13, 14, 15

Chapter 13

Detective Work


I don't know what the date is. I don't think I know anything anymore. All I know is, things just got a whole lot more complicated.  Now it's not just a matter of breaking out of here anymore and somehow finding my way back home. No wonder Gih-lek said, "Be careful what you wish for."

I really don't know what to think about this whole time thing. I thought I read somewhere that time travel was theoretically impossible. But then they say the same thing about faster-than-light travel, and that planet out there is definitely not in our solar system. I don't know much about astronomy, but I don't think you could get to another pretty blue planet without going faster than light, not even in 347 years. But I wish I knew for sure. Maybe I went through some kind of wormhole or something. Maybe I'm just in some other part of the galaxy, and it really is still September, 2015, and Gih-lek is just playing games with me.

I'm tired of thinking there's some kind of conspiracy going on, though. I had it all figured out, until today when I looked out the window and all the crazy stuff they'd been telling me was true after all. Even the airlocks. Of course you have to have airlocks on a space station; it all makes sense now. So as hard as it is to believe, I don't want to make the same mistake with the date. I think I'm just going to believe them for now, and see what happens. It's the year 2362, some time in the spring.

I miss New Hampshire.

But I still have to find some way to get home. Gih-lek says he can't help me. It's a big letdown but I guess I can understand, if he's telling the truth about Dukat, and I have to assume he is. It's the least crazy of all the stuff he's been telling me, and I've met Dukat. I know what he's capable of.

If Gih-lek can't get me back home, I have to find someone who can. I got here somehow, so I ought to be able to get back the same way, right? I wish I knew that for sure, but all I can do is try.

I guess that's the first thing I have to do: find out how I got here. Gih-lek said he's ordered an investigation, but I don't know exactly what that means. I don't know how hard he's going to try, either. I do know he's not Wendy and Grady's mom, so there's no possible way he could want this as badly as I do.

That means I'm going to have to do my own detective work. Right. How am I going to do that? I'm a linguist.

Dear Wendy and Grady,

I found out what my mission is.

They've taken me to a top-secret government research center that's so big it's like a city all by itself. It has to be, because it has to have everything anyone could ever need. This special research center has been built right on the ocean floor.

That's right, I'm at the bottom of the ocean right now. I don't know where, exactly. I don't even know which ocean it is.

You'll never believe what they're doing here. I didn't believe it at first, either, but now I've seen it with my own eyes. What they're doing is experimenting with creating different kinds of people. And I've been brought here to help with a special, super-expensive kind of people they created, who have fins on their necks. This experiment has been highly successful, and even though these people look a little odd, they are very intelligent and physically fit and strong.

The only problem is, they have always lived here in the secret government complex on the ocean floor, so they don't know anything about the outside world. So my job is to help them learn about ordinary things like calendars and taxis and TV. Can you imagine? The man I talked to today had never heard of a TV. He asked me what it was, and I said, "television," but he still had no idea what I was talking about. I guess they can't get the satellite signals to broadcast through all that water, but I'm going to suggest that they get a very long and strong wire called an undersea cable and bring the signal in that way. It would be a big project, but it would really help these people get used to what life is like in the rest of the world.

I'm so amazed that they brought me all the way to the bottom of the ocean while I was sleeping, after I took that pill in the restaurant. And in spite of everything I've ever read about the subject, they actually have air down here—regular, normal air. It might be a little bit more compressed than the air we're used to on the surface, but not much. This is a new technology and it's a big breakthrough because normally in underwater habitats you have to breathe something called heliox, which is a mixture of helium and oxygen, instead of normal air.

Wendy, you may remember from science class, and Grady, you'll get this pretty soon, that the air we breathe is made up of different gasses but most of it is nitrogen. The problem with that is that here at the bottom of the ocean, there's an unbelievable amount of water pushing down on everything all the time and its very, very heavy. The only way to keep the water from crushing the buildings and killing all the people is to pressurize the buildings. They have to pump up the insides of the buildings with just as much pressure as they're getting on the outside. In fact, they might even pump them up just a little bit more. That way if there's a tiny little leak in the building, a little crack or something, the water won't leak in.

The only problem with all this is that when nitrogen is put under that much pressure, it becomes a liquid, and liquid nitrogen is very, very cold, much colder than ice. It's so cold it will actually freeze the flesh right off your body if it touches you. So obviously you couldn't breathe it because it would just kill you if you tried.

But helium is a special gas that never compresses into a liquid no matter how much pressure it's under, so they use it for deep sea habitats. They mix the oxygen with helium instead of nitrogen, and everybody breathes that instead. But it makes them talk in clown voices like they're huffing helium balloons. So they have to wear some special things on their necks to make their voices go deep so they can understand each other, and then they sound like ducks. And you can't exercise in heliox because you get out of breath, so that's a pain.

There are other gasses that can be mixed with oxygen for deep-diving habitats, too, and they all have their own problems, I guess. But the government has found a way to build super-strong buildings here so they can hold up to the pressure and we get to breathe regular air.

Hugs and kisses. See you soon.

All my love,

Mom

I don't know why I even write to my kids anymore. If Gih-lek can't risk getting in trouble to send me home, he's sure not going to risk it just to send some letters. Unless ... maybe they've got a way of sending messages through time without anyone actually going there. I'll have to ask about that.

Sometimes I wish I could tell my kids what's really going on, but I know I'd never get the Cardassians to go along with it. And besides, I don't want Wendy and Grady to worry. So I make up stories and tell them I'm on a secret mission. It's better this way.

I miss them so much.






Chapter 14

Gibberish


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 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!" I said with authority.

Nothing.

About five minutes later the noises and the shaking both stopped. The creaking was a little louder now, 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 handed them 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 Gih-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 suddenly dawned on me why Dolim Shal wouldn't talk to me. I was being immersed. Gih-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, Gih-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 carefully 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 Cardassian woman I'd had lunch with, Karadel, and most of the rest were Bajoran.

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. Gih-lek had said the Federation was the recognized government of Earth now, and the Cardassians were at war with them. And he'd said Dukat should have turned me over to the Federation as soon as he had been satisfied that I wasn't a spy. All those facts would seem to put me solidly in the POW category, and didn'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 like she would have liked 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.





Chapter 15

Repair Work


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!"

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