Episode 1: The Maelstrom Awaits
Location: Mess Hall
Timeline: Day 14 at 1230
After the disaster of this morning, Ekal was hoping for a quiet lunch, maybe getting another good look at the crew who had come aboard, but apparently everyone decided to eat at once. After her turn at the replicator, she turned to a crowded room and quickly eliminated seats based on who was already sitting there. Finally, she was left with a man from a species she'd never seen- who was clearly new, or she'd have memorized his file already.
She didn't want to be refused a seat at his table, especially for a lunch, but she had to give him the option, "Do you mind if I sit with you? It seems we're a little crowded." She smiled- one of her smaller smiles, kind of exhausted and very polite.
Zettval had been sitting alone, as he usually did - after all, there was plenty of time to socialise after food. However, the arrival of Ekal definitely piqued his interest. He'd never met a Cardassian before, and was wondering just how many of the stories he'd heard about them at Starfleet Academy were true. Most likely none of them - there's nothing cadets like more than spinning a fanciful tale, but even so.
As always, his excitement outweighed his suspicion, and he couldn't help but smile.
"Of course, take a seat, Ensign...?", he said, gesturing enthusiastically towards the other chair.
Not often did someone look more excited to meet her than confused at her approach, so she took it as a good sign that he seemed receptive. Receptive did not mean friendly, and friendly did not mean trustworthy, but it was a start- and one she sorely needed. She didn't dare hope he would be a pleasant aquaintance, but potential was enough.
"Ekal Dreisor, most people call me 'Ekal' for some reason." She sat and immediately slipped into her standard defensive posture- that is, interested lean in, hands held above her food for emoting, legs crossed at the knee- generally, making herself smaller and sending out a mood of careful intrest, "I'm not exactly certain what species you are, no offense intended of course, but your ridges are very lovely. I wish, sometimes, that my ridges were a little softer- it's considered attractive among female cardassians, you see- but alas, I am built like a young man, with the ridges to match. Do you mind giving me your name?"
Embarassing oneself was an excellent tactic for getting them to open up to you. Ekal's mother had taught her that trick.
Of course, this worked perfectly on the naive Denobulan, who would open up to almost anyone.
"Ensign Zettval. Technically, it's Zettval-amparri-sanatraa, but that's a bit of a mouthful. I'm from Denobula", the young ensign said, maintaining a slight smile throughout. "Most Denobulans my age have softer ridges, so it's nice to know I'm not the only one who wouldn't mind a slightly smoother face", he chortled. "Would you rather be called Ekal or Dreisor?"
Ekal raised her eyebrow ridges at his full name, impressed, then fell right back into her smile, “I don’t mind either, whichever you find easier to say is quite alright. It’s a little strange that so many people choose to call me Ekal, since first names are more of a family-only basis among cardassians, but I was informed recently that to be on the same crew makes certain etiquette unnecessary. Is it this cold on Denobula, or are you from a more temperate climate? I’m afraid the temperature in most federation standard environments is a little on the chilly side for me.” Her hands moved clearly, with an almost theatrical energy, over truths and lies alike.
Zettval was completely ignoring his Denobulan lemur kidney salad at this point - or at least, the closest thing the replicator could produce to it. He hadn't had such a lively conversation with anybody on board.
"Ah, Denobula is quite warm. You'd probably enjoy it there, so long as you don't mind crowds." Zettval paused briefly, as a slightly concerning thought crossed his mind. "Are you sure that people aren't confusing Cardassian naming conventions with Bajoran ones? After all, on Bajor, the family name comes first." A slight look of concern accompanied the inquiry.
“See, I thought that too! I don’t know if that’s the case or not, but I’d almost rather they call me in an over familiar manner than misspeak when talking to Doctor Anjol or the other bajorans on board. As for crowds, I suppose I don’t mind them so much when I can get away when I need to. I grew up in a smaller town than most, so I’m accustomed to being nearly alone most of the day.” That’s all not to mention her academy years or last posting, “but crowds can be exciting and often lead to good chances to meet new people.”
While she spoke, she decided he was too naive to be of much fun for conversation- but he might be good practice for more blatant lies, eventually. A real conversation required more subtext and a good friend is one you’d sacrifice for the good of the mission. He could be sacrificed, maybe utilized, but he wasn’t someone to play a game with. That said, friendliness often made a perfect shield at social functions- to be close to him meant no one else would interrupt them. She smiled warmly, eyes closed to hide the thought. “I may have to visit Denobula if I get the opportunity. Anywhere warm is pleasant enough, I’d say, and it would be very hard for me to return home on shore leave.”
"It's a long journey all the way back to Denobula - all the way in the Beta quadrant. I'm probably going further than any Denobulan has gone" Zettval mused, almost talking to himself. Quickly regaining his train of thought, he continued. "You know, I was always told that Cardassians were... well, a bit cold. But you've been nothing but friendly, to a complete stranger, no less!" He glanced down at his plate, having completely forgotten the food. No wonder his parents taught him to not mix conversation and cuisine. He took half a kidney, and quickly ate it.
"One can be cold and friendly at the same time. I would argue that most cardassians are cold and friendly. Unless they meant we feel cold! Because we often do." She took a cue from him to start eating, but she was better at mixing eating and talking- mealtimes are often the best time to discuss things. "I would also argue that most non-cardassians are overly warm, familiar, and willing to trust. Except Romulans. They typically have a healthy regard for caution, in relationships at least, and I can respect their duty-driven natures. There's a lot of cultural barriers I have to contend with to appear as friendly as I do, and I simply cannot flirt with anyone!" She laughed, picking out a little to-herself giggle, "Did you have any major cultural barriers to overcome when you joined starfleet?"
Zettval gave a light chuckle. "Ah, living alone took some getting used to. I used to organise sleepovers at the academy, just for that little sense of familiarity!" Zettval placed his hands together, palms touching and fingers interlocked, above the table. "Is flirting quite difficult for Cardassians? I know some species go to extraordinary lengths to make relationships difficult to forge."
"Cardassians flirt by insulting their intended. Often, specifically about things they're proud of. If you wanted to flirt with an engineer, you could insult their work, an artist their art, and a politician their looks or maybe their writing. I wouldn't call it difficult, but of course, that's what I'm used to. I'd say it's far more difficult to tell when others are flirting when it's polite and sweet. What most species would call flirting is typically just how cardassians behave when they want a favor. Personally, I have a lot of trouble even considering how I would go about flirting without insulting someone. If you never see them angry, do you know your beloved at all?" As she spoke, she gathered her bread in one hand and used it to collect some soup. Somehow, talking about more general things first made it much easier for her to reveal a few of her own thoughts. She'd have to be careful about that, even when it was partially lies.
Zettval looked mildly surprised. "Flirting by insults? I'd hate to be a Cardassian art critic. People would really get the wrong impression", he joked, idly moving his food around with his fork. "But, I can see how it makes things easier. I've had my fair share of awkward conversations." Zettval placed his fork down. "So, what is it that you're proud of?"
"You're absolutely right, and there's a stereotype of critics in general as being massive flirts, if not downright promiscuous. Why else would you take such a job?" She laughed again, then tilted her head neatly and narrowed her eyes. "I am the Chief Flight Operations Officer, but it would be foolish of me to take much pride in my position. Positions change. Instead, I choose to pride myself on my flight skill. From early in my piloting career, I've never forgotten protocol, and I learn a ship's quirks very quickly. I'm a pilot first and an officer second. If it's not too personal, what do you pride yourself on?"
"Professionally, I'm the Assistant Chief Operations Officer. Unprofessionally? I'm here to help", Zettval smiled. "I joined Starfleet for the humanitarian side of things - helping out people, making the galaxy a friendlier place. Ranks and positions are just a tool to help me in my mission. Nothing more, nothing less." Zettval pushed his hair back a bit. "Chief Flight Ops, huh? Let's hope the flight into the Maelstrom goes smoothly, otherwise half the crew might end up flirting with you!", he joked.
"Any help, I'm sure, will be appreciated. The humanitarian efforts of Starfleet have always been much more interesting and worthwhile than their military efforts, though all military efforts have their place and their use." She was careful not to show any strong emotion, "Should anything go wrong upon our arrival it will not be my or my flight crew's fault. I can assure you of that much. If half the crew decides to blame me, that says more about them than me, doesn't it? I'm quite comfortable being a scapegoat should we need one, and I'm not unfamiliar with being the target of uncourteous words. Do you know where the line is drawn between flirtation and actual malice? We do still insult those we legitimately despise, you know."
"Oh, I mean, of course, I figured as much - I didn't mean anything by it. Just trying to be funny", Zettval said, stammering slightly, a sheepish grin on his face. He stabbed some salad with his fork, and twirled it around. He hadn't meant to insult her piloting abil-
A good dose of awkwardness suddenly sat on Zettval's consciousness. Had he accidentally flirted with her? Right after she told him about how Cardassians flirt? Probably not, yet the thought definitely lingered in his mind.
He decided to try and move the conversation along. "So, what do you do in your spare time?", he inquired.
The truth- that she composed poetry- was trite, and rather masculine of her, but then so was her first backup of gardening. She took a deep sip of her tea to mask the rapid thought process, "I'm usually holed up in my quarters, if you can imagine. I like to be in actual warm environments whenever I can. If I'm not in my quarters I'm usually either meeting someone for tea and conversation or off on some holodeck adventure. By nature, cardassians are duty-driven and focus on their career and family more than hobbies. What about you?"
"Well, I wouldn't call myself career-focused, but I frequently end up pulling double shifts - after all, I don't need to sleep, and I need something to do when everyone else is busy. Outside of that, I like to talk to people - you know, get to know the crew. I also enjoy spending time in the holodeck, usually with other people. It always feels awkward going in there alone. After all, experiences are made to be shared."
"The holodeck is a false experience, a light show with fake touch and fake pain." She took a bite of her bread dry, then regret it and swallowed quickly, "I totally agree that an experience is better shared. Did you hear about the recent holodeck malfunction?"
Zettval shook his head. "Go on", he said, interested to hear.
"Holodeck 2 malfuntioned, and left Ensign Crichton in an 'Ancient West' program with an unkillable opponent. The poor fellow! I've been running flight simulations in Holodeck 3 for now, but I do believe 2 should be fixed by now. It has been over a week, after all. I still haven't gotten the opportunity to visit the holodeck recreationally, but I feel I should check out this 'Ancient West' for myself sometime. That or I can run the program I brought with me. I'd appreciate some company on the latter, but I'm afraid I offered to visit the Ancient West with Lieutenant CJ, and I'd hate to spoil the story for myself."
She took the time she was talking to re-evaluate how he looked. He wasn't ugly by most standards, it was just that naivete. A sort of lack of spite in the eyes, something she had mastered masking but that one couldn't hide completely. Outside of getting rid of that, he'd just have to dress in a better color than gold and he'd be much more attractive. Maybe a nice emerald. Attraction aside, flirting with him could be fun. If he'd intentionally flirted and was attracted to her, that could be an issue, but it was an issue she didn't have to deal with yet. If he'd intentionally flirted with her for the sake of conversation, that could be interesting. Mutual flirtation without intent was great for honing dailectial skill, setting a framework for a friendship, and relieving stress. If he had flirted on accident he was just naieve, and potentially an idiot.
Zettval nodded. Now that he'd had a moment to think, he noticed something... off about her. Hard to place. He wasn't entirely sure. Something about the way she acted. He must've initially chalked it up to her being a different species, but there seemed to be a sort of... deliberateness behind it.
"So, what sort of program is it?", he asked.
Ekal was good at only a few things, and she cared to do even less, but her mother had taught her well the merits of a straight face and a bold lie. One didn't conceal an entire lifetime from their children without teaching them how to do it themselves. First rule of lying was to know your audience. As she recognized some hesitance in Zettval, her eyes flickered for a second and her smile wavered slightly, before it returned full force, "Why don't you guess?"
Zettval paused to think, and the gears in his mind started turning. "You know, we could be here all day", he mused. After a moment of consideration, he said "I'm gonna guess it's a nice beach program. Somewhere warm and sunny, where you can drink... whatever Cardassians drink."
Immediately Zettval knew it was probably wrong, and he pursed his lips.
"Some Cardassians drink kanar, which is kind of like a strong ale, but I prefer mixed drinks or simply some tea. It's not a beach program. Beaches are far too bright! It's bright enough in here, isn't it?" She laughed softly, as though to herself, then spared him from having to guess, "No, I'm afraid nothing so leisurely. I'm not sure I'd be able to relax in a false environment to begin with. I brought a climbing program. It consists of multiple cliffs scanned in by climbers from various planets that chooses cliffs based on user skill. I usually set the brightness at nearly half and the heat much higher to be comfortable. I used to climb trees as a child, and took to cliff scaling in the academy. I might try a beach program, though I'd need some strong sunglasses."
Zettval perked up. "Oh, that sounds fascinating! Denobulans are very adept climbers by nature, and I for one quite enjoy it - I'll definitely have to join you at some time. That sounds much better than a beach program."
Zettval then paused, and decided to try and be upfront. "You know, there's something about you that's hard to place. Something about the way you act." His eyes narrowed slightly in suspicion, but he kept his smile.
"Is there?" She smiled, leaning forward onto the palm of her hand, "I get that pretty often! I'm cold, it's too bright, and, as I've learned, my natural body language would not be acceptable. Am I being too performative for you? I could always show you what my body language would be if I were to stop acting." Second rule of lying, know when to act and when to believe your own lies for a moment. This would help her gauge his comfort with her race, at least.
She let her shoulders fall, straightened her spine, neck, and legs, and let her hands fall to the table. Her eyes started darting to nearly any movement nearby, and she pressed her feet to the floor as if ready to launch into a sprint at any moment. The only movement was her eyes and, occasionally, her hands, to eat with.
He looked at Ekal, the suspicion in his eyes giving way to curiosity. It was fascinating to see how she acted when she wasn't trying to be so... human, for lack of a better word. He could see why she did it - after all, most species were inherently distrusting of anything that didn't act within their preconfined boundaries. Denobulans, on the other hand, were far more tolerant.
He sparred a kidney, and ate it, gauging her response.
She barely glanced at him and then returned to watching other movement, even as she spoke to him, "I have to act like that so people don't assume ill intentions, and even with it people tend to assume I'm lying. Not that I'm going to be spouting truth like a vulcan, but I don't always lie. I only lie when it's more convenient or helpful than the truth. Not all cardassians are as comfortable with the truth as I have taught myself to be. It's like you're all pointing out the obvious or what should've been the reward for careful conversation without the work. It really is quite off-putting. If you don't mind, I want my mask back." She crossed her legs and slipped back into the act, lifting her hands up and coaching her eyes to look at him unwaveringly. All of this worked together to make her smaller and more emotive, more 'vulnerable' in most eyes, less of a threat.
"Huh. I see." Zettval nodded slightly. He looked deeply into her eyes.
Zettval sat there, thinking deep and hard, wrapping his brain around this way of thinking, coming at it from all sorts of angles. If she was telling the truth now - well, there was definitely a hint of truth in there. Perhaps she was spelling it out for him because of his apparent lack of understanding. Or perhaps she was messing with him... Maybe this was her being brutally honest for once. He had never assumed ill intentions.. did other people assume that of her? All these thoughts, and a dozen more, spun around in his head.
Zettval nodded again, after several seconds of deep thought. "I think I sort of understand. So in a conversation, the truth must be earnt, not expected. No... not earnt... discovered?"
"To discover a truth is to earn it, I suppose. Here, try this out: 'My brother used to skip out on lessons when we were children, and he encouraged me to do the same. We would run down to the swamp and roam with the neighbor boys. I was their small protected child, I was a representative of the state. We would build huts of the mud and chew only the finest bark from the trees, and I had the best hut and the finest bark for none of the work. In exchange, I was judge and jury of their percieved faults. I was the one who rewarded them with made-up titles and responsibilities, each according to his worth.' I just told you more about myself than I could say in so many sentances. Try to pick out any truths about my childhood, under the assumption that none of the sentances are completely true. In exchange for a good-faith interpretation, I will tell you if you get a truth correct." She felt like she was teaching a child how to talk. In fact, she had played this game with her mother when she was a child, "Try not to start with simple facts like 'you have a sibling' or 'there were trees where you grew up'."
Zettval paused, placing his hand on his chin - a human gesture he'd picked up, but nonetheless it felt comfortable. Okay, step one, assume none of it is true. Step two, assume that the truth is there.
"You never had the opportunity to earn a formal education as a child, and as such, you had to teach yourself. Things were dire. Poor food, poor housing, and everyone was in the same situation. Luckily, you had someone looking over you... Who helped you." The word 'neighbour' suddenly clicked in his mind. "You relied on other towns for support. Or some other organisation... Starfleet? No, that doesn't sound right..." Zettval shook his head in defeat. "I'm quite new to this, I'm afraid."
Ekal raised her eyeridges, once again acting impressed. He'd picked up on part of it, but misinterpreted another. Very astute. "You might as well have a little experience with this, actually, because that is almost true. We did not have good food or housing growing up, and many in my hometown were in the same situation. We relied on assistance from Starfleet and the Federation for the majority of my childhood. I did, however, have access to the standard school programs of any cardassian child in the form of computer training, which allowed me to train my memory and learn basic math like calculus and basic history. Most of my education really came from my mother, brother, and one neighbor who didn't mind that I was- well, you get the picture. Later in my childhood, the Cardassian Union was trying to become more independant from the Federation's aid and our area was denied further assistance. Thankfully, by then, my mother's work renaturing the soil had begun to take hold." She hummed thoughtfully, "I did not have a poor childhood, despite the dire situation. When I needed specialized medical care I was able to get it through my mother's efforts. I had her."
"The primary truth in my story was the help I had growing up. Someone protecting me, someone feeding me, someone who cared if I skipped class. The secondary truth was that my childhood took place in a ruined environment, with little to eat and little to build with but the rubble of destroyed buildings. Third, I care about duty to my station, and duty to my family, and was raised to trust the system. And finally, that I grew up in a swampland. Much of Cardassia is very humid." She hummed. He didn't need to know she wasn't from Cardassia Prime. "And those are just what I intended to tell you. With every lie, there are untold truths, even and especially ones the speaker doesn't know about. That is the essence of how cardassians communicate."
Zettval smiled. There was something so... intriguing, almost poetic about the idea of communicating through lies. "Well, I ought to apologise for my poor communication skills earlier", he said, reflecting on his prior naivety. He was quite eager to get better at it - perhaps even try it out himself. Not full time, of course, but at least in conversations with Ekal. "Perhaps we could meet on the holodeck, and you could teach me more about truth and lies as we scale some cliff faces?"
"No apology necessary, my dear, I'm happy to hear you're interested in learning more. Climbing sounds delightful as well. We'll have to schedule something." She wrapped her hands around her mug, "I've been speaking like this my whole life, I don't expect anyone to be able to speak in lies like I would at home unless they're from a similar culture or have had years of practice in mine. That said, I'm sure you'll be able to tell a convincing lie soon enough."
"Well, here's hoping", Zettval remarked, before eating a little bit more of his meal. "So, how does Holodeck 2 at 1900 hours tomorrow sound?"
"That would be perfectly agreeable." Ekal smiled warmly, "So long as Holodeck 2 has actually been repaired. I'd like to be certain the safeties remain on. I might enjoy climbing, but I'm not the strongest climber."
"I'll make sure to triple check them myself", he nodded. He got up with his half-eaten meal, which by this point had gone cold, ready to take it to the replicators to be recycled. Smiling warmly, he said "It was nice meeting you, Ensign Ekal Dreisor."
"It was a pleasure to meet you, Zettval-amparri-sanatraa, do have a pleasant day." After she smiled, Ekal returned her attention to her soup, mopping it up with her second roll.