The section recruits in mysterious ways.
This was the mantra that Telatharia told herself, over and over again, as she was taken from her home on Andor to God knows where.
There was beaming – that was actually to Lafa V. Then a shuttle flew her, along with a few others, somewhere else. There was some sort of sleeping gas pumped in, so the passengers had slept through all of that as a Kazon pilot got them … somewhere.
Then there was more beaming. This time, it was to a semi-tropical place that might have been Risa or Ceti Alpha V. That time, she was awake long enough to see her fellow passengers. There was a tall human guy, light blond with a reddish face and a beard, looking like the epitome of Scandinavian. In her mind – no one had introduced themselves – she called him Sven. There were two Xindi Reptilian girls, probably in their twenties or so, in the latest fashions. There was an older human guy, also bearded, losing his hair. He had on dirty outdoor gear and looked like some sort of a survivalist. There were others – Bajorans and Romulans and the like – but the gas hit again and so she was left to wonder about them and had not developed a terribly clear picture.
That time, they were set onto some odd place which was barely on the edge of habitable. They were all masked. The pilot took off and no one could really be understood through the masks as the planet – a tiny place – was heading into its day. It seemed to be one of those places with a really long day and night, and a major temperature differential between the two.
One by one, everyone began being beamed out. Then, apparently, there was more of a sense of urgency as the area began to burst into flames. The remainder, so far as Telatharia could determine, were all beamed up together. They landed inside a building.
The building was old, though, and chilly. People began to remove their masks. No one keeled over. So far, so good.
“I don’t know why they didn’t give us a guide,” complained one of the Xindi girls to the other. The two of them began to chat – fast friends. Telatharia stayed quiet. She was the only Andorian there.
Sven spoke, and he had as much of a Swedish accent as she had figured. “I do not like the, the small spaces.” He started to walk in the direction of a sign pointed toward stairs. The sign was in Federation Standard.
“How old d’ya think this place is?” the survivalist asked her.
“Does it matter?” She was in no mood for chitchat. Besides, wasn’t he in competition for an opening at the Section? She’d be damned if she gave him anything that he could use to gain an advantage over her.
The survivalist shrugged, and asked the same question of one of the Romulans. “Twenty-sixth century? Twenty-seventh? I cannot tell,” was the response.
But that, to Telatharia’s mind, made no sense. Her hunch was confirmed when the door to the stairs was forced open by Sven and a Klingon. The stairway was there, but it was bifurcated. One side was going up. The other, down. And they were both twisted, as if the building had sustained some sort of major bombing. There was a gouge in the wall where real paint had flaked and chipped off. The building was, undoubtedly, older.
About half of the group took the twisted stairs down, while the other went up. Telatharia didn’t much love heights but there was something about the illogic of going up rather than down that appealed to her. If I were testing for the Section, she mused, I would do many – but not all – things backwards. Going up should be one of them.
She followed Sven up the stairs, and he helped her along on occasion. His eyes were an impossibly light blue, almost white, and she wondered if he was fully human. Perhaps there was Aenar somewhere deep in his genome, or Efrosian. Behind her, the Xindi girls, a Klingon and the human survivalist came as well. Down went the Romulans, the Bajorans, another Klingon and a Daranaean. She didn’t pay them any more mind beyond seeing them go.
The Klingon and Sven pushed their shoulders against a door, and they were in a small room. There was an old-fashioned machine gun on the floor. The survivalist picked it up. “I wonder how old it is,” he said.
The same Xindi who had gotten the building’s age wrong shrugged. “Twentieth century?” That seemed close to being correct.
Another doorway opened to what looked a bit like an elevator cage. The survivalist motioned for Telatharia and the chatty Xindi to get in. He followed them, still holding the gun. He punched a button on the wall and the elevator went up slightly, and then shuddered as it split. His side split off, leaving Telatharia with the Xindi. Their remainder went up a bit and then what felt like ribbons twirled around each of them, pulling them back and holding them, almost like living seatbelts. Telatharia felt her back to the wall of the opened remainder of the elevator car as it split again, and she was inside a small triangle-shaped space that went up diagonally and rotated. It messed with her equilibrium and, when it finally stopped, she was a bit dizzy.
The odd car had left her at what looked to be a banquet hall. There were hundreds of people of many species, all talking to each other. All manner of foods were set out. She was offered hors d’oeuvres and refused. The people must have figured out she didn’t belong there, and she realized she was being followed. Noticing a sign for stairs, she went to it as quickly as possible.
As before, there were staircases going both up and down, and they were both twisted. On her own, she went up. She pushed open the door, and found she was on the roof.
She looked up into the sky. Regardless of all of the work that had been done to keep her from knowing where she was, faking a planet’s sky was not easy. That much, she knew. And there was a bluish sky with a yellow medium-sized star and, faint and near the horizon, one large moon. “Earth,” she whispered to herself.
Looking around, she could see a bit of the city she was in. There were other ruined buildings. In the distance, there was a large body of water with the remains of a bridge. But it wasn’t the Golden Gate. It was far too squarish and plain.
She went over ideas in her head. What were ruined human cities? The whole area looked like an old atomic bomb had gone off, or something of equivalent destructive force. There were Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but there were too many other large buildings for that to seem correct. There were also cities like Beijing, destroyed during the Dominion attack on Earth by the Breen. But that had been in 2375, and the building just felt older than that. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but that seemed wrong.
She then spotted a bit of twisted metal on the ruined roof. It was – what? Then she remembered the word for it – rebar. “So this is a city destroyed during the Earth World War III,” she said to herself.
She wracked her brains to remember the names of destroyed cities. There was Lagos, Nigeria. There was Bogotá, Colombia. But neither seemed right. There was also Teheran. No, it was somewhere else. After all, the signs were in Federation Standard – also known as English.
Then she remembered – Duluth, Minnesota. That small city had been destroyed in, if she recalled correctly, 2037, a good eighteen hundred plus years before the present. Plus there had been issues with lingering radiation, so a lot of that city had never been rebuilt, despite the passage of so much time. It was the only reasonable explanation as to where she was, she figured.
There were footsteps behind her. She turned, and it was Sven. He bent over and kissed her cheek, and said very quietly, “No one is trustworthy.”
“Then neither are you,” she whispered back.
There was a shot and she saw him crumple in front of her, blood on his chest from the exit wound. She looked up in horror and could not see his assailant. There was a blow behind her head.
She awoke outside, but on the ground. She shook herself awake quickly, remembering that things were bad but, somehow, she was in old Duluth. There were buildings in various stages of repair. Walking into one of them, there were any number of people of many species who were going about their business. She spotted the Xindi girls and considered going over to them, but then thought better of that. Someone thrust an old-fashioned piece of paper in her hands. Room 413, it said.
She jogged around, looking for a way to get to the fourth floor. Some staircases only led to the second floor. Others led to the fourth, but the room numbers were too high, or too low. Finally, she managed to find 413. Cautiously, she opened the door.
The door whined a bit as it opened. It was pitch black in there. “Who are you?” someone yelled at her. Another voice added, “What is your mission?” And then a third added, “Where did you come from?” While it was possible to tell that the voices were all different, accents and genders were well-hidden by some sort of vocal masking.
She said nothing. Finally, the third voice asked, “What are you doing in Kir?”
“This isn’t Kir,” Telatharia said, “We aren’t even on Vulcan.”
“Where do you think you are?” asked the first voice.
“I’m not telling you,” Telatharia replied.
“Very well,” said the second voice, “can you tell us when the building you are in was damaged?”
“Probably 2037 or so.”
“So it was eighteen hundred and twenty years ago,” said the first voice. “Do you know the means of destruction?”
“Possibly a nuclear device or a pulse weapon. Due to the age of the damage, it’s impossible to really be sure.”
“Of the people you were with when you landed, who was trustworthy?” asked the second voice.
“No one,” Telatharia said.
“But isn’t that a paradox?” asked the third voice. “If someone tells you to trust no one, and you trust that bit of information, well, isn’t that a contradiction?”
“I already didn’t trust any of you,” said the Andorian. “So the information was hardly worthwhile.”
There was a slight sound of footfalls as someone found a switch and turned on the lights. Telatharia was able to see her three inquisitors. The first voice belonged to one of the Xindi girls. The second, to Sven. The third belonged to the survivalist.
The survivalist spoke. “There were several tests today. We wanted to know if you could determine where you were. We wanted to know whether you could figure out a pattern of destruction with a fair degree of accuracy although it did not need to be perfect. We also wanted you to get here, and we wanted you to do so with minimal assistance.”
“So, where do you think you were?” asked the Xindi.
“I know we’re in Duluth,” Telatharia said.
“No,” said Sven. Funny, his Swedish accent was completely gone. He hit something on his PADD, and the room showed the familiar lines of a holodeck simulation’s bare bones room. “You’re on a ship. The identity of the ship is classified.”
“But it was, to be sure, a simulation of Duluth,” said the survivalist. “So is that how you determined the year of destruction?”
“Yes,” Telatharia admitted, “the fact that there was rebar told me that it was later than Hiroshima but earlier than Beijing. It had to be the Third World War. It seemed too chilly for Lagos or Bogotá. After that, I didn’t know the names of a lot of destroyed cities from Earth. I guessed there were too many tall buildings for Teheran and then I just went with the only other name I knew. I guessed that you wanted to make the problem difficult but not impossible.”
“Why didn’t you try to work with any of your fellow recruits?” asked Sven.
“Nobody’s trustworthy, remember?”
“Touché,” he replied, laughing a little. “Telatharia, we are prepared to offer you a position with the Section, if you want it. It will be hard work, and it will be isolating, but we feel it is worthwhile.”
“How long do I have to decide?”
“Two Andorian days,” replied the survivalist. “I will get you back home. It’ll be a lot less roundabout.”
“And the other recruits?” asked Telatharia.
“You’re the only one who passed,” said the Xindi. “They’re all going back in a far more roundabout manner.” She got up. “I hope you will consent to joining us at Section 31.”
The two men walked Telatharia to a shuttle waiting in one of the ship’s bays. Sven asked, “Do you have that piece of paper?”
“Turn it over and hold it up to the light.”
Telatharia did so, and there was a name on it – Steven Reed. “Steven Reed?”
“That’s me,” he said. “Dan here will give you an address to write to. You will address your note to him if your answer is no, and to me if your answer is yes. Good-bye, Telatharia.”
She and Dan boarded the shuttle and he started piloting. “If you decide against joining us, write to me, Daniel Beauchaine.”
“All right,” she said. “Do you like the job?”
“It’s very complicated. You’re on your toes all the time. But don’t take my word for it,” he said as they made the jump to warp, “after all, you said so yourself – I’m not trustworthy.”