by Henrietta Wotton
Ezri Dax surveyed the auditorium to gauge how well the assembled Cardassian psychiatrists were understanding her lecture on the causes of post-traumatic stress disorder. Not well at all, if the skeptical facial expressions were any indication. "Er, before I go on, perhaps you have some questions?" she offered.
One of the many women in the auditorium raised her hand. "Even though our instruments show no organic causes for these crippling symptoms, the patients can't just will themselves to get better?" she asked, clearly dubious.
"That's correct." Ezri replied. "Until the underlying mental distress subsides, the hysterical reaction will continue. A patient who believes she has been paralyzed will not be able to walk, even if the building catches on fire." Many disbelieving murmurs rippled through the crowd.
An officer from Central Command Medical rose to his feet and fixed her with a withering stare. "Our instruments do register the chemical imbalances that produce psychotic behavior, yet so many of my patients have been hallucinating without a sign of these imbalances. They're all faking it, if you ask me."
Ezri took a deep breath. "Those aren't hallucinations," she began, straining to make her point calmly in the face of this obvious challenge to her authority. "They're memories of the traumatic experiences so vivid that the memories seem more real than their, uh, reality."
The gul pushed his point. "Isn't that the essence of psychosis, the inability to distinguish reality from fantasy?"
Ezri walked out from behind the lectern and addressed the skeptical Cardassian one on one. "These memories that the patients flash back to aren't fantasies. They really happened--they are just not happening at the time the patient thinks they are." The gul shook his head, unconvinced. The counselor felt her frustration rising, as if it were dancing up the double row of her spots. Then another man got to his feet, the only male in the audience who wasn't wearing a military uniform. Great, now I've got to deal with two of them at once, Ezri thought.
However, the second doctor turned not to her but to his fellow Cardassian. "Remember when you were a schoolboy, Rentek, the advanced memorization drills? Couldn't you almost see the succession of screens in front of you when the instructor asked you to recall the information? This is a similar phenomenon, only so much more intense that it confuses the boundaries between past and present experiences."
Rentek pondered his colleague's words for a few seconds, grunted, and sat down.
Ezri gave the civilian a grateful smile. "Thank you for that instructive example Dr.--"
"Vontor. I'm glad I could provide the . . . translation." He returned Ezri's smile, bowed his head, and sat down also.
"If there are no other questions?" Ezri asked, and was grateful to see that there weren't. "Let's move on to possible treatment protocols . . ."
When she finished the lecture, no one lingered to ask follow-up questions, and the speed with which they were heading for the exits did not promise that her consultancy here would accomplish anything at all. As she dejectedly gathered up her notes and illustrative material, she noticed that Dr. Vontor was still in his seat.
"Don't get discouraged yet, counselor Dax," he said, rising. "They're not used to asking anyone else for help in doing their jobs. Besides, most of them are like Rentek, spent their careers helping out with interrogations. The mind specialists in the military orders are much more adept at inducing hallucinations than curing them."
"But not you?" Ezri asked.
"I'm a pediatric psychologist by training. Despite our losses, Central Command doesn't recruit six year olds--yet. The devastation has turned so many Cardassians into little more than lost, frightened children that my training is almost an advantage." Vontor paused for a moment, then walked down to the lectern. "My colleagues' stubbornness has put me first in line to ask for your assistance. Three of my patients have made no progress in six months. Because there are so few physicians left alive, we usually pronounce such cases incurable and warehouse them on one of the outer planets. I convinced the head of Central Psychiatric to delay their transfer until you had the chance to suggest some method of treatment that might succeed where mine has failed. I know you don't conduct your next seminar until the day after tomorrow--"
"Yes, I'm sure I could find the time," Ezri replied eagerly, relieved that someone here on Cardassia actually valued her expertise.
Vontor handed her a PADD. "My case notes. After you've studied them, you could contact me about coming to the ward to examine Tabal, Kendek, and Gemet."
"I'll be in touch tomorrow morning." Ezri took the PADD from him and added it to the stack she had used for the seminar. The Cardassian nodded his thanks and started to leave. "Oh, doctor," she called up to him. "A friend is taking me out to dinner. Would you like to join us?"
"One of the Federation personnel working on the rebuilding effort?" he asked.
"No, a Cardassian friend," she replied. Garak, right on cue, appeared in the doorway to the auditorium. "Here he is now. Do you know Elim Garak, Dr. Vontor?"
"By reputation only," Vontor said curtly. Suddenly all traces of charm vanished. "If you'll excuse me, I too have a dinner engagement." He bolted for the side door as if a herd of angry targs were in pursuit.
Garak had not taken his eyes off Vontor since Ezri pronounced the doctor's name. Only after the man had passed beyond his gaze did he shake off a very grim expression and address Ezri with his usual gallantry. "Let us not tarry, Lieutenant," he said, offering his arm. "The Ferengi gives away your table if you aren't precisely on time."
Only an enterprising Ferengi could have thought of establishing an outdoor cafe amidst the ruins of Central Command headquarters. As the sole restaurant currently functioning in all of Cardassia City, "Rocks" did a brisk business with the relief personnel from the Federation and the very few Cardassians, like Garak, who still had some latinum in their pockets. The menus were carved into pieces of the surrounding rubble-typical Ferengi bad taste, Garak had sniffed. They featured an eclectic mix of dishes from a number of planets, in addition to local fare. Ezri asked Garak to order for her, from the Cardassian portion of the menu. Anything to get more in tune with the mentality of the place.
"I never knew that you were a devotee of Cardassian cuisine, lieutenant," he remarked, as the waiter departed. "One of your prior hosts, perhaps?"
"No other Dax has favored it," she replied. "But that doesn't mean I won't.
The symbiont's experiences aren't meant to substitute for the host's."
"Our food can be an acquired taste," he cautioned. "I hope you don't regret your decision." Garak had ordered a bottle of kanar. He filled his glass and offered to pour some of the liquor into Ezri's. "Kanar, on the other hand, travels very well."
Ezri smiled at him. "In that case, just a little." He nodded and filled her glass halfway. Then he raised his own glass in a toast. "To absent friends," he said. Ezri didn't have to be a counselor to detect the profound melancholy in his voice. She returned the toast and took a few sips of the spicy blue liquid. Setting the drink down, she put her hand on Garak's forearm and looked earnestly into his eyes. "How are you doing Garak?" she asked.
The Cardassian pulled away from her. "I'm surviving, as always," he said, affecting a light-hearted tone. "The Jem'Hadar destruction of Cardassia Prime has left so many open spaces that my claustrophobia is nearly a thing of the past."
Ezri persisted. "How are you really doing--this can't be easy for you."
Garak made a dismissive gesture. "I keep busy. There's much planning to do for Cardassia's future. We have to figure out how we want to position ourselves politically, which alliances we might want to consider, once the occupiers leave our system--if they do leave it."
"Surely they will," she soothed. "They're just here now to help you rebuild."
Garak gave a little laugh and shook his head. "Such an optimist you are, counselor, a perfect match for the good doctor." His face grew grave. "The Klingons are already demanding the entire Chin'toka system, and I don't foresee the Romulans budging from the planets they currently hold. The Federation is much too polite to mention it during our time of need, but I can guarantee you that when we grow stronger, they will demand we return to them all those colonies in the demilitarized zone. If only the poor Maquis had lived to see their objectives attained after all. No, lieutenant, beyond Cardassia Prime itself, the extent of our future territorial integrity is very much in doubt." The Cardassian took a long drink of his kanar and fell silent.
Seeing that she wasn't making any progress trying to cheer Garak, Ezri dared in spite of herself to broach a subject that had intrigued her since the afternoon. "Dr. Vontor seems a very able man to help form the foundation of the new Cardassian state," she ventured.
"Dr. Vontor indeed." Garak downed another glass. "You'll do well not to discuss politics, especially my politics, with him."
"I thought there was no love lost between you. But why? He said you'd never even met."
Garak slammed his glass down on the table. "He doesn't have to have met me to hate me," he said.
Ezri gathered her courage. "Care to tell me why, just so I don't open any old wounds when I'm helping him with his patients tomorrow?"
"Are you?" The Cardassian cocked an eye ridge. "Not surprising, really. Vontor's just the type to be making up to the Federation. He comes from a long line of dissidents. Many of his family and friends were in league with Tekeny Ghemor and fled into exile when Ghemor did. Those that the Obsidian Order had not already taken care of, that is. Now they've all come flooding back, eager to create their new Cardassia out of the ashes of the old."
"Then you have something in common after all," Ezri said. "That's what you 're trying to do, too, Garak."
"So of course we should just join hands and march together into the future?" Garak leaned forward and turned the full force of his interrogator's stare upon her. "Be assured, my dear, any new Cardassia that Dr. Vontor and his friends might be planning would hold no place for the likes of me."
Ezri instinctively pulled back, and was thankful to see the waiter approaching. Garak glanced over his shoulder, following her gaze. He rubbed his hands together and relaxed his posture. "Ah, here are our dinners. They do smell delicious," he said, once more the charming dinner companion.
The Ferengi placed before Ezri a large platter. In the center, three green-and-gold-shelled regova eggs reposed on a nest of arcantha leaves. Surrounding it was a circular helping of semmel stew, with its turquoise semmel roots dominating the pinkish grating of zabu meat. A drizzle of yamok sauce made an artful calligraphy around the edge of the plate. It certainly was an appetizing looking meal. Unfortunately, it smelled like those sections of Cardassia City where they hadn't yet buried all the bodies. It was all Ezri could do not to retch.
She could see that Garak was highly amused. "We Cardassians require very strong olfactory stimulation to get our tastebuds going," he explained. "The odor of kanar is judged to be a pleasant one, however, even by the delicate noses of Trills. I recommend that you take a sip after each bite, and you may just make it through this Cardassian meal you wanted to add to your store of experiences."
The combination of the odiferous meal and the kanar chasers left Ezri feeling nauseated and light-headed as she stumbled back into her quarters. All she wanted to do was lie down and go to sleep, but she had to review Dr. Vontor's patient files first. Doubts suddenly assailed her. Had she taken on too much, volunteering for this assignment? She'd felt she couldn't refuse Garak's personal request, since he was a former patient and such a close friend to Julian. Yet her motives hadn't been totally altruistic. During the war, the skills Dax had accumulated from Jadzia, Curzon, and Tobin seemed the ones that made her contributions to the station crew valuable. Now she wanted to reclaim Ezri Tigan's lifework, to practice and hone her talents as a healer of troubled minds; but was a Trill assistant counselor really qualified to give advice to Cardassian doctors dealing with Cardassian psyches fractured by a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions?
"That's just the queasiness talking," she told herself firmly. She changed into a robe, stood briefly on her head, then gulped down two glasses of very cold Milerian spring water. Sufficiently roused by this procedure, she took up Vontor's PADD and began to read.
The first patient, Glinn Boki Tabal, had been the navigator on a Galor-class battle cruiser. When his ship was summoned back to base at the end of the Dominion War, he suddenly lost his sight. Tests had discovered no physical injury or disease. Because the ship had suffered very few combat losses, and Tabal's family, colonists in a distant part of the empire, had escaped the Jem'Hadar death squads, psychological trauma seemed unlikely also. Tabal's superiors suspected malingering, and Vontor had to fight to keep the man under psychiatric care.
No such suspicions attached to the case of the second patient, Samta Kendek. Shot in the street of Lakerian City during one of the mass executions, paralyzed from the waist down and left for dead underneath a pile of corpses, she had been discovered still breathing by the burial detail two days later. Physicians had healed her physical wounds, and readings indicated that the paralysis had abated, but the woman remained catatonic, unresponsive to any external stimuli.
The final patient, Professor Altira Gemet, formerly of the structural engineering faculty at Central Cardassia Technological Institute, had watched her parents, husband, and five children murdered in front of their summer cottage while she lay concealed in a larish orchard. Four days after the armistice she had wandered into an emergency shelter, insisting that she be immediately tried and executed for her complicity in the deaths of her family. Although her behavior appeared calm and rational, the underlying mental disturbance revealed itself in her refusal to let go of an inoperable sonic hair cleanser and detangler that she had salvaged from the burned out cottage. During her waking hours, she obsessively removed the casing from this instrument, fiddled with its inner workings, reassembled it, passed it over her hair for precisely 20 strokes, then began the process all over again.
Ezri clicked off the PADD, puzzled. Hysterical blindness, trauma-induced catatonia, survivor guilt. Textbook cases, really. Vontor seemed intelligent and capable. Why had these patients proven so resistant to his treatments? Perhaps, on Cardassia, they used a different textbook. She remembered something that Garak had said when he asked for her help: "Unfortunately, Cardassian mental specialists have always stressed the development of techniques by which to . . . influence . . . behavior in positive directions. I'm afraid that our physicians are quite at a loss when it comes to healing minds that have completely unraveled."
The Central Psychiatric Hospital, along with all the other functioning medical facilities in Cardassia City, occupied a giant, rectangular, white structure of the type usually employed by the Federation to house research teams on uninhabited worlds. Totally incongruent with the rounded shapes and angled spires favored by Cardassian architects, the "ice cube," as Garak scornfully called it, was, however, warm, dry and fully powered. In the ruins of Prime such attributes eclipsed aesthetic considerations. A young Bolian, one of many Federation volunteers with the Cardassian relief effort, met Ezri in the lobby and guided her to Dr. Vontor's ward.
"Ward" was perhaps too grand a term. It was really just a large room, separated from the corridor by a wall of opaque crystal. Dr. Vontor was standing outside when Ezri arrived. He greeted her and touched a control on the wall. The crystal turned transparent, revealing the three patients. Each had a bed, a chair and a small table, partitioned off with curtains from the others. On the left, Glinn Tabal sat at his table staring fixedly into space as he worked by feel an old-fashioned jigsaw puzzle whose pieces were cut from polished wood. In the middle, Samta Kendek lay in her bed, propped up against several pillows. Her eyes appeared as blind as Tabal's, and her body was rigid and motionless, criss-crossed with various pieces of tubing that performed her bodily functions. On the right, Professor Gemet was working with intense concentration on the inner circuitry of her detangler.
"So, here they are," Vontor said. "Do you have any preliminary conclusions from evaluating the case records? You've seen that we've tried every possible psychotropic drug regimen, with absolutely no effect."
"Sometimes in cases like these, time is the only remedy," Ezri replied cautiously, not wishing to offend. "I'd like to talk to each of them before venturing any final opinion about the next course of treatment."
"You won't get much conversation from Samta, I'm afraid, but the others never lack for something to say, mostly complaints." Another touch to the controls released the lock and allowed them to enter the glinn's cubicle.
"Hello, Doctor," he said. "I recognized your footsteps. But there's someone else here, too, isn't there?"
"That's right. This is counselor Ezri Dax, from Starfleet Medical."
"Hello, Tabal.," Ezri said, extending her hand. When he failed to take it, she grasped his hand and shook it. "How are you doing today?"
"You can turn off your ocular scanning light. I can't see it, you know," Tabal replied stiffly.
"I don't have any light."
"Of course you do." Tabal's agitation was growing. "They're always trying to prove that I'm faking it, so they can execute me for dereliction of duty. Day in and day out the Third Order Medcorps sends someone to shine a light in my face and try to get me to blink." Ezri cast a quizzical glance at Vontor, who nodded apologetically. Well, Ezri said to herself, I think we've found the secret to why he's in no hurry to get his sight back.
"The minute their physician said there was no evidence of organic damage to my eyes, they haven't let me alone," the young Cardassian continued. "The first thing they did was strap me down so that I couldn't move my head and shone a bright light in my eyes for four hours straight, just waiting for me to shut them tight and plead for the men to turn it off. But I never saw the light at all, only felt the heat on my face."
"If I hadn't persuaded them to transfer Tabal here, they would likely have blinded him for real." Vontor added.
"I am blinded for real! Why can't anyone believe me?" Tabal cried out in anguish.
Ezri: put her arm around his shoulder. "I believe you, Tabal," she said. "It's not uncommon for men to lose their sight when they've gone through what you have."
Tabal fidgeted nervously with one of the puzzle pieces. "See, Counselor Dax, the problem is that I didn't go through anything. That's why they're so suspicious," he whispered. "They think I'm just trying to have it easy while everyone else on Cardassia Prime is struggling to survive. I'd work my fingers to the bone for my rations if I could, I really would."
"Tell me in your own words exactly how the blindness came on.," Ezri said.
"I was at the helm, when the word came that the Dominion was standing down. We all did a lot of celebrating, even on the bridge, men singing and shouting. The kanar was flowing, too, but I didn't have any, because I was at my station. Gul Olnak said to set a course for Prime, and when we got home and the planet appeared on the viewscreen, he told me to go to magnification 10. I looked down at the controls and did so, but when I looked up at the screen it was blank. Then the bridge went dead quiet for a split second, and the men who'd been shouting and singing started cursing the Jem'Hadar, and some of them were crying. I turned around to look at them, and I couldn't see them either. I panicked, and started shouting, 'What's wrong, what's wrong?' Glinn Starnel the helmsman grabbed hold of me and shouted, 'Our world's been destroyed man! Are you blind?' I started sobbing and said, 'Yes, yes I am.'" He took a deep breath. "I'm never going to get my sight back, am I?"
If I tell him he will, he'll probably die of fright, Ezri mused. "I do think it's best that you start learning adaptive skills, just in case it never returns," she replied, while signalling to Vontor not to contradict her.
Tabal virtually quivered with relief. "I'll work really hard at being a useful member of the State, even though a blind one," he said earnestly.
"We know you will," Ezri and Vontor said simultaneously, and even Tabal laughed.
Vontor pulled aside the curtain, permitting them to enter Samta Kendek's cubicle. The woman showed no awareness of their arrival. Nor did she respond when Vontor pressed a stimulator to her palm, shone a light into her eyes, or pressed a device which emitted a loud, high-pitched wail that made Ezri jump a full meter. The doctor shook his head in frustration. "The only sign we get that she's not a vegetable is that she sometimes rocks and moans."
"The file doesn't say which stimuli cause that reaction," Ezri said.
"There doesn't seem to be any pattern. For all we can tell it's a random reflex. I have asked the head nurse to page us should the phenomenon occur while you're here. But let's move on." Vontor then spoke to the computer. "Reinstate sonic dampening field. A necessary precaution, counselor," he told Ezri, "because interviews with Professor Gemet invariably result in raised voices."
Gemet jerked her head up sharply when they came in, although her hands never paused in their tinkering with the detangler. "Who the hell is this, Vontor?" she barked. "The one small consolation I've had while locked up with these malingerers is that I've been spared the do-gooding ministrations of the Federation that are spreading over Cardassia like a rash."
"Counselor Dax is from Starfleet Medical. I've asked her to consult on your case," Vontor replied, doing a poor job of hiding his annoyance.
Gemet actually spit on the floor. "I am so weary of you, Vontor. I am not a psychiatric case; I am a criminal case. I committed one of the gravest offenses against Cardassian law: failing to act when one's child is endangered. If you would simply turn me over to the authorities so my trial and execution may take place, both our problems would be solved."
"Surely you must understand that there was nothing you could do to save your children. If you had tried to help them, you would have been killed too," Ezri said.
Gemet turned on the Trill. "Precisely. It was my duty to die with them, not abandon them to their fate while saving my own worthless life. I think that's perfectly clear, little girl."
Vontor 's voice rose. "There is no need for you to insult someone who simply wants to help you, Professor Gemet."
"If she convinces you to turn me over for trial, then I'll apologize." The woman then passed the reassembled grooming tool over her hair vigorously.
A medical attendant appeared at the window. "The morning meal has already been delayed two hours. Another replicator failure," she said through the intercom. "I wanted the patient to get her food, if it isn't an interruption."
"Go ahead and serve her. I think Counselor Dax has seen and heard all she needs to," Vontor replied, regarding his patient with disapproval.
"How considerate of my needs you are, Vontor," Gemet returned sarcastically.
Ezri and Vontor were exiting when a voice came over the intercom. "Dr. Vontor, monitor desk here. Patient Kendek has begun her motor gyrations. You asked to be informed."
Vontor pulled back the curtain. Kendek had linked her hands under her knees and was rocking back and forth, moaning in apparent distress. "I wonder what could be upsetting her," Ezri pondered aloud. "Perhaps she's having flashbacks to her ordeal."
"Hah! She'd just like a decent meal, if you ask me," Gemet snorted.
The observation interested Ezri. "What makes you say that?" she asked.
"She always starts up when the food comes."
"Aklam, is it true that patient Kendek becomes agitated when the others are served food?" Vontor inquired of the monitoring technician.
"We only record the times when the fits come on. They are spread out over many different hours," the voice answered.
"That's because the meals never arrive on schedule," Gemet explained.
Vontor turned on Gemet, clearly irritated. "We tempt Samta to eat daily. When the nutrient mixture is spooned into her mouth, she can't even be induced to swallow it."
"Well, no wonder," the professor declared. "That tasteless, odorless slop wouldn't tempt anyone. I'm the one who should be getting it. It's not much different than the subsistence rations given condemned prisoners at Central Detention."
"There's no way that Kendek could have even known the food was in here," Ezri mused. "The curtain was drawn and the sonic dampening field on. Unless . . . Professor
Gemet, may I borrow your breakfast?"
"Why not? When she eats it, perhaps I'll finally get Vontor to admit that I'm not completely out of mind."
Ezri held the plate out in front of her and proceeded very deliberately into Kendek's cubicle. The woman continued to rock and moan, but she also inclined her head ever so slightly in Ezri's direction, and she began to sniff the air.
"That's it! The sense of smell," Ezri said. "You routinely tested the others, but not that, doctor. And the strong odors given off by their traditional foods arouse Cardassian taste buds, as I learned last night." Ezri held the plate directly under Kendek's nose. The woman began to rock even faster, now opening her mouth, like a baby bird waiting for a worm. Ezri scooped a small amount of cereal into a spoon and put it into Kendek's mouth. The patient closed her mouth, swallowed, and then opened it again, making eager grunting noises.
"Please take over from Lt. Dax the feeding of patient Kendek," Vontor said to the attendant. "I'll have your replacement meal sent up immediately, Professor.
"I won't hold my breath," Gemet replied, giving him no quarter. "I have to credit you counselor Tiny Trill. You at least listen to common sense, which is more than I can say for Vontor here."
"How did you deduce it was the smell?" Vontor asked Ezri as they entered his office.
"I'd just had my first Cardassian meal last night, and the odor was so strong it almost gagged me. When the professor commented that you had only tried to feed Kendek bland odorless food, it all clicked. Now that I've been re-reading the accounts of what happened to her after the Jem'Hadar left her for dead, it makes even more sense."
"Really?' Vontor seemed puzzled. "After being pinned underneath a pile of corpses for two days, I'd think that smell would be the first sense she'd want to extinguish."
"No doubt, but it was the one sense she couldn't let go if she were to survive. She was gasping for breath, and with every painful effort to inhale, the smell of death overcame her. It was a purely negative sensory experience, but she couldn't shut it down."
Vontor smiled. "An impressive diagnosis, counselor. What's the preferred treatment?"
"Keep stimulating her olfactory receptors. Perhaps you could discover a particularly pleasant smell associated with the places she remembers as a child, and distill the aroma to keep beside her at all times. It would be a start to getting her back in touch with the world. On some level, she wants to come back, or she wouldn't have 'called' to us for food." Ezri sighed. "I wish the other two presented such obvious remedies."
"I know the professor is a tough case, but what about Tabal? Now that he's coming to accept that Cardassia has suffered what she has, won't he gradually open his eyes to the fact?"
"Not while he's afraid that the minute he regains his sight, his military superiors will have him shot," Ezri replied.
"I can't guarantee that they won't," Vontor agreed. "He's to be court martialed next week for dereliction. Whether he recovers or not, Central Command will consider it a case of cowardice, as long as no physical cause for the blindness can be found."
"That's terrible! I wonder if I could get Garak to intervene for him. He seems to have a lot of influence with the ruling council."
Vontor banged his fist on his desk. "No!" he shouted "I won't have that viper anywhere near my patients. He personally interrogated my mother's brother and my closest friend from medical school and then turned them over to the State for execution. He's fooled the new ruling council just as he hoodwinked the Federation, but he's not to be trusted. Ghemor always said so."
"There's more to him than the spy and interrogator, really, Vontor," Ezri protested.
"Not as far as I'm concerned," the Cardassian insisted. His expression left no doubt he considered the subject closed, and that the name of Garak was not to be spoken between them again. "Now, let's see about that aromizer for Samta."
An hour later, Ezri and Vontor returned to the ward, bearing a device that synthesized the scents of a dozen different flowers and trees native to the province of Prime in which Samta Kendek had grown up. As they were noting with approval the rhythmic breaths that the activated device elicited from the patient, Gemet rose from her desk and stormed over to Vontor. "All right. I've had it, doctor. I am not staying here
another minute if you intend to turn the place into a meadow. You are going to summon a conservator to this ward now and start the legal proceedings on their way to my execution." She fiercely passed the ever-present detangler over her scalp.
"Please don't excite yourself, Professor Gemet," Vontor said.
"Don't patronize me. You will summon the conservator--or else." She pointed the detangler at him as though it were a weapon.
"Or else you will shoot me with your grooming implement?" Vontor answered sarcastically.
"That's right." She aimed the device at a light fixture directly above the doctor's head and pushed the activation control. The light shattered. Ezri and Vontor froze in astonishment. "What was that noise?" Tabal whined, as his startled reaction sent the puzzle pieces clattering to the floor.
"Shut up, deserter," Gemet hissed, now pointing the weapon at Ezri. "Little counselor, lead our friend Tabal over to Samta's table, then bring my chair in and sit beside him."
Once Ezri had complied, Gemet settled herself down carefully beside Samta on the bed, placing the end of the "weapon" against the uncomprehending woman's temple. "All right now, Vontor, this is what's going to happen," Gemet said with deadly precision. "You will leave the ward and cut through whatever bureaucratic nonsense is necessary for a conservator to come here and receive my confession. Leave the wall so I can see through it. If the conservator isn't here in an hour, I'll kill these two useless disgraces to the Cardassian state--and the meddling Starfleeter." Tabal started to whimper, taking no solace from Ezri's consoling embrace.
"I'll do as you ask," Vontor agreed. "Just remain calm so no one gets hurt."
"GO!" Gemet shouted.
Vontor sprinted to the door. After a few seconds of uneasy quiet, Ezri, hoping to defuse the tension, adopted an air of casualness and remarked, "Professor, I had no idea it was possible to use a hairbrush as a weapon."
"Welcome to Cardassia, counselor," Gemet replied.
For the remainder of a very long hour, no more conversation ensued. Ezri devoted herself to keeping Tabal's anxieties contained, while Gemet sat stiffly on the bed, clearly struggling to abjure her hair-brushing ritual and so keep the detangler aimed at Samta's head. At last, two figures appeared in the corridor, Vontor, and, to Ezri's amazement, Garak. The two Cardassians engaged in a brief conversation, which had all the appearance of an argument, before Garak pushed the doctor aside and entered the ward.
Ezri jumped to her feet and walked toward him. "I trust you are unharmed, Lt. Dax?" he asked. "The Cardassian government deeply regrets that your healing mission has brought you into harm's way."
Gemet turned her weapon on them. "Sit down, counselor," she ordered, then said to Garak, "Who are you?"
"I am conservator Elim, here to record your confession. Since the destruction of our planet has left judges and courtrooms in short supply, the Chief Archon has authorized me to pronounce sentence afterwards as well."
A look of profound relief on her face, Gemet stood and recited formally, "On the fifth day of the second week of the eighth lunar cycle of this year, I was standing on a ladder in the larish grove of my country home in Lakerian province. Suddenly I heard shouts and weapon fire. When I had gotten down from the ladder and run to the edge of the grove, I saw the members of my family--parents, husband, children--lined up in front of the house by four Jem'Hadar soldiers. As I watched, the soldiers shot them all. Then they went into our house and set off an incendiary device that quickly burned it to the ground. Although I should have immediately come to my family's aid, I instead hid like a coward behind the trees until the Jem'Hadar moved on. I hereby acknowledge my guilt for putting my own survival ahead of my sacred duty to my family and fully accept the sentence the court chooses to pronounce."
"An admirably clear and direct confession, Professor. It is true, your guilt is grave and undeniable."
This was the worst possible thing Garak could say, Ezri thought. "Conservator Elim" she interrupted.
He turned on her with stern reproval. "Silence. This is not your concern, counselor." He directed his attention once more to Gemet. "You have committed a most serious crime. The State is pleased that you have acknowledged your responsibility in the matter and are willing to take your punishment like a loyal Cardassian."
"Yes, conservator, I welcome my execution at the earliest possible date."
"Your execution?" Garak was all incredulity. "The court has no intention of sentencing you to death."
"But you must," Gemet implored. "You said what a grave offense it was."
"Indeed it is, and deserving of a fitting punishment. For someone who has done what you have done, death is not a punishment, it is a relief. To stand by while those you love most in the world die, and do nothing to stop it, it is a deed that haunts you, a pain that never diminishes," Garak replied, emotion rising in his voice. "You want only to die, to make the pain go away. Therefore I sentence you instead to live, Professor Gemet, and to devote the rest of your life to whatever service to the State we deem appropriate."
All at once the woman's icy self-possession left her. She began to tremble, and tears were flowing. "Please, please, that is too cruel of you, conservator. You don't understand. When the Jem'Hadar had gone into the house to set it afire, my littlest girl, Thamri, regained consciousness. She had only been wounded, not killed. She cried out, 'Mommy, mommy, it hurts, I'm scared. Come get me mommy.' A soldier heard her and fired the rifle into her head. And I never moved. I saved myself when my baby was pleading for me to save her. I hear her voice every waking minute, and she comes to me every night in sleep." Gemet caressed the detangler she held in her hand. "She had such beautiful long hair," she whispered, then let the brush drop as her sobs intensified. "I can't bear to live with those sounds, those pictures in my head. Please have mercy and sentence me to death. You must, I beg you!"
Garak merely shook his head, his face impassive. Gemet broke down completely, collapsing to her knees. Garak unobtrusively kicked the detangler aside, in Ezri's direction, and the Trill padded over softly to retrieve it. Garak looked down at the sobbing woman for several seconds. Then he bent over and placed his hands on her forearms, pulling her none too gently to her feet. "You will get hold of yourself, Professor," he said sternly. "You have always served the State well, and I believe you are sincere in your desire to accept its retribution. Cardassia needs every citizen to help restore it to life in the face of this disaster. You too will do this, no matter what ghosts torment you in your dreams."
With a visible effort, the woman regained her composure. "Yes, conservator, I bow to the wisdom of the State," she said in a hushed monotone.
"Good. You will remain here until the precise nature of your punishment has been determined by the court." Garak gently escorted Gemet back to her cubicle. She sat down on the bed, very still, almost in shock. Ezri moved to comfort the woman, but Garak intercepted her. "I promised the ruling council that I would get you out of this ward at the earliest opportunity. Dr. Vontor and his staff will see to the Professor."
"How did you know?" Ezri asked him as they walked toward the door.
Garak gave her one of his enigmatic smiles. "Counselor, the Federation has much to teach us in the ways of psychic healing, but first we must teach you what it means to think like a Cardassian. Speaking of which, could you let me have that deadly hairbrush for further examination?" Ezri held it out to him, and he studied it with great interest. "Who would have imagined that sonic energy could be so cleverly turned to destructive uses?" he mused. "And to think that Gemet has wasted her entire career on the dynamics of building better bridges."
Vontor met them in the corridor. He wore an air of perplexity. "Garak," he said, "I turned off the sonic dampening field, and I heard what you told Gemet. You weren't just talking about her, you were talking about yourself, weren't you?"
"Don't be absurd. I said precisely what I deemed necessary to defuse the situation." He beckoned to Ezri to go, but the other Cardassian grabbed his arm to detain him.
"How many times have you wished that someone would condemn you to death and take all the pain away?" the doctor asked, looking at Garak intently.
Something in Garak's face told Ezri that a connection had been made, and his answer to Vontor confirmed her speculation. "More times than I can count, doctor--but I too am a loyal citizen of the Cardassian State, and I'm still here." Then Garak deliberately removed Vontor's hand from his arm. "Now, if you are through exercising your diagnostic skills on me, I suggest you get back to treating people who are actually your patients."
Ezri let Garak get halfway down the corridor before turning to Vontor. "Not quite the straightforward case you thought him, is he, doctor?" she asked, trying not to sound too smug.
After returning to Deep Space Nine, Ezri maintained contact with Vontor, who gave her weekly updates on the progress of his three problem patients. The news was never quite as good as she hoped. Central Command court martialed Tabal and sentenced him to five years hard labor. Vontor's psychological assessment had been crucial to avoiding a death sentence but had not sufficed to save the young man's career. On the other hand, three days after Tabal learned he would not be executed, his sight returned.
Garak "sentenced" Professor Gemet to work on sonic weapons design at the new technology complex housed in another "ice cube" on the outskirts of the capital. Her quarters were on site. Every evening a guard came to lock her in them for the night, and every morning the same guard unlocked the door and escorted the "prisoner" to her work station. The arrangement apparently satisfied her need for punishment.
Samta Kendek had begun responding to touch and taste as well as smell, but she still refused to acknowledge auditory or visual cues, nor had there been any success in getting her to walk. Vontor doubted he could avoid her being transferred to the facility for incurables.
Since these reports invariably disheartened her, Ezri had let the latest one go unaccessed for nearly four hours. As she sat in her office waiting for Julian to meet her for lunch, however, she decided to get it over with. "Play message Vontor 3K10," she told the computer.
The animated way in which the doctor greeted her told Ezri that the news was much better than usual, a hunch confirmed when she heard the rest of the transmission. The new ruling council had just issued a blanket amnesty for any criminals convicted of non-violent offenses, on the grounds that Cardassia needed all the survivors in her decimated population if she were to rise from the ashes. This decision freed Tabal to use his restored sight to restore some direction to his life, and it brought Professor Gemet back to the ward. "She told me that she was now left to fashion the terms of her own penance," Vontor said. "She has therefore decided that her daytime work for the State to assure its future security should be joined to a nighttime duty to provide Samta with 'the required sensory stimulation which the inadequate staff of Central Psychiatric has failed to administer.' So she spends every evening feeding Samta, giving her massages with scented oils, and of course-" Vontor smiled "-brushing her hair, 100 strokes, neither more or less. All the while Gemet talks non-stop about her dead loved ones, so it's not just our catatonic who's receiving therapy from this arrangement. What's more, should Samta be discharged to the incurables' facility, Gemet has vowed to take her to her own home instead. I knew you'd be delighted, counselor, to hear that the future is finally looking brighter for our three patients." Vontor's hand began to reach for the panel to end the transmission, but it halted midair. "Oh, before I sign off," he added, "Garak asked me to give you his regards."
Ezri immediately called up Vontor's comm address and was pleased to find him at his station. Rather than discuss the patients' progress, however, she sought immediate clarification of his puzzling reference to Garak. "He didn't tell you?" Vontor queried. "The ruling council decided to establish a health and welfare ministry, and Garak suggested to them that I should head it. I don't know why. In the council meetings, all he and I ever do is argue over policy."
At that moment, Julian appeared at her door, causing Ezri to laugh out loud. "Something you need to know about Garak, Vontor," she said. "He loves nothing better than arguing with idealistic young doctors."
DISCLAIMER: Paramount Pictures owns these characters and situations, except for the ones I made up.
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