10, 11, 12

Chapter 10

Paper


Before I was quite dressed, Dolim Shal showed up and took me to my new quarters aboard ship. They weren't much different from my quarters on Terok Nor, with a bed, a desk, a replicator and a bathroom. The main difference was that here there was a small table with two chairs.

"Dolim," I said, "before you leave, could I have something to write on?"

He opened a small compartment near the bed and took out an off-brand iPad.

"Thanks," I said. "How do you turn it on?"

His fingers flew over the geometric decorations. "I've turned it on to record," he answered. "You may begin when ready."

"Wait a minute, " I said. "How do I ..." I trailed off and stared at the screen. A lot of strange little shapes had appeared where there had been nothing before. "Well, that's odd," I remarked, and more shapes appeared as I spoke.

"What's wrong?" Dolim asked, moving to see the screen.

"What are those things?" I asked. "Every time I talk, there are more of them." It must have been some kind of game. The tiny shapes were lined up in rows, and the rows spread out in various directions like a street map.

"That's ..." he began, then stopped and looked at my face. "You don't read Cardassian, do you?"

"You have your own alphabet?" I asked, fascinated.

He smiled. "Yes, of course. I'll change the language for you."

"Thanks," I said, handing him the iPad. "What I really want to do is send an email. I understand I'll have to get it approved first. I just don't want my kids to worry. I've been gone three days and they must be scared to death by now."

"Children are often more resilient than we think," Dolim said, touching the decorations on the iPad faster than my eyes could follow. "What is an email?"

I couldn't believe he didn't know what an email was. But then, until very recently I hadn't known what a replicator was. "I just meant, I want to send a message to my children, to reassure them," I replied.

"I'll pass along your request," he shrugged, "but I doubt it will be granted." He handed me back the device.

"Thanks," I said. "Could I just write a letter to my kids now and save it, in case at some point I get permission to send it?" I noticed the little street map full of shapes was gone now, replaced by text in a language I couldn't immediately identify.

"Certainly," said Dolim Shal. "And if, as I predict, your request is denied, you may continue recording letters to them. Perhaps one day, this war will end and your letters can be sent."

I wasn't sure what he meant by "this war," but I had more important questions. "Does this thing have Word on it, or Pages?" I asked.

"Its a recording device," he answered. "It will have all the words you record on it. But it's not a codex; it has no pages."

"I mean," I said, "does it have a word processing program on it, like Microsoft Word, or the Apple program called Pages?"

"No," he answered. "It has neither."

"I guess I could cut and paste out of this program into an email, if I had to," I said. "I should be able to at least do that, right?"

"I can't guarantee that your recordings can be transferred to email, no," he replied.

I sighed. "Then, could I maybe just have some paper and a pen?"

"A pen, you may have," he answered, "but I'm not familiar with paper. Is it a type of tablet?"

It took me a long time to explain to Dolim Shal what I wanted, and even longer to explain it to the replicator, but in the end I had a leather case full of about half a ream of paper, and a high-quality, smooth-writing ball point pen. As soon as he was out the door, I sat down at the table (the desk was all wrong for writing) and began.

Dear Wendy and Grady,

I'm very sorry I wasn't able to call you these last three days. I know you must be worried and probably mad at me, but I know when you read this you'll understand and decide it was worth it.

I've been picked to do a secret, very important job for the government.

At the conference I met a man who called himself Derek, but I'm sure that's not his real name. He took me to a restaurant and told me I'd been chosen for a secret government job. I asked him if who he worked for, whether it was the CIA or the FBI or the NSA or Homeland Security or what. But he said he doesn't work for any of those, because they all report to Congress or the President. He told me that his organization, his secret branch of the government, isn't under the President or Congress or the courts. It's a fourth branch that's independent and answers only to themselves, and it's their job to protect the United States, and even the whole world, against very serious, terrible threats that the President and the people in Congress don't even want to know about.

I begged him to tell me what kind of threats he was talking about, but he wouldn't. He said he had strict codes of conduct, and he cannot tell a recruit anything. He kept saying that the mission is very very important and "Your country needs you." So how could I refuse?

When I said yes he pulled out a pill and told me to take it, so I took it and fell asleep right away, And when I woke up I was in a strange place full of odd-looking people. They had put me in a car or an airplane or something, and taken me away to some other place while I was sleeping. So I don't know where I am because it's a secret.

Right now I'm waiting to hear what the mission is. I'm so excited!

Please make sure that Grammie remembers to feed the cats. She asked me if I needed her to do anything for them and I told her no because I thought I was going to be gone for just six days. But now it looks like I'm going to have to be away for longer, and I don't know how long exactly. So please tell Grammie that, yes, I do need her to feed the cats now. Feed them and give them water and, please tell her I'm sorry, but they'll need the litter boxes changed, too. I put out three litter boxes for them so they'd have enough litter for the week. Once a week should do it: I don't want her to drive all the way over there and back more often than she has to. Just be sure to fill the food dispenser all the way up, and replace the water in the cooking pot I put out for them beside the food dispenser. Their water dish is too small for all the water they'll need for a whole week, so I always use the cooking pot if I have to leave them.

Oh, and if Grammie complains about the cats, please remind her that she has dogs, and if we had dogs she'd have to go to our house twice a day to let them out. Cats, at least, can use a litter box.

Please make sure you do your homework every day, and if you have any questions or there's anything you're not sure about, you can ask Grammie. And if you get stuck in Language Arts you can ask uncle Jeremy, or if you get stuck in math, Ed Leon is a good guy to ask. Don't let him fool you with that "I hate kids" stuff: it's all a joke and I'm sure he'd be flattered if you asked him to help. Grammie has Ed Leon's number . They've been friends since I was little and before your uncle Lew was even born.

Okay, I'm done harping. It's just that I love you guys and I want you to be safe.

Hugs and kisses. See you soon.

All my love,

Mom

The problem with having the time to keep a journal is that it gives you time to think. Up until Dolim Shal left me in my new quarters, I'd been reacting, doing whatever I needed to in the moment. Now I'm alone, locked in what amounts to a very comfortable prison cell.

When I finished the letter to Wendy and Grady, I got up and checked the door. It was locked, of course. So I sat back down and started writing this journal, supposing, for some reason, that someone would come along and interrupt me before I'd managed to get very far. I've caught up now, all the way to the present, and I'm still alone. It's so quiet here it's creepy. There's a constant, very quiet thrumming that's probably the fan motors for the ventilation system, and an occasional creaking sound. I suppose that's the hull rubbing against the dock bumpers when the wind blows.

I have everything I need: toilet, shower, food from the replicator any time I want it, shelter. I have too much shelter. Still need to find a way to break out of here.

Which leads me to two questions: Where is here, and what do they want with me? For that matter, who are they? No matter what explanation I come up with for the bizarre people and events I've encountered over the past three days, every single one of them sounds crazy. Some of my friends would say I've been abducted by aliens, and that one makes me laugh. I do believe that sometimes that may happen to people, but it's not what happened to me. Alien abductions always happen when you're sleeping, and I was awake and walking around. And there's the matter of the missing aliens, too. These Cardassians are certainly odd-looking, but they're clearly human.

The nearest I can figure is that the Cardassians are the result of some kind of genetic experiment. They're being held in some sort of secret facility, maybe in White Sands, New Mexico. The government convinces them all that they're soldiers, so they stay busy heroically serving an entire imaginary Cardassian civilization. And if this is true, I don't want to burst their bubble. They need something to live for, after all.

That would answer a few questions (why they act so strange, why I'm not allowed to go home) but still leave a bunch of questions unanswered (where I am, how I got here and why, how I can get out). If this is a secret building in New Mexico and not a ship in some body of water, then I wonder what that creaking sound is. I'd say it doesn't matter, except it may be a clue that can help me escape.






Chapter 11

2362


I was lying on the bed pretending to be sleepy, trying to figure out what that creaking noise could have been, when Dolim Shal came back and announced that Gul Gih-lek wanted to see me.

I had expected his office to look a lot like Gul Dukat's, but beyond the fact that it was decorated with the same acute-angles motif that seemed to permeate everything Cardassian, it wasn't very similar at all. This office was smaller and gave me the impression it had been designed more for efficiency than for intimidating visitors.

The annoyance Gih-lek had shown when I last saw him had worn off, and now he played the gracious host. "Have a seat," he said with a gallant wave of his hand, and "Are you satisfied with your quarters?" He handed me a light brown liquid in a glass cup with a metal holder. It was shaped like an ice cream cone, so the holder was necessary if you wanted to put it down without dumping out the contents.

I told him my room was fine, and resisted the temptation to complain about having been locked inside it. I sipped the liquid and wasn't sure I liked it. I supposed it was a kind of tea.

He nodded over the coffee in his own cone-shaped cup and said, "I watched the recording of your interrogation."

I nearly dropped my tea. This Gih-lek fellow was moody enough already, and there was no way watching that interrogation could have a positive effect on his treatment of me.

"Do you know where you are?" he asked. His face was still a polite mask.

The question, I thought, is whether you know where you are. I nodded and said aloud, "Your ship."

"And where is my ship?"

"I have no idea."

"What is today's date?"

"September twenty-first, I'm pretty sure." I hadn't seen a clock or a calendar since Chicago. I hadn't even seen the sky since Chicago.

"How do you explain the fact that I look very different from you?" he continued. He must have seen me flinch, because he added, "You may answer honestly. You will not be punished for your answer."

I shook my head. "I really haven't figured that out yet."

"It's spring in North America right now," he said, "2362."

Spring: an uprising or a time of great change. All I had to do was look at his scaly face to know that was the truth. But why?

"Terok Nor security discovered evidence of a temporal anomaly where you were found," he continued.

I almost asked him for permission to write to my kids, but decided my chances would be slightly better if I left that task in Dolim Shal's hands. That way if Dolim came back with a no, I could still ask the Gul directly myself. The most important thing right now was to find a way to learn where I was.

"Faine," Gul Gih-lek said gently, but he said it like 'vain.'

The room came back into focus and I realized I'd been staring at the large oval decoration behind his head. I snapped my eyes back to his face. "Sorry."

"Did you hear what I said?"

"North American spring," I replied.

"It's a lot to absorb at once." He contemplated his coffee for a moment, then said, "Glin Tahmid asked you a question about calendars. Do you remember that?"

"He asked me which calendar we use."

"You use the Gregorian calendar, not the Julian."

I nodded. In itself it was only a mildly interesting piece of trivia, but the Cardassians seemed to think it was important, so maybe I should, too.

He shrugged. "I didn't know it, either. I had to look it up."

"So," I ventured, "is it important?"

"Is what important, the name of the calendar?"

"Right."

"Not that I know of. But this may be important: you were unconscious for a long time."

"How long?"

"Look at me, Faine." Again, the 'F' came out as a 'V.'

I had been looking at him. I put my cup in its holder by feel and focused on his eyes.

"Are you ready?" he asked.

"Yes." I couldn't wait to know how many days I'd been asleep.

"According to the Gregorian calendar, the current year is 2362."

"So that's ..." It was simple math, but my brain just wouldn't do it.

"Three hundred forty-seven years," he said.

I had the sensation that my thoughts were racing, but for once I wasn't actually thinking anything at all.

"Are you ready for the next blow?" he asked after a while.

"Yes, go ahead." I wasn't ready, but I didn't want to be rude.

He finished his coffee and put the cup in its holder. "I am not human."

In spite of myself, I felt a thrill. "Cardassians ... are not human?" I asked.

"That's correct."

"And Bajorans?"

"They're not human either. Bajorans are the native people of the planet Bajor, and my people are from a planet called Cardassia Prime."

"And you mentioned a Cardassian Union, too?"

"In some ways it's similar to the Federation." He paused. "But you don't know what the Federation is, either, do you?"

I shook my head.

"While you were unconscious, an alliance was formed between Earth and several other planets to form the United Federation of Planets. And whether you like it or not, that's your government now."

At that moment I decided that to preserve my sanity, I'd stop worrying about reality for the time being. I'd just go along with the story like I would if I were watching it at a movie theater. I'd ask appropriate questions now and worry later about what was true and what wasn't. I'd probably learn more that way, anyway, and get out of here sooner. "What is it like?" I asked. "Is it a good government to be under?"

"Oh, there are many strong opinions on that topic," he sneered.

"One thing I've been wondering," I said, "just where exactly are we and how did I get here?"

He sighed. "I'll try to answer both those questions as well as I can, but it may be hard for you to understand some of the answers."

I didn't like his arrogance, and I certainly didn't appreciate being patronized, but I knew one thing for sure: whoever this guy was, he was convinced that he was a military commander and I was a nobody. So for now at least, I'd need to humor him.

"I've ordered an investigation into 'how you got here,'" he said, the last four words coming out in a mocking tone, or at least a condescending one. "But we're a long way from Chicago, and since you were not conscious during transport and we have no other witnesses, we may not have that answer any time soon."

"We're a long way from Chicago," I repeated. "So you know Chicago, then?"

"No", he replied, "I'd never heard of Chicago until I watched your interrogation."

I concentrated on suppressing the shiver that was building up in my spine.

"As to where you are," he asked, "do you have any guesses?"

"New Mexico?"

"Try another guess."

"Guam?" I don't know what made me say that; it just came out.

He shook his head. "When you were taken from Chicago," he said, "you were taken off the planet. We are not on Earth."

I raised my eyebrows in what I thought was a suitably surprised expression, and was thankful I didn't burst out laughing before I could stop myself. "This must be a space station, then," I replied.

"Excuse me," he said, rising. "Terok Nor is a space station, and currently we're on a ship. But the ship is still docked at Terok Nor, so in a way you are correct: this is a space station." He turned to a nearby replicator and ordered, "Hasperat for two," and when the items had swirled into being, he put them on the desk and sat down again. "It's a Bajoran dish," he said. "I thought you might like to try it."

"Thanks." I picked up one of the pieces. It was an ordinary wrap sandwich with lettuce in it, among other things. "So you're telling me this is a spaceship, then?"

"A ship that travels in space, yes—an interstellar ship, or a starship."

I took a bite from the wrap, and it was all I could do to keep my lips closed and force it down. My whole mouth burned, and by the time the last of it was searing its way to my stomach, my face was wet with tears.

The Gul put his own wrap down and handed me a tissue. "It's a very popular dish among Bajorans," he said. "Could I interest you in something milder?"

"Yes, please," I answered, through the tissue. "Just a plain piece of bread would be great."

He got up and turned to the replicator, and I took the opportunity to quietly blow my nose.

He finished his wrap in silence while I ate the bread, then said, "I'm afraid I have some bad news, Vaine."

"Alright," I said, doing my best to look stalwart. In reality, I was starting to feel sorry for him, leading a grand army of mostly imaginary space soldiers in the noble defense of a nonexistent planet. "Go ahead," I said. "I'm ready."

"You will remain here for the foreseeable future."

"The thing is, though, Gul," I replied, "I really do need to get home to my kids."

"I can see that your people haven't changed much in the last three hundred fifty years," he observed. Then he leaned in and squinted into my eyes with a look that made it hard not to look away, and said through his teeth, "You were ill-advised to argue with me."

I blinked. "I apologize, Gul. It won't happen again."

"Good." He sat back again. "I'm afraid you've been dumped into the middle of a very delicate situation."

I was surprised. Did he knew what was going on, then? Did he, for some reason, need to keep up the pretense? "I see," I replied.

"My colleague Dukat," he continued, "occupies a place of exceptional influence. To offend him would quite simply be political suicide. He'd likely arrange for me to be reduced in rank, if not lose my commission entirely. There would be no one to exert a moderating influence on his ... excesses, and I would no longer be in a position to try to bring about an end to the war."

There was that war again. "Who are you at war with?" I asked.

His eyebrows went up. "You."

"You're at war with me?"

"Not you only. We're at war with the Federation."

"Oh," I said, "that's convenient. So you have to put up with Dukat in order to try to end the war?"

"You heard correctly."

"Is that related to the fact that I can't go home to my kids?" I asked.

"Yes. If I could secretly return you to your own place and time, I would. Unfortunately, I cannot do that without being detected, and causing an unauthorized temporal anomaly is against our laws. Rape is against our laws as well, but those laws are often not enforced when the victim is not Cardassian, especially if the victim is a member of an enemy race and the perpetrator is a Gul. But the law banning unauthorized temporal anomalies is enforced, I'm afraid, even against Guls, and even for correcting existing anomalies."

"So you could return me if you wanted to, but you'd have to get permission?"

He shook his head. "Theoretically, that's correct, but I cannot make the request without embarrassing Dukat."

"How would that embarrass Dukat?" I asked, genuinely curious now.

"How would that embarrass Gul Dukat?" he corrected.

"Gul Dukat," I repeated. "How would it embarrass Gul Dukat?"

"Dukat has a reputation—as do some others in powerful positions, myself included—for having a strong sexual appetite and a taste for Bajoran women. In this case of course, you're not Bajoran, but physically there's very little difference. It's a reputation, and he's proud of it, but it's never spoken of in public, or in official communications. And to make matters worse, you're not even Bajoran. Dukat should have reported your presence immediately. He should never have touched you, and when his investigators concluded you were not a spy, he should have made arrangements at that time to turn you over to the Federation. Three days' delay combined with your injuries would raise obvious questions that would be very embarrassing to Dukat."

"But I'm fine now," I said. "My injuries are healed."

"They are healed, yes, but not erased. A medical exam would reveal them."

"So that's why you said you couldn't report me to the State Department, I guess."

"Let's take a walk," he said, rising. "I'll show you some of the ship."





Chapter 12

Port Hole


"Welcome to the cruiser Mekar," said Gih-lek, when we'd gone out into the drab, cramped and clangy hallway. The way he waved his hand, you'd think he was a prince welcoming me to his palace. Once more I felt sorry for him: he'd probably never be able to appreciate the irony.

He turned left and started walking, and I followed.

"It was named for a place on my planet that I know well," he said.

I wondered if his memories were of a real place, or if the people running this experiment had found a way to somehow brainwash him, to give him false memories of a place that didn't even exist. I decided to see if I could find out. So far the only thing I had that could possibly help me figure out my location was that creaking sound. "Is it very beautiful?" I asked.

"At times it's beautiful," he answered. "But beauty is not a consideration in the naming of Cardassian warships. This vessel takes its name from the Mekar wilderness. The Mekar is a challenge to those who have the strength and cunning to survive, a crucible that tempers Cardassians ... and kills Terrans."

I shivered in spite of the heat. It was suddenly obvious why the Cardassians kept calling me Teryn. It wasn't Teryn, it was Terran, a person from Terra, the Latin name for Earth.

And then something far worse occurred to me. I stopped walking and just stood there, fighting the nausea, trying to force my brain to keep working. There must be a way to beat the system and get out alive. Or if there wasn't, I still didn't have to go quietly.

Gih-lek stopped after a few steps and looked back at me. "Are you feeling alright?" he asked.

I nodded. I couldn't speak.

"Go back to my office," he ordered.

In his office, he took out a small device and held it several inches from my face, moving it slowly downwards. "Your blood pressure is low and your heart rate and synaptic activity are elevated," he observed. "Did something scare you?"

"I just figured out what 'Terran' means," I confessed.

"Terran only means Human," he replied.

I decided I was done with trying to be sneaky. I was getting nowhere this way. "What happened to the rest of them?" I asked, trying to keep the challenging edge out of my voice, just keep it a simple question.

"What happened to the rest of what?" he asked.

"The rest of the Terrans. I'm the only one left, aren't I?"

He laughed. "The only one left where? On this ship we rarely see Terrans. We are at war with them, after all. But I assure you, there are plenty of you left in the quadrant. Whole worlds full of you."

"How do I know there didn't used to be plenty of us right here, in this ... this place, whatever this is? And how do I know you didn't kill them all?"

"If I'd wanted to kill you," he said, opening his office door and giving me that gallant go-ahead gesture, "I would have done so. As for all the other Terrans you imagine to have been on this ship, you'll simply have to take my word for it: we rarely see your kind here."

We walked in silence for about two minutes, and I thought about what he'd said. It was true, his behavior really wasn't consistent with someone who wanted to kill me. In fact, hadn't he saved my life at least twice? Well, the danger from the 'airlocks' may have been all made up, but the danger from Dukat wasn't.

"Big ship," I remarked, hoping to lighten the mood.

"I didn't hear you."

"I said it's a big ship," I repeated.

"How did your people measure ships?" he asked. "What unit of measurement did you use?"

"Feet."

He stopped walking, turned, bent down and squinted at my face. "Did you say 'feet?'"

"Not the body part," I explained. "It's just a measurement."

His face relaxed and he continued walking. "I'm not familiar with feet," he said.

"How about meters?" I asked.

"Yes. In fact, your modern Federation uses meters. According to Starfleet records, the length of this vessel is four hundred eighty-one meters."

"That's almost half a kilometer!"

"...or three hundred seventy-two meters."

"Why two different measurements?"

He shrugged. "There are three different measurements, in fact. In another place their records show the length to be five hundred meters. But as to why, it's doubtful whether even anyone in Starfleet knows that."

“What is Starfleet?” I asked.

“It’s your people’s military. The Federation doesn’t like to use the term ‘military.’ They think it sounds too aggressive. So they named their military Starfleet and insist its mission is one of peaceful exploration.”

He showed me the cafeteria again, only he called it the replimat, and he showed me the gym, which he called the fitness room. By the time we'd left the fitness room, I'd decided to ask him about the creaking.

Instead of answering, he gave his chest a light tap and said, "Gih-lek to Engineering."

"This is Pracet, Gul," a male voice answered.

"The Terran prisoner reports hearing a very quiet creaking sound in her quarters. Its timing is irregular and it's below the Cardassian threshold. Find the source."

"I obey, Gul," said the voice, just like Dolim Shal had in the replimat.

"Gih-lek out." He tapped his chest again, stopped and turned to me. "Are you ready?"

"Ready for what?" I replied. I didn't see anything but grey-brown bulkheads and narrow pocket doors.

He opened one of the doors and gave me the gesture again. It was a smallish room, not quite as big as his office, with a huge picture in an oval frame on the far wall. "It's beautiful," I said. It was a futuristic space scene: a man-made structure, complete with tiny windows, floated in front of a breathtaking field of stars in some artist's dream of eternal night. In the background, the Earth was at dusk or dawn, half light and half dark.

And then something moved. It was just lights at first, and the lights gradually grew bigger until I could see the craft that bore them: brownish, boxy and apparently windowless. It passed close enough that I could see it did have windows, but very few and so tiny that the craft itself must have been immense. Then it disappeared behind the structure.

"Do you still believe you're on Earth and I'm a genetically altered Human?" the Gul asked gently, from close behind me.

"No, how—how did you know?" I stammered. "I never told you that." But I couldn't take my eyes off the window.

"You'd be surprised what your people tell us."

At this point I was almost ready to believe anything, or nothing. "Are you telepathic?" I asked.

"No," he answered.

"So that's Terok Nor, then, that station?" I asked.

"That's correct."

"Look at the the Earth," I said, "It's so beautiful from space."

"Not the Earth," he replied in the same quiet voice.

I was about to point out to him the curve of Africa's west coast when I realized he was right. These continents were the wrong shape and in the wrong places. What I had mistaken for the Sahara was a mass of clouds. "Oh," I stammered, "it's ..."

He finished my sentence. "... the Bajor."

I don't know how long I stood staring out the window, watching the sunlight recede on the planet and lights go on and off on Terok Nor. Eventually I looked up and found the Gul busy with a tablet. "I'm sorry, Gul" I said, "I've kept you waiting."

"You have no need to apologize," he answered. "Very few people will ever have the opportunity to witness what I just witnessed."

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