The next morning I had the replicator make me coffee and a Cardassian breakfast dish called tojal in yamok sauce that is so delicious I can’t get enough of it. Then I got to work early at the desk in my quarters.
I checked my findings about four times before hailing Joret Dal.
“Go ahead,” Dal’s voice spoke from my shoulder.
“I’ve identified the language.”
“Come to my office.”
“Okay,” I said, rising and walking to the door. As I had expected, it didn’t open. “Sorry, but I can’t. The door doesn’t open for me.”
“I’ll be right there.”
“It’s Sumerian,” I said when Dal walked in.
He crossed the room and stood beside me, looking down at the small display screen that was built into my desk. “You're sure?”
Dal touched his combadge. “Dal to Shal.”
“On my way.”
Then Joret Dal bowed and went out.
A few minutes later, the doors swished again and Dolim Shal walked in.
I stood up and brought my dishes to the replicator. “Why didn’t Joret Dal just take me to his office himself?” I asked. “Why did he go by himself and call you to take me?”
“We’re not going to his office,” Dolim Shal replied. “We’re going to Glin Zorak’s office.”
I dropped my empty coffee cup and bent down to pick it up. “Glin Zorak? May I ask what this is about?”
“There’s no need to be alarmed. It’s standard procedure in cases like this.”
“Cases like what? What did I do?”
He stood in the open doorway and gestured me through them. “I understand you’re working on an intelligence project. I can surmise that it probably has something to do with Earth languages, since you are involved. But I have no knowledge of the details.”
“Oh, so I’m just meeting with Glin Zorak this time? It’s not another interrogation?”
“Like I said, I have no knowledge of the particulars. But in most cases like this, interrogation is standard procedure.”
“Is that because I’m Human and there’s that war with the Federation?”
“No, I don’t think that has anything to do with it.”
Just like last time, Glin Zorak welcomed me with his usual show of courtesy, bowing and pointing me to the seat across from his as though it were a place of honor. Again he sprayed something into my neck and then sat down. “Do you know why you’re here?” he asked.
“No,” I answered. “As far as I know I just did what I was asked to do. I have no idea what I did wrong.”
Zorak laughed. “I don’t believe you’ve done anything wrong.”
I shook my head. “Then what—“ I began, and thought better of wording my sentence that way. I could just imagine him telling me I wasn’t the doing the questioning here. “Then I don’t understand what I’m doing here.”
“There are questions that need to be answered, and when that happens, I’m usually called upon to ask them.”
“Okay, but ... why me? Someone sent an encrypted message in a strange language on a Starfleet channel, and I was asked to figure out which language it was. I did that. And as soon as I did, they sent me here.”
Zorak nodded. “It’s standard procedure.”
“So I got in trouble for doing what I was told?”
He laughed again. “If you call this trouble, then yes.”
I put my elbow on his desk and rested my forehead on my hand. “I can’t believe this. What do you want to know?”
“How much do you know about the Sumerian civilization?”
I looked up and put my hand down. “The Sumerian civilization? Not much. We barely covered it in college. There may have been a whole chapter on it in one of my textbooks. And in grad school I did a paper on cuneiform writing.”
But he began asking me specific questions about the Sumerians anyway, and I was surprised how much I was able to remember from college and little bits picked up through the years in my reading. After we had talked for about half an hour, I understood why it was standard procedure to conduct an interrogation in cases like this one. As Zorak had said, it wasn’t that I had done anything wrong. He wasn’t trying to get me to confess to a crime; he was simply trying to learn everything I knew about the Sumerians. And with his training, he was able to get a lot more out of me than I ever could have remembered by myself.
“Would it be okay if I asked you a question?” I said when I found an opening.
Zorak dipped his head in a miniature bow. “Certainly.”
“I’m just curious what would have happened if I didn’t want to cooperate.”
“The first thing I would try is drugs,” he answered, sounding like a professor offered the chance to expound on his favorite subject. “I gave you a little to start with, of course. That was just a small dose to help with your nervousness. Larger doses, different drugs, can work wonders at times with an uncooperative subject, particularly a Human one.”
“I see,” I replied, keeping my face neutral with an effort and wondering why I had asked. “I was just curious.”
But Zorak continued. “If that didn’t work ...” He reached under his desk and the rod began to descend from the ceiling. “I believe you’re familiar with this technique.”
I nodded, not sure I trusted my voice, and realized my head was bobbing up and down. I really regretting asking now, and decided that whatever he said next, I wasn’t going to imagine that it was happening to me. I would visualize a representation of an impersonal figure that couldn’t feel and wasn’t self-aware. It would be the stick figure my friends and I had always drawn when we had played hangman as children.
“I would leave you hanging all night if you were obstinate enough to require it.” The rod went back to its usual place and Zorak withdrew his hand.
My technique of using the stick figure was only partially successful, and the interrogator wasn’t finished yet. “As a last resort: brain surgery. I would have your memory engrams removed and analyzed.”
That didn’t sound horrible at all. Compared to the last one it was downright civilized—and from a technological standpoint, beyond intriguing. “Really?” I asked, leaning forward. “You can do that?”
“Oh yes,” he nodded, his eyes not leaving mine. “Rest assured that everything you know, I will know, if I choose to.”
“Why don’t you just do that, then? Why bother asking so many questions and waiting all night while your victim hangs by the wrists?”
Zorak’s brows rose. “Because I’m not cruel,” he scoffed. “Believe it or not, I take no pleasure in such things. To do as you suggest would be beneath a Cardassian.”
“But why can't you just use anesthetic?”
“Because after we removed your memory engrams, you would lose all your higher functions.”
My jaw dropped and I shut it again. “You mean ...”
The glin nodded. “You would no longer be sentient.”
When Zorak was finished, Dolim Shal took me to Gih-lek’s office. “I’ve had to call off the investigation,” he informed me. “At least without any more help from Dukat, we've gathered all the information we can. And I’m afraid it isn't enough; all we can do with it is spin theories. We'll reopen it if we get any more leads.”
I gripped my coffee cup and stared at his desk. “I appreciate your trying so hard. Thank you.”
“We didn't do it for you,” he replied. “We were investigating to see if the event posed any threat to the Cardassian Union.”
I kept starting at the desk, hoping Gih-lek would change the subject, but he remained silent. So it was up to me. I looked up. “You never drink hot fish juice.”
“Hot fish juice?” As usual, his face showed no emotion, but I wondered if he was surprised. I had to admit, it was a silly topic to bring up, but it was the first thing that had come to my mind.
“It seems to be a very popular drink for Cardassians,” I explained. “Everyone else seems to drink it, but not you.”
“I drink it,” he replied. ”I just don't drink it when you're in my office. Most humans find its smell offensive.”
I couldn’t help laughing. “Thank you,” I said. “I appreciate that.”
Gih-lek replied with a silent bow.
“When I was back on Earth,” I remarked, “people used to speculate about extraterrestrials.”
He shrugged. “And here we are. Are we anything like you expected?”
“Not really. There were these drawings that UFO people made of the aliens they supposedly saw. They were green and had big heads and no genitals.”
“What people made the drawings?” Gih-lek asked. “The term is not translating.”
“Oh, UFO people. I really meant people who claimed to have seen aliens. But UFO stands for unidentified flying object. Essentially it means anything that’s believed or at least suspected to be an alien craft.”
“Did I hear correctly that the aliens your people saw had no genitals?” Gih-lek asked.
“That’s what people said, anyway.”
“How do they reproduce?”
I shrugged. “That's a mystery.”
“I do have a little good news for you,” he said. “You will have the opportunity to be on a planet again for a short visit.”
I felt like my face was going to split. The prospect of feeling earth under my feet again ... well, not earth exactly, but soil ...
“I’ll be beaming down shortly with some of my staff, and I’ll be able to take you with me this time.”
“What does ‘beaming down’ mean?”
“We will stand on a platform called a transporter pad,” he explained. “The computer will convert our molecules to data and rematerialize them on the surface of the planet.”
I waited for him to continue, but he said nothing more. “Then what happens?” I prompted.
“Then we’ll be on the surface until it is time to beam back up to the ship.”
“You mean you can be converted to data and then rematerialized and still be alive afterwards?”
“Oh, yes, it’s quite safe. People have been doing this for centuries.”
Gih-lek nodded. “Even Humans. Now, no matter what happens, you must follow orders and cooperate fully with everything I and my staff do.”
I wondered why he had felt it necessary to say that. Wasn’t I fully cooperating already? “Of course, Gul.”
“I’m afraid I will not be able to treat you with the same respect there as I can here in the privacy of my office.”
“I understand,” I replied. I almost asked if the planet was very similar to Earth, but then thought better of it. Gih-lek might not be familiar with Earth, and who knows what his own home planet was like? It would have been a better bet to ask how similar it was to Bajor. Bajor certainly looked a lot like Earth from a distance, at least. But I was under orders not to bring up the subject of Bajorans, and I didn’t know if that prohibition extended to their planet as well. I didn’t feel like finding out.
Dolim Shal replicated a dress for me to wear. While it was certainly flattering, I didn’t think it looked very Cardassian. I had never seen a Cardassian with bare legs.
I beamed down with Gih-lek and eight other male Cardassians in two landing parties because the transporter pad wasn’t big enough to send us all at once.
Beaming down didn’t feel anything like I had imagined it. I had anticipated it would be something like going under general anesthesia and waking up again, with my consciousness slipping away and then returning. In reality, it was more like a tickle or a tingle throughout my whole body. The biggest shock was the disorienting effect of being in another place without traveling or even feeling like any time had gone by.
We materialized in a courtyard made of grey quarried stone. I couldn’t tell the difference between it and the granite from my native New Hampshire. But that was the only familiar thing there. The architecture was more square than anything I had ever seen. Bushes or shrubs grew from huge cube-shaped stone planters, their round leaves bluer than bluegrass and larger than banana leaves.
I had hoped I would get to meet the native people of this planet, but it turned out that our hosts were Cardassians. There were nine of them, three soldiers and six civilians, and they were all male. One of the civilians, apparently their leader, introduced them all, and Gih-lek introduced every member of the landing party except me. I bowed anyway.
They led us to a large six-sided table that I took to be of Cardassian design. It certainly stood out in that square place. It was so big that when we had all sat, eight seats still remained empty. The table was not hexagonal, but was in the shape of a backwards S with a curved arm jutting out from its center. So even though it was large enough to seat 27, you were still within comfortable conversation distance from the people who sat across from you. Gih-lek sat at the point of the arm and I sat to his left. Across from me was the leader of our hosts. Cardassian servers scurried in and out from the nearest building, pouring hot fish juice and hot coffee in spite of the tropical heat.
Gih-lek had warned me that his treatment of me would be different down on the planet, but I didn’t fully understand what he meant until we were seated together at that table. He made critical comments about my body that made me feel like I was a horse up for sale. Twice he touched my face without even making eye contact first to see if I minded. And the way he looked at me made me feel like he was imagining me naked.
The most difficult part of it all wasn’t the way Gih-lek acted, though. It was my own reaction to it. I should have been offended by his lack of manners, and I was, but I also had other feelings that confused me at least as much as Gih-lek’s crude behavior did.
I couldn’t help enjoying the fact that after all this time he was looking at my body and touching my face. He was doing it in a way that made me want to dump my coffee in his lap and slap his smug face until he apologized, but some primal part of me still thrilled at his look and his touch.
My response to his behavior unnerved me. Time after time I had to stop myself from contemplating whether he would make a good stepfather for Wendy and Grady. The answer to that was clear: nobody who had this little respect for Human women was getting anywhere near my kids. Besides, I reminded myself, even if he did go back to my time, the government would probably perform experiments on him.
The sun was setting on the planet when we beamed back up, but by the Mekar’s schedule it was midday. I joined my coworkers for lunch in the replimat, then went back with them to our communal office.
So far I had worked with only one intercepted transmission, and I had been under the impression that it was the only one. Now I learned that these Sumerian transmissions were being made frequently, and the Mekar now had a large catalogue of them. Most of them seemed religious in nature, and the more we read, the more I was convinced that whoever was sending them was trying to revive the henotheistic religion of the ancient Sumerians.
But the Cardassians weren’t so sure. “It definitely has Oralian elements at least,” Nevara observed, “if it’s not just the Oralian Way itself hidden in Sumerian terms.”
“What’s the Oralian Way?” I asked.
“It’s a dangerous religion that idealizes the destruction of society,” she explained. “It’s illegal, of course, so for your own sake don’t have anything to do with it beyond what is needed for work.”
I felt my eyes widen. “Thanks for the warning. I’ll leave it alone.”
After work I asked if I could see Gih-lek, and after about two hours a soldier I didn’t recognize escorted me to his office.
“Keeba avzyne,” he said when I came in. “What’s on your mind?”
“Keeba avzyne,” I replied, bowing.
He returned the bow and gestured to my usual chair.
I sat down. “I’m hoping you can tell me .... What was that all about on the planet?”
He shook his head slightly and gave a sort of shrug, not with his shoulders but with both his hands. “You’ll need to be more specific.”
“The way you were treating me down there. It seemed like you ...” I paused to find the right words. “... wanted to make them think you owned me.”
“It’s essential that I keep up certain appearances, such as the appearance that I indulge in the company of captured enemy women, because that was my excuse for buying you from Dukat.”
“Yes, I was wondering, am I legally your slave?”
Gih-lek shook his head. “Legally, no, because slavery is not allowed, officially. But a gul can do a lot, and people look the other way as long as he keeps certain people happy.”
“Oh, I get it. If you didn’t have the excuse of pretending I’m your mistress, it would be obvious that the reason you rescued me was because Gul Dukat was killing me. And that would make Gul Dukat look bad, and Gul Dukat is one of the people you need to keep happy.”
Gih-lek just looked at me a moment before saying, “I think you may finally understand.”