That night in San Francisco was straight out of a fairy tale, and maybe I should have known it was too good to be true. Dancing with Caybin, sipping champagne, making small talk with top Federation dignitaries . . . The president was even expected to make an appearance.
And then they came. There was a quiet whirring sound and Caybin’s hand gripping my arm, and then I saw them. Someone behind me screamed; they got K’vel, and then the tingle of the transporter took over. A moment later, we materialized here on the Mekar, and Caybin activated the temporal field. Thanks to the alertness of a quick-thinking transporter operator, we’re safe for now.
I've been kidnapped.
I have no idea where I am; this could be absolutely anywhere on earth. The room they've locked me in doesn't look Western, but then you can't always go by architecture and decorating. For all I know, if I could get out of here, I could walk home. Or I could be in a remote corner of Afghanistan or Ethiopia or Peru.
It's a long story how I got here, but this is the first time I've had a chance to write anything down. I'll try to remember everything.
It started in Chicago.
I met Derek at a conference on linguistics. He shared my passion for making the world a better place, my vision for our field's potential to solve major social problems. Other attendees called us both idealistic dreamers, and Derek and I hit it off almost immediately.
On the last day of the conference we grabbed some coffee between sessions.
"Lunch?" he asked.
I looked down at the table beside the coffee pots, at the cookies and the squares of fruit and cheese impaled with toothpicks. "Sure hope not," I smiled. "But I wouldn't worry, it's only nine-thirty." I grabbed a cookie.
"No," he said, "I meant, what are you doing for lunch? I'd like to take you out."
"My cousin doesn't get home till five-thirty, so I have the afternoon to kill. I just need to call my kids first, after the last session."
"You're lucky you can stay with your cousin," he said. "Hotels here ask for your firstborn."
"Which would leave you out on the street," I replied. Derek didn't have any kids.
"I'd just kidnap one of yours," he shot back. "Forge a birth certificate. They'd have no way of knowing."
"Good thing school's in session, then, and my kids are back home safe in New Hampshire."
"Alone? How old are they?"
"Oh, no, they're with their grandmother. They're eight and ten."
"Sweet," he said. "I like kids. But I'll have to settle for their mom for now. One o'clock okay? I'll meet you out front."
He took me to a quaint-looking German place in the ground floor of a red-brick nineteenth-century meat-packing building. "You have to try the rouladen," he said. "It's the best I've had since Frankfurt."
"Oh, when were you in Frankfurt?" I asked. "I've never had rouladen, but I've heard it's good."
"I went to university there, undergrad."
"Oh. Any particular reason? Have relatives there or anything?"
"No. Well, my ancestry is German - Bavarian - but that's going way back. I've just always liked Germany, so when I had the chance to do my college there, I took it. Are you warm enough?" He glanced at the fan that whirred at the end of a long rod reaching down from the ceiling twenty feet above us, then studied my face.
I lowered my eyes for an instant and confirmed my suspicion: my nipples stood out in two chiseled points under my clothes. Note to self, I thought, feeling myself blush, don't wear a knit bra and a knit top together around cute, intelligent guys. But I'd brought a sweater, so I put it on.
"What's this vision you keep hinting at," I said, recovering my dignity, "about linguistics as a tool for social change?" I asked not only to change the subject, but because I was burning to know. I myself wanted to find the universal language patterns that would allow me, in partnership with a good computer programmer, to create software that could translate just about any language into just about any other language. The possibilities were staggering. This software, loaded on either a regular computer or a small, tough device built for the purpose, could empower indigenous businesspeople all over the world. It could let ordinary individuals build relationships across cultural boundaries, lessening international tensions on the grassroots level. It could reduce war, oppression and poverty by building bridges and eroding misunderstanding, fear and hate. But I wanted to hear what Derek had in mind. I knew it was going to be good.
His smile showed his dimples. I was beginning to suspect that when the dimples didn't appear, he was just being polite. I smiled, too, because I had a feeling I was going to have plenty of time to test that hypothesis.
"It's simple," he answered. "Purity of language. I'm applying for a grant for it."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, it starts with a study to find the pure form of the language. I'm hoping to begin with German first."
"Naturally. You must be fluent."
"I am, but that's not why. German is a whole lot less corrupted than English or even Spanish. It's a good place to start. The world isn't ready for the purification of English yet."
I still had no idea what he was talking about. "So you find out the pure form a language, and then what do you do after that?"
He shrugged. "It's a long shot, I know, especially with the way things are trending lately, but the hope is that people, governments, will embrace the pure form of the language and reject the corrupted versions."
I wasn't sure I liked where this was going. "For what purpose? What would that do?"
"Our cultures have been weakened," he explained. "It's insidious. I'm not sure if you've ever looked into it, but you may be surprised how many words from inferior races have gotten in there, even in German."
It was all I could do to keep from screaming my outrage at him. But we managed to part on civil terms, mostly because for the rest of the meal I pasted a smile on my face and just listened and made small talk. It wouldn't do to stalk away in a self-righteous huff: it was kindness that would reach this man, if anything could.
Finally, it was over, and I took a taxi back to my cousin's.
I paid the driver and got out, and then realized I'd had him stop in front of the wrong building. Should have just given him the address and let him do his job. Fortunately, he didn't hang around to watch me walk. After two buildings I got out my copy of Connie's door key and turned to go up the front steps.
And that was the last I saw of Chicago.
They must have drugged me, I guess, because the next thing I knew, I was waking up. I was lying on the floor in a big, noisy, busy place. The first thing I saw was lots of pantlegs and shoes, walking about in different directions. They were scuffed and smudged and dusty and worn, but that's all I had a chance to notice before somebody noticed me, and then I was looking up at faces. They looked smudged and worn, too, and unless it was my imagination, they all had nearly identical scars on their noses. Maybe they didn't, and it was just the effect of whatever I'd been drugged with. I didn't get a really good look at them, anyway, because after a few seconds all those people scattered and two others came along.
The new guys, both male, wore some sort of grey uniforms and their faces were hideously scarred. They had scars instead of eyebrows, scars on their foreheads, scars on their chins... The scarring looked so even, and was so similar on both sides of their faces, and even so similar on both men, that I began to suspect as soon as I saw them that they were victims of some sort of horrific ritual. I couldn't help feeling sorry for them.
"How did you get here?" one of them asked. He sounded surprised, but his face didn't show it. No wonder.
I sat up. "I don't know."
The other guy offered me his hand, and I took it and got to my feet. "Where is 'here', anyway?" I asked, pulling my purse onto my shoulder.
"It's a big station," the first guy answered, "Easy to lose your way. Did our workers hurt you?"
"No. No, not at all. I just..." I stopped speaking when I realized I couldn't explain, I had no idea what had just happened.
The second guy, the guy who had helped me up, was looking at something in his hand, some sort of gaming device I'd never seen before. "You're not registered as a guest here," he said. "Is your ship still here? I'm afraid you'll have to go back to it immediately." He grabbed my arm and started walking. He had the kind of grip I've seen cops use when they're arresting a guy who's drunk out of his mind—the kind of grip that means you've got to start walking if you don't want to be dragged.
"I . . . I don't know," I replied, trying to keep my feet under me. "I don't think I came on a ship. I've - " I was about to say I'd been kidnapped, but then I wondered if they'd been kidnapped, too, and ritually scarred and forced to work here. "I think I got here by accident," I said instead. "I'd be happy to get out of your way as soon as possible."
"I think our commander would like you," said the first guy, walking on the other side of me and looking at my breasts. Men and women scattered before us. They did all have nearly identical nose scars, but they didn't look nearly so bad after seeing these guys.
"He likes Bajorans," said the second guy.
"He may like a lost human, if she's lost."
"Federation people don't just get lost in Bajoran orbit," the second guy countered. "She's a spy."
"Even the Federation makes some attempt to hide their spies. If she were a spy, she'd be a registered guest with a mouthful of excuses. What's your plan, to throw her out an airlock?"
"It's an efficient solution."
"It's a wasteful solution, either way. Either she's a spy or she's lost. If she's a spy she ought to be debriefed, and if she's lost, the cat may want to keep her."
"The cat?" I repeated, trying to make sense of the conversation, but they didn't explain.
"Let's take her to Tommy, then," said the second guy, "but I doubt the cat will like her."
"I'm not a Federation person," I objected, not at all sure I liked the idea of being labeled a spy and 'debriefed.'
"The Federation would probably disagree with that statement," the second guy replied. We'd come to the edge of the big room, and he pulled me through a large open doorway onto a spacious indoor balcony. I couldn't see over the edge, but from the sound of it, the floor below us was full of people.
"What Federation are we talking about, anyway?" I asked, as we turned right. The wall was on our right now, and the railing on our left. The balcony stretched out in front of us like a concourse in an airport.
"It makes no difference to us," said the first guy, who had dropped back at the doorway and was walking a little bit behind us. "You can give us any story you like because we don't need to know who you are or what you're doing here. But Glenn Tommy does. You may wish to be much more forthright with him." I was trying to place his accent. To my New Hampshire ears his "Glenn Tommy" sounded like 'Glinn Tahmmy'. Midwest, probably, and not too far north. Southern Illinois, maybe.
Two minutes later, we stopped. There was a door there, and it must have been connected to a motion or weight sensor because it opened with a swishing sound. The second guy still had my arm, and he pulled me inside with him. The first guy stayed on the balcony, and the door stayed open.
"What is this place?" I asked, looking up at that scarred face and trying to keep my voice steady.
The guy let go of my arm and turned to leave, then stopped and looked back at me. "Interrogation," he answered. He went out, and the door swished shut.
I was surprised to see the door close between us, as close as I was behind him. Fighting panic, I walked right up to it, but it remained shut. I turned around and gave myself a head start and approached it again, walking at a good, confident pace, but it still didn't open. I stuck my fingers as far as I could get them into the crack in the middle, where the two halves were supposed to slide away from each other, and pulled as hard as I could, but of course it wouldn't budge.
It's probably just that I'm not heavy enough, I told myself with an effort. I placed both hands on the corner of the door frame, braced myself and pushed my feet hard against the floor.
"I apologize for making you wait."
I jumped, half-screamed, and wheeled around to see who had said that. Half a second later I felt the blood rush to my face. I had no reason to think I was really alone in here, and would stay that way, but now somebody had walked up and greeted me and I had made a fool of myself. It was a new guy, wearing the same grey uniform as the other two guys, and with the same scars on his face. But I was beginning to wonder if they really were scars after all.
"I didn't mean to startle you," he said politely. "My name is Craig Tommid, but you may call me Glenn." He had that same south-by-midwest accent.
"Nice to meet you, Glenn," I said, shaking his hand. "Faine Channing." He had a nice firm, confident grip.
"Not Glenn," he said, looking me in the eye. "Glynn."
"Oh, Glynn, sorry. Do you not like Craig?" I asked, taking this opportunity to get a good look at him. Whatever those things on his face were that looked like scars, he had them on his neck, too, and the ones on his neck couldn't be scars. They looked more like fins there, like the fins on the back fenders of some old cars. The others had had them, too.
"Who is Craig?" he asked, tipping his head slightly and giving me a quizzical frown.
"Why are you called Glynn if your name is Craig? Do you not like Craig?"
"My name is not Craig," he explained. "It's Kreg. You would spell it K-R-E-G. Kreg Tahmid. Glin is my title. It's a military rank."
"Glin is a military rank?" I asked, confused. Or maybe he was the one who was confused.
"Yes. Can I get you anything? Coffee, tea . . ."
"Water," I nodded. "Thank you." It was hot in this place.
"This way," he said gallantly, bowing slightly and gesturing toward an open doorway. "With lemon or without?"
"With, please," I answered, following him out of the small, rather plain room into a larger one, furnished with all sorts of things I didn't recognize. It would take me several minutes to take it all in.
"Ice, I assume?" he continued, walking to a small alcove in one of the walls.
"Ice water with lemon?" he asked again, standing in front of the alcove with his back to me.
"Hot fish juice," he said, still facing the alcove.
"No, thanks!" I laughed. "Ice water is fine." Maybe it was the power of suggestion, but I suddenly thought I smelled the stench of a fish market.
He turned around, my ice water in one hand and a steaming mug in the other. The smell was coming from the mug. He gave me the water.
"That was quick," I commented, and took a sip. It felt good, even if the fish smell made it taste bad.
"What military is that?" I asked.
Glin Tahmid gave me a look like I wasn't fooling him, and answered, "Ours, of course." He crossed the room, and I followed, preferring even his company to the feeling of being alone in this room full of strange objects. "Please have a seat." He waved his mug toward an odd-looking stool on the near side of what must have been a desk.
I sat, not wanting to be rude, but I had no intention of sitting for long. I was going to finish my water and leave.
He didn't immediately go around the desk and sit down, himself. For a moment he lingered beside me and briefly touched my shoulder. I heard a hissing sound and thought I felt a strange sensation in my neck, but I couldn't be sure.
"What was that?" I asked.
He ignored the question and walked to his own chair and settled into it. He drank from the stinky mug before asking, "Tell me your name again?"
"Faine Channing." My water was half gone already.
"Your business on this station?"
"Don't have any," I answered honestly. "Like I told the other guy, I'd be happy to get out of your way. I appreciate the water." I held up my glass. "But I don't want to take up your time. I can be on my way as soon as I finish this."
"On your way where?" He settled back in his chair, looking comfortable, and held his mug with both hands like he was enjoying its heat.
"Back home," I shrugged. I'd need to pick up my suitcase from Connie's first, but that wasn't something to bother Glin Tahmid about.
"Where is home?"
"New Hampshire." I could have my suitcase shipped, if necessary. There was no point in complicating matters here.
"And where is that?"
"New England," I answered. "North of Massachusetts, west of Maine."
"A colony, perhaps?"
"Yes, actually. New Hampshire was one of the thirteen original colonies." So this fellow had an interest in history, then. I hoped I wouldn't be around long enough to find that bit of trivia useful.
"You admit that you have no business on this station," he continued. "Why are you here?"
"I didn't mean to be here," I said truthfully, realizing how lame that must have sounded.
"Transporter malfunction?" he offered.
I opened my mouth but didn't know what to say. It wasn't that I didn't understand his words, it was just that if you thought about it, those words didn't exactly mean anything. It was an official-sounding way of saying that my transportation screwed up. "You could say that," I agreed at last.
"And where did you transport from?"
Back to history again. "Nope, Illinois was never a colony."
"Chicago is on Illinois, then?"
Oh, great! I thought. This guy is nuts. I'd been suspecting that ever since he'd said Glin was a military rank. "Chicago is in Illinois, yes," I answered patiently.
"Tell me about Illinois."
"Well, it was settled by the French, I think. The name comes from Illini. I guess the Illini lived there originally. I don't know much about it, to be honest with you."
"Honest with me is what you should always be," he answered. I wondered if the menacing edge in his voice was really there, or it was just my nerves, imagining it.
"Of course," I smiled, forcing myself to meet his eyes. I finished my water.
"Where is Illinois?" he demanded.
Does this mean I'm no longer in Illinois, or even close to it? I thought. No, it just means I'm locked in a room with a crazy person. Aloud, I said, "West of Indiana, south of Wisconsin, east of the Missisippi River and north of..." I shook my head. "Gee, I don't even know what it's north of."
"I see you just want to play games," said Glin Tahmid. "Guards!"