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.
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!" He took his eyes off me, for once, and focused somewhere behind me.
I turned and saw two more guys walk in through the same doorway that we had, again with the grey uniforms and the facial scars, or whatever they were, and the neck fins. They marched right up to me and stood on either side of me, and I began to stand up. Each guard grabbed one of my arms, and they pulled me the rest of the way to my feet. One of them took my purse away and set it on the desk, and the other one produced a long metal oval. While I was still trying to figure out what it was, they'd locked my wrists in it. So much for my plan to leave when I'd finished my water.
The guard on my right let go of my arm, and the one on my left pulled me away from the chair. I stood there on the open floor with my hands in the strange oval handcuffs, and looked at Glin Tahmid. All at once it occurred to me that he may not be crazy after all. All those stories about secret government research programs, of genetically engineered humans and all that, might just be true after all. Not that that would explain how I'd gotten here.
I cleared my throat, hoping that would keep my voice from squeaking. "Glin," I said, "I don't want to play games with you. I just don't know how to answer your questions."
"They're simple enough questions," he replied. "All I want is the truth."
"I'm, um, not in a position to argue," I said, hoping to get back on his gracious side, then added, "obviously."
"Obviously," he agreed. "So, if you're feeling cooperative, tell me, where were you born?" He made a small signal to the guards with his hand.
"New Hampshire." I couldn't help feeling like we'd just started the whole bizarre conversation all over again.
"The problem," he answered in a superior tone, "is that I have no idea where that is, or what that is. Is it a city? A plateau? A continent? A planet?"
"Oh," I said, "it's a state."
"A state. A sovereign political entity?"
"No," I answered, "just one of the fifty American states." For a split second I wondered if my little 'transporter malfunction' could have taken me to a foreign country, but then I dismissed the thought. Glin Tahmid and the first two guys all had American accents. He was playing dumb, then, and playing some sort of head game with me. And as I had said to him, I wasn't in any position to object.
"American," he repeated. "At last, a name I recognize. Would it be accurate to say that you were born in a region of North America called New Hampshire?"
"Yes, it would."
"Good. And are you currently living in New Hampshire?"
"Good. When did you come to Terra Knorr?"
"I...don't know what Terra Knorr is," I said hesitantly.
"This station. Perhaps your government calls it by a different name, but we call it Terra Knorr. When did you come to this station?"
"Oh, just a few minutes ago."
"On what ship?"
"I don't know," I answered nervously, then added quickly, "I was unconscious."
"You were transported unconscious to keep you from knowing about your travel arrangements?"
"That's right," I said. It sounded like a plausible explanation, at any rate.
"Who made those arrangements?"
"I don't know that, either."
"Well, then, who was your contact?"
"I...it may have been a guy named Derek Dellinger. At least that's the name I knew him by."
"I'm sorry, I don't understand the question."
"Is Derek Dellinger a member of Starfleet?"
"I couldn't tell you that," I answered, then quickly explained, "I mean, because I don't know. What is Starfleet? I'm not familiar with it."
Tahmid signaled the guards again, and the one on my right said quietly, "Hold still." The left guard held both my arms, above the elbows, and the right one reached up and took a hold of the neck of the top I was wearing. It took me a few seconds to realize that he had a knife, and was cutting it off me. Soon after, it fell to the floor, and for the second time that day I wished I had chosen a thicker, more modest bra. But I didn't have much time to dwell on that, because as soon as he was done with the top, the guard started cutting my slacks. He must have had a very sharp knife and a lot of practice, because all it took was two quick, neat cuts down the sides and the slacks had joined the top on the floor. I was left standing in my shoes and panties and bra and the strange handcuffs that held my wrists about shoulder-width apart.
Tahmid gestured to the guards again, and asked me, "Is Derek Dellinger a member of Starfleet?"
"As far as I know he's not," I answered, "but I'm not even sure if that's his real name."
"Is Derek Dellinger human?"
A flag went up in my mind. I'd heard of this technique but never seen it in practice. The idea was that they ask you several questions in quick succession, all of which are easy and innocent and take yes answers. Then in the same tone of voice they ask you to confess to a crime, hoping you'll answer yes without thinking and incriminate yourself. I took my time and repeated the question in my head before answering. "Yes."
"What's the last thing you remember before Terra Knorr?"
That wasn't a yes or no question, so he must have picked up on my hesitation, realized I was onto his game. That gave me a fleeting sense of victory, until I realized that he had just read me. Interrogators, of course, are supposed to be very perceptive, but I had been subconsciously hoping this one wasn't. I made a mental note to try not to lie. "I'd just gotten out of a cab in Chicago," I answered.
"What kind of cab?"
"A licensed yellow Crown Vic."
"Explain the term 'Crown Vic'," he said, seeming relaxed again. "I'm afraid there are many details of your culture I'm still not familiar with."
"You're not—" I began, then cut myself off. "I'm sorry," I said, "Crown Vic stands for Crown Victoria. It's a Ford model, and it's used, a lot of times, for police cruisers and taxis."
"A vehicle, then?"
"What were you going to say?" he asked. "I'm not what?"
"Oh," I answered, "I was just surprised to hear that you're not American. Your English is so good, I thought you were."
He laughed—a dry, cold laugh—and said, "Oh, you thought I was American. And now what makes you think that I may not be?"
"When you said," I paused, trying to recall his exact words, and gave up. "Something about not being familiar with my culture."
"How perceptive of you," he sneered. "I am not American." He signaled to the guards again, and almost immediately a strong hand smashed into my face. "In the future you will refrain from sarcasm in this room," he ordered.
"Yes, Glin," I answered breathlessly, hoping to prevent any further blows. I wondered what I'd said that he'd taken as sarcasm, and decided to leave the subject of nationality alone as much as possible. Warm liquid trickled from my right nostril to my lip. It was blood.
Tahmid leaned back in his chair and smiled up at me. "What's your birthdate?"
Three Beautiful Women
"Explain," Tahmid ordered.
Explain what? I wondered, but didn't dare ask. "I was born on September thirteen, nineteen eighty-five," I answered.
"Is that a date?"
Back to the obvious questions, again, or else he was just badgering me. "Yes."
"By what calendar?"
"I think it's called the Julian calendar," I answered, getting sick of these obscure historical questions, "or possibly Gregorian? I'm sorry; I don't know much about calendars."
Tahmid had something on his desk that looked like a game controller, and he touched a button on it. A rod began to come down from the ceiling. It was nearly directly above me and pointing straight down like the rod the fan had been on in the restaurant. But there was no fan on this one. I tried to back up a step in case it came down too low, but the guards held my arms. It kept coming, six inches in front of my face, and finally stopped when it was about at the level of my chin.
As soon as it stopped, the guards grabbed my forearms and raised them, fitting the end of the rod into a small hole in the middle of the handcuffs. They locked together with a metallic click. Then the one on my left pulled my shoes and socks off and the one on my right made five quick cuts with his knife, and I was naked.
"I'm glad we've been able to come to an understanding," Tahmid said in a friendly tone.
"Think back to the last thing you remember before Terra Knorr. You got out of the cab, and then what?"
"I paid the driver ... No, I paid the driver before I got out. Then I got out, and I walked. I had had him stop in front of the wrong building, so I had to walk a little."
"I got to my building and I was just about to go up the steps."
"The building I was staying at."
"And then what?"
"That's all I remember. I was turning to go up the steps."
"And your next memory is of being on this station?"
"Tell me about that."
"I was lying on the floor, and I saw a lot of people."
"What were they doing?"
"Just walking around, I guess. I didn't have a lot of time to watch them."
"Well, then the people started crowding around me, looking at me."
"What species were these people?"
Oh, no, back to that game again! "Human."
"They were human?"
"They looked like you?"
"Pretty much, yeah."
"Did you scan them?"
I wasn't sure what that meant, but it didn't matter because he didn't wait for an answer anyway.
"Did you bring a tricorder?" he asked.
"No." Whatever that was, I didn't bring one.
"What did these humans look like?"
"They had scars on their noses."
"So you came to this station and saw humans with scars on their noses," he mused. "What species am I?"
"Human," I answered, with a little hesitation. The last time we'd talked about his origins, he'd had one of his guards give me a bloody nose. And the stakes felt higher now.
"Have you heard of a people called the Kardashians?" he asked. Only he pronounced it 'Kardassians.'
"Tell me about them."
"They're a family. Three beautiful women who got famous on reality TV."
"What is TV?"
He shook his head. "That word's not translating. But are you telling me you think that the Kardassians are three beautiful women?"
"Yes. Well, they're a whole family. But the famous ones are three women."
He touched the scar above his left eye. "What is this?" he asked.
"I'm not sure."
"What do you think it is? Give me your best guess."
He touched the scar below his right eye. "And this?"
He touched the fin-thing on the right side of his neck. "And this? Is this a scar, too?"
"I...don't know what that's called."
"What happened after you saw the people with the scars on their noses?"
"They left, and two other guys showed up."
"What species were the two other guys?"
"Human." I was getting used to this bizarre question, and I wasn't sure that was a good thing.
"Did they look like you?"
"They looked like you."
"Oh," he said, "did they have three beautiful women with them?"
He took his eyes off me again and looked at something behind me. I didn't turn and follow his gaze this time because my wrists hurt and my hands ached. I'd been moving my fingers a lot to keep the blood flowing, and it had worked to some extent, but it hurt, too.
"How old are you?" he asked after a long pause.
"Do you know today's date?"
"September eighteen, two thousand fifteen."
"So you turned thirty, five days ago. Happy birthday."
"I have no more questions for you at the moment," he said, getting up and coming toward me with the controller in his hand. He touched the controller to the handcuffs and immediately my wrists were free. The handcuffs remained locked to the rod. "You're welcome to have a seat," he offered with a little bow, and went back to his own chair.
We must have sat for about ten minutes, while I rubbed the feeling back into my hands and he busied himself with a couple of off-brand iPads. Finally he said, "We're about done here. The gull wants to see you."
I wondered what the chances were that he was referring to a shore bird. Not very good, I figured, but anything was possible.
He must have read my face again, because he asked, "Do you know what a gull is?"
"A bird?" I ventured.
"Perhaps in your universe, where Kardassians are all beautiful women, gulls are birds," he conceded. "But in our reality, Gul is a military rank. There is only one Gul assigned to this station, and he is its commander. I know it doesn't come naturally to your people, but if I were you..." He paused and drilled me with his gaze. "...I would be very respectful."