Episode 2: The Cruel Hand of Fate
Location: Holodeck 2
Timeline: Day 15 at 1900
Ekal had almost wanted to postpone. After the mess of entering the Maelstrom last night, she didn't feel like doing much but sleeping in her nice warm room on her nice firm matress and composing a few verses about the sprouting rulot in her quarters, maybe filing her claws, but it was always easier to climb any cliff face with her claws intact, and He had seemed rather sweet. It would be discourteous to reschedule without due cause.
So, she prepared the holodeck, setting the program to run when both 'players' were inside, and then waiting in the inactive holodeck to remind herself what the room actually looked like- yellow lines on black walls, perfectly rectangular. She wore her usual casual climbing clothes, boots, pants, thermals, and a windbreaker, with the addition of some thick sunglasses, just in case he wanted to climb in full sunlight.
With her back to the door, she probably wouldn't hear him come in, but the room activating should be warning enough.
The doors to the holodeck clanked open, and Zettval strode in, wearing a dark blue, short-sleeved boiler suit, with a silver lining, and a pair of black boots. A small backpack hung over one shoulder, filled with various useful gear and water. He smiled as he stepped over the boundary, triggering the program's activation.
Birdsong rang out as the room changed quickly into a scene from Earth- a cliff somewhere, probably eastern North America, with gear set out on the ground for them. Pinetrees sprung into the air as the floor seemed to expand outward, with the sun just rising, and blue, blue mountains littered the horizon like peaks of waves on a vast ocean. The cliff itself looked to be just over 200 feet tall, made of a grey rock that was darker than Ekal's scales.
Ekal stood abruptly and turned to look at him.
"Did you replicate gear?" She smiled, "You didn't need to do that, the program provides it all. It looks like it put us in the Red River Gorge. Some good single-pitch climbs around here, but not many long ones."
"Ah, but does it provide you with...", he grinned, reaching into a side pocket in his backpack, "shades?". He pulled out a pair of sunglasses, gave them a flick to extend the arms, and put them on. "Besides, I've also bought a flask of Tarkalean tea with me. The proper stuff, not replicated.", he added. He then looked towards the view, the sunlight glaring off his glasses. "Lovely view - even so, I'd be more than happy to go elsewhere if you fancy a longer climb. I hear the cliffs on Altamid are spectacular", he added.
"I'm afraid I've never had Tarkalean Tea before, the difference might be lost on me. Computer, can we get somewhere with a longer climb? Altamid, perhaps?" Ekal turned to talk as if to the sky itself, then waited as the terrain shifted over, "Much better, thank you."
She scanned the new horizon, then took stock of the climbing gear on hand and sat to take off her boots. "I hope you don't mind this program only comes with one character - an instructor- and I disabled him ages ago. I simply couldn't get over how he acted like he was teaching a human no matter what I did or said. He didn't stop telling me to trim my nails down to avoid cracking even when I filed my claws all the way to the quick and they actually started to split." She laughed, hunching into the harness and starting to police her ropes.
"Some holograms can be quite stubborn - besides, they're no alternative to a real person", Zettval commented. He began climbing into his own harness, the equipment having been perfectly sized for him. "Any particular reason for the harnesses? The holodeck safety protocols would catch you if you fell", he asked. Personally, he didn't mind the added immersion, but he was curious.
"When you live in falsehood already, the false realtiy of a holodeck can be grating for everything but the most distracting of activities- a conversation, a game perhaps, but climbing? Why would anyone do something so dangerous without the danger? Even with the harness, I feel like I'm telling someone else's lie." She looked down at herself, as though feeling childish, "We can leave them off if you'd prefer, you're right they don't actually serve any purpose and they are a little uncomfortable."
"Oh no, I'm absolutely fine with it. You are right - it makes it feel a little more real. Then again, I do get lost in holoprograms easily enough." He then paused briefly. "I could take a look at it if it's uncomfortable. After all, it's probably designed for a human", he noted, as he tightened the straps on his own harness.
Ekal paused to size him up for a moment, then decided to go with her second reaction, "If you think that would help?" As soon as she said so, she lamented. She did not want him to touch any part of her gear, much less assist her, but she'd already gone with it. If anything, it would be harder to explain the refusal after an initial acceptance. She did not want to do that either, so she put on a uncomfortable-but-welcoming smile and put her hands out in a dismayed gesture.
Zettval noticed the slight look of discomfort in her face, and decided he'd best not touch anything without explicit approval - after all, he certainly wouldn't want a relative stranger helping him with his clothes. He approached her back, and began examining the harness. "I think I see the problem - it's just a little bit too tight around the base of the spine. Try loosening the straps on the back of the waist, and tightening the leg loops to compensate." He'd done some climbing before on Risa, where they'd insisted he used a harness, despite him being Denobulan. It was probably a good thing that he'd worn it, given that the footholds on that particular cliff had a nasty habit of changing quite suddenly.
She didn't show it, but she was relieved he didn't just touch her without asking, and she did as he instructed. It didn't feel much better, but it was better and that's what counted. Then she put on some climbing shoes, laced herself up, and strapped the chalk bag to her harness. "I don't think I've ever climbed this one, this will be fun to discover together. Shall we get started?"
Zettval grabbed the flask of tea and put it in his own chalk bag. Smiling, he then kicked off his own shoes, and socks - he felt more comfortable climbing barefoot. "Let's do it", he , attaching his line to his harness, and clipping the chalk bag onto the harness. He then sprinted towards the cliff face - as soon as he reached the cliff face, he began climbing with a surprising amount of speed.
Ekal watched him in awe for a moment, then set about trying to catch up with her far less imppressive climbing skills. Not only was she short for a cardassian, she had arms to match and a slight tremble in her left arm. She liked climbing because it made use of the dense muscles she had and the strategic mind she rarely used physically. She was never one for speed climbing.
Zettval looked behind him, and realised that he should probably slow down a bit - after all, what's the point of climbing together if you're not actually together. He perched himself on a small outcropping, mostly using his hands and feet to keep him stable, and watched her catch up to his position.
Climbing like this was putting her out of breath, but she maintained her smile and jovial tone. "It's not a race, my dear. If you were expecting a challenging race, I'm afraid you've got the wrong partner." As she finally got more in level with him, she smiled and shook her hair out, "I might enjoy climbing, but I've never been fast. Even Zarmek would agree to that. You move like vertical is as simple as horizontal, is that experience or innate ability?"
"Innate ability - all Denobulans are excellent climbers. Which is handy too, given how mountainous it is on Denobula!", Zettval grinned. "And I didn't come here to race - truth is, I never saw the point of being competitive. After all, what exactly is there to fight over?", he commented, before turning back around and climbing at Ekal's pace.
"That's a good point! I was hoping to get to talk to you while we climbed, after all." She continued to climb, even slowing down a little now she wasn't trying to catch up, "I'm afraid my people aren't the best climbers. We do have a custom of placing higher-ranked individuals on a literal higher floor, or slightly elevated at least, so that you have to look up to your leaders or down to organize your subordinates, though. My family was never very high-ranking, and we lived too far from any city for the elevation thing to matter much, but my mother did make sure to build our house with places for her to stand to watch over us. I suppose the elevation custom wouldn't have made much sense on a mountainous planet!"
Zettval chuckled. "Quite right." He then paused, as an idea came into his mind. "Our family lived in one of the taller skyscrapers, so we always had a good view of the rest of the city. But of course, so did thousands of other people", he said, smiling slightly. He'd actually lived on the slope of a mountain - still with a good view of the rest of his city, and one he shared with the thousands of people in his district - but he decided that he might as well try a bit of Cardassian-style lying. He was quite happy with it, but refrained from talking about it out loud. He then glanced up. "Looks like we're approaching a small outcropping", he noted. He was sure that his climbing compatriot would appreciate a chance to breathe.
"Oh wonderful. How tall can you really build skyscrapers on mountains?" She dug her fingers into the crevasse to get a solid grip, relying on her handstrength alone to support her weight for a moment, "Strong foundations for strong winds." She didn't immediately call him on the waver in his smile, but she insinuated a doubt to see how he continued the ruse from there.
"Well, there's a fair bit of flat ground on Denobula - there are lots of tall buildings all over the planet" That part was true enough - after all, Denobulan architects were some of the most creative in the quadrant. "The capital city is built on... reclaimed ocean". It was actually built on a dried out lake basin, which had then been flattened out, but he decided to push his luck - and faltered halfway through. "You know, telling lies based on truth is harder than it looks", he smiled, as he pulled himself onto the somewhat flat outcropping.
"So make something up completely, and tell it often enough it becomes true, at least to your tongue. Say it in as many inflections as you need, as many times as it takes. Say it and then move on with converstations, don't give people time to think about it. A lie is just a promise you keep to yourself, and sometimes there are no stakes. Other times, you have to make your lies true, and this is acting. " She gazed out at their view from the outcropping, "My mother taught me to lie when I was very young. Sometimes I wonder if the first thing she said to me was a lie, or if she was honest before I could hear her. What we choose to lie about is important, and honing your skill without consequence grows harder as you grow older. As a child I could say I was purple or that I found some neck bones in the forest without consequences, and I could fabricate my first evidence without skill but with conviction. Lies have to hold up to scrutiny, but it's more fun the more scrutinous a person you lie to, especially when they pretend to believe you. I had to learn to navigate a masterful lie myself before I could tell them. My mother never spoke a truth while I coul hear her, and I doubt she will tell me a truth until her shri'tal."
Zettval nodded thoughtfully. "Looks like I'll need to start looking deeper into our conversations", he smiled, before taking a deep breath. The air was one of the few things that the holodeck was incapable of changing - it just felt like the air on the rest of the ship. "The idea that truth can be relative, and not objective, is certainly difficult to wrap my head around. Still, that's not going to stop me from trying!", he chortled. "So, who is Zarmek?", he asked. He was curious as to who they are, but more importantly, what sort of lies Ekal would tell.
"Zarmek is a close relative of mine, he used to climb trees with myself and Nilmitt Tawotha from down the road. He came with me when I gave my first molar to the information beureau and was often at dinner with my mother and I. He's a skinny underfed architect now, we haven't spoken much since he married, moved away, and had a child. He's a very flighty and inconsistent man, but he cares for his son like the planet rests at his feet. I do miss our conversations, but he's not likely to contact me now that I've rejected the union and enlisted in starfleet." She decided to weave in as many of her lies among truths to show him how to do that, as well as make most of her lies pretty blatant, to show him how to do that.
Zettval knew he had to dig deeper, but the question is where. He briefly recalled her earlier comments about first names in Cardassian society, and decided to start from there. "Nilmitt Tawotha?", he asked, purposefully making the question as open as possible. He needed a foothold in the conversation, and right now his hands were clawing against solid rock.
"Yes, a neighbor. He's a family friend and he considered me somewhat of a confidant." She gave him nothing, smiling impassively. If anything, she thought she was being obvious about Tawotha, maybe a little too blatant, so she decided she'd call him and brighten his day sometime to make up for it. "The Nilmitt household was only a few hundred meters down the road toward town from my family's home, and his mother, Ms.Nilmiit Glaysa, always had sweet foods prepared after she learned to tap trees. She wore the earring, but Tawotha's ear was a little small and hard for piercings, more like mine."
"Interesting", Zettval mused to himself. Okay, so the naming scheme was clearly not Cardassian, so... Bajoran? That'd explain the earring. She compared Tawotha's ear to hers, so not so literally... Tawotha must be a Cardassian. Or half Cardassian. He smiled slightly upon making the connection. Now he needed to try harder to dissect the lies. "I didn't know Cardassians enjoyed sweet food", he said, a subtle smile hinting that he'd made a connection somewhere.
"We typically don't. I had a hormone issue in my youth that made me crave sugars." She smiled, recognizing the self-satisfied look of someone who figured something out, "Tawotha was closer in age to Zarmek than me, but they both made sure to include me in their games. If only to make my mother happy!" She laughed, swinging her feet over the side of the ledge, "Zarmek would never hear the end of it if he left me alone in the countryside."
Zettval nodded slowly. All these little clues seemed to add up - it was just a case of having it click. There was no way he was going to crack her life story here, on the holodeck. She was too good. He'd have to take his victories where he could, figure it all out piece by piece, and always remain interrogative. For the moment, however, he was quite happy with the progress he'd made. "Care for some Tarkalean tea?", he asked, pulling out the flask.
"I don't see why not." She turned to look to him, tunring attention to the thermos. He still seemed eager to learn about either lies or her, but thankfully her favorite lies were about herself anyway. Unfortunately he seemed to care more about Tawotha than her family, but Tawotha would probably be happy to meet Zettval anyway. "Tell me about your family."
"It's a massive family, like most Denobulan families. Six parents - Dulrutt, Lattasa, Threpp, Karmil, Flenna, and Barut. The first two are my 'biological parents', but I barely make that distinction. I didn't even know until Starfleet asked, and I had to make a somewhat awkward subspace call", he chuckled, as he removed two collapsible metal cups from the flask, and poured some Tarkalean tea. It had a slight bitter aroma to it, with sweet undertones. "As for brothers and sisters... ah, so many. Birlaura is one of the ones I'm closest with - she was very supportive of my decision to join Starfleet", he said, before passing over the cup. "In a Denobulan family, secrets are hard to keep. After all, privacy is a luxury, and not one many people even care for. I suppose that's why I find you so intruiging", he added.
"I can't imagine not being able to run and hide from everyone. We were a small, but close family, but I didn't even have my father around. Much less three!" She laughed, taking the cup in her chalky hands, "I don't know if I could handle a denobulan family if they're all so large. Secrets are so much like modesty." She sniffed the tea before sipping it, humming softly as she deliberated over the taste. She decided it was too sweet quickly, but kept sipping it so as not to be rude.
"Quite right", Zettval agreed. He took a sip of his tea, and found the bitterness to be somewhat more harsh than he'd expected. He preferred it extra sweet, but he'd decided to go for a more acerb blend - apparently the right decision, given Ekal's earlier comments. He then gave a mild chuckle. "Run away and hide. Those were the exact words Threpp used when I joined Starfleet - he didn't particularly approve of it. He felt I was shirking my responsibilities to Denobula. Thankfully, the rest of my parents were far more open to the idea."
"No one in my family was very happy I decided to join Starfleet." She said unusually gravely, then seemed to snap out of it, "But Tawotha was very pleased with me. He was always even more of an optimist than I am, and he never had to deal with my father's absence, just his own father's- and his father wasn't killed by photon torpedo." She purposefully offered no further information.
Zettval's eyes briefly glanced down to the floor, then back up. If Ekal had been human... or indeed any other species, he'd offer a hug at this point. After all, many species found them to be quite comforting. That said, he wasn't too sure about Cardassians, and he definitely wasn't too sure about Ekal. He wasn't entirely sure what he could say, either - after all, it could be buried under lies and misdirection. "You never struck me as an optimist", he commented, deciding that she'd probably feel more comfortable bringing the topic back to herself.
"One doesn't join Starfleet without being more of an optimist than most cardassians would dare to be. I don't think I've ever met a happy cardassian, and I don't think they'd know what to do with a fairytale ending." She shook her head, "But tell me more about yourself. Are you not considered an optimist by denobulan standards?"
"I'm very much an optimist! I always see the best in everybody. Some might call it naivety, but I have yet to be proven wrong", Zettval said with a light chuckle. "Denobulans are quite optimistic in general. It's hard not to be when you've built a paradise in your backyard. Indeed, few Denobulans leave home, because it is so perfect."
"Cardassians have never had the resources to build anything other than a weapon. And always assume the worst, especially when someone tries to show you their best face." She turned back to the scenery, avoiding his eyes, "There's many things our people do not see eye to eye on, it seems. I doubt my mother would like you very much." She then turned back to him and smiled, "Though your parents might like me if I could keep up the act!"
Zettval gave a lighthearted chuckle. "I'm sure they would". He glanced towards the scenery, mulling over what she'd said. It would explain why Zarmek wouldn't be too interested in contacting her. Perhaps it'd be worth digging deeper into that later. For now though, it's probably worth leaving it. This wasn't an interrogation, after all.
"You ready to keep climbing?", he asked. At the very least, it'd give him an excuse to pour out his tea.
"I am!" She poured her tea over the side, unconcerned for hurting the false wildlife, then handed back the cup, "We should be able to scale this thing easily, though I'm sure you'd be much faster without me." She stood carefully and tossed her shoes over the side as well, trusting her scales to do the work of the protective soles. "Family is evreything for cardassians, sometimes even more than the state, and it seems like your family means a lot to you. I respect that in a friend."
Zettval gave a kind smile, one he hadn't yet done. Most of his smiles had been enjoyment of the conversations they'd had, but this was the first time she'd said anything about friendship since they'd met. It was good to know that very much opposing personalities weren't enough to preclude friendship in her eyes.
"Well, it's quite easy to have a supportive family on Denobula. After all, there are so many people involved! Six parents, a dozen siblings, countless cousins and nephews - it usually helps to have a diagram!", he chortled. He chose not to mention that most of his siblings had, one way or another, tried to talk him out of it joining Starfleet, and many of them still resented him. While his parents might have been supportive, the rest of his family certainly wasn't. He didn't particularly want to discuss it, or straight up lie. A Cardassian lie might have worked, but she could've seen through it and pushed further - and he wasn't feeling confident enough to defend that.
"Alright, let's go!", he said, tipping his cup over the rock face and placing both cups, and the flask, back in his bag.
"I suppose it would be easier to have a few people on your side when you have more than two people to earn the favor of. At any speech, there will be a portion of the crowd who agrees with the speaker, at least in some aspect." She rambled as she started hoisting herself up the cliff again, sensing he didn't really want to get into it but not particularly feeling like changing the subject entirely, "I have an older sibling and my mother only, then Tawotha and his mother. Tawotha's father nearly never came around, and I doubt he'd remember me if he did. I do now have a nephew, and my sibling's spouse, but I speak to them very little."
Zettval nodded, as he pulled himself up, taking care to match pace. "Well, there are a good many cultures out there who believe in the idea of a 'discovered family'. The idea that the people you are closest to aren't those you grow up with, but those you find later on in life. Of course, it's all very metaphorical, and probably doesn't exactly match up with Cardassian culture", he said, continuing to make his way up the cliff. "Then again, I suppose you grew up with a fair bit of non-Cardassian influence in your life. Perhaps that qualifies as discovered family", he commented, with an ever-so-optimistic smile on his face.
"Cardassians will look down even on adoption, blood is so important. We lost our spirituality for duty to the state, and with that we lost a lot of our compassion- to be fair, I'm not sure even our ancestors had it, mind you." She raised her eye ridges carefully, "That said. I find some... interest in the concept. As long as we can keep our blood families, the concept of building up your own family out of allies is... certainly something. I would never be able to trust that well, but then, I hardly trust my blood relations so well."
"There is a human expression - blood is thicker than water. On Denobula, we've got something similar - 'There is no greater commonality than sharing a bowl'. Many cultures manage to strike a balance between caring for true family, and still being able to expand the boundaries to those you care for." He gave a playful smile. "Even if you don't trust them."
"I don't know where you got the idea I grew up with a lot of non-cardassian influence, by the way, I was rather secluded. Cardassians have a saying, even about blood relationships, 'There is no greater weakness than sentiment'. To care so much, for anyone but yourself, that you'd give up where you are for them, is a weakness. It's considered romantic to know that your lover would let you die for the good of the state- or it used to be, that notion is getting a little old-fasioned, like the caste system, or the old judicial system. Especially since the people who remember it are dying out. My mother still believes no one is put on trial who isn't guilty of something, but she's getting old, and slow." She glared at the cliff face like it held answers she needed, "The only time affection is really overt is between new lovers, newlyweds, and parents with their children, and even then is it usually an act, hopefully a good one."
"I assumed... ah, nevermind", Zettval said, stopping himself before he suggested that Tawotha's mother was Bajoran. It was probably best to not pry past the secrets and lies, and drag them into clear view, but to silently acknowledge them and the truth buried beneath. Zettval kept on climbing, unable to think of anything to add to the conversation.
"Did you assume that Starfleet aid changed the way I was raised or that Ms.Nilmitt Glaysa had any say in the way I was raised?" She was curious, which was usually dangerous, "Because either would be overselling their influence in my life. Starfleet was distant, and I was scared of the team who visited our town. Ms.Glaysa was the mother of a half-cardassian child, and had very little agency outside of her home. Her husband owned the land and brought her groceries. In fact, she was only so close to our family rather than hundreds of kilometers away because my mother owed Mr.Nilmitt a favor. I never knew what Nilmitt did for my mother, but it was enough for her to be saddled with playing the friend of a bajoran woman who was scared and lonely, and helping her raise their young boy."
Zettval pursed his lips slightly awkwardly. Certainly, that was a more upsetting childhood than she'd previously given away. "I assumed that she had. Perhaps it's my own conception of what neighbours do that clouded my view - after all, on Denobula, you're expected to help each other, especially in a time of crisis. And besides, you are here right now, on a Federation starship, as a Starfleet officer, making conversation with a Denobulan. Based on what you've told me..." Had she told him the truth about Cardassians? It was probably a good idea to check the cultural database, just to make sure. Regaining his train of thought, he continued "You certainly don't seem like a typical Cardassian." He pulled himself up a little bit more. "Which is fine", he hastily added, in case he'd offended somehow.
Still, at least he'd been right about Nilmitt Glaysa being a Bajoran. But knowing the truth didn't feel as good as he'd hoped.
"Well, we already knew that much. I am shorter than a typical cardassian, for one, and underdeveloped. I don't suppose many would notice, though, given that I'm not eactly around other cardassians often enough for my crewmates to see the difference." Ekal assumed Zettval was probably more naiive than he was aware of, and really hoped he wouldn't connect the hormone deficiency from earlier with her size. Even if he did, there was no way he'd associate both with her neck scars. He hadn't even figured out who exactly Zarmek was to her, despite all the hints. She needed to be cautious. Talking to him made her tell more truths than she particularly wanted to give up. "Denobulans must be very honest people." She said that last line like it was upsetting, then pulled herself up and to the left.
Zettval pursed his lips, as the conversation had once again gotten very involved. He kept matching pace with her. "Denobulans are held in a positive regard for their honesty by most species", he said, slightly less upbeat than he had been earlier. "I'm sure your mother and brother would find it quite grating", he noted.
"Oh for sure, my brother perhaps less so, but my mother especially." She nodded quickly, "She is an excellent liar and, like I said, I don't know if I've ever heard a truth from her. She doesn't even like quite like the other people in town, no, she always lied like she was covering a cover-up of a cover-up. Often, my lies are rather shallow, especially since I've been living in Federation space for the last few years, but her lies run deeper than my blood in my veins. I never understood why she lied so deeply, especially when it was just the three of us, but she never gave anything away. I couldn't tell you if her name was even her name, or if her games were games played outside of our house. With Zarmek, I could secret a truth here and there or lie poorly and he'd simply correct me and never judge. With her, I couldn't tell her my favorite color. I could only lie, lie, lie, and somehow she still knew."
Zettval raised his eye ridges, as he pulled himself up the rock face. It was good to know that he was right about Zarmek being her brother. "Your mother sounds like she'd be interesting to talk to - I certainly wouldn't have any idea what she was saying, but trying to figure it out would certainly keep me occupied." Zettval then smiled slightly. "Perhaps she knew when you were lying because of your tell", he joked.
Ekal laughed breathlessly, more focused on hefting herself up than faking a convincing laugh, "And what tell would that be?" Her claws blunted on the rocks. At least she wouldn't be flaking any more scales off her neck for the time being. It was amusing to think of her mother and Zettval trying to communicate at all. There seemed to be a lot of people on this ship her mother would have trouble understanding. Ekal almost wanted to invite her mother onboard for a ship tour at some point, if only to see her floundering- though, even then, Satia Dreisor would be the picture of composure to most observers.
"Perhaps you should ask her. I'm sure you'd get an honest answer", Zettval chuckled. "You know, you could always check the cultural database, see how much there is about Cardassians and deep lying. It could help you figure out if it's just a thing that your family does", he commented, then almost slapped himself for not checking it himself. There must be kiloquads of data on Cardassians there - he could've bought some better tea.
" 'Deep Lies' aren't exactly a thing, it was a metaphor, and the database was written primarily by people who couldn't tell a lie from a falsehood, or a cover from a dismissal." Ekal hummed softly, "And I'm certain I know more about my own mother than they could know about cardassian culture, having grown up outside of it. They might know the trappings, like fish juice, redleaf tea, and yamok sauce, but I know why and how. I know how a rulot grows and how to pick it, I know rokassa from the smell alone. I know what's rude and what's polite to my hometown, and can find what's rude and what's polite in any cardassian settlement much faster than some vulcan researcher trying to talk his way into the good graces of a naturally xenophobic race."
He hmm-ed in agreement. "Fair enough. I must ask, have you been approached by any researchers? I'm sure there's a few exosociologists out there who'd consider you worthy of a study. After all, there's not that many Cardassians in Starfleet", he asked. Were there any other Cardassians in Starfleet? He'd have to look that up at some point.
"No, no one has approached me for study. I doubt anyone would bother asking me about cardassians, since, as a cardassian, anyone familiar with cardassians would know that I'd just lie. Apparently the captain used to work with another cardassian, who I believe was a scientist herself, so perhaps someone has been talking to her? Scientists always were a little looser on the whole 'lies over truths' aspect, except my mother. If a cardassian scientist considered sociology a worthy enough pursuit they might start talking, but then, it's like psychologists. Cardassians never made the time for the job to be useful."
"Makes sense", Zettval commented, before feeling his hand grip over something larger than a foothold. "I think there's another outcropping here", he said, pulling himself up and over. "Yep, there is! Oh, that's quite interesting!", he yelled.
Ekal pulled herself up by her claws, then settled down beside him. "How has your service with Starfleet been?" She took out her water and started to sip, sitting upright now that she's sitting. "I've heard it can be pretty hard for some to accept the regimented lifestyle."
Zettval briefly mused, glancing up at the clear sky, as he sat down with his legs over the edge. "I suspect that I had it easier than most. Denobulans hibernate once a year, and we don't sleep in the interim, so that means plenty of free time for studying and practicing. And Starfleet doesn't exactly make things difficult for us, since they're always interested in getting Denobulans into the fleet. After all, not many Denobulans choose to leave home, and we're a fairly amicable people. I've always considered myself to be an unofficial morale officer." He smiled, and then pointed towards a cliff face that was visible from where they were. A slight glimmer of reflecting metal was just visible, perched on the edge of a cliff. "Do you see that, in the distance? That's certainly not part of the natural terrain on this planet, is it?", he asked rhetorically.
Ekal squinted in that direction, "Probably a building or a vehicle of some sort, just got caught by the imager when someone scanned this cliff. Not sleeping must be helpful, I wish I had more hours in the day for research. How long do you hibernate for, typically? Because a hibernation of half the year at once could be a hassle." She imagined missing six months of news and six months of crew transfers as she slept. She'd never survive like that.
"Just six or seven days a year - apparently I can always divide it up over the year, taking a few days at a time, but I've never had the need for that. It's a little bit like a holiday - get away from everything for a while, come back, and not a lot has changed - and I feel a lot more refreshed after", Zettval smiled. "I think it's a ship. I vaguely remember hearing a story about a Starfleet vessel that crashed on Altamid. The USS... Something. It begins with F. Falcon? Falchion? Fallen? Something like that."
"The Franklin." Ekal had heard that story too, and her organized mind clicked them together out of her memory once he'd mentioned 'altamid', 'crash', and 'F', "Crashed in 2164. There's a whole ghost story, vampires or something. Someone thought the crash was connected to those raiders nearby a few decades later. I never got to read the official reports or anything, but the story seemed outlandish, even for Star Fleet."
"Definitely. Then again, I remember reading about the Delta Quadrant at the academy, and some of that just feels like it's completely made up. Like dilithium that turns people into salamanders - you can't make that up", Zettval commented. "And then you hear about the mirror universe. Think about it - somewhere, there's another version of you, and another version of me, who are probably evil", he said, the idea of him being an unpleasant person at least slightly worrying him.
"That assumes that you are not the evil one." She mused, "I feel like the Mirror Universe isn't full of the 'evil' versions of us- just the versions who grew up with a morality so foreign it comes across as vile to us. Not to mention, the primary issue is that no one can work together. It's the lack of a unified cause that keeps them in the dark."
"Oh no, I was imagining that both of us are... somewhat more immoral", he said, stopping himself from saying evil. "I suppose it's just the fear that comes with imagining myself in a universe where morality is so skewed towards hostility and violence. The sort of person I could be. An unpleasant reminder of the things that everyone is capable of." He crossed his legs. "Who knows, there's a chance we could be thrown into the mirror universe while exploring the Maelstrom. At least it'd give me a chance to face my fears", he said, always trying to find the optimistic angle.
"It's hard to say what you're capable of until you're in a situation where you have to make that choice. To know that, out there in the multiverse, there is a version of you that survives in the hardship of a universe of backstabbing and imperial war, is comforting to me. I like to think that she would be not so different from me, but I could never say for sure unless we met. If we do, and I am dissapointed, I will lose another daydream I enjoy- that of someone who is simply a stronger and more certain version of myself. What if she is dead? What if she is so foreign from me that I can not see myself in her eyes? What if she thinks me weak, small, or useless?" Ekal wiggled back from the ledge to pull her knees to her chest, making herself the smallest she could be, "All of that aside, if we find ourselves in the Mirror Universe, whatever Ekal is like there, I will protect you from Zettval. I can't promise you anything, promises don't mean anything to me, but you should be aware that I will protect you from that particular fear. Your mirror self should fear your crew, because the bonds of true loyalty are stronger than those of fear or ambition, and I am loyal to my crew before I am loyal to even the state, the fleet, or the stars." Despite her posture, her eyes fixed on the Franklin in the distance with icy determination.
"Thank you", Zettval smiled, knowing that she wasn't looking at him. "I'll make sure to return the favor, if you're ever confronted with your own fears", he sincerely spoke, not asking what they were. His eyes shifted back to the wreckage of the Franklin. He wondered just how loyal that crew was to each other. If that ever changed. For some reason, despite all of the lies she had told, he knew that even if the Nogura was to suffer the same fate, Ekal would still have everyone's back. Perhaps it was his own naivety that he had become aware of, or perhaps it came from the heart. "You know, you never struck me as small, or weak, and most certainly not useless", he said - and he was being genuine, not lying to gain sympathy.
Ekal quickly scanned his body language and then his face, hiding it in a simple 'checking out' scan like humans might do, and decided this was one of those rare times someone was entirely honest or a very good liar. From what she'd seen, he'd never been a very good liar. "You haven't seen my brother, who grew up completely healthy with all the hormones he needed and no growth issues at all, nor my mother, who did the same but also had two children." She dropped her knees and leaned forward, acting comfortable, "But thank you. I don't think I'm useless, I'm a very good navigator and a good pilot, I can tend gardens and I can raise livestock, but I am small for my age."
Zettval raised his eye ridges. "I've always seen size and strength as a measure of a person's spirit, not their body. Strength of will, and being the bigger man - those are the qualities that are important to me. After all, the physical qualities are limited by species, by genetics. But the ability to grow as a person is boundless", he said. "I cannot imagine you acting petty, or underhanded, and if you were given a tough choice, I'd trust you to make the right call. And as for your brother... he was willing to turn his back on family, because he felt insulted. That right there, sounds quite small to me".
"Petty? Perhaps. I've embarrassed people who've embarrassed me and taken advantage of a few cultural inconsistencies to get what I want. I've never wanted to hurt someone more than they've wanted to hurt me. That, I think, is fair. I'm often mistaken for someone weaker than I am because I'm small, but I don't know if that's my spirit or simply a function of a good lie. Zarmek is a good man by cardassian standards and he never showed anger to me at my choice." she tilted her head, "I don't think you should trust me to do anything but what I must- and what I can. Trusting someone to be better than they are is foolish. Any call I make will both be a function of and prove who I am. You try to see the best in people, but I can only be who I am. I lie, I get my petty revenges, I fly the ship, and I value my freedoms where I can take them. You're naive, but then you've never had someone prove to you who they are suddenly and violently." Her eyes were on his now, hiding thoughts and quick calculations as she weighed her words, "An innocence like yours should scare me off, I know I'm more of a coward than this, but I want to see you succeed as much as I want to see you fail."
He thought through what she'd said, clasping his hands together in thought. "Let me tell you a story. It begins in a shuttle, on a fairly routine away mission. Jones was in charge, then it was me, Phelps, and Y’Balakev. Something went wrong - electromagnetic interference. The shuttle crashed on the planet, and Jones was killed. I assumed command - a young ensign, with two terrified crewmembers in front of me." Zettval paused for a moment - was he sure he wanted to continue? "We were stranded on the planet, knee deep in water, and no way to signal for help. After a few days, we'd begun work on constructing a phaser array to use as communication. At one point, Phelps - I don't know what happened in his mind. He pulled a phaser on me, and tried to assume command. He wanted to repair the shuttlecraft, get back to the ship, and he didn't trust me or my plan at all. I refused - the shuttlecraft was unsalvagable and underwater, it would've gotten us all killed if we'd tried. Had Y’Balakev not tackled him to the ground, I don't know what could've happened."
He paused, remembering where he was going with this point. "I knew Phelps quite well. He was a good man, in what appeared to be a hopeless situation. He did something I never imagined he would do. And yet even as he was pointing the phaser at me, I didn't think for one moment that he'd actually fire." Zettval looked her directly in the eyes. "I've had people prove to me who they are, suddenly and especially violently. But to assume that, from everyone, would be to do them all a disservice. Because while Phelps was willing to shoot me, Y'Balakev was willing to risk his life to save me. Y'Balakev, who once set the replicator to spray coffee directly in our security chief's face, because he got given a double shift on his V'sa'dulaaj."
"Perhaps I am naive. Perhaps I've proven your opinion of me to be absolutely correct. But my beliefs and instincts have served me well. And so far, my instincts have told you that I can trust you - to have my best interests at heart, and to be a good person. And you're welcome to prove me wrong, whenever you feel like it."
Ekal listened without changing the impassive smile from her face, then stretched her arms up over her head behind her. She'd read his file, and known some of this story. She hadn't expected him to pull it out. He was like a toddler- naive, proud, and certain he was right. It was the other side of the federation that she didn't like- not the hostile ones, but the ones who simply didn't know how hypocritical they were to think their way was best, without knowing what the others lead to. Cardassia could be like that at times. At least she was trying to get used to hearing honesty. And at least he was trying to learn about the opposite. She could tell him a story of her own, counter his, but really she wouldn't be able to change his mind without a demonstration.
"I'd never assume someone has it out for me. I've come to expect it now and again, sure, but I don't assume anything of anyone except what I've read about them
beforehand. I do, actually, wish everyone was as willing to hear me out as you, and wish people's instincts were better tuned. I can tell you two truths now, and listen well, this is very uncomfortable for me- one, I am here to fly the ship and do my duties as an officer- this will not change. two, your instincts about me, at least some of them, are wrong. That's just your naivety talking."
Then she simply scoot back, pressed her hips flush with the cliff face, and kicked him off the ledge.
Zettval's face quickly went from thinking of a response, to shock, as he went into freefall. For a brief millisecond, he felt terrified, before feeling his body go taut, as his harness pulled up against him. He dangled off the cliff, almost bewildered, for a few seconds, before regaining his composure and scrambling back up the cliff. When he got to the top, he looked Ekal directly in the eye. He briefly considered trying to prove his point further by claiming that she had taught him a lesson, because she had his best interests at heart, but quickly realised that that'd just earn him a second kick down the cliff face.
Contorting his face in thought, he finally came out with "I see your point", he noted, sighing after the drop. He sat back down on the ledge, placing his own back against the wall. He figured she wouldn't kick him again, but better safe tha- Okay, she'd clearly had more of an impact than he'd assumed. And he wasn't just referring to the part of his back where her foot had caught him.
She remained flat against the cliff beside him to avoid retaliation, but laughed dramatically. He was acting like she had the first time her mother had demonstrated why trust was a liability- even and especially among family. She had been five. Trust isn't something you give away freely, and no one should trust someone they met yesterday. She hadn't been so naive as to trust only her gut even then. A good lie starts with the expectation of challenge to the assertion and ends with the confidence to refute any challenge likely. When she finished laughing, she smiled and leaned her head back.
"My instincts had to develop very differently than yours. Do you know what my instincts initially told me about you- after I got over the 'I don't know what to anticipate from this species' and 'I'll have to figure him out quickly'?"
Zettval raised an eyeridge. "I dread to think", he replied, a slight smile on his face. Having gotten over the earlier shock, he was remembering why he'd been so interested in talking with Ekal to begin with.
"First: 'easy to exploit'- I wanted to use you for my purposes. Thankfully, 'my purposes' aren't very nefarious- conversation, company, and the occasional game or two. I have to find company where I can make it. Then: 'dangerously naive'. Dangerous for yourself, of course, but also the crew. The kind of 'save everyone' or 'help everyone' energy could literally get someone killed. I know you're- probably- smart enough to avoid a situation like that, but you have to know you can't help everyone you come across. Some people don't want help, some want it but won't take it, some will take help and never use it." She reached back and scratched at the nape of her neck, "I mean this as kindly as I can say it, but you scare me more than fire or the edge of a knife. The one thing I can't control is others, and I can't control honest, kind, naive others especially. I can barely predict them. Your survival story shows me that you think you know something- but you learned the wrong lesson from the experience."
Zettval's slight smile deteriorated as she spoke. Somehow, she knew she was right - even if she was lying. He thought back to what she'd said a while ago - about how every lie serves a purpose. He then thought back to the experience - what if Phelps had pulled the trigger? He'd already proved Zettval wrong once by turning on him. If he'd actually shot him, would he be a different person? He'd always seen distrust as a negative - after all, how was the universe supposed to work if people can't even trust each other? Even after meeting Ekal, and learning about Cardassian distrust, he'd kept it in the back of his mind. He'd never even given the idea of not trusting people, of not trusting her, a chance. Perhaps he had more to learn from her than just an interesting tidbit of Cardassian culture. Perhaps that was his own naivety speaking - that perhaps she wasn't to be trusted at all. Either way, perhaps it was time to act a little more distrustful of her. He didn't know what to say. A rare occassion, to say the least.
He pushed a slightly forced smile across. "You've given me a lot to think about", he said, picking about as neutral a response as he could.
"I should hope I did just that." She said back, just as neutrally, then, "Computer end program."
The world faded around them until they were sitting on the black and yellow floor of the holosuite. She thought about her mother's lesson as a child. You can't trust everyone, and you can't trust loved ones any more than a stranger off the street- at least where it really matters. As she stood, she brushed non-existent dirt off her pants. "If you'd like to meet with me again sometime, I'd welcome it. I would appreciate the company of a friendly, honest denobulan now and again. For both my social needs and the intresting conversation you provide." It was a poor way to remind him that she did want to be his friend, but she wanted to alleviate the harshness of her earlier statements. Ekal's mother would've been dissapointed in her, but then, Ekal had never promised her a perfect daughter.
Zettval eyed with slight suspicion. "We'll see", he said, a slight smirk giving away his true intentions. He knew that the honesty there probably made her feel uncomfortable, and he thought it best to try and tone it down on the acceptance. After all, like she'd said, Cardassians are a proud people.
"You know how to contact me." She cracked a lopsided smile far more conspiratorial than her typical smiles, something that might've even been genuine, then grabbed her shoes and escaped the holodeck without looking back.
Zettval smiled properly once the doors closed. This was going to be fun.