" Of course no one said anything, and he just stood there sobbing some more. Elim wondered if he would eventually bolt from the room, the most severe disgrace a boy could earn at Menat. Come on, Marritza, he urged silently, weren't you counting? It's only one more stroke. Save some of your dignity at least. And at length Marritza did take hold again and receive the final stroke, although the tears streamed unabated. As he staggered back to his place in line, head bowed, Elim flashed him a sympathetic smile, but Marritza was too humiliated to see it.

The Ceremony wore on. Naran. Pekelad. Stanar. And Ventekar, senior student in his fourth year, and a very odd gettle. At least he always provided a good show. Indeed, he was a show, just to look at. He suffered from a rare genetic defect, Kalamite syndrome, which affected his body's ability to produce dark pigment. As a result, his skin had a sickly yellowish-green hue, except for the scales, which were tipped in glistening emerald, also the color of his eyes. His hair was a lighter shade of green, and he wore it much shorter than normal, parted down the center and arching over on both sides, not swept back as was every other boy's. Stripped to the waist he resembled some colorful bird native to those planets in the Cardassian system that had tropical regions. Ventekar had never released the bar once all term, but he also never failed to writhe with exaggerated contortions of agony, all the while moaning loudly in a fashion that suggested pleasure as much as it did pain. When his punishment was complete, he always swaggered a bit, returning to the line with a big smile on his face and an even bigger erection in his shorts. Today was no different, and Endarek whispered out of the side of his mouth to Elim, "That Ventekar, what a perv!" in an admiring tone that did not match the content of the utterance.

With Ventekar finished, only one more boy remained, and that meant that the final ritual of the Ceremony was nearly at hand. All Elim's reflections upon the past had served to close off his thoughts of what would happen then. Now, however, these thoughts flooded over him, causing him to start sweating and struggling for air as he had during his own punishment. Forcing himself to breathe slowly and deeply, he considered wryly that this was still another mess he'd gotten himself into...

As the senior member of their cohort, Ventekar had convened the meeting in the common room four days after school started. "All right, you second, third, and fourth years know what we have to do," he had begun, "but let me explain the process to our newcomers." He checked a PADD in his hand. "That would be Brem, Endarek, Marritza, Naren, Potalklian, and Terna. You listen up. At the end of every Ceremony of Perfection, one boy has to undergo the ritual of penance. That's when they close your head up in a box, and you hold it shut until you pass out. Or try to," the emerald eyes twinkled with mischief. Elim's heart began to pound at this news. Whatever else they put you through at Menat, he thought he'd earned at least a reprieve from the closet.

"Now, how do we select this boy?" Ventekar continued. "The masters don't give a groat about that, as long as every time a majority of us name the same person--or else someone steps up and confesses that his sins are the heaviest that week. We just have to come up with some procedure to follow as a cohort. All you veterans, what do you suggest?"

Laronen, the strapping third-year boy whose father was a Gul of the Ninth Order, rose to his feet, all the better to impress his seated fellows with his height advantage. "We had a perfectly good system in my last year's cohort. Whoever ended up first in line named whoever they pleased, and everyone else just repeated that name. They make sure there's someone different at the head of the line every week, so the penance ought to be passed around pretty fairly."

"Just a minute," Beremol spoke up. "I was in your cohort last year, and what happened was that the boys who could bribe or threaten the most effectively never had their names called. I don't recall that you ever spent a minute in the box, Laronen."

Laronen flushed and made a move toward Beremol. Ventekar glided in between them. "Hey, none of that," he warned. "All right, there's some disagreement about Laronen's plan. Any other suggestions?"

"We could just all pick one week to confess. The masters love to see us truly penitent," Stanar suggested. Murmurs of agreement went through the room. Then Marritza raised his hand tentatively, drawing a few gasps of disapproval. Clearly such decisions were not supposed to involve input from first-years. Nevertheless, Ventekar recognized the younger boy with an encouraging smile. "Excuse me for maybe asking a stupid question, but isn't the best way to do this to meet the night before, share our misdeeds with one another, and then vote on who really does deserve to do penance," Marritza said. "Then all of us, including the guilty one, can say the same name. Sincere confession is the cornerstone of the Cardassian moral system."

He's actually right, Elim found himself agreeing, but he's crazy if he imagines those upperclassmen are going to go along. Laronen, especially, was about to explode.

"You think I'm going to tell tales on myself for some little vole to run with to the masters," the hulking third-year spat out. "Insincere penance will do just fine. I'm willing to go along with Stanar's plan."

"Yeah, I bet you are, since there are twenty-four Ceremonies and twenty-five of us," Beremol countered. "I'll lay odds you'll be the one who doesn't pick a week to confess."

"Are you calling me a coward?" Laronen shouted as he charged at Beremol, beating him with his fists until the other boy's nose was spouting blood. Ventekar and two other fourth-years pulled them apart. "That's enough," the green-haired one stated firmly. "Both of you go to your quarters and we'll resolve this matter without you."

After the combatants had slunk away reluctantly, Ventekar rubbed his hands together and posed the question. "So, are we willing to go with self-confession, either sincere or arbitrary?" No hands rose except for those of the proposers of the respective plans. Apparently everyone else wanted at least a chance to escape the box altogether. Ventekar looked around the room in frustration. "Come on. Cohorts do this every year. I don't know what's so hard about it."

"Why don't you decide?" one of the other fourth-years asked.

"Because senior boy can't be the one to decide. You ought to know the regs by this time."

A sulky silence fell upon the group then. Boys scuffed the floor with their boots, assiduously studying either the back wall or the floor. This was ridiculous, Elim thought. These were supposed to be Cardassia's best and brightest. There was a perfectly obvious solution. Finally, despite hearing in his head the voice of Tain telling him "Don't be so forward, Elim," he somewhat shyly waved his hand at Ventekar.

"Another newcomer heard from," the senior boy proclaimed with a touch of surprise. "You think you can break this impasse, young Brem?"

"If there's no objection," Elim began in humble tones, "couldn't we just draw lots the evening before, and then the first boy in line would give that person's name, and the rest of us would follow suit?"

"What if someone's name came up twice in a few weeks? The box isn't an experience you'd like to repeat very often," Pekelad cautioned.

"He'd have to suffer the consequences. Life is sometimes not fair," Elim replied, quoting one of Tain=s innumerable bits of wisdom.

"How very Cardassian of you, Brem," Ventekar said in an odd way. "Well, fellow students, shall we simply leave the choice to luck?"

"Might as well," Stanar muttered, and soon the others were murmuring and nodding their assent. Elim felt decidedly heady with triumph, but he soon paled when another of the fourth-years took him aside as he was leaving and said, "I wouldn't brag about this being your idea, Brem. Laronen's going to be furious, and you don't want to be on his enemies list."

For the first nine weeks the lottery system worked like a charm as far as Elim was concerned. No one's name did come up twice, and his and Laronen's had yet to be drawn at all. This changed in week ten, when the slip of paper in Ventekar's hand identified Laronen as the penitent. He had colored and muttered under his breath but said nothing during the meeting. However, in the middle of the night, he entered Elim's room, as he had entered that of every other boy, grabbed him by the throat with one of his big hands and said menacingly, "If you know what's good for you, you'll say anyone's name tomorrow morning except mine."

As bad luck would have it, Elim stood first in line that morning and Laronen second. All through the beatings he tried decide what he was going to do, whether he would name someone at random or actually do the proper thing, by the system he had proposed, and name Laronen. He was still vacillating when the master put to him the question, "Who of your cohort has sinned most grievously against the state?" All at once every carefully repressed resentment of Tain's controlling ways rushed to the surface, and he said with extreme conviction, "Laronen, sir." Laronen shot him a malevolent look and replied in his turn, "Brem, sir."

Elim held his breath to see what would happen next and became more and more dismayed as each of twelve other boys said, "Brem, sir." Only Marritza held out. He had hesitated for nearly a minute, trying, Elim imagined, to decide whether he had the guts either to name Laronen or to confess and take the punishment himself. In the end, though, he could manage only the ineffective protest of naming Stanar.

"A majority has named Brem," the master intoned. "Take your place and do the penance, Mr. Brem."

Elim took a very deep breath and walked a bit unsteadily over to the padded bench that had the open box at one end. The master guided him to sit astride it and bend down, placing his neck in the concave opening at its near end and resting his head face down in the metal circle that extended from it. The master placed his two hands on the handle underneath the box and then forced them down until the box snapped shut, leaving Elim in suffocating darkness. His breaths were coming in great gulps, even though he knew he should breathe slowly and deeply; he could feel his whole body shaking, and his rapid heartbeat was drumming in his ears as if the entire percussion section of the Cardassian Interplanetary symphony had taken up residence in the narrow confines of the box. While he always felt as if he were going to suffocate in Tain's closet, that space was in fact quite well ventilated. Here he was indeed slowly asphyxiating. And yet, as he held the pressure on the handle with all his strength, he kept saying over and over to himself, "I won't give in to you this time, I won't give in to you this time..." until he lost consciousness.

He awoke gasping for breath as one of the masters gave him a stimulant injection and the other administered a tri-ox compound. For the first time during a Ceremony, he saw the master actually smile a little as he helped him to his feet and sent him back into line.

From that moment Elim resolved that Laronen would not get away with shirking his deserved penance. He should have known that his efforts to accomplish this would never yield the desired result, but the stubbornness Tain had worked so assiduously to purge from him was now in full possession of Elim. The next week, the name drawn was Beremol's, but Elim, fourth in line, named Laronen, and all the boys following named Brem. So he endured another terrifying few minutes in the box, once again not giving up until he passed out. This time, he unfortunately lost control of his bladder while doing so, resulting in a number of cruel taunts from the other boys during the intervening weak. He also received another midnight visit from Laronen.

"How clear do I have to make this, Brem?" he growled. "You will get the box for the rest of your life until you stop giving my name to the master. Understood?" Then he stormed out, not even waiting for the snappy rejoinder Elim had composed but couldn't quite get his vocal chords on line to deliver...

So here Elim stood once more, knowing what was going to happen when he said Laronen's name, debating whether it was more humiliating to let the box open before you passed out or to wet your pants, yet absolutely sure that he wouldn't give in to Laronen's bullying. The master began his rounds. The first two boys named Terna, the loser in that week's lottery. Elim named Laronen, and then the next thirteen boys called out the name of Brem. Once again, the master intoned, "A majority has named Brem. Take your place and do the penance, Mr. Brem."

Suddenly so petrified that he could hardly make one foot go in front of the other, Elim had taken only three shaky steps when Ventekar came forward and addressed the masters. "No, not Brem. A confession negates a mere majority. I've sinned quite terribly this week, masters, and am prepared to do the penance."

"Very well, Mr. Ventekar. You may step back in line, Mr. Brem."

As Elim retreated weakly, nearly overcome with surprise and relief, Ventekar straddled the bench with a jaunty self-confidence, pulled the box shut, and immediately released the handle. While the masters scowled, and the other boys gaped in astonishment, he slowly sauntered back into line, grinning broadly. When he passed by Elim, he winked at him.

II: Cultivating the Garden

On the evening following each Ceremony of Perfection, the masters dismissed the study cohorts an hour before lights out, so that the boys could take advantage of the game room or the steam baths or the snack replicators. Elim sometimes partook of these recreations, but tonight he had no desire to run into Laronen and his toadies. Instead he retired to his small cubicle with its sparse furnishings of desk, chair and bed and its doorway arch from which the door was missing, since Menat allowed first-years no privacy. Given the small dimensions of the cubicle, Elim was profoundly grateful for this regulation. Passing by the deserted rooms of his fellows, he entered, changed into his pajamas, curled up on the bed, and picked up his book, The Never-Ending Sacrifice by Preloc.

He was reading it for the eighth time, because the library at Menat contained only non-fiction. As a school that provided intensive preparation for very specific career paths, its curriculum had no room for literature, art or music. The masters handed Preloc's novel to each entering student, however, because it was the finest narrative in all Kardasi for inculcating in young minds the ultimate value of loyalty to the state. Elim had resisted it at first, since its protagonists, the Ruglot dynasty, had an apparent genetic predisposition toward producing slavish parrots of the wisdom of the state, who were in addition total idiots. Each of the sons in his turn blundered into a situation in which the only choice was to betray the state or to die, and each of them died without hesitation, invariably leaving behind a grieving widow, a flock of children, and another future Cardassian patriot in the sorrowful mother's womb. Elim never had any difficulty in figuring out strategies whereby the various doomed Ruglots could have escaped either dishonor or death, but he gradually came to realize that wasn't the point of the repetitive epic. After a few more readings, he in fact became enthralled by its many inexorable marches to inevitable tragedy. The literature lover in him also treasured Preloc's surety of style, the evocative descriptive passages, the brilliantly turned phrases, the beauty of the Kardasi language in the hands of a master.

This evening he took up the text at the point where its two chief villains first meet. In the ensuing chapters Wommel and Krytek would become shameless homosexual lovers, defying every code of decent Cardassian behavior and refusing even to subscribe to the Oath of Obligation which, among other things, bound every loyal citizen to engage only in potentially procreative sexual practices beyond the age of twenty-five. From this inauspicious beginning, the two scoundrels would move on to various connivances that brought about the demise of fourteen of the fated Ruglot SPs. Then they would betray Cardassia to the Klingons, and, not yet satiated in their anti-state deviancies, would in turn try to sell out the Klingons to the Nausicaans. In the process they of course eventually betrayed each other. Each of them met separate grisly ends at the respective hands of the Cardassian State and the Klingon empire. Theirs was an example, the narrator preached, "to freeze with horror the heart of any Cardassian worth the name".

As Elim read over the graphic description of the mens' initial sexual encounter, it occurred to him for the first time that if one cut out all the adjectives which labelled each step of arousal and gratification as "filthy", "perverse", "degenerate", "nauseating", and so forth, the two did seem to be enjoying themselves far more than any of the Ruglot men ever did while laboring to sire the next generation upon the dutifully accepting bodies of their drably acquiescent wives. He also pondered, not for the first time, the puzzling fact that Preloc invariably gave Wommel and Krytek all the best lines. Could the most revered of contemporary Cardassian writers in fact be a hidden subversive? He wondered if Tain kept a file on the man.

At this point in his musings the sound of footsteps coming down the hall caught his attention. Looking up from his book, he saw that Ventekar was standing in the doorway of his cubicle. "Hiding out all alone here, eh Brem?" he asked.

What's he doing here? Elim asked himself. He probably can't understand why I haven't yet come groveling to him in gratitude for sparing me the box. At least he hoped that was the only reason, given the stories he'd heard about Ventekar. Well, no need to leave the green one in any doubt on either score. Elim determined to present a decidedly unwelcoming front. "You didn't have to take my place this morning," he said sulkily. "I was quite capable of enduring it."

The older boy raised his eye-ridges in amusement, crossing one foot in front of the other and leaning against the door jamb. "No doubt of that. The question was whether I wanted to endure the sight of you pissing all over the floor again."

Stung, Elim glared at him. "So, you had us endure your making a mockery of the penance instead?" he replied icily.

Ventekar waved the comment aside without anger. "I never did get off on asphyxiation."

Elim blinked several times in astonishment at his classmate's foul-mouthed irreverence. "Don't you care what the other boys think of you?"

"They think I'm a freak," Ventekar stated matter-of-factly. "After you've been asked a million times if your father brought home a bundle after a dalliance with an Orion slave girl, or if your mother was prone to making long visits to the Andorrian consulate, you don't really give a groat what other opinions they may form because you took a pass on suffocating yourself in some silly ritual." He stepped into the room and sat down in the desk chair. "Look, let's start over again. I didn't come here to quarrel with you. I just wanted to tell you that everything's fixed now. Next week there will be no lottery. Laronen will step forward and make a very sincere confession of sin. After that we'll go back to the lottery, and whoever's name is drawn will do his own penance as required. No exceptions."

Elim laced his hands behind his head and regarded the other boy skeptically. "And just how can you be sure that Laronen is going to go along with this scheme of yours?"

Ventekar grinned. "Because I left him in no doubt that if he doesn't, I'm going to have my father tell his father just what=s been going on these past three years."

"You mean that he's been threatening all the other boys in order to get his way?"

"Gods forbid! Gul Laronen would just eat that information up. Bullying is the only kind of behavior that family understands. No, I'd let him know that his son is so scared out of his mind to go into the box, he's used every trick in the book to dodge it. Laronen can't bear closed-in places, if you can imagine that."

"Hard to believe a Cardassian would show such weakness," Elim told him, without letting the slightest trace of irony show in his voice or his features. It pained him greatly to think that he had anything in common with the brutish Laronen. "But how did you find this out?"

"Laronen's family and mine move in the same circles. I've known him since we were little kids. He's always been spooked in turbolifts, so you can picture how he'd react to the penance. I felt sorry for him. That's why I let him get away with avoiding the box so far. But once this vendetta started against you, it was my duty as senior boy to step in."

"You didn't think it your duty to stop him from terrorizing everyone in the cohort all term?"

"He's never actually hurt anyone, except for Beremol, and that's another matter altogether. There's a bad history between those two families, going back three generations, practically like a Klingon blood feud."

"As you say, you're the senior boy," Elim cut him off. "Whatever you and your circles decide on isn't any of my concern."

"Hey, don't turn targ with me, young Brem," Ventekar bridled. "Laronen's had a rough time of it."

Elim rolled his eyes in disbelief.

"Listen, his family's been full of decorated soldiers since the military took over Cardassia. Not the kind of soldiers that give orders, but the kind that take them. You know, the commander says, "In order to wipe out the enemy's major communications array, you'll have to institute a photon torpedo bombardment that will kill a million women and children," and the only question a Laronen asks is "How soon can I get started?" These are not the sort of people who value deep thinking. Laronen's having brains came as a major disappointment to his father."

"I hadn't particularly noticed that brains were an aspect of Laronen's character," Elim demurred.

Ventekar laughed. "Oh, they're not so obvious as yours, Brem; they're more specialized. He's an absolute genius in math and science theory. When he was eleven, he entered himself in the all-Cardassia quantum physics competition, just for the challenge. The competition is really only open to students 13 through 22, but he's such a hulking creature, no one asked to see proof of age. He figured his father wouldn't be any the wiser. Unfortunately, he ended up winning the competition--not just the junior division, the Grand Prize. The authorities insisted on tracking him straight into the preparatory curriculum for the Cardassian Institute of Advanced Engineering, but you know that's primarily women's work, and the family was mortified. Gul Laronen beat him unconscious when he found out. He told everyone it was because his son lied about his age, but no one believes him. After that, Laronen was constantly disruptive in classes, because he was the only boy, and he ended up trashing a very expensive lab at his last school. Finally the Ministry of Education asked Menat to try to whip him into shape, and they hired several engineering faculty just to give him private instruction. He'd never admit how much he loves the research, because all he can think of is that he'll be the only one of his six brothers not to receive a commission in the Ninth Order."

"I see," Elim said, softening somewhat.

"I'm glad you do," Ventekar returned a little sharply. "At any rate, with his father already thinking he's a sissy, he's not about to let him find out about this phobia of his. I certainly hope he follows my lead and just pops his head out of the box the minute they close it."

"He may have too much pride for that."

"Then he'll probably self-destruct like poor Marritza. It's a shame Aamin's being sent down, isn't it? He's a sweet kid."

"Too sweet for this place," Elim countered. "Being expelled from Menat is the best thing that ever happened to him."

Ventekar looked at Elim quizzically. "You are the hard one, aren't you Brem? Being expelled from Menat is death to his career hopes."

"Any career they'd prepare him for here would be the death of someone like Marritza," Elim responded earnestly. "Can you imagine him trying to make command decisions? No, this way he'll burrow himself into some lower echelon of the state bureaucracy with a nice, mindless job that keeps his attention away from perplexing moral questions and his inability to live up to his convictions. He'll be fine."

Ventekar got up from the chair and sat down on Elim's bed. Elim instinctively drew his knees up and clasped his hands around them. "That's an impressive analysis, Brem. Are you compiling psychological dossiers on all of us? I'd love to know what mine says."

It seemed the best opportunity to get rid of "pervy greenscale", as some of the boys called Ventekar behind his back. "Disrespectful of authority, exhibitionistically degenerate, and mutant, to give you the short version," Elim said calmly.

"Or, to give an even shorter one, a pervy greenscale." Elim colored at having his unspoken thought divined so easily. Ventekar showed no readable emotion as he regarded him closely for several seconds. "What kind of material are those pajamas made of, Brem? I've never seen anything quite like it," he asked.

The non-sequitur took Elim completely off guard, but it also appealed to one of his passions. "Tholian silk," he said proudly. "My grandfather had one of his manufacturers make them specially for me when I got accepted to Menat. A going-away present."

"I thought there was an embargo on imports from Tholia because they won't let our ships go through their space in order to cut time off the voyage to the Klingon border."

"Officially, yes, but my grandfather, being in the business, has contacts who can serve as intermediaries to circumvent the embargo," Elim went on, thrilling at how easily the tale was unfolding as he told it. He did nevertheless experience a trace of regret at not being able to share with Ventekar the far more impressive true story of the garment's origins. In fact, the silk was not genuine, but a superior simulacrum produced from a replicator program marketed by an enterprising Ferengi. Elim had discovered this broker on the cybernet while doing research on his fictionalized identity and had managed to hide the purchase of the program within Mila's household accounts and to replicate the fabric during a week when Tain had gone away on business for the Order. Erasing the traces of that specific activity from the replicator's memory log had proven to be child's play. He had secreted the cloth in his luggage and made the pajamas after arriving at the school.

"May I see what the silk feels like?" Ventekar asked.

"Uh, sure," Elim replied, letting go of his knees and leaning forward slightly.

Ventekar took the pajama collar between his thumb and forefinger and rubbed it gently. Then he moved his hand down over Elim's breast-bone ridge and caressed it sinuously through the soft fabric, while his other hand stroked the exposed neck-ridges.

Elim, you fool, you walked right into this, he said to himself; yet he remained motionless, paralyzed by the brush strokes of Ventekar's elegant, olive fingers. Then the older boy slowly brought his face close to Elim's and covered his lips with his own. Elim gasped, and the lips withdrew for an instant, their pressure replaced by the agile motions of Ventekar's tongue as it darted back and forth where the two lips met, finally forcing them apart and then exploring the inside of Elim's mouth, performing a pas de deux with his own tongue. Elim closed his eyes, and his body shuddered with pleasure. Then he came to his senses. He pulled his head back and, shoving Ventekar aside, quickly scrambled up from the bed. "Hey, cut that out! What do you think you're doing?"

Ventekar got up too and stood opposite him, about a half-meter distant. "Exactly what you think I'm doing," he said.

"Well, stop doing it."

"Why? You certainly seemed to be enjoying it."

"Because we'll get into trouble," Elim sputtered. "You know it's forbidden; it's a crime against the state."

"My dear Brem, you said that you know of my reputation for degeneracy, as you called it. Have I gotten into trouble, have I been expelled? Have I been arrested for crimes against the state?" Ventekar's voice was melodiously seductive.

"It's just a matter of time, and I won't be dragged down with you."

Ventekar broke off eye contact and withdrew several more steps. "Don't be so melodramatic," he said, pausing to put the desk chair back in place. "Sleeping together after taking the Oath of Obligation is one thing. Giving in to natural impulses at a boys' school is quite another." He whirled back around to face Elim. "Are you asking me to believe you've never fooled around with a schoolmate?"

Elim flushed and fidgeted. "I thought as much," Ventekar pronounced smugly. "Here, or at your previous school?"

Elim wasn't about to answer that question. "I've certainly never done anything right under the noses of the masters," he protested instead.

"The worst the masters have ever done to me is to haul me into a private office, make me pull down my pants, and give me 100 strokes across my ass with the rod, a rather stimulating experience, if truth be told." Elim looked at him in disgust. "All right, forget my little peculiarities," Ventekar said. "Do you really think, though, that the masters would line us up half-naked and dripping wet every week, start flogging away, and not expect us to get our dicks up. It's my personal opinion that they just want us to rut all the perviness out of our systems now, so we can be good little Cardassians later. Or else that it's the way they get their own jollies. Maybe they run to their offices after each Ceremony and jerk off like mad."

Despite every effort he was making to maintain a shield of righteous indignation, Elim started laughing. "That thought had crossed my mind," he admitted. Ventekar laughed, too. "I suspected that it might have." He glided a step closer.

You are about to get yourself into another mess, Elim thought to himself. Ignore your hormones and tell him to leave. Instead, he found himself stepping closer as well. Their faces were now only a few centimeters apart. His emerald eyes sparkling, Ventekar leaned forward. Elim didn't move. The other boy clasped Elim's face in both hands and just brushed the lips with his tongue. Elim sighed, reached out his tongue to return the gesture, and knew that he was lost.

Between kisses, Ventekar slipped gracefully out of his shirt and began to rub his green-scaled chest against the luxurious silkiness of Elim=s pajama top. Elim reached around him, letting his fingers explore the soft skin under the scaly tips that armored the shoulders and upper back, trying to match the rhythm of his fingers to that of the motions Ventekar's torso made as it pressed against him. As the other boy began to moan softly and increase the tempo of his dance of desire, Elim felt his member grow stiff and aching, and he pushed it hard against his partner's crotch, seeking relief. "Not yet, not yet," Ventekar whispered. He moved his hands to the waistband of Elim's pajama bottoms, and slid them slowly to the floor, kneeling as he did so. Then he took each of Elim's balls in one hand and began to massage them gently. Pleasure pulsed through his veins as if it were a fever. Soon Ventekar's skilled tongue was flicking at the edges of the scales on the head of his penis, and then his seducer took it between his lips. Elim gripped Ventekar's neck ridges, closed his eyes, threw back his head and surrendered completely to unself-conscious bliss.

For an agonizingly delicious moment Ventekar's tongue and lips played upon his swelling member. Then he cradled it in his delicate hands and brought it expertly to release. As he ejaculated, Elim too sank to his knees, fascinated as he watched the creamy white liquid dripping from the olive fingers and glistening on the green scales of the other's bare chest. Ventekar reached for his shirt and bent his head as he used the cloth to wipe first himself and then Elim's groin. While undergoing this pleasant ministration, Elim let his cheek brush against the unruly arches of Ventekar's hair. It's texture amazed him--it was twenty times softer and fluffier than the finest kenket down that he and Mila used to stuff the quilts for his bed. He ran his hands through its seafoam waves with light caresses.

Abruptly, Ventekar clambered to his feet. "I see you couldn't keep your hands out of my hair, Brem. None of them ever can," he said a little wistfully, putting on the damp shirt and fastening it. Elim got up also, regarding him with confusion. The other boy sauntered toward the doorway.

"Sorry, to leave so soon," he said, "but I've got an appointment with your friend Endarek in a few minutes. If you'd like to return the favor sometime, come by my room after lights out. But only do it if it really pleases you, Brem. I don't want you to think that I stepped forward today just because I was trying to buy your attentions." With another wink, he disappeared down the corridor. Elim just stood there half-naked, with his pajamas pooling about his ankles, dazed by their encounter and wondering if it would please him to accept Ventekar's invitation.

For the next few days Elim carefully rehearsed all the mental arguments why he should stay as far away as possible from Ventekar, and hurled each and every one of them against the persistent and wordless counter-argument posed by the yearning in his loins. Finally the loins won out. Still, he did not immediately seek out the object of his desires. Elim knew that his sexual experience up to this point provided no preparation for the sophisticated and specialized requirements of pervy greenscale. There had been a schoolmate who had a crush on him, when he was thirteen. The fellow shot him meaningful looks across the mess table, brushed his fingertips as they passed in the halls, and invited him home with him during the solstice holiday break. Not wanting to hurt his friend's feelings, Elim had eagerly accepted the invitation, with the proviso that the boy have his parents contact Tain through his dummy address in order to obtain permission for the visit. Elim was astounded when he found out that permission had been secured. (Only later, the next time he returned to Tain and Mila's house, did he discover the reason. Tain asked for his "candid impressions" of his schoolfellow's father, a rising star at Central Command.) During this holiday they had indulged in several bouts of mutual masturbation and exchanged scattered tender kisses, which Elim did not instigate but certainly did not resist.

Clearly, such behavior as this would hardly "return the favor" adequately to a boy of Ventekar's professed peculiarities. All that Elim could think of was to study carefully the detailed descriptions Preloc provided of his villainous degenerates' sweaty gyrations-- and then hope that his own talent for improvisation might extend beyond the verbal.

Working himself up to this point took Elim a whole week. As soon as the lights went out on the evening following the first Ceremony of the second term, he padded cautiously down the hall to Ventekar's room. The door was open, and its occupant was sitting on his bed completely naked, as if he had expected Elim all along. Or perhaps he was always expecting someone, Elim considered ruefully.

"I'm glad you're here, my dear Brem," Ventekar said. "I quite thought you had lost your nerve. Do shut the door and lock it, won't you?"

"If I had half the brains you credit me with, I'd run straight back out this door instead of locking it," Elim replied while, nevertheless, locking it.

"Nonsense. You've just discovered that other parts of you are in working order besides your brains."

Elim pulled off his pajamas and walked toward Ventekar, who rose and met him half way into the room. Might as well get to it, Elim thought, before I do turn and run. Tonight Ventekar made no move. Part of returning the favor meant apparently that Elim was to initiate all the advances and "direct" the proceedings.

He grasped the other boy's wrists, holding his hands down by his sides, and kissed him roughly, pushing his tongue inside, where Ventekar's adept appendage met it eagerly. Breaking himself away from this source of his own delicious gratification, Elim moved his mouth lower, beginning with the neck, nibbling at the green scales' edges with increasing pressure. Ventekar responded with little moans at each bite. Elim methodically took each and every scale between his teeth, pausing to let his tongue taste the sweet-saltness of the skin beneath. As he worked his way down to where the scales tapered off just above the groin, he increased the strength of his grasp on Ventekar's wrists, forcing them behind his back. Now on his knees, Elim poised his mouth just above the place where the patented Ventekar erection had for several minutes painfully awaited it. He blew lightly across the scaly tip, as the other boy writhed and tried to free his wrists. "By the gods, Brem, you little prick, just get on with it," Ventekar panted.

"Patience. All good things are worth waiting for." Elim blew across the tip five more times and then bit down once on each of the balls. Ventekar stopped struggling and groaned deeply. At last Elim took the other's penis in his mouth and stroked it with his tongue until it came in a rush of pent-up pleasure. Elim slowly released Ventekar's wrists, pulled back and transferred the ejaculant from his mouth into his two cupped hands, then poured it over his own erection. Ventekar took his cue expertly, grabbing Elim's member and sucking it to a similar release. The two boys lay back on the floor propped up on their elbows and breathlessly looked into each other's eyes. Soon Ventekar began to chuckle, and shook his head in disbelief.

"What a terrible tease you are Brem, and what a liar!" he said.

"Whatever do you mean?" Elim returned sweetly.

"Trying to pretend that you're all confused and guilty, that you've never had a man in your mouth before. You are one practiced little cocksucker, that's for sure."

Elim tried not to let his immense satisfaction show. The gods be praised for Preloc's tutelage. "I swear to you that I've never done anything of the sort. I just read up on the subject before I came."

Ventekar grabbed him playfully and began massaging his neck-ridges. "Right. And my skin's as gray as ash," he snorted.

Elim permitted himself a triumphant smile, knowing that Ventekar would attribute it to his enjoyment of the massage. "The only thing that's better than a lie people take as the truth, is a truth they take as a lie," Tain had said more than once. Now Elim knew that his mentor was right.

Elim leaned back against Ventekar's chest, as the other boy lazily caressed the bone-ridges that criss-crossed his ribcage. "You were sure right about Laronen," he reflected. "What a mess!"

Ventekar's hands stopped for a moment. "I went by the infirmary to check on him after second meal, and they said that it took two hours to stop the vomiting. In the end he was throwing up blood. All psychosomatic, but it lacerated his esophagus just the same. To make it worse, with him admitted for observation overnight, they'll notify his parents, and it will all get out. At least his father won't be able to come up here right away and clobber him. They've got the Gul's division stationed on Bajor. He's personally supervising the slave laborers at one of the new mining operations we're starting up on the planet. A perfect assignment for a Laronen." Ventekar gave a grunt of disapproval. "Why didn't that fool son of his just follow my lead and let himself out of the box?"

"Some of us are just too stubborn to give in to our weaknesses, I guess. We aren't as practical as you are."

"Hmm, you're right of course. Not that I was always so practical."

"Really?" Elim turned around and looked at him. "What self-destructive path did you ever pursue in order to prove a point?"

Ventekar didn't answer but instead got up and returned to the bed, putting the sheet over his lower body. Elim was uncertain whether this was an invitation to follow, and so remained sitting cross-legged on the floor, waiting expectantly for Ventekar to say something. After half a minute, he did.

"When I was a first-year, the master called me in after my second week and told me that I was in violation of the grooming code, because my hair parted and wasn't combed back. He told me that I'd go on half-rations every day that I didn't comb it correctly. I just said, "Yes, sir." And I continued to wear it parted. After they had me on half-rations for two weeks, they called me in again and asked me why I wouldn't comply. I wouldn't tell them. So then they shaved my hair off but let me go back on full rations. When it grew out enough to part, they shaved it off again and put me on half rations until it grew out and I styled it correctly, which I never did. At that point they called my parents and said that if they couldn't bring me to see reason, there was no choice but to expel me."

"What happened then?" Elim asked, breathless with suspense.

Ventekar rested his chin on his knees. "My father left the embassy and came here personally with my entire medical history in hand. He showed them my physician's description of the hair of Kalamites, how its texture is such that you can't keep it from parting unless you use glue. Then he berated them for their insensitivity and incompetence for about an hour, because they'd assured him before he enrolled me that they would make accommodations for my syndrome. How could they make accommodations, he asked, if they never bothered to research the condition thoroughly. Of course the masters were profoundly embarrassed. After that tongue-lashing he gave them, they were very eager to appease him. I suppose that's why they let me get away with a few of my more outrageous stunts."

"I don't understand. Why didn't you just tell them that there wasn't anything you could do to make your hair stay back? The doctors here would have verified your story."

"Why didn't Laronen pop right out of the box?" Ventekar replied.

Elim rose and sat down on the foot of the bed. "Is that why you don=t like anyone to touch your hair?"

"Sort of," Ventekar shrugged. "It's just that I sometimes think what attracts all the boys is that I'm an exotic, that if I looked just like everyone else, neither you nor any of the others would pay me these little nighttime visits."

"Well, I can only speak for myself, but I find your most compelling feature to be that wondrously flexible pink tongue of yours, and it's the same color as everyone else's."

"Flatterer," Ventekar whispered playfully, and then obliged Elim with a demonstration of that flexibility on his eye-ridges and spoon. Then he inclined his head slightly toward the younger boy. "Now, let's compare." Elim obliged by flicking his own pink tongue over Ventekar's corresponding features. When he broke off, Ventekar leaned back dreamily. "We should thank all the moons and planets that Cardassians evolved from reptiles."


"Because, my dear boy, if you've ever had your cock sucked by one of the mammalian species like Trills or Terrans, you would be appalled by those slow, thick, sloppy pieces of flesh they've got for tongues. I mean, wouldn't you rather have a blow-job from a serpent than an ape?"

"You've had sex with aliens?" Elim inquired, wide-eyed.

"Sure, I'm an ambassador's son. We've been stationed on four different planets while I've been growing up, the last three years on the Trill homeworld. I take my partners where I find them. Trill possess many charms, but having them suck your cock is a major disappointment."

"I wouldn't know," Elim gulped.

Ventekar flashed an indulgent smile. "Ready to fuck now?" he asked casually.

Elim's stomach suddenly knotted, and his heart began to pound. Even the perviest Cardassian of Ventekar's caste would never let another man mount him. Degraded as they were, Wommel and Krytek never succumbed to anal penetration. They rather hired street boys and mastered them in turn while the other watched. His heart rate increased further; could Ventekar have sensed his ambiguous origins? Or, to a member of the elite Ventekar family, was the grandson of a fabric merchant tantamount to a street boy?

"You're asking whether I'll let you... fuck me?"

"Would you like that?" Ventekar's tone conveyed surprise.

"No." Elim said through clenched teeth.

"Didn't think so," Ventekar responded breezily. "You're not the type. I, however, love nothing better than a rousing fuck up the ass, if you're game."

Elim stood there totally nonplused. This was the last thing he had imagined happening tonight.

Ventekar let out a soft whistle. "So, you've never fucked anyone before, have you, Brem?"

Elim shook his head, embarrassed.

"Well, there always has to be a first time. Your weapon's at the ready, I see, so just have at it." With that Ventekar flopped down on the bed on his elbows and knees, waving his buttocks in the air. "Come on, you can do it," he cooed.

Elim finally found his voice. "Uh, don't we have to use something to... um... ease the way."

"Oh, you must know by now that the easy way isn't my way. But this is going to hurt me more than it hurts you, if that's what you're afraid of."

"I'm not afraid," Elim huffed. He took a deep breath and climbed astride Ventekar. Running his hands over the slender but firm buttocks, he then explored the cleft between them with his fingers, gradually plunging them in deeper and deeper, so as to reconnoiter the territory his member must soon conquer. Ventekar sighed and wriggled pleasurably with each digital probe. Finally Elim held the cleft open with both hands and slid the tip of his penis inside. Then he pushed gingerly against the resisting muscles.

"You're not sculpting fragile dactilin crystal with that chisel of yours, for fuck's sake," Ventekar growled irritably. "Just slam it in!"

Chastened, Elim thrust with all his strength, past any resistance. Ventekar grasped his pillow with both hands and cried out. Elim pulled back and thrust again, and then again. Ventekar was moaning and writhing as if touched by the rod of correction, and Elim clutched at his shoulders, thrilling at the flexing muscles under his hands, his own mounting exhilaration arising not only from the shock waves of pleasure spreading out from his loins but from knowing that he had authored the other's ecstasy. Never in his whole life had Elim felt so in control of another person; the sensation was intoxicating

Two more thrusts, four. He wanted it to go on forever, but the need for release was growing more and more insistent. Still reining himself in, he reached for the groaning Ventekar's stiffened cock and stroked it briskly, so that his partner came in his hand just as Elim came inside the other boy's cleft. Both of them took great shuddering breaths as Elim withdrew and rolled over on his back beside Ventekar's now limp, prone torso.

Neither of them said anything for several minutes as they nestled in a hazy cocoon of exhaustion, perspiration, and satiation. Ventekar at length extended his left hand and randomly stroked Elim's spoon with one finger. "Young Brem, champion sucker and fucker," he proclaimed. Elim instinctively reached for Ventekar's hair, but caught himself. "It's all right, go ahead and fondle it," the other boy urged. "After a fuck like that, I'm not going to begrudge you my downy mop."

Elim sat up, leaning against the wall as he played gently with the green locks. "Why do you use such crude language to talk about sex, Ventekar? I've never heard any one but a servant boy say... fuck... as much as you do."

"I don't see what's wrong with plain speaking, Brem."

"But Kardasi is such a rich and beautiful language. There are exquisite poems that describe what we just did, poems whose lines come so much closer to expressing the meaning of the experience than "fuck" does."

"Sometimes I think we Cardassians would be a damn sight better off if our language didn't have so many ways to make ugly things sound beautiful."

"Was it ugly?" Elim asked, perturbed. "Did I get carried away and hurt you too much?"

"No, no, there's no way to hurt me too much. I was thinking about something altogether different."

"Such as?"

"Oh, nothing for you to bother yourself about," Ventekar responded dismissively. "Speaking of which, hadn't you better get over being squeamish about causing pain? After all, your future profession is going to require that you accustom yourself to hurting people."

Elim pulled his hands out of Ventekar's hair, concentrating every effort on controlling his voice and features. "What are you talking about? I'm going into my grandfather's clothing business."

Ventekar rolled onto his left side and propped himself up on one elbow. "Quit having me on, Brem," he said, looking at Elim with a skeptical expression. "No one sends a boy to Menat to prepare him for a career in trade! Besides, look at your elective courses--cryptography, behavioral psychology, information technology. That's the standard curriculum for someone aiming at the intelligence services."

"Industrial espionage is a major problem in the fashion world; sometimes it takes extreme measures to combat it. And a designer has to have a good grasp of consumer behavior," Elim explained in even tones.

Ventekar's face said that he was unconvinced, but he nevertheless replied, "Sorry, my mistake." Then he gave Elim three nibbling kisses on the lips. "I'd love to toy with you all night, but the masters do get rather miffed if two boys come out of one room at the wake-up siren. You'd better get dressed and go now. However, I do hope you're willing to make fucking me a habit from now on. You've quite the gift for it."

And so they became a habit. Usually once a week, occasionally twice, Elim went after lights out to Ventekar's room, where they engaged in "a suck and fuck extravaganza", as Ventekar jocularly referred to it, and a little post-coital conversation. There was no more to it than that. Elim could hardly think of it as a relationship--Ventekar had regular sexual appointments with at least three other boys in the school. And they weren't friends. Ventekar did have quite a lot of friends, usually third and fourth years who were studying interplanetary relations and preparing for foreign service careers as he was, but he never had sex with his friends. He and Elim, on the other hand, rarely spoke to each other outside of the bedroom. This situation satisfied Elim perfectly. He enjoyed Ventekar's witty and slightly scandalous opinions, and he reveled in the physical pleasures their trysts provided. Tain had made it quite clear that "emotional entanglements" posed considerable dangers, and it suited Elim just fine that Ventekar did not seek them. Poor Endarek, on the other hand, had become hopelessly smitten. His eyes rested soulfully on the green one whenever and wherever the cohort assembled, and he eventually became so jealous of Elim that the two could no longer remain friends.

As Elim was dressing himself in preparation to return to his room after one of their encounters, Ventekar put his arm around his shoulder and said, "Brem, I'm graduating in a few weeks, and before we part forever, I wondered if you'd be willing to do something special for me, something new for me."

"I didn't know there was anything you hadn't tried," Elim joked.

"I haven't tried this, and I want to. Will you help me?" Ventekar sounded atypically serious.

"You'll have to tell me first what it is."

"No. Either agree to do it, and trust me, or I'll ask someone else."

Elim took a while to give his answer. Ventekar was the most reckless Cardassian he had ever met. It this were something about which even he felt the need to be circumspect, gods knew the trouble it could lead to. Elim just couldn't risk it.

"Endarek is infatuated with you. He'd do anything for you. Why don't you ask him?"

Ventekar exhaled noisily. "Afterwards Endarek would tell everyone in sight what had happened. You know how to keep a secret, Brem. Does this mean you're turning me down?"

Elim's curiosity got the best of him. "No. I'll do it."

"Good!" Ventekar favored him with a passionate kiss. "You'll get a package apparently from home in the next few days. Except it will really be from me. It will contain everything you need. We won't speak openly of this again."

When the package arrived, its contents included a PADD confirming a reservation for Mr. Brem at a hotel in a neighboring town for a date ten days hence, some public transport shuttle vouchers, and a day pass from the master allowing Brem to spend that same date away from school grounds. Elim arrived at the hotel in mid-afternoon. It was really more of an inn, small, wood-thatched, located off a side road with no other buildings around. He presented the PADD to an elderly woman at the front desk, who said in a maternal tone, "Of course, you're dear Mr. Ventekar's friend. He's in the room waiting for you. It's down this hall, the third door on the left."

Elim knocked, and Ventekar let him in, for once fully clothed. He took Elim's overnight pouch and put it on top of the antique oxylite dresser that was in the center of the wall opposite a king-size bed, piled high with hand made kenket down comforters. Elim lingered just inside the room, feeling nervous about committing himself to--whatever he was committing himself to. "The woman here seems to know you," he began.

"Yes, my family has vacationed here for years, and I come down every now and then on school holidays. Praba is very discreet."

"So, are you going to tell me what all this secrecy is concealing, Ventekar? What type of untold perversion are you preparing to indulge in with my assistance?" Elim tried to sound nonchalant, although his hands were sweating.

"I want you to flower inside me, Brem."

There was a chair about a meter from where he was standing, and Elim sank into it, amazed. "You're crazy. That's impossible."

"No it's not," Ventekar replied calmly.

"I can prove it's impossible, with section and subsection from the unit on Cardassian reproductive anatomy in my biology book," Elim insisted. "'During sexual intercourse pursued for purposes of gratification only, the male ejaculates non-procreative semen. He may release fertile sperm only when his female partner is undergoing one of the four-day long periods of fertility indicated by a darkening of the spoon to a deep blue color. During this period, the female secretes the boarecian enzyme into her vagina. When the primary male penis encounters this enzyme it releases the secondary penis which contains the fertile sperm. A small barbed hook at the tip of the secondary penis inserts itself into the female's egg sac, allowing procreation to occur. This process is sometimes referred to by the slang expression, 'flowering'. This differentiation of sexual functions evolved in our species during times of conflict and famine, to assure that Cardassian children are born only to mothers who are healthy, well-nourished, and consenting to the act, for such stresses as disease, malnutrition, or rape prevent the onset of fertility.'"

Ventekar doubled over with laughter. "Now, is that from section 8, subsection 3, breeding the future, or section 12, subsection 2, fucking for fun?"

"Section 10, subsection 4, the procreative processes of the mature Cardassian," Elim shot back, fuming at the mockery. "Page 57, if you want a more precise reference."

"Has anyone ever told you that you study too much, Brem?" Ventekar grinned.

"Be serious. You're not a female, and I can't flower in you."

Ventekar pulled a small jar out of his pocket. "They've been able to synthesize the enzyme, so that women who can't naturally produce it can still get pregnant. They apply this creme to their husband's cocks, and insert an enzyme-bearing suppository into their vagina." He produced such a suppository from his other pocket. "So we do the same to your cock, and I'll shove this up my ass, and that's all there is to it."

"If this was so easy, you'd have done it before," Elim replied skeptically.

"Even the perviest hesitate to violate the sacred taboo about flowering in sterile ground. You're not a religious sort, are you Brem?"

"No." Tain rarely mentioned the Cardassian belief system unless to mock it as rank superstition that made men weak. "But it's a crime against the state, not just a religious prohibition. 'No Cardassian shall ever knowingly waste his seed and thus deprive the state of future patriots,'" Elim quoted.

"No one's going to find out," Ventekar protested in annoyance. "Besides, I've used this creme to make myself flower when jerking off. You're in for a very pleasant time of it. You have no idea how sensitive that 'secondary penis' is. I am assuming you haven't been trying to father any children yet."

"Hardly," Elim said drily.

"You promised me this, Brem. I expect you to keep your word. We aren't going to discuss this any longer." Ventekar's voice was stern. He was no longer the charming seducer. He pulled down Elim's trousers and rubbed the creme from the base to the tip of Elim's cock. Then he took off his own clothes and inserted the suppository. "I'm not looking for tender foreplay here, Brem. I'm going to go spread my legs on the bed. You just come fuck me like you always do, and the rest will take care of itself."

He had given his word, Elim reflected, although quite ill-advisedly. It was too late for second thoughts now. The creme was already making his penis tingle with pleasure, and it was certainly stiff enough to do what was required. He hurriedly stripped the rest of the way and mounted his impatient classmate. With only two quick thrusts, the flowering began. As the concealed extension broke forth from his organ, a surge of delight engulfed him. He thrust again. This part of his member was exquisitely sensitive. Each contact it made with the lubricated lining of Ventekar's cleft increased the pleasure until Elim, the quietest of all lovers, cried out in ecstasy.

Driven to thrust ever deeper, both by his own bliss and Ventekar's eager moans, he finally felt the barbed tip emerge and fasten itself. Suddenly Ventekar screamed, and this time it was a sound of pure pain, with no intermixture of pleasure. He began thrashing beneath Elim, trying to disengage himself. Of course, Elim realized, the barb was intended to pierce the permeable membrane of the female's egg sac, not to embed itself in the lining of the anus. Even so, he recalled from his biology text, in order to prevent any tearing there was a muscle in the female's vagina that clamped down to hold the secondary penis totally immobile until the sperm were released through the narrow tube within the barb. "It will only make it worse if you struggle," he said urgently, pressing down on Ventekar with all his weight and pinioning his arms. "Just lie very still, and the barb will retract on its own." Ventekar shook his head in assent, although he still bleated out muffled cries of agony. Elim gently licked under the back scales with his tongue, hoping to soothe and relax his suffering partner.

At last, Elim felt the barb retract. He immediately withdrew, even as the secondary penis returned to its protective cocoon, providing blissful impulses until it was completely engulfed. Ventekar gave a long "Ahhh" of relief and crumpled limply under Elim's hands. Elim got up and said with concern, "Are you all right?"

It took Ventekar a while to answer, as Elim stood by feeling helpless. Finally he raised his head and said, "I guess that wasn't the greatest idea I've ever had. But I'll live."

"I thought you were the one always craving more pain, the one who just eats it up when they whale away at you with the rod of correction," Elim chided playfully, knowing that the other boy would not want him to fuss.

"This pain was a little different," Ventekar acknowledged. "They never attached a sharp razor to the rod and stuck it up my ass. I'd be happy to demonstrate to you just what it feels like, if you're curious," he offered sarcastically.

"No, thank you," Elim replied with matching sarcasm.

"Brem, if you open the top drawer of the dresser, there's a pack of suppositories in clear laminate. Bring me one. It'll stop the bleeding and kill the pain until I feel like going into town to the physician. He's an old acquaintance, too, and he doesn't ask any questions."

Elim fetched the requested item and turned aside while Ventekar administered it to himself. "Mmm. That's better," his companion soon said with a contented sigh as he sat up gingerly on the edge of the bed. Elim sat down beside him.

"Actually, until I got skewered, the experience was all that I'd hoped for," Ventekar reflected. "How about you? Is flowering all they say it is?"

"Yes, the pleasure is quite, quite indescribable," Elim confirmed in dreamy cadences.

"Now you know why Cardassians have such large families," Ventekar joked. "And why every Cardassian on Bajor can't get enough of the local women."

"I don't follow," Elim responded.

"Oh, you hadn't heard? Apparently Bajoran women secrete the boarecian enzyme any time they're the slightest bit aroused, even when they're forced. No wonder most of the Occupation troops are chronic sufferers from 'ridge-nose fever', and that the streets are full of little half-caste bast--" Ventekar broke off abruptly. Then he continued, "Sorry Brem. I wasn't thinking."

Elim had always feared that Ventekar saw through his cover. Just how much did the other boy know, or at least suspect? However much it was, Elim had no choice but to maintain the lie. "No one in my family has ever been to Bajor. You've given no offense," he said with perfect casualness.

Ventekar looked at him hard. "Well, they're sending so many troops at present, one never knows," he answered in the same offhand manner.

"How come your parents didn't have more children?" Elim asked, eager to change the subject. When the order of the day had been "Number of siblings, descending," he and Ventekar had found themselves side by side at the end of the line, as the lone only children in the cohort.

"When your first one is green, you don't press your luck."

"They really thought that it would happen again? I'd heard that Kalamite is very rare."

"It's rare for both parents to carry the gene, which is the only way it can be passed on to offspring. There's still no reliable way to test for it. Once both parents are carriers, though, it's an even chance for a Kalamite child, one in four for a non-mutant--and one in four for Devinian's disease. Often the Kalamite gene is a marker for Devinian's. Those children have massive physical and mental deformities. My parents wouldn't take the chance."

"I'm sorry," Elim murmured. "I'm sure my parents would have wanted tons of kids, but of course they died so young."

"I thought you were three when the accident happened?"

"I was." Elim realized that he had gotten carried away with his lie and thus returned to very shaky ground.

"Plenty of time for at least one brother or sister, wasn't there?" Ventekar observed pointedly.

"Uh, I don't know what prevented it. Grandfather was so devastated by the loss, he never speaks of them to me."

"Cardassia is too obsessed with procreation anyhow," Ventekar said. "I mean, what other culture patterns their architecture after their cocks?"

"Lots of them have phallic features. Just look at war memorials on about any planet."

"Maybe, but I still think it was quite uncalled for to have all the public buildings in the capital on Cardassia Prime topped with four spires that are precise replicas of the Cardassian prick in full flower."

Elim laughed. "Oh, you're just exaggerating."

"I am not. Toss me the creme and I'll show you."

"What are you going to do?"

"I'm going to creme my dick up, masturbate, and flower. Then you'll see what I'm talking about."

Elim retrieved the jar from where Ventekar had dropped it on the floor and watched fascinated as the other boy went to work on his limp member. "You know, Brem, this would go a little faster if you lent a hand," he said.

Elim eagerly began stroking the green-scaled organ as Ventekar lay back and sighed with pleasure. In no time it revealed its hidden treasure. Elim gently ran his fingertips along the sides as his companion bit down on his lip and clenched his fists at the sensation. Finally the barb popped out, and the flowered penis stood erect in all its glory. Elim drew back his hands, marvelling at the curved sheath of tissue surrounding the extended portion and the claw-like shape of the barb. "Gods, you're right--it looks just like the spire on the Hall of Justice," he exclaimed.

"Told you so," Ventekar gasped. "Now give me some relief, dammit."

"Sure. Sorry." Elim rubbed the upright member vigorously, and soon a shower of future Cardassian patriots shot into the air. Ventekar subsided gratefully.

Elim shook his head in amazement. "Whose idea do you think it was to put those things up everywhere?"

"A very clever analyst of Cardassian political ideology, no doubt. I mean, what is our state but a monument to the procreative patriarchal prick?"

Impulsively, Elim bent down and kissed Ventekar. "What's that all about, Brem? You're not usually a sentimentalist."

"I... uh... don't take this the wrong way, but, well, it's going to be difficult for you isn't it, giving up being fucked?"

"I have no intention of giving it up."

"When you reach the Age of Obligation you'll have to, or be imprisoned. I can't really see you as one of those pathetic creatures slinking around the back alleys looking for hungry street boys."

"Never fear, dear Brem," Ventekar said, returning the kiss, "I'm going into the foreign service. There's an exception in the law when it comes to non-procreative acts with consenting aliens on their homeworlds. As long as the practices are well-established in that culture, it's felt to be part of good 'inter-species relations.' My father says that's why about three-fourths of the diplomatic corps are pervs."

That certainly explained a number of jokes Elim used to hear when playing servant at Central Command cocktail parties. "Of course your father is in the other 25%."

"Not likely. Where do you think I learned all my tricks? The Foreign Ministry does insist on a show marriage and a dutiful line of offspring, but otherwise they don't pry. While I am my father's son, my mother did spend long afternoons with the Andorrian ambassador. I'm sure there were some very nervous moments before the DNA tests came in," Ventekar chuckled. He got up gingerly and took a few tentative steps. "Good, the numbing is in full effect. We'll get dressed, I'll pop in to the doctor's and then I'll show you around the little village here. There's a cozy restaurant I always patronize, and I believe the craft bazaar has some very nice weavings on display. I know that will pique your fancy."

"Sounds like fun," Elim replied, a bit distracted in processing how much Ventekar knew about Cardassian society, and how much he, Elim, still had to learn.

The afternoon and evening Ventekar had arranged were quite as charming as he had promised. They returned to the hotel at 20th hour and leapt into bed once more. Since the doctor had, as Ventekar regretfully reported, "absolutely commanded me to give my ass a rest for the next couple of days", they contented themselves with only the suck portion of their usual suck and fuck extravaganza. Then they snuggled together under the down comforters and, for the first and last time in their relationship, slept together.

Sometime in the middle of the night Elim awoke. They'd kicked off the covers, and he lay mesmerized, watching Ventekar's chest rise and fall with his regular breaths, as the green scales rippled with the movements of the lean muscles. Pangs of tenderness suddenly overwhelmed him. He had never expected to feel romantic about pervy greenscale. Perhaps it was the nearness of their inevitable parting. More likely, he considered, the hormones released during flowering might create such a mood, another example of efficient Cardassian evolution bonding the male to the female he had just impregnated. Whatever the cause, the feelings soon led to arousal. Elim took his member in his hands to relieve himself. After only a few strokes, however, another hand touched his. "Let me help you with that, Brem," Ventekar murmured.

As his companion pleasured him, Elim realized that he dared not part with Ventekar without finding out just how much about his true identity the other suspected. No sooner had he ejaculated than he asked, with some diffidence, "This afternoon, when you started to talk about the half-castes on Bajor, you stopped because you think I'm a bastard too, don't you?"

"Are you?"

"No, of course not. But I'm very curious what's given you the idea."

"Well, I've never believed this clothing business nonsense... although I must admit you were quite impressive discussing the differences between the varieties of hemala fibers with the weavers this afternoon. It's just that, some of the work they do in the intelligence services--it's very dirty work. Not something a Cardassian of any stature would want for his son. Father has told me that they have special institutions where they take promising street urchins and train them up to be torturers. I had supposed that if one of those boys happened to prove extraordinarily promising, they might decide to groom him for higher responsibilities. Perhaps it's just my over-active imagination. I didn't mean to insult you."

Elim was glad for the darkness, for he knew that his face must be flushed. He had to deny Ventekar's speculations, but it was impossible for him to maintain the necessary calm. When he responded, his voice was shaking. "My grandfather is Arnot Brem, the fabric importer. My parents died in a transport accident. I'm Krinal Brem, and I'm preparing for a career in the clothing business." He took a deep breath and steadied himself somewhat. "How many times do I have to tell you that, Ventekar?"

"Never again," Ventekar assured him.

"Good, let's go back to sleep then." As Elim went to roll over, however, Ventekar grasped his shoulder. "Uh, Brem, if there's any chance I'm right about your going into intelligence, whoever your parents are, I want you to give it up."

"I promise you, the only intelligence I'll be interested in is the latest reports from the quadrant-wide fashion shows." Elim tried to sound nonchalant. "But why does it bother you so much to think I might be interested in the other kind of intelligence work? It's vital to the security of the state."

Ventekar sat up and pulled the quilt around him. "It's at the heart of the infection that's killing the state."

"What do you mean?"

"Brem, when you're an embassy brat, you spend a lot of time with the other ambassadors' kids. I've had friends from nearly every species with whom we maintain diplomatic relations. There's a game we used to play. We'd pass out little slips of paper with the names of the major galactic powers on them, and you had to write a one-word description for the people you drew. It was usually pretty predictable what would get written, no matter who drew which slip. You know, Klingons were 'warrior' or 'honorable' or occasionally 'uncouth', Ferengi were 'greedy', Terrans 'idealists', Romulans 'wily', and so forth. But do you know what we Cardassians almost always were?"

"Witty and charming?" Elim replied with a smirk.

Ventekar did not acknowledge the joke. The boy who never seemed to be serious about anything was apparently very serious now. "No. Cruel. There's a lot of competition in the galaxy for that adjective, but we won it hands down."

"Those others have probably just been listening to the horror stories the Bajoran exiles tell. You can't put any stock in opinions like that."

"I've heard Laronen=s father tell his side of what's happening on Bajor. It would make you weep. Father's had friends who were questioned because of rumors of 'subversive opinions'. They've suffered worse cruelty than the Bajorans, and they're our own people. Look how they treat us here at Menat." Ventekar's voice was filled with passion. "The state says that we're pervs because we want to fuck men and take a pass on breeding another generation to make never-ending sacrifices, as your precious Preloc would have it. Well, Brem, it's those sadists in the Obsidian Order who are the real pervs. They're the ones who plaster over the infection, but that infection needs cleaning out, not covering up, if Cardassia isn't eventually to drown in her own cruelty."

Elim had always enjoyed Ventekar's irreverence about the pretensions and hypocrisies of Cardassian institutions and the absurdity of the more extreme articulations of Cardassian political ideology. What he was saying now, however, went far beyond irreverence, into the chasm of disloyalty to the state. Elim had allowed Ventekar to seduce him into far more reckless behavior than he had imagined himself capable of tolerating, but there was a limit, and his companion had reached it.

Elim sat up, too, and grasped Ventekar's shoulders with both hands. "I think you presume too much," he said solemnly. "I love Cardassia. I would never betray her."

Ventekar's face registered total and genuine shock. He pulled away from Elim"s grasp. "And you think I would?"

Elim looked him straight in the eye and said in the voice of the boy whom Enabran Tain had groomed from birth to become an agent of the Obsidian Order, "I think you might."

He couldn't decipher the emotions that played across Ventekar's face then. Were they simply hurt and anger at Elim's accusation, or horrified recognition of something he'd never let himself admit before? Elim didn't get much time to decide, for Ventekar turned away and buried himself underneath the covers. "We should get back to sleep now," he muttered.

The first glimmers of pink light were coming through the shutters when Elim awoke. Ventekar was emerging from the bathroom in his trousers. As Elim got out of bed, wrapping himself in the bedclothes, the other boy put on his shirt.

"You're up early," Elim observed.

"It's better if we leave separately, as we arrived. You can sleep in as long as you want and then buzz Praba for breakfast. The account's been settled." Ventekar's tone and the words he spoke were completely cordial, but Elim could feel the wall of ice between them. Considering that he had never told the complete truth in answer to any of Ventekar's probing questions, he wondered what had possessed him to deliver that withering assessment last night. Well, there was no repairing this, and he wasn't going to offer some awkward apology.Ventekar finished dressing and made his way to the door.

"Good-bye, pervy greenscale," Elim said. The other boy halted, then wheeled around deliberately and walked back to him. He kissed Elim, but the kiss was as cold as the mood. He smiled slightly, but it was a sad smile. "You take care of yourself, Brem. You'll find that Cardassia is not a very satisfactory lover for someone who doesn't like being fucked."

III: Reaping What You Sow

He never spoke to Ventekar again. Three days later Menat held its graduation ceremony, and Ventekar went out to serve the state. Elim spent the year-end holidays at the country cottage with Mila. Tain contacted him by comm channel a few times, demanding a complete recounting of everything he had done and learned as a first-year. Elim didn't conceal the affair. It was never any good lying to Tain, who had ways of knowing everything. He absorbed the anticipated reprimand in silence and vowed to avoid such foolish adventures in the future.

When school reconvened, Elim gathered from Endarek's heart-broken expression that Ventekar had cut off contact with all his sexual partners at the school. This confirmed his suspicion that Ventekar would not have sent him any messages over the holiday, even if they had parted more amicably. At weekly convocations, the masters gave out reports on the achievements of recent Menat graduates, so Elim did learn that Ventekar had passed the foreign service examination and been posted to the Liseppian legation. Later in the year came news of his appointment as junior consular attaché at his father's embassy on the Trill homeworld. Family connections assured that even this most eccentric and rebellious of Cardassians had found a soft landing within the state bureaucracy.During his remaining three years at Menat, Elim rarely thought much about Ventekar. When he was a third-year, a student in his new cohort started organizing day trips to a brothel in the town, and Elim experienced the different but still empowering sensations that resulted from pleasuring women. Both sexes held their peculiar and endearing charms for him.

He compiled a sterling academic record and graduated first in his class. On the day before his own commencement ceremony, a package wrapped in plain paper arrived by special courier. There was no card or sender's address. It contained the new book by the joined Trill Tirez Eyos, a chronicle of the Eyos symbiont's many erotic adventures during ten lifetimes as five women and five men. As he started to scroll through it, Elim found the PADD forwarding itself automatically to a preset bookmark. On this page, Eyos declared that of all the various erotic configurations s/he had experienced, male/male coupling marked the pinnacle. For this insight, the author thanked a particularly charming and resourceful young Cardassian of recent acquaintance. Elim laughed with surprise and delight, knowing that the book had last rested in a green-scaled hand.

Upon graduation, Elim entered the Obsidian Order's half-year training program, as Tain had always planned for him to do. When he completed it, the Order enrolled him as an agent. On his first day at work in the intelligence compound, he reported, as did all new agents, to the supervising agent, Enabran Tain. Both treated the meeting as a formal introduction.

"Good morning," Tain said jovially. He handed Elim an identification card and a PADD that contained all the rules, regulations, and procedures that joining the Order entailed. "We give each agent a code name. Any records of your previous history and identity have been wiped clean. From now on, you are Garak."

"Elim Garak, perhaps?" the new agent inquired. "I've always liked the sound of the name Elim."

Tain directed one of his warning looks at "Garak's" blandly innocent countenance. "Just Garak, plain and simple. One name suffices quite well for the work. If you feel the need for a familiar name to give to more intimate acquaintances, you may choose anything you wish, so long as it has no connection with your past history."

"Then Elim it will be. There's no record ever made that could connect that name to me. And may I say," he smiled ingratiatingly, "what an honor it will be to serve under your direction, Supervisor Tain." He gave a slight bow and walked out, quite satisfied at how he had made Tain's blood pressure rise.

One year into his job, Garak was serving as agent on duty for the night shift at the Order's underground communications monitoring complex. All newer agents had to put in a mandatory stint at this ennui-generating location. Very little that was eventful ever transpired here. He had taken to calling up various works of literature on his computer screen to pass the time.He was midway through a new enigma novel when one of the commtechs buzzed at his office door and then burst in breathlessly before he could finish saying "Enter."

"Agent Garak, you've got to go down to the view room and see what's coming out over State television," the young man panted.

As they were in the turbolift, the commtech explained further, "Some fellow has hacked into CST's satellite and is putting on quite a lewd show. No one's found a way to block his signal yet or to take CST off the air."

As they entered the view room, all eyes were fixed on the main monitor screen. To Elim's astonishment, it revealed none other than Ventekar, in all his naked green-scaled glory, writhing and moaning in the way so familiar to "Brem", as a young street urchin energetically fucked him from behind. "Has he made any statements?" Garak inquired in his best agent's tone, all the while struggling to suppress a decided urge to laugh out loud.

"When the broadcast first came on, he said that he was coming upon the Age of Obligation, and he wanted everyone in the Cardassian Union to know what the state was asking him to give up," answered the senior commtech. "Security wants an identification before they go after him. They expect to have the signal traced back to his location in a few minutes. We're running his image through the database, but sometimes it takes an hour to get a match," he added unhappily.

Garak couldn't very well just tell them that it was Ventekar. That would inspire too many questions. Instead he said, "Look, he's a Kalamite sufferer, and he's probably 23 or 24, if he's talking about an imminent arrival of the age of obligation." His memory of the Menat line-ups told him that Ventekar's 25th birthday was in fact tomorrow. "Do a search for Kalamites of that age range. There can't be many." There were precisely four, and soon Ventekar's official record flashed up on one of the auxiliary monitors.

"Blessed ancestors!" the senior commtech whistled. "It's Ambassador Ventekar's son. We'd better tread lightly on this one."

"Agreed," Garak replied. "I'll contact Security. You'd better call in a supervising agent."

Security Officer Maltan didn't even wait for Garak to make a preliminary greeting. "About time you screw-ups in the Order got back to me," he barked into the receiver. "We've got this fucker located. He's on the top of the northeast corner spire of the Foreign Ministry in the capital. He's rigged some kind of force field so that we can't beam him out. We're working on disrupting it. Now, no more excuses, just who the hell is the little vole?"

"It's Silor Ventekar, the son of the ambassador to Trill."

A string of esoteric Kardasi obscenities followed. "That complicates my life, thank you very much." Maltan growled. "I'd hoped to shoot the disgusting pervert between the eyes. Let me go and plan a strategy." The comm channel switched abruptly to black. Garak allowed himself a small sigh of relief. Ventekar's elite status would protect him from death. His father could probably even manage to engineer a commuted prison sentence. Ventekar's diplomatic career was over, of course, but Garak couldn't think of any way his former schoolmate could escape entirely the consequences of this rash act of defiance.

Garak returned to watching Ventekar's spectacle. He had to admit that he was rather enjoying it, although his face showed nothing but disapproval. Having been fucked, Ventekar had masturbated his penis into flowering, and was now having his extended cock sucked by his companion. After a few minutes, amplified voices invaded the audio track. "Turn off the force field and surrender at once. Cease polluting the airwaves with your filthy behavior. If you come peacefully, we will not harm you."

Ventekar ignored the voices and ejaculated in the direction of the holorecorder that must have been transmitting his signal. The message repeated several more times, and then flickering lights indicated that the force field was failing. Ventekar moved closer to the "audience". "Before I go, I just want to tell you, great exemplars of Cardassian manhood, that you should go get yourselves royally fucked. It will do you a world of good." Then he kissed the street boy on the lips, calmly stepped off the spire and plummeted to his death.

The room grew deadly quiet with shock. Garak felt as if someone had given him an unexpected blow to the vertical chest-ridge. I should have guessed, he berated himself, it's such a perfect Ventekarian gesture. Unwilling to choose between the corrupting hypocrisy of command or the disgrace of jail, pervy greenscale had taken the only other path Cardassia left open for an unapologetic EQ Silver.

Garak quickly buried the turbulent emotions that Ventekar's suicide had aroused in him. He followed the subsequent investigation with professional detachment, offering his speculations on the young man's motives only when requested. That investigation eventually concluded that the misguided offender's Kalamite Syndrome signaled other genetic mutations that had unfortunately resulted in mental imbalance. Data from a spurious autopsy, which Garak knew to be fabricated, confirmed the fact. After all, the state could hardly admit to a subversive bred by one of Cardassia's most illustrious families; much better that it identify instead a tragic victim of aberrant genes. It was only when this verdict became the subject of much discussion in the Cardassian state media that Garak's emotions surged once more, and he had to make a concerted effort not to run shouting through the streets that Ventekar was the only Cardassian of his acquaintance who was not insane.

He had started seeing signs of incipient madness everywhere. The Obsidian Order alone provided numerous examples. It seemed that all the agents Garak got to know well were addicted to kanar (or even more pernicious substances) when not working a case. Every month three or four of them retired to seclusion, "exhausted by years of devoted service to the protection of the state." Some of the symptoms of that exhaustion were quite startling. Just a week before Ventekar killed himself, a 20-year veteran "administrator of interrogative stimuli" had begun echoing his prisoner's screams as he touched the torture implement to his victim's body; several minutes later he turned the instrument on himself. It had taken five technicians to subdue him and carry him off to the hospital. The memory of this man's fate sent a shiver down Garak's spine as he paused in the middle of writing his report on a very long and messy interrogation he had just concluded. Covering his face with his hands, he thought to himself,

Ventekar, you were certainly prescient in telling me I'd have to get used to hurting people. Ah, yes, Ventekar, you were trying to teach me something in our little private tutorials, weren't you? Everything the state makes us bury in order to serve her, it doesn't stay buried. All the beautiful phrases in the Kardasi language only provide hiding places for our monstrous cruelty, which merely bides its time before emerging to ambush us unawares.

That was one thing you could say about Ventekar--had he lived, no thwarted desires would ever have returned in monstrous guise to haunt him, to drive him mad. How could they haunt a man who always gave in to them? Garak shook his head at the insight. He hadn't been able to follow Ventekar's teachings. Tain's were too firmly in control by the time they had met. Yet he recognized their truth. He could see the sickness stalking his fellow Cardassians. He knew why his own heart raced and his chest tightened every time the door to the interrogation chamber closed and locked. He knew that he lied almost constantly now, not just when survival demanded it. The monster would return for him someday, but at least he would recognize it when it approached. That gave him an advantage over his deluded fellows. It was an invaluable asset in the work.

That's your blessing, Garak said.

Suddenly an image flashed across his brain, vivid as if projected in a holovid. Ventekar, naked, arms outspread like wings, green scales ruffling like feathers, penis in full flower, glided past him. He stopped in mid-flight, smiled and winked at his friend, then hurtled downward to seek the ground's annihilating embrace.

Or your curse, Elim replied.

DISCLAIMER: The characters of Elim, Mila, and Tain belong to Paramount Pictures, as does the creation of the Cardassian species.

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