Zorana Dahe’el felt the slight shudder as the shuttlecraft’s landing struts touched down in the shuttle bay of the Intrepid-class star-ship, the USS Constellation. With a skeleton crew of recent Starfleet graduates, under the command of Captain Natalie Philips, the Constellation would fly to the space station Deep Space 12, where it would rendezvous with most of the ranking officers and its official captain, Nathanial Mikai. From there, none of the newly commissioned graduates really know what their mission was or where it would take them. None of them had anything more than a training mission to judge by.
Hefting the bag containing her personal belongings to her shoulder, Zorana exited the shuttlecraft behind the other five junior officers, four of them ensigns, three in operations gold, one in science division green, and a junior lieutenant in science green, most likely a counselor, since the Constellation would pick up its chief medical officer at DS12. On the collar of Zorana’s gold uniform were two pips, one solid, one hollow, designating her a junior grade lieutenant as well, the first security officer in Starfleet history to graduate with that distinction. “For exemplary conduct under extraordinary circumstances,” the graduation committee had said. What they meant was, “For surviving on a Class L planet for a year and determining a method of negating naturally occurring fields preventing shuttle landing and emergency transport.” Still, they wouldn’t put that on a diploma. Besides senior Starfleet personnel, only Gabriel Niers, the only other cadet to survive the crash that had landed them on the planet, knew the full story. He too had been given a commendation and the rank of junior lieutenant when he graduated, a year before Zorana. With their commendation came a warning, never to discuss that planet or their time there with anyone.
At the foot of the shuttle ramp stood two officers, a lieutenant in science green and a lieutenant commander in operations gold. The science officer looked to be Vulcan, while the other, Zorana saw with some trepidation, was Bajoran. Each had a small shoulder bag, from which they took PADDs that they handed to the disembarking graduates. The Bajoran was chatting easily with the three ensigns, while the Vulcan conferred dispassionately with the junior lieutenant, Aari Leht, Zorana thought her name was. When Zorana approached, the Bajoran stiffened slightly, as if involuntarily, her conversation trailing off.
“Junior lieutenant Zorana Dahe’el reporting for assignment,” she said formally, feeling as though her neck and brow ridges were itching under the Bajoran’s cold gaze.
“Zorana Dahe’el,” the Vulcan repeated, checking the PADDs in his shoulder bag. “I do not have your assignment. Lieutenant Commander?”
Checking through her bag, the Bajoran pulled out a PADD and passed it, not to Zorana, but to the Vulcan. “Here it is, Lieutenant Turen.”
Lieutenant Turen handed the PADD to Zorana. “This will give your assigned quarters and duties for this voyage to Deep Space 12. Once we reach the station, Captain Mikai will determine duties and postings for the remainder of our mission. Dismissed.”
With a stiff salute toward both officers, Zorana headed toward the turbolift. Once the doors slid shut, she glanced at the PADD. “Junior Lieutenant Zorana Dahe’el,” it read. “Chief security officer and bridge tactical officer, flight to DS12. Quarters: Deck 5, section 2, number 57.” Tucking the PADD into her bag, she said, “Deck 5.” The turbolift whirred upward with an acknowledging chirp. When the lift stopped and the doors slid open, she stepped out into the corridor. Though she had studied the plan of the Constellation diligently as soon as she learned she would be assigned to the Intrepid-Class ship, it still took her a few minutes to find her quarters.
When the door slid open, Zorana entered the room and glanced around her. The quarters seemed larger than they should have been for a junior grade lieutenant, though everything seemed large after spending a year in a repurposed shuttlecraft. “Computer,” she said, “Access environmental controls for this room.” When the computer gave its acknowledging chirp, she continued, “Make the following adjustments: Raise ambient temperature by 4 degrees. Raise ambient humidity by 6%. Lower ambient lighting by 10%.” The computer gave another chirp and replied in its automated voice, “Adjustments made.”
“Save these adjustments and make them the default for these quarters,” Zorana instructed, turning toward her shoulder bag as the computer chirped. She had little in the way of personal possessions, nowhere near enough to relieve the stark quarters. She set a few antique books, bound in the manner of ancient earth texts, on her desk. She hung a painting of Earth on one wall. An antique samurai sword found its place on a ledge. Finally, she lifted a slim flute case from her bag and set it on the desk. Lying on that desk was a comm badge, which Zorana picked up and fastened to her chest. As she turned, she caught a glimpse of herself in a mirror upon one of the walls. She had avoided mirrors as far back as she could remember. The last time she had seen her own face clearly was when she was twelve years old. With a mixture of curiosity and trepidation, she turned back toward the mirror. What she saw was a tall woman, maybe twenty-two years of age. The first things she noticed were the neck and brow ridges, distinctive of the Cardassians, though hers were slightly less prominent than theirs. Her skin had a greyish tone, though more warm in tone than that of the Cardassians. Her hair was so black it appeared blue under the dim light. Reaching out trembling hands, she took the mirror from the wall and took it to the replicator. “Computer, recycle,” she said, her voice shaking. With a high-pitched hum, the replicator disintegrated the mirror in a discharge of energy that was reabsorbed by the replicator unit.
Under a night sky shrouded by thick clouds, Zorana looked back toward the still smoking shuttlecraft and shivered, only partly from the cold of the night. The burning trail of the shuttle’s crash made a fading scar across the clouds. Adjusting the straps of the bags she carried, she struggled up an embankment into the dense forest, heading toward a flickering light in the distance. About ten minutes later, she emerged in a small clearing, a fire burning in its center. A cadet in a battered uniform, one arm in a makeshift sling, sat close to the fire. At Zorana’s approach, he glanced up. “Were you able to salvage anything?”
“A few tricorders, the emergency medical kit, enough field rations for several months, and a blanket,” she replied, not meeting his gaze. Gabriel Niers had been one of the cadets who had made her time in the Academy miserable.
“One blanket?” Niers asked.
Zorana tossed it over to him. “The others burned. I took care of the fire before I tried to salvage anything.” He caught it with his good hand. “Do you want me to repair the broken bones in your arm? The emergency med kit was undamaged.”
“Better not. Save it for a real emergency,” Niers replied, not looking up. “The communicators are still not functioning?”
“Worse than that,” she said. “I got the communicator back online, but the field we encountered is preventing the communications from leaving the atmosphere. The only thing I received on the transmitter was our distress call reflecting back off of the field.”
“Perfect,” Niers grumbled, pulling the blanket around his shoulders with his one good arm. “So you are saying we may be stuck here indefinitely?”
“If we cannot find a way to get communications through the field, yes. Though, it is possible that our initial distress signal got through to someone, in which case we could be rescued in a matter of days.” Zorana huddled closer to the fire, trying to suppress the shivers that wracked her body. “Hopefully they will be able to find us by a scan for life forms.”
“Unless the field reflects that back too,” Niers grumbled.
“At least this is a Class L planet,” Zorana said. “That means we won’t be in danger of being attacked by any hostile animals or natives. And we do have the tricorders. They’ll help us find edible plants.” Realizing that she was close to babbling, she became silent. Niers was at the top of his class, being groomed for command, according to Academy gossip. He would know all about Class L planets. Unfortunately for her, his father had died in the Dominion War, at the hands of Cardassians.
Anchoring her mind firmly in the present, Zorana picked up the PADD that had been lying beside the comm badge on the desk. It had more details of her assignment than the other, including the records of the security personnel that would be serving under her on the voyage to Deep Space 12. All were ensigns, of course. Enlisted security would join them at the space station. She recognized nearly all the names, and sighed at a few of them. Only a handful of her classmates had not resented her for her advanced rank, and they seemed to resent her for her heritage instead.
Returning the PADD to its place, she left her quarters and headed for the nearest turbolift, meaning to familiarize herself with her station at the bridge before the ship left space dock. In the lift, she was joined by two other temporary bridge officers, Ensign Teisha Moran, she would be stationed at ops, from what Zorana knew of her Academy record, and a Klingon that she did not recognize. From what she knew of Klingons, she was surprised that she had been given security and tactical rather than him. When he saw her, a faint snarl contorted his face. The Klingons had suffered heavy casualties during the Dominion War. On an impulse, she snarled back. Cool composure might have worked in the Academy, but Klingons were Klingons, and they respected no one they saw as weak. To her surprise, a faint glimmer of uncertainty flickered in the Klingon’s eyes. Good. Ensign Moran was pretending not to see the exchange. Most humans Zorana had met were like that. Ignore the half-Cardassian and hope she goes away. Zorana unconsciously clenched her jaw. She wasn’t going anywhere.
“I am not going anywhere,” Zorana said firmly, glowering at Niers. He glowered right back at her. More than a month had passed since the crash, and he was beginning to look decidedly less polished each day. It had taken less than a week for him to stop ignoring her whenever he could, less than two weeks for them to come to full-blown shouting matches. They seemed to argue over everything except the Dominion War, including finding food, trying to repair the shuttle, and investigating the strange field that had caused their crash. Surprisingly, even though he technically outranked her, he never brought up the fact.
“If we don’t find better shelter, you will freeze before another week is out,” he said. It was true, much as she hated admitting it. She could not stand the cold half so well as he could, and the nights had driven both of them to huddling together to share the little warmth their bodies held.
Though they had had this conversation so many times Zorana had lost count, she still protested. “Any chance of rescue we have is near the crash site.”
For the first time in any of these arguments, Niers abandoned his lecturing tone. “They aren’t coming, Dahe’el.” He never used her first name, but she didn’t expect him to. “If they could find us, they would have long before now. We aren’t that far from Federation planets. Dahe’el, we are stranded here, and if you have any interest in surviving, we have to find better shelter.”
Forcing down tears, Zorana nodded. She didn’t need Niers knowing how frightened she was, how much the idea of staying in this desolate place turned her stomach. “Never let them see you cry,” she reminded herself silently. “Never let them see you weak.” Those two sentences were all her mother had left her before vanishing somewhere into deep space.
At the bridge, Zorana crossed to her station, noting with slight surprise that the Klingon took the station at the conn. Well, if a half-Cardassian could graduate from the Academy with a commendation, a Klingon could be a conn officer. The first officer’s chair was empty, as was the engineering station. Perhaps their shuttles had not yet arrived, or else they were still in their quarters. Despite herself, she almost let out a groan. The science officer, a slender, redheaded Bajoran male, was giving her a look that should have frozen her in a block of ice.
Turning her back on the Bajoran, Zorana reviewed the screens at her station. From here, she could access the ship’s weapon compliment, shields, and security protocols. Though she was familiar with the layout of the tactical station, she still spent several minutes examining everything. She was half-Cardassian. Where others could not afford to fail, she could not afford to do anything except excel.
Another officer, a human Ensign, hurried from the lift to the Engineering station, hurriedly checking the screens while he tried to straighten his uniform. Zorana recognized him, Martin Haley, a friendly fellow who seemed to have spent his four years at the Academy running a few minutes late for every class. Running late or not, he spared a smile for Ensign Moran, who smiled back warmly. Both were clearly enjoying their temporary positions on the bridge.
“Captain on the bridge,” a sharp voice barked from the direction of the lift. Everyone on the bridge snapped to attention. Two women entered, one of them the Bajoran Lieutenant Commander from the shuttle bay, the other Captain Natalie Philips, from the pips on her collar. She had taught at the Academy in several of Zorana’s classes, mostly battle strategy and history, as well as several classes on hostile species. Zorana remembered the many lectures on the Bajoran occupation and the subsequent Dominion War quite vividly. Bracing herself for the judgement and anger she was used to seeing in nearly every pair of eyes that looked at her, she was shocked by the level gaze, almost Vulcan in its calm assessment, no different from that directed at any of the acting bridge crew.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” she said, in the firm voice that Zorana remembered from her classes, a voice that carried without seeming to be raised above a conversational tone. “In less than three hours, we will depart for the space station Deep Space 12, where this ship will pass to the hands of Captain Mikai. At warp 7, this trip should take two and a half months.” She eyed them all keenly. “It is my duty to observe you all and report your conduct as officers to Captain Mikai upon arrival. You have seventy-nine days to impress me.” Her quick turn made it clear that was all she intended to say. Ensign Haley looked as though he wasn’t sure whether to give a cheer at the short speech or a nervous laugh. Instead, the twist to his mouth made it look almost as if he were going to sick up. He had passed his classes under Captain Philips by the skin of his teeth.
Captain Philips was circling the room, observing each officer at their post. Having nothing left to check, and distaining making a show of busyness, Zorana met her keen, grey-eyed gaze levelly, unaware of how fiercely her own green eyes were shining. Rather than comment on anything on the displays, Captain Philips said, “Report to my ready room in five minutes, Lieutenant.” Somehow, her voice carried no further than a whisper, but seemed not to have altered a hair in volume from her speech. Just like that, the Captain moved on to ops. From what Zorana had observed during her classes, the Captain was always like that. She did what must be done swiftly, without any extra time taken for pleasantries or idle chatter.
Running one last, swift glance over the security roster on the PADD in her hand, Zorana clasped both hands behind her back and strode toward the Captain’s ready room. As always, she felt as though every eye followed her, even though she knew few would dare to stare at her while the Captain was still making her rounds. Unconsciously, she lifted her head a fraction and straightened her shoulders, making her swift walk look like it belonged on someone of far higher rank than Junior Grade Lieutenant.
Captain Philip’s ready room was bare of any decoration or personal items. A desk and chair were its dominant features, with a curved couch and small, glass table on a raised section near the bulkhead. As the door slid shut behind her, Zorana stood just in front of the desk, hands still clasped behind her back. Though the bright lighting put a slight strain on her eyes, as it did nearly everywhere in the ship, she pretended not to notice. As she often did, she summoned that last admonition from her mother. “Never let them see you weak.” She might lose years of ground she’d made with the other cadets if she ever hinted that the temperature of the ship made her wear an extra thermal layer beneath her uniform, or that the lights caused a constant headache to nestle in the back of her skull. Better if they thought her facial ridges and greyish skin were the only Cardassian thing about her.
Though she was early to the ready room, Captain Philips entered less than a minute later, confidently taking the seat behind the desk. Without preamble, she began. “First officer Jysl Eyru is concerned that you are not the best choice for security chief on the trip to DS12. I would like to know why.”
Zorana breathed deeply. She was prepared for this. The same discussion seemed to happen with almost predictable regularity. She had faced officials over desks like this when she applied to Starfleet, when she chose to train for a security position, when she had put her name in for training flights. Officially, discrimination against a species had died with the founding of the Federation. Unofficially, she had to work twice as hard as any other student to be thought of as their equal.
“So, I’m curious, Dahe’el,” Niers asked, setting aside a hand-carved wooden plate of what looked like apples, but tasted almost exactly like potatoes. “Where exactly do you come from, and why did you choose Starfleet?”
Months had passed since the crash, each day seeming to lessen the tension between them. Being the only two lifeforms on a planet would do that, apparently. Zorana sighed, putting down her own empty plate. Both plates had been carved by Niers. He was surprisingly handy with a knife. Perhaps some humans put more stock in old ways of doing things than she was used to. She realized she was avoiding even thinking about Niers’ question. “My parents were Maquis,” she said quietly.
“Maquis?” Niers almost laughed. “A Cardassian Maquis? Impossible.”
“They were Maquis,” she continued. “My father was a Starfleet officer, though my mother never knew what his rank was. My mother…” This was the hard part. “My mother thought she was Bajoran, a member of one of the resistance cells during the occupation.” She met Niers’ eyes, watching for his reaction. “She believed it until I was born. My father was off-world on one mission or another, and as soon as I was born, my mother took me and fled. She knew as soon as she saw my face that she wasn’t Bajoran, and never had been. That meant there could only be one answer.” Niers seemed to be wavering between disbelief and amazement. “Have you heard of the Obsidian Order?” At the answering nod, she continued, “Apparently, the Obsidian Order had a few agents that they hid among Bajoran resistance cells during the occupation of Bajor. They would alter their appearance using surgery, alter their memories through treatments of neurochemicals until the agents themselves believed they were Bajoran resistance fighters. All the while, they would subconsciously gather information, impede plans, and lead key targets to their deaths.
“When I was born, my mother knew what she was, but her memories and emotions were still Bajoran. She hated me only a little less than she hated herself. I was left on Earth with a Cardassian name, her story, and two pieces of very Cardassian advice.” Taking a deep breath, she finished, “I chose Starfleet because my father came from there. That’s all.” She had never told anyone else half as much.
Unsure why that conversation had chosen this moment to come to her mind, Zorana answered Captain Philips, “I imagine Commander Jysl believes I would be the source of problems among the crew, rather than an aid in addressing them. The Dominion War is fresh in many minds, with the current troubles with the Jem’Hadar.”
“Minor skirmishes,” the Captain said dismissively. Though she agreed, Zorana did not comment. “Though rumor tends to inflate them. Without the Founders, the Jem’Hadar are a nuisance, more than anything.” Her eyes became augers. “They are a nuisance I will not see on my ship.”
“Of course, Captain,” Zorana responded. She understood the unspoken command. Nothing would excuse any delays in their journey or disturbances on Captain Philip’s bridge that arose from a half-Cardassian on the temporary bridge crew.