I am not myself these days. The cold of the station is like an itch under my skin. It’s always there, in the back of my mind, distracting and irritating. When a visiting Ferengi came to my shop, incessantly questioning prices and quality, I snapped at him. I pushed him into the promenade and locked the doors. In the old days, of course, I would not have thought twice about breaking his neck if it suited my purposes. But here on the station, surrounded by Bajorans who would like to see me dead and Federation officers that feel much the same, I must keep up the appearance of a foolish and harmless tailor. To have so little self control is unthinkable. I had to sit in the dark and calm my self before I could sneak out the doors, and down the long corridor to my rooms. I am too on edge. And too cold.
Now that I am in my own quarters I can finally calm down. I turn the heat up as high as the system will allow, and put on my thermal nightclothes. I crawl under both my quilts but it is not enough. The cold has followed me into my little nest. It is in my bones. I have only enough credits for rent on my rooms and my shop, plus food and a few bottles of kanar, but I am tempted to use some of my meager means to buy a real water shower. The water can get quite hot, especially when the system safety overrides are shut off. It is an expensive luxury on a space station. Perhaps I can skip my morning meals and my evening drink. I am not pleased at the thought of going without one of the few pleasures that remain to me. A drink of kanar in the evenings, and my weekly lunch with the stations young doctor is all that is keeping me from flinging myself out of an airlock. But we all must make sacrifices, and I have to somehow stop the trembling in my hands and the numbness in my feet. I program a 15 minute shower and override the heat settings.
When the computer alarm wakes me in the morning I am momentarily confused. It feels as though I have only been lying in my bed a few minutes at most. I do not remember falling asleep. I wonder to myself if there has been some kind of treachery. Perhaps I have been drugged and beamed onto a ship. Perhaps The Order is involved. A stretch of my sore limbs tells me I have been laying in the same position for hours. Also, The Order would not put so much effort into a washed up ex-operative. To be perfectly honest to myself the only reason I have been left alive is that I simply do not matter enough to kill.
I slowly get out of bed and feel a flash of pain on my back. It seems that I misjudged the heat of the water shower. The delicate skin between my scales has been burned. I have to use a mirror to see the swollen, blistered skin that covers most of my upper back and shoulders. It pulses with a wet mocking pain. No matter how hot the water, the cold feeling never subsided. I use a soft absorbent scarf as a makeshift bandage and carefully pull a thermal undershirt over the damaged skin.
A visit to the infirmary would easily heal the burn in minutes. The Federation’s idealistic society offers medical care to all inhabitants and visitors on the station. I imagine facing the station’s doctor, removing my heavy brocade tunic, then my thinner thermal undershirt. He would reach out and gently peel the scarf from my burnt skin. His hands would be soft and warm against the sensitized scales. He would ask me quietly how I was injured. His hands would prod the ridges along my shoulders, the touch so soft I would not be sure I could even feel it. He would lean forward to better see the damage and I would feel his breath on my chufa. He would be worried. Did I hurt myself through carelessness or some other, darker, reason. No. I can not visit Bashir with this. I will have to let it heal on its own. I have certainly suffered through worse.
The shop is slow in the morning. The shop is often show. In the first three hours there is one customer, an aged Vulcan grand dame looking for something to replace a robe that was lost. The Vulcan desire for simplicity means she does not care for any of the more ornate items I have on hand, and her short visit means a commission is not viable. I am desperate for the credits and attempt to convince her to take a woolen sweater in the Andorian style but this only offends her and she leaves with her nose in the air.
I take lunch of replicated protein powder and tea in my work room. I had been indoctrinated with a respect for thrift by both Tain and Tolan. From Tolan I learned to appreciate the simple pleasure of providing for my own needs. Eating meals grown from my own garden, wearing clothing constructed by my own hands. Working class Tolan never felt impoverished. He was deeply fulfilled with his role in Cardassia’s society. He had, once, held a neemuk root to his Chula and animatedly explained that this was the heart of our people. I tried in my youth to understand his passion for honest work and simple lifestyle but his sentiments escaped me at the time. Tain, on the other hand, valued thrift as a sign of piety. He believed all suffering was a gift to cardassia and would often sit at his immense desk working through both lunch and dinner, then staying up late into the evening, forgoing most of the nights sleep. I remember Mila sneaking into this office with a tray of food and later coming out with the untouched tray.
As I return to the front of the shop and unlock the door I feel ashamed of the credits I squandered last night. If there are no customers today I will not be able to eat at the replimat with the doctor tomorrow. Perhaps I can order a tea and tell him I feel unwell... no he would surely drag me to the infirmary and his scanning devices and training would give away such an obvious lie. Maybe I can claim some Cardassian fasting tradition. The Bajorans are constantly fasting for this or that celebration. It would seem reasonable that we, Cardassians, have some similar observance.
I am loathe to cancel the lunch altogether and miss the small time devoted each week to arguing politics and literature with the clever doctor Bashir. I wonder if he feels the cold of the station. The federation uniforms are so thin and unsubstantial there is nearly nothing protecting his long lean form the harsh station air. He told me once his ancestors were from a desert area on earth. He must be accustomed to a much warmer climate. I can imagine his golden skin shining in the sunlight. Even here he nearly glows. He is like the star in the center of my solar system. My only light and warmth comes from him. Why do I think these sorts of things? Why can I not get this man out of my mind? I am not myself these days.
I vow to break my lunch date with the doctor as some proof that I am not completely lost. As our customary meal time grew closer, I know I will not cancel. I try to justify my need to see him. I am only using the good doctor to gain information about the federation. Perhaps I am simply satisfying my Cardassian need for conversation, and can drop him easily when he becomes an obstacle. Any excuse to explain my increasing need to be near him. I wonder how far I would go. I wonder who I would betray for this young Terran. How did he get past my defenses? He is awkward and presumptuous, his every thought and emotion dances across his face. How was I taken down after so many years of strict training by this coltish youth? Before him I was untouchable. Even here exiled from my home I thought only of Cardassia. I would suffer for the Union as Tain taught me, as Cardassia expects of me, protected by my righteousness. Now I am as vulnerable as the burned skin on my shoulders. My entire life is simply a count down to the hour of our lunch, and then immediately after, the countdown starts again. I spend the time between visits scouring the database for books he may enjoy, or composing falsehoods to impress him, and anecdotes to entertain him.
As I am leaving to take my lunch at the replimat the message system on my computer terminal beeps. It is the doctor. He will not be able to make our lunch. It seems my worry has been for nothing. I tighten my hands into a fist and return to my work room.
The afternoon proves a better distraction than the morning had been. Three Batazoid women enter my shop and walk passed the displays and directly to the counter. They are, as most Betazoids, extremely fashionable. They could be sisters or perhaps cousins and are all just reaching middle age, although obvious surgical alterations and youthful clothing gave the impression they are not aging without a fight. The first woman tilts her sharp chin int he air and asks where the better dresses are kept. The other two gather behind her like a flock of brightly colored birds, chirping and preening. “Dear ladies!”, I smile at them “surely women of your caliber would not wear clothing off the rack, let me design something that would suit your beauty.” Within 10 minutes I have them eating out of my hand like a pack of well trained riding hounds. It seems they are to attend a wedding on the promenade in 3 days and had misunderstood the wedding customs of Terrans. They urgently need appropriate attire. I show them several designs and sample of some very fine silk I have in storage. If I can manage to finish all three commissions in time, I will have enough to purchase an entire new shipment of fabrics.
It is quite refreshing to spend time around customers whose politics do not require them to be cold and guarded in my presence. Their flirty chatter and gossip gives me useful information about the current conditions on Betazoid, not to mention some sordid details about several Starfleet officers that will be attending the wedding. I set to work immediately drafting patters and programming my cutting device.
When Tarok Nor was under Cardassian control it ran continuously. While it officially followed the 26 hour day pattern of the planet below, the workers were divided into 13 hour shifts that followed each other then began again. The station was the same no matter what time it was. The corridors were constantly bustling with workers and guards. Now under the gentle management of the Bajoran government “Deep Space 9” is eerily deserted in the wee hours or the “morning”. Just an hour before the first shift of officers would begin their sleepy journey to their stations I finally leave my shop with a few scraps of lace and embroidery that will require some hand sewing and return to my quarters.
I had made good progress and hope for a few hours of sleep, before continuing the work. I hum a tune that Mila used to sing, as I make my way through the quiet station. The lighting is dim in the very early hours of the day and deep shadows hang across the corridor. I feel the edges of the scales across my arms and back tingle and tighten. Some nearly imperceptible scent, and a bit of movement in the next hallway catches my attention. Someone is there. I do not alter my stride or give any indication anything is amiss. Each step brings me closer to the intersection. The strange smell is getting stronger. Metallic and bright with a slightly musky mammalian smell under it. And perhaps the scent of pine. There is a small phasor in the sleeve of my tunic and a unique defensive light weapon hidden in the top button. I ready myself and turned the corner just as I hear the whoosh of a closing door. I walk carefully passed the intersection and try to decipher which door hides the early morning lurker. It is possible it had only been a visitor having trouble opening the door, there are several perfectly innocent reasons someone would stand quietly in the hallway for a few minutes before entering their quarters. I decide to spend a little time looking into the stations data base for recent arrivals just in case. One can not be too careful.
The stations security logs are hidden behind several layers of Federation encryption that are extremely easy to bypass completely using my Cardassian codes. None of the recently arrived ships offer me any useful information so I check into the registered resident of those rooms. I find that all the quarters in that part of the hall are vacant. I decide to find computer visual feeds from the are and they only display an empty hall. Completely empty. Not only do they not show my mysterious lurker, they do not show my passing. They are clearly false feeds that were planted to hide the resident of the empty quarters. I check the security locks and my door and implement and extra layer of security to the door of my small bedroom and try to get a bit of rest. Even if this stranger is hiding from Odo that does not mean they are here for me and, I still have two and a half dresses to complete. I lay in bed and actively control my breathing until I am calm then I relax each muscle one at a time. The same technique I used to fall asleep when Tain would lock me in his office closet.
I dream of golden skin and soft brown eyes in the desert.
From the very moment I wake up I work on my commission. The first and second dresse are completed without any major complications. They are long, just sweeping the floor, and made of a lovely thin silk that floats around the wearer. One is a soft light blue with cream orchids woven into the fabric, and the other is a creamy green embroidered with a series of lines and knots. They beautifully compliment the last dress that will be of bronze silk, with lace stitched carefully over the bodice. When the ladies come in for a fitting they praise the quality and style, complimenting each other in high voices and giggling at jokes, likely told to one another in their telepathic Betazoid language. They pay for the entire commission and agree to return in the morning to pick up all four dresses. Still cheerfully giggling together they leave with a flourish of their jewelry covered hands.
With only one dress to finish, i feel the pressure ease a bit and my mind wonders back to the mysterious person or persons illicitly occupying the rooms around the corner from me. I could hide a small camera to collect images of the hallway that was not connected to the computer system. I have a device that would work for that kind of information collection in my rooms. It is nearly completely flat and a bit smaller than a button. I could hide it at the intersection after my work day and come back in the morning to see if it collected any usable data. I am strangely stimulated by the mystery of the secret neighbor. For the first time in recent memory I do not mind the cold. I am still chilled, of course, but it does not seem quite as bitter.
After planting the device, I head directly to my quarters, but I am too anxious to work or read. Even this small bit of intrigue reminds me of the past and the life I had lived. Both the good and the terrible emotions are rising to the surface. I attempt to go to bed early and make up for the sleepless nights spent working the last two days, but I lie here awake with my mind circling from event to event. The painful occasions in Bamarran. Those who I felt the closest to for a moment in time then never saw again. A deception I was both sure of at the time, and terribly uncertain about in retrospect.
I fix my mind on a image. Strong lean shoulders, grey darkening ridges, Tight muscles under warm smooth scales. Slowly i run my fingers along the ridges at my hip. The flesh here is no more sensitive than it is anywhere else. From my work I have learned that most species have a heightened sensitivity in this area, but Cardassian scales protect our softer flesh from both damage and sensation. There is an area, however, just at the junction of scales to flesh, at the edge of my ajan, that when stroked gently brings me a great deal of pleasure.
I let my fingers wander there, caressing the delicate skin and tugging on the overlapping scales. When I feel arousal starting to take hold, I dip my fingertip inside and let it slide through the increasingly wet opening. As I become more aroused my ridges and the scales become engorged with blood, swelling and darkening. The swelling causes the inner walls of my ajan to show through the normally tightly closed slit. The dark skin glistens with naturally produced lubrications, and I rub my fingers through it with increasing speed. When I am close to everting, I use two fingers to spread open my swollen opening, and the cool air hits the normally well protected organ. My prUt quickly becomes harder and pushes out through my sensitive ajan. The friction between my inner walls and the ridges of my erect prUt push me even closer to orgasm.
I become more and more focused on the pressure building between my legs. I conjure images from both my memory and imagination. Exposed clavicles and chula on a shirtless man working construction in the evening sun. The obscene dancer exposing his chuva at the miner’s bar on Aschelon V. Without meaning to the images in my mind morph and change. Where there was scaly grey skin dark ridges I now see lean golden flesh and gently curling hair. Everything else fades into the background as I rub my palm along the length of my prUt and across the head. I use my thumb to press into the ridges at each pass, until my breath stutters and the pressure becomes unbearable. An ache begins to form deep inside and spreads through my ajan and into my prUt itself. I slow my strokes but I have lost control, I fall into release. My legs tremble and my prUt burns, then slowly everything goes dark. For a moment even my body seems to disappear and my mind is completely at ease. As I fall into a deep sleep I feel a faraway sense of shame for what I have done. Then I feel nothing.
In the morning I collect the recording device. I had hidden it in a doorway where the corridors intersect in order to catch anyone going in or out of one of the empty suites. I am able to pick it up and secure it away in my sleeve without pausing on my way to my shop. I want to immediately connect it to my computer to see what evidence it holds but I force myself to go about my usual business of readying my store for the day. I am expecting my Betazoid customers to pick up their commissions early in the morning and I do not want to leave them waiting. I will have plenty of time during my lunch hour.
Strangely, the dresses remain on their hangers for the entire morning and I hear nothing from my wedding guests. I attempt to contact them but I realize they had not left any information on where they were staying. I contact operations to find out any information they might have on my betazoid customers but when I explain the situation I am unexpectedly transferred to security. Odo himself demands I remain where I am and he immediately comes to the shop.
My mind is spinning with questions but I train my face into the pleasant helpful tailor and acquiesce to his interrogation. I learn little from Odo’s questions. The betazoid women are missing, he askes several times if I know their whereabouts or how to contact them. He asks if I had known them before this week and if I am aware of their position in Betazoid politics. I answer truthfully to his queries, I have no idea where they are and I did not think to research them over a lucky commission. I suspect they are from a powerful family but none of them struck me as politically motivated and in fact they seemed a quite frivolous. Finally satisfied with my answers Odo and his team leave the shop, although he does give me a parting suspicious glare and instructions to contact him if I hear from the ladies or remember anything else. I promise my good intentions while bowing my head and he leaves with a scowl.
FINALLY! Now that I am alone I can check my video feed. Tucked away in the back of my workroom, with the door safely locked, I plug it into my personal computer. I am sure of the security I had installed, but I also know Odo would be snooping more than usual during his investigation. The hall was empty for most of the night but just before morning there is movement at one of the doors and a humanoid girl walks out. She is perhaps 25 with simple nondescript clothing and her brown hair swept up in a utilitarian bun. She seems to be walking directly toward the device and when she is only a few feet away she tilts her head to the side and waves her hand in the Terran greeting that has become common on the station. She then walks past the corridor.
I am frozen, she somehow knew about the device and instead of avoiding it she is mocking me. I wonder if she had anything to do with the missing betazoid women. I wonder if she came here for me. The Obsidian Order has never been in the habit of employing Terrans, however, The Order are far from my only foes. In the time since my youth I have made enemies on nearly every planet I set foot on. The death of a loved one is motivation for revenge that does not diminish with time. I view the bit of footage several times, looking for any clue who she might be. She seems harmless enough, smallish, with a round childlike face and large hazel eyes. She is graceful when she walks but otherwise quite forgettable. The little smile she offers as she waves her hand at me seems sincere. I know then that I will have to act first. I will have to find her and end this game. Regardless of her intentions she is dangerous. I am also dangerous.