Riker had no warning before the shock prod tapped him in the small of the back. Immediately he died, temporarily, from the waist down. He hated the occasions when it happened, the feeling of total helplessness. The knowledge that the fall was inevitable was more grueling and hurtful to him than the fall itself.
He hit the ground hard, as he always did on such occasions. He dropped his ore breaker in the hopes of cushioning some of the fall with his hands, and he was partly successful -- but only partly, as the base of his hands crunched into the hard ground. He felt the jolt all the way up his elbows, and he gasped low in his throat. Then he braced himself for the inevitable kick. It came just as he had expected, a sharp blow to the stomach. In his first days in captivity, that had always been the worst, those stomach blows. Over time, however, he had learned to anticipate them, and he was able to condition himself against them. Just before the impact, he consciously tightened the muscles of his stomach so that a good deal of the impact was blunted. In his fantasies, his gut became so unassailable that his tormentor wound up breaking his ankle.
It was a very nice fantasy.
"Get up, Riker," said his captor, and he was kicked again. This time he didn't let out so much as a grunt, and the lack of response on his part seemed to incite his tormentor all the more. "Well?"
And Riker managed to get out, "Please, sir...I want...some more...
The guard stared down at him in utter confusion. "All right...if that's your true desire..." He was about to kick Riker a third time, and then a sharp voice stayed the blow.
"That's enough," it said.
The Cardassian jailer lowered his foot and turned his attention to the individual who had spoken. The Jailer, whose name was Mudak, was a beefy fellow, but anyone thinking him fat would have been in for a rude shock. Any excess on his frame was pure muscle, and when he moved it was with speed that was blinding. Mudak could be standing two feet away, his hands at his side, and you could suddenly be knocked on your back before you had the slightest awareness that a punch was coming.
He was also tall, and his eyes were the most striking thing about him. They were dark and pitiless; one would get more sympathy from a black hole than from those eyes. When Riker looked into those eyes, they reminded him of a shark's. They regarded him, and the other prisoners, with an air that clearly indicated that he didn't care whether they lived or died.
Mudak looked at the individual who had interrupted his sport. It was a Romulan, a head taller than Mudak, with graying hair and a darkly imperious look. In truth, the Romulan had no more status in this place of torment than did Riker. It was as if, in his manner and deportment, he was not interested in acknowledging his relatively low status in the grand scheme of things. From his attitude, it would have been unlikely that any bystander would have realized that Mudak was the jailer and the Romulan the prisoner.
Yet despite the Cardassian's ostensible authority over the Romulan, Mudak did not seem inclined to press the point. Instead he said, with a level voice that bordered on malevolence, "This is none of your affair, Saket."
Saket looked from the fallen Riker to Mudak. "It is now, Mudak. And you will leave this human alone."
"He was moving too slowly," Mudak retorted. "He was daydreaming."r
Saket took a step closer so that he was almost in Mudak's face. "Leave him his dreams, Mudak. In the final analysis, what else have we in this place?"
Mudak considered this for a moment, and then he laughed low in his throat. It was an eerie noise, as if he were exercising muscles that were nearly atrophied from disuse. In a low voice he rumbled, "Someday, Saket, you will lose your usefulness to my superiors. And on that final day, you will pay for your arrogance."
"We all pay on the final day, Mudak," Saket said imperturbably. "Jailors and jailed alike; we all pay then."
Mudak's hands idly twisted on the shaft of the shock prod, as if contemplating shoving it down Saket's throat or into an even more inconvenient bodily orifice. But apparently he thought better of it. Instead he lightly tapped the now-deactivated end of the prod against his forehead in a sardonic salute and moved off. Saket then crouched next to the fallen Riker. "You should be able to feel something in your legs by now. He had the prod on one of the lower settings."
"I thought as much," grunted Riker. "This time around it was just agonizing instead of incredibly agonizing."
"You see? Your sense of humor returns already."
Saket stood, got a firm grip under Riker's arms, and hauled him to his feet. For a moment, Riker felt practically nothing beneath him, and Saket had to move him around bodily to try and get some sense of motion going. "One leg after the other," intoned Saket, "that's it, lad."
Under Saket's urging, Riker forced himself to move his legs and started to feel growing strength with every step. "Keep going," urged Saket, helping Riker move in a small circle. Within minutes, Riker was walking about in a manner fairly
close to his normal strength and stride. "Come, Riker...let us go for a walk. you and I." And with that, the two of them made their slow way across the compound. "Were you out of your mind just before? Saying you wanted more?"
"It was...it was a quote...from a book, actually...about orphans, Oliver Twist. Author's name was Dickens...I felt it appropriate...since in a way I don't have a mother or father...I'm just sort of...of here..."
"You're babbling, Riker."
"No, I'm fine...truly. Dickens...great author...you should read him...Bleak House...story of my life...Tale of Two Cities...about two men who look alike, and one sacrifices himself for the other...never realized when I was reading him as a boy...how much resonance...he'd have for me..."
"Whatever you say, Riker," Saket said, shaking his head.
"Saket," Riker said, "we haven't known each other long. But we're friends...you can feel free to call me Thomas. Or Tom, if you prefer."
"Actually, I prefer Riker," replied Saket. "Always have. Stronger-sounding name. Sounds more pleasingly harsh to the ear."
"Guess it really doesn't matter," Riker admitted. "As long as you continue to call me 'friend.'"
They trudged past one of the central deutronium-processing centers, and Tom Riker was impressed -- not for the first time -- over the carefully crafted futility that filled the day-to-day existence in the Cardassian labor camp of Lazon II.
Tom Riker, the bizarre and perfect duplicate of William Riker who had been created through a strange transporter accident during a rescue operation at a station on Nervala IV. The fact that there had been a second Riker running around had been disconcerting enough to the original item. But after an abortive career in Starfleet, Tom Riker -- taking his new name from his (their) middle name -- had wound up joining the revolutionary group called the Maquis and endeavored to steal the starship Defiant. The result had been his incarceration on Lazon II.
Lazon II was a fairly desolate world, and the vast majority of it was uninhabitable. One section had been terraformed into someplace where humanoids could survive, and that was the section in which Tom Riker, Saket, and about fifty or sixty-odd enemies of the Cardassian state were currently living out their life sentences. It wasn't that the sentences they had been given were actually called life sentences. There was usually some limit, around twenty or thirty years. Unfortunately, the mortality rate on Lazon II was quite high. Sentencing to Lazon II therefore became a de facto death sentence.
Lazon II had never actually been intended as a work camp. Originally Lazon II had been of particular interest to the Cardassians since the planet was rich in deutronium ore. Processed deutronium had been a popular fuel for various Cardassian weapons systems and some earlier models of their war vessels. Since the Cardassians had already depleted the deutronium supplies on such worlds as Preplanus, the discovery of a sizable deutronium store on Lazon II had been greeted with much enthusiasm. The terraforming project on Lazon II had begun rather promptly...
...and then tapered off. There had been new advances in Cardassian technology during the intervening time, and deutronium as an energy source now served a minor need at best. Most of the weaponry and such that had utilized deutronium had become obsolete.
It was at that point that Lazon II was developed into a penal colony and hard-labor camp. And it was a masterful way in which they did it, because hard labor was bad enough. But hard labor for no real purpose was far worse. The prison populace of Lazon II would spend day after endless day working in weather that was either sweltering or else bitter cold. That was all at the control of the Cardassian wardens of the place, a convenient perk thanks to the terraforming equivalent that governed their little slice of the galaxy. The work consisted of taking massive chunks of deutronium ore and using handheld ore crackers to break the ore down into small, manageable pieces. The pieces were then hand-fed into blazing hot refineries that were antiquated beyond belief. It was the equivalent of embarking on interplanetary travel with the only speed available to you being impulse drive, knowing full well that faster-than-light capability existed for everyone else but you. Piles of deutronium that could be processed in minutes using modern facilities instead took days, even weeks. The processing was dangerous, to boot, as the ancient machinery tended to break down in spectacular fashion, usually killing one or two operators before the latest malfunction was locked down and contained. And once the deutronium was processed, it then sat, stockpiled, in Cardassian warehouse facilities, for the supply of deutronium far outstripped the demand. In short, all of the effort that the prisoners of Lazon II went to was a colossal waste of time. This the prisoners knew all too well. This was designed to help morale disintegrate, and it was quite effective.
They passed the fearsome twin towers that were the defense grids of Lazon II. There was a forcefield in place that covered the compound, but that was only one of the protective systems. Riker looked up as light glinted off the muzzles of the massive pulse-blasters, capable of inflicting cataclysmic damage on any potentially attacking vessels. There was also a sensor scrambler: a rather insidious device that made it impossible for any ships to lock on, via transporter, to anyone in particular on the planet's surface, whether it be via communicator or sensor readings. For instance, there was one Andorian on Lazon II. Under ordinary circumstances, an Andorian rescue vessel could take a stab at pounding the forcefield into oblivion, and then beam the target up to the ship while safely out of range of the blasters. Not so with the scrambler: They would have to come down and actually get their intended "rescuee," and by that point the blasters would reduce the attacking vessel into scrap.
Since transporters were therefore ineffectual on Lazon II, entrances to and exits from the facility were made entirely via shuttles and assorted small craft, which were housed at a landing field not far away. But the field was heavily guarded...
...although lately Riker noticed that there were fewer guards than usual. It seemed to him that there had been cutbacks on Lazon II, as if Cardassian forces were being stretched to deal with situations elsewhere. He might have been imagining it, but he didn't think so. Still, with all the protections that the facility carried, what difference did a few less men make?
The small, shabby hut that Riker and Saket shared with five other inmates -- all of whom were on work detail at that moment -- barely provided any sort of shelter. There were cracks in it that allowed the cold wind to blast through when the jailors were of a mind to torment them with harsh winds. When it was hot, the hut managed somehow to contain all the heat, turning the place into the equivalent of a blast furnace. All the huts were like that.
Today happened to be one of the cold days, although Riker wasn't sure how much of it was the air and how much was simply his lessened resistance to harsh climate at that particular moment.
"How long do you think they'll leave us alone in here?" Riker asked grimly.
"Long enough to catch our breath, get our bearings," Saket replied. He regarded Tom Riker thoughtfully. "Tell me, Riker...when you first came here, you seemed rather pleased with your situation. You stole a Federation ship, am I right?"
"The Defiant. " He nodded. "I intended to use it against the Cardassians."
"Because you had joined the Maquis. Correct?"
Once more Riker nodded.
"And when your plan did not pan out, the Cardassians intended to execute you, but instead you caught a stroke of luck and wound up" -- and he gestured widely -- "at this lovely facility instead."
"It seemed a lucky break at the time," Riker said ruefully. He was rubbing his thighs, trying to make sure that normal circulation had been fully restored.
Saket chuckled, or at least made what passed for a Romulan chuckle. Romulans were not particularly renowned for being the most mirthful of people. "Better, Riker, that they had killed you then and there. Better by far."
"I'm going to get off of here." Riker nodded firmly, although whether it was because he truly believed it or was simply trying to convince himself of it was difficult to tell. "Believe me, Saket, I am not going to end my life on this ball of rock. That much I know. I was meant for better things."
"And those things would be...?"
"Better." He regarded Saket with open curiosity for a long moment. He had found it most odd that he had developed a close relationship with the Romulan. Riker had always been of the opinion that Romulans were largely duplicitous, fundamentally cowardly, and nonconfrontational except in those instances where the odds were so skewed on their side that there was no possibility of failure.
Saket, however, seemed a different story altogether. There was a dignity about him, a self-possession, even a nobility. Perhaps the thing that Riker found most refreshing was Saket's honesty. Saket seemed to have little to no patience for many of the Romulans in the modern empire. He told Riker with all earnestness that he felt as if the Romulan Empire had taken a wrong turn somewhere in its development. He particularly seemed to blame the Klingons for the modern-day situation.
"Our alliance had an effect on both our races," Saket once told Riker. "We learned from each other; unfortunately the mutual education was not an equitable one. We were a better, stronger, more decent race before we allied with the Klingons. An entire generation of our leadership grew up during the alliance, and learned from the Klingons their thieving ways, their duplicity and fundamental lack of trustworthiness. The Klingons, on the other hand, saw the way in which other races regarded us. Saw how our honor, our strategy and breeding elevated us in the eyes of others. And so they mimicked those attributes in order to raise themselves up to other races, discarding us once they had stripped us of our weaponry and our very character. They are parasites, Riker, parasites, and mark my words: They will destroy your Federation in the same way that they brought us down. If you trust them, then you are fools. I should know, because we trusted them and were no less foolish."
Riker wasn't entirely sure how much of Saket's argument he bought, but he certainly found him intriguing enough to listen to. Saket, for his part, seemed to appreciate the audience.
Most of the numbness seemed to be gone from Riker's legs. As he rose, he looked at Saket curiously and said, not for the first time, "How do you do it?"
"Do what?" Saket asked with raised eyebrow.
"Why are you an untouchable? I've seen it, we've all seen it. The guards never lay a hand on you, much less a prod. You tell them exactly what you think without any concern about your personal safety. They glower at you, they resent you...but they do nothing against you. How do you do it? What's your secret?"
"I am beloved," Saket told him.
"No one is that beloved, particularly to the Cardassians."
Saket appeared to contemplate Riker for a time. Then he looked right and left, as if wanting to make sure that no one was nearby, overhearing their discussion. Then he leaned forward and said very softly, "I know things."
"You know things?" This was not exactly the clear answer that Riker was hoping for. "What sort of things?"
"Things that they wish to know. Things about the rulers of the Romulan Empire. Things, for that matter, about key people in the Cardassian Empire as well." He smiled thinly. "I am a spy, Riker. I have been much of my life, and I know a great many things. That makes me a bit of a resource to them."
"Really. Well. I don't know if I know a great many things...but one of the things I do know is that the Cardassians are fabled for their ability to extract information. They're rather accomplished at it; some might even say they revel in it."
"That is very true. Their reputation is earned, not exaggerated."
"Then why," Riker asked reasonably, "have they not done so to you?"
"We have...an understanding, the Cardassians and I. Every so often, I will answer questions for them, give them key bits of information...most of it having to do with their own people. They are very suspicious of one another, you see. That will be the key to their eventual downfall, I should like to think. In exchange for that, I still do not have my freedom...but my captivity is -- by Cardassian standards -- not a particular hardship. Notice I do none of the truly difficult or undesirable tasks on Lazon Two. That, I fear, is left to the less gifted individuals such as yourself."
Riker shook his head. "I still don't understand, though. Why aren't they trying to force out of your head every scrap of knowledge you have?"
"Because, Riker, I have traveled many places and learned some intriguing things in my life. And one of those..." He smiled, which always looked odd on Romulans due to their distinctively Vulcanesque appearance. One of those is how to die."
"You mean with honor?" Riker clearly didn't get it.
"I mean" -- and Saket leaned forward, his fingers interlaced -- "I can end my life...with a thought."
Riker didn't quite know how to take that. "Well, we can all of us do that, Saket."
"No. you do not understand. Even within your own, human race, there are techniques, meditative skills, in which the practitioner can place himself into such a deeply meditative state that his heart slows down to near-undetectability."
"Yes, I know."
"In my case," continued Saket, "I can stop my heart...shut myself down...and die, if I so choose. My captors are quite aware of this, particularly when I demonstrated it for them."
"Almost. I allowed myself to be resuscitated. It was an object lesson for them. The Cardassians can sometimes be reasonable, you see, Riker. Dead, I would be of no use to them. If they endeavor to torture me, I will simply end my life by sheer will alone. So I aid them in small ways that do no disservice to the Romulan Empire, and I wait patiently in the meantime for my day of liberation."
"But then why are you still here? You could threaten to kill yourself if they don't let you go."
Saket looked at him with slight pity, as if surprised that Riker should have to ask such an obvious question. "If I am free, then I am of no use to them. Indeed, I might even be a harm. They would rather have me alive than dead, but they would also rather have me dead than liberated. I am a prisoner of my own talent."
"I see. So you have a sort of detente worked out."
"In a manner of speaking, yes. How long it will last, it is difficult to say. It is possible that some day the Cardassians might lose their patience, or a change in the power structure might --"
The door to the hut banged open and Mudak was standing there, his lower lip curled into an impatient snarl. "Your legs will have recovered by now," he said sharply. "Why are you still in here?"
"No particular reason, Saket said. "We will be with you right away, Mudak."
"Right away. How charming." Mudak's face tightened a moment, and then he turned away and closed the door behind him.
"You're pushing him, Saket," Riker said worriedly. "Sooner or later..."
"Sooner or later, he will break," Saket said, the irony clearly not lost on him. "That, Riker, is my fondest hope."
"Why is that my fondest hope?" But from Riker's tone of voice, he sensed that wasn't what Riker was asking about.
"No. Why me. Sometimes I feel as if you've made me your personal project. You approached me...befriended me, if the term 'friend' can be applied..."
"And you wish to know why." Saket shrugged. "I've wondered that myself, Riker. I'm not entirely sure. I get feelings about people sometimes. A sense that they will be important somehow in the grand scheme of things. Perhaps it's because you are the only Federation man here. That alone is enough to make you stand out. And if Starfleet abandoned you to the degree that you're on your own, here in the heart of darkness...that alone is enough to recommend you to me as a possible ally."
"Starfleet didn't abandon me," Riker said sharply. "I abandoned the Fleet. I..."
"Why? You've never truly spoken of it in detail, and I did not wish to push. But why...?"
Riker stared at nothing and shivered at the chill air blowing more harshly through the crack in the structure. "I'm the road not taken."
"Pardon?" He arched a confused eyebrow.
"There's a religion on Kanubus Three," said Riker after a moment, "that advocates total hedonism."
"Doesn't sound so terrible to me," Saket said, smiling, not pretending to understand where Riker was going with it.
"They do whatever they wish," Riker told him, "whenever they wish, and attach no importance to anything, because they have embraced the concept of the multiverse. They believe that nothing matters, because whatever decision you may make that takes you in one direction, in another universe you decide something that takes you in another direction entirely. Well...I'm sort of a self-contained alternate universe. In one aspect of this reality, I went in one direction. I became the ideal Starfleet officer, dedicated and unwavering. And since I already did that...I felt as if, to make my own way in life, I had to become something else. I couldn't let my existence simply be a rehash." He looked at Saket's blank expression and couldn't keep a smile off his face. "You have absolutely no idea what I'm talking about, do you?"
"About yourself? No. Not a clue," Saket admitted. "But I do know of alternate universes. I know all too well. I know of a woman, in fact, whose very existence hinges on an alternate universe. She was...is, I should say...very dear to me."
"Now I have no idea what you're talking about," said Riker. "How could someone owe their existence to an alternate universe?"
"It's rather...complicated. A tale for another time. Come. Even I don't desire to push Mudak's mood too far at this point." Riker nodded and followed Saket out.
And it was not too long after that that all hell broke loose, Saket died, and Tom Riker found himself staring down the barrel of a phaser with only a twitchy trigger finger between him and instant death....
Copyright © 1998 by Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.