I touched my combadge. “Go ahead.”
“Come to my office.”
I finished the last page of my handwritten journal, dropped it on the table and went out.
When I arrived, Zorak, two of his assistants and Glin Lagar were gathered in the open space near his desk. “Watch what happens,” one of the intelligence officers said to Lagar. He touched a button on a handheld device, and the rod in the ceiling began to descend.
I tried not to react, but my face must have given me away, because the whole group laughed. “I told you she’s afraid of it,” said the officer.
The other intelligence officer had been keeping an eye on a screen over the desk, and now he raised his arm above his head. The laughter stopped on cue; the rod returned to its place in the ceiling, and the door chime sounded. “Come,” said Zorak.
Caybin and Drem entered, and we all stood in a loose circle under the rod. I made a point not to look at it.
“Do you have anything to report?” Caybin asked, singling me out with his eyes.
I shook my head. “No, just more of the same.”
“The Borg are conquering more of the quadrant with each passing day,” Caybin announced. “Soon we will have no place to refuel or obtain supplies. Zorak, I’m giving you access to everything on the buoy. We no longer have the luxury of privacy.”
To his credit, Zorak didn’t gloat. He bowed to accept the assignment and stood without expression.
Caybin glanced around the circle, but no one spoke. “Dismissed.”
“Vaine,” Zorak called when I was nearly at the door.
I stopped and turned, but he only stood near his desk, waiting for me. I crossed the distance to him.
“Continue reading your journal as before. We need all our personnel working.”
I nodded, went back to my quarters and asked the computer if there was any more of my journal on an electronic file.
“Upload it to my computer.” There were still more papers, but they were letters to my kids. I had been looking forward to reading them next, but Zorak had said I should continue with the journal. With Caybin’s report about the Borg taking over the quadrant, I didn’t think I should take any detours.
I woke suddenly with the knowledge that a loud bang had just gone off two inches above my head. But when I'd turned the lights on, there seemed to be nothing wrong. A quick search of the room turned up nothing, either. I went to the bathroom and decided to go back to bed.
I was about halfway across the floor when the screeching started. It was so loud it hurt my ears, and it sounded like metal being ripped apart. It didn't last more than thirty seconds, but other noises followed: pops and loud creaks and hisses and crashes. Sometimes the floor shook.
I took a shower and replicated something practical to wear. I had no way of knowing what was going on, but it certainly sounded like the ship was coming apart. If there was going to be an evacuation or something, I didn't want to be in my pajamas.
I decided against jeans because it was still very hot and went with cargo pants in a cotton/linen blend, jump boots and a sports top, with a warm coat to keep handy just in case. I looked like a paratrooper.
When all that was done, I was hungry. "Terran breakfast number one," I ordered, just to see what it was.
"Request declined," it replied. "User not recognized."
"I'm Faine Channing," I said. "This is my room."
"Exceeds tolerance. Please state request."
"Terran breakfast number one."
"The replicator database does not contain this selection."
"Okay, then, Terran breakfast number two."
"Coffee," the replicator answered, then after a short pause, "within acceptable limits."
"What does that mean?" I asked, but of course it didn't answer. I ordered again. "Terran breakfast number two."
It still didn't reply, or make any food, either.
"Coffee?" I tried, and when nothing happened, I thought maybe it was programmed to ignore questions. "Coffee."
About five minutes later the noises and the shaking both stopped. I heard an occasional creaking sound, but otherwise it was as if nothing had happened. I tried the replicator again, without success, and decided to go back to bed. I wished I hadn't recycled my pajamas.
I woke up when someone came into the room.
"Dolim Shal," I smiled, getting up. "Good morning, how are you?"
He answered with gibberish.
"Oh, you're a funny man today," I observed. "Listen, my replicator's not working. I couldn't get any breakfast."
He picked up my boots and held them out to me.
I sat on the bed. "What was all that banging and shaking?" I asked. "Felt like the ship was trying to come apart."
Again, nothing but gibberish.
"Listen, I'm sorry, but I'm just really not in the mood for this," I told him, "but if you can fix the replicator, that'd be really great. Or call someone to fix it."
His answer was shorter this time, and just as meaningless. My linguist brain picked out the last syllable: "shah." He had one of those medical diagnostic devices, and he waved it at me slowly, using exactly the same motions G’lek and both the doctors had, while I laced up my boots.
"I'm kind of hungry," I persisted. "Actually, I'm very hungry. Do you think you could stop being funny for a minute and get the replicator fixed?"
He'd finished with the medical device and just stood there with his arms folded, waiting.
"Alright, have it your way," I said, standing up when my laces were tied. "Moo goo goo Hashimoto-san. Siyah kedi arabanin ustunde." The last part was Turkish, and I just threw it in for fun. I wasn't sure if I'd gotten the grammar right, but it didn't matter. I was betting that Dolim had never heard Turkish before and was hoping I could make him as tired of his game as I was. But I was too hungry to wait for that. "I . . . want . . . to . . . eat," I said with exaggerated diction, eating imaginary food from an imaginary plate.
He nodded, said something ending in "deck" and left the room.
Fifteen minutes later he came back with a tray of food and left again.
It was strange food: white strips that may have been a kind of seafood with green and red vegetables, something I took to be a steamed grain and a bottle of water. But it was delicious and satisfying.
About halfway through, it dawned on me why Dolim Shal wouldn't talk to me. I was being immersed. G’lek had made the decision to keep me on the ship for the time being, so the natural next step was to help me adjust to life here. Probably only a few people on the ship spoke English, and to communicate with the rest of them I would need to learn Cardassian.
I didn't get time to finish breakfast before Dolim Shal returned, looking sterner than I'd ever seen him and motioning me to the door. I left my food on the table and got up, grabbing my coat.
"Toe," he said, taking the coat from me and tossing it on the floor. I stepped out into the hallway without it.
We'd walked for about a minute when I started to think I heard banging and thudding sounds that didn't come from our footsteps. At first, I thought there was someone coming the other way to meet us, but as the sounds grew louder, I realized they weren't footsteps. I was just asking myself if the noises from last night could be coming back again, when something else caught my attention and I forgot all about the bangs and thuds for a while.
Shal had just opened a door—with some difficulty—and the scene on the other side was very different. Behind us, the hallway was the same as I'd always seen it: hard, bare and immaculate. Before us was a large space littered with fallen beams, broken furniture and a lot of things I couldn't put names to. Some of the debris looked charred, and the acrid smell of drenched smoke filled the room. Broken wires hung from the ceiling and protruded from the walls and furniture. I coughed, from the smell or the dust or both.
"Starvleet," Shal explained.
I guessed he meant 'Starfleet.' If I recalled correctly, G’lek had said that was what the Federation called their military. I waved my hands to indicate the mess around us. "Starfleet?" I asked.
"Starvleet," he nodded.
We picked our way through the wreckage; Shal forced open another door at the far side of the room, and we came out into another hallway. It was damaged, and we had to squeeze past a few fallen beams, but the air was much better.
We passed two soldiers holding guns about as long as their forearms, apparently on guard duty. I'd seen plenty of Cardassians with pistols—in fact, the soldiers who had found me on the floor on Terok Nor had both worn holstered pistols—but this was the first time I'd seen the longer guns.
A few minutes later, I saw a repair crew cut off the end of a damaged beam with a laser torch and let it crash to the deck.
Maybe a hundred feet beyond them was a much larger crew, about a dozen people in all, busy moving debris. One of them was the female Cardassian I'd had lunch with, Karadel, and most of the rest were Bajoran women.
Shal and Karadel greeted each other with perfunctory bows before Shal disappeared in the direction of the laser torch crew.
"Karadel," I said, and tried to imitate the graceful Cardassian bow.
"Riyak," Karadel nodded. "Riyak Karadel Omett." She jerked her head toward a spot where two Bajoran women were tossing rubble into a cart.
It seemed pretty clear that Dolim Shal had brought me here to work and Karadel had just handed me my assignment, but I wasn't sure I should go along with that. G’lek had said the Federation was the recognized government of Earth now, and the Cardassians were at war with them. Wouldn’t that mean that if I did anything to help these people, I'd be aiding and abetting the enemy?
"Toe," I said, with an apologetic smile, and bowed again.
Her answer was too fast for me, but it ended in "o-shah." She glared at me, then at the two Bajorans and back at me again. Her meaning was more than clear.
I hesitated. I didn't want to offend my hosts, either.
Karadel gave me a rough shove so fast I didn't see it coming, and I fell backward and went sprawling on the littered deck. I felt someone kick me hard in the hip, and two seconds later realized that if she hadn't, I would have collided head-first with a metal beam.
"Thank you," I said, getting up.
My savior was one of the women Karadel wanted me to work with. She looked as though she would have preferred to kill me, but she grabbed my arm instead and pulled me to the cart.
I bent down and grabbed a hunk of what might have once been wallboard and chucked it into the cart. The ship was badly damaged, after all, and it was the only thing keeping me alive. The rules had to be different out here in space. I tried not to imagine how it would feel to die out there.
From what I could see, no two Bajorans in the room were dressed alike, and I took that as a sign that they were probably civilians. After all that time with the Cardassians, looking at the faces of my two new coworkers felt like looking in a mirror. If it hadn't been for their wrinkled noses, I would have thought they were Human. The effect was at once both comforting and unsettling.
It didn't take long to establish communication using a combination of signs, facial expressions and a few simple words in their language. I learned that both of them loved hasperat and found my own dislike for it amusing. I learned that Iba was a young mother of two and Waderi had two children and five grandchildren.
I asked Iba where her kids were by cradling an imaginary baby, holding up two fingers and glancing in various directions like I was looking for something.
She nodded that she understood as she carried half a crumpled chair to the cart. Most of our communication occurred as we left the cart after dumping a load, in those few seconds when our hands were free before we filled them with rubble again. None of us wanted Karadel to think we were slacking.
I crouched and began tugging on a twisted length of pipe to see if I could get it free from the mess yet, when a female voice behind me boomed, "Vaine!"
I turned and stood. It was Karadel, of course.
She pointed to a male Cardassian wearing a brown tunic and matching pants, about thirty feet away, then waved me toward him with a clipped sentence that ended in "o-shah."
I followed Brown Tunic to a place where two uniformed soldiers worked in a corridor. They had opened a tiny compartment that was flush with the floor and seemed to be discussing something inside it. They stood up as we approached. "Terhan," one of them said to me, followed by a short sentence ending in "o-shah." He touched the first two fingers of each hand to his face, near his eyes, then pointed all four of them toward the little opening in the wall. He nodded to Brown Tunic, who squatted, pushed the compartment door closed and opened it again, three times. It was a vertical sliding door, and I got the impression it was meant to open a lot wider, but it was stuck. The soldier who had spoken pushed me down with a touch that was steady but not rough, until I lay on the warm metal floor.
I turned onto my back and wriggled my way into the compartment, breathing shallowly to fit under the door. One of them slid a work light in beside me, and right away I saw the problem. I worked my way out again, stood up and traced the approximate size and location of the obstruction with my hand. It was too high for me to reach from the floor, and I couldn't even sit up in there because my hips wouldn't fit through the opening.
Brown Tunic said something ending in "edek" and looked to the soldier who had pushed me down for approval. He got it in the form of a quick nod and went thudding off down the narrow hallway.
"Edek," I said.
Both soldiers jerked their heads toward me, apparently surprised.
I said it again, "Edek."
"Edek," said Pusher, gesturing toward himself.
"Edek," I said, pointing to him.
"Toe," he replied. He took my hand and touched it to my own chest. "Edek."
"Edek," I repeated, poking myself in the chest. So far I'd learned two words. "Two down," I mumbled, "Twenty-nine thousand nine hundred ninety-eight to go."
Brown Tunic came back in a few minutes with the twisted piece of pipe from Iba and Waderi's rubble heap, and I crawled back into the compartment.
After five minutes of trying different angles, I got the door open and came out smiling. I ached all over and my hip was painful where Iba had kicked me, but I'd done the job the bigger Cardassian men couldn't do. Karadel wouldn't have fit, either. It was nice to know I'd scored a point or two with my hard-nosed captors.
But nobody said thank you, or even seemed to take any notice. Brown Tunic crawled into the compartment, and Pusher jerked his head in the direction of Karadel's crew, saying something that ended in "o-shah."
I had thought they were taking me back to pick up debris with Iba and Waderi again, but we turned off before we got there and stopped at a spot where a collapsed bulkhead blocked the hallway.
I was surprised to see the second soldier—the one who hadn't yet spoken to me—draw his pistol and aim it at the obstruction. I was even more surprised to see it shoot a laser beam instead of bullets. After a minute of careful cutting, the post that had held the obstruction in place fell with a crash and a puff of dust, and we stepped over it and walked on.
The whole day dragged on like that. Most of the time we walked the corridors, inspecting them for obstructions or high-priority damage, and two or three times we responded to specific requests for help. Sometimes either Brown Tunic or Laser Man stayed behind to finish up, but they always caught up with us soon after.
The only highlight was lunch. It was only stale crackers, water and a mushy fish that would have made sardines seem mild-tasting, but I was too hungry and sore to care. We sat on the hallway floor and ate, our backs to the wall. It felt so good to be off my feet.
I had just set our water jug down after refilling my cup when I noticed Pusher was looking at it. "O-shah?" I asked. I had figured out that meant 'you.'
He dove at me and lifted his hand, ready to backhand me across the face. "Toe o-shah!" he spat. "Shada!"
“Shada,” I repeated, and he lowered his hand.