Author’s note: The challenge was to write about a character's motivations for joining Starfleet. This story takes place in the “Catacombs of Oralius” universe—the same one I’ve used for my TrekBBS entries. This world was first seen in the TNG episode “Parallels.” In this universe, the Bajorans, under the influence of the Pah-Wraiths, have violently occupied their neighbors of a rivaling faith…the Cardassian, believers in the Oralian Way. This story takes place several months before “Captives’ Ransom,” just a few weeks after TNG: "Parallels," and follows Cardassian ensign Hirhul Mendral aboard the Enterprise-D. Some may not like the way I portray human society here. It won't be changing, though… 13 Zroumayn, Twenty-Third Year of the 371st Ăstraya Federation Year 2370 USS Enterprise-D It had been another long, exhausting day—and yes, terrifying. But—at least for now…it was over. Piloting a starship in the twenty-fourth century Federation might not place the same demands on the body as the anachronistic T-38 fighter plane he’d studied and flown in his Academy days, but the sustained stresses of ship-to-ship combat took their toll nonetheless. Ensign Mendral was finally in from the cold—which still managed to fray his nerves during the most harrowing of maneuvers—and into something much more comfortable than his Starfleet uniform. Seven years, he thought, including his Academy years, and I’d still swear there’s something wrong with the way the autofitter sizes these things. It wasn’t as bad as that dreadful necktie he’d seen some of the human men wear on formal occasions, to be sure…but the material never quite felt like it gave in the right places as it rose over his neck ridges. He felt somewhat more relaxed in the Nevotda ruviyal he now wore—a loose-fitting black, silver-trimmed garment that bore a slight resemblance to a Han Chinese robe, and getil-wool black rhipăsbre-ciy’iyas, Cardassian sleeping-socks with treads. Back on the worlds of Cardassia, the ruviyal would never have served as nightwear, but aboard a starship, especially in combat situations, it behooved one to sleep in something one could report to duty in if the situation were so severe that there was no time to dress fully. And that, especially on this ship, was something that seemed to happen at least once a quarter. The Enterprise helmsman’s hair fell over his ears to a point a four or so centimeters past his jaw ridges, free now of the grease he usually used to slick it back. Nothing in Starfleet regulations forbade him from keeping this loose style he’d favored in his adolescent years, but his on-duty appearance was his nod to the Cardassian military tradition that threatened to vanish in the deep shadows of the Occupation. And never…ever would Mendral allow himself to forget the place from which he came, the world to which his heart still belonged. He had wrestled with that, to be sure—and especially this close to the Bajoran border, it still tore at his spirit. First, though, Mendral had to tend to his body, which he’d pushed to the limit today. He stretched from fingers to toes, following it up with an enormous yawn as every bit of fatigue he hadn’t allowed himself to feel for the past ten hours crashed into him. It overwhelmed his awareness and yet that last bit of adrenaline still ran through his veins, still unwilling to let him go. It taunted him: not quite yet, ‘Rhule. Mendral sighed. He still felt too much like doing something to sleep. He sat down at the desk next to his bed—a utilitarian, Starfleet-issue thing like most of his possessions, but what graced its surface was one of the only relics he had from his childhood in the Cuellar refugee camps. It was a still photo of his parents the last day he ever saw them, taken by the human man who had brought Hirhul and his brothers Arjan and Lopar across the border. It had taken a year of living in the affluence of the Federation to really see the extent of what the Occupation had done to them, for him to understand the contrast to how things were supposed to be. It wasn’t natural, he’d come to realize, for the skin to draw taut across the neck ridges like sailcloth, for the shadows under the cartilaginous eye hooks to be so deep, for the figure to be so frail in middle age. Who knew how many meals they had sacrificed for the sake of their sons? Mendral lit a candle, then opened a drawer and pulled out a sheet of parchment and a Cardassian calligrapher’s pen and inkwell—replicated, of course, but true to the traditional form. It was a laborious process, he acknowledged as he fixed the thăv’os-bone nib to the pen and dipped it in the ink. He wrote in his native Cardăsda as he did with all such missives, determined to keep his ancestral tongue close to the surface lest he lose it under the constant rush of the humans’ language. He began by sketching out the elliptical root symbol by which he indicated the nature of his sentence, and from there the words branched out along their central lines in a diagram much like the sort human children used to learn their language’s grammar. While some of the function was grammatical, the structure of written Cardăsda also had something in common with musical notation, conveying information on the speaker’s tone and pacing that brought the writer’s voice to life in the mind’s ear in a way that the bland lines of Federation Standard rarely could. Dear Mother and Father, Hirhul Mendral wrote, his lips silently forming the words in Cardăsda as he sketched them onto the paper, Do forgive my rambling, for just like every other letter I’ve written since I started my tour of duty aboard the Enterprise…I can never actually send this, only my prayers, for they are the only thing I can rest easy that the Bajorans will never intercept. And this one more than anything, for after last week’s anomaly, the Bajorans have become more aggressive than ever. Whatever technology or natural phenomenon it was that tore the boundaries between the universes asunder, they crave it like ravenous ze’ered. I don’t know if you knew this, but they say their “True Prophets” have the means to do something similar, though no one has ever seen the proof with their own eyes. They say it’s a key to usher in their so-called Restoration. We know what it is they really want, though I wonder if all of them truly realize what it is they seek: Mătz Irhiy’iylakou [the Day of Sorrows]. Sam tells me the humans of his sect have a similar concept. They call it Armageddon. So it’s been a constant string of attacks in this sector from the Bajorans since. They are determined to wrest this sector from the Federation, and so Starfleet has sent a task force to accompany us. This is the largest Starfleet show of force I’ve seen along the Bajoran border since the war, when you sent the three of us away. Part of me is beginning to hope that the Federation is finally waking up to the extent of the threat. It’s hard for them to believe, since they still insist on framing the Occupation of Cardassia as a merely parochial matter—nothing more than primitives slugging it out over things unseen and unproven. And I still believe that some of the peoples in power find it difficult to empathize with us for other reasons. Of course, I have seen many of them behave very much to the contrary, who have actually known me—especially Sam. Our friendship is as Cardassian to Cardassian; I have never had the sense from him that my appearance stood in the way. But the fact remains that to some…we look the role of primitive creatures—the sort that on Earth have a reputation for unfeeling ruthlessness. Even their term for metabolisms like ours…“cold-blooded” (though of course that isn’t even what we are in the physiological sense—their doctors, at least, have a more accurate term in their language)…is used to express that very sort of character. And for that—I think they have an even harder time looking to the nature of our spirits than they might have if we were more like them. The Bajorans hadn’t had quite the chokehold on Cuellar that they had on the Cardassia system—but they came around often enough, mainly to choose workers from the refugees as a farmer would choose livestock from the central markets of old. Hirhul had witnessed this numerous times as a child, heard how the Bajorans spoke of his people. ‘People’ was the last word on their lips when it came to Cardassians. He well remembered one of the Bajoran overseer’s vociferous complaints about his posting to the conquered Cardassian territories. The one thing I will never understand, the major complained, is how repulsive, retrograde creatures such as these could pretend immersion in the ways of the spirit. You have no idea how it turns my stomach when I catch them pretending to pray! It’s an affront to the True Prophets, to see such brutishness putting on the airs of refinement, like a meki lizard standing on its hind legs and parading around in a vedek’s robe. I mean, look at them! Hair on their heads and scales on those cadaverish faces, like nature couldn’t quite decide whether they were men or beasts! That same major seemed to have no problems identifying the women among the Cardassian refugees, and saw nothing in the slightest hypocritical about it. Not surprising given the particular sins he’d have to condemn himself for, in addition to the obvious ones, if he put two and two together! Mendral thought with a bitter twist of the lip. The humans—and most of the other peoples of the Federation—were quite different. They tended not to wear their prejudices on their sleeves…but on occasion, if Hirhul looked closely enough, he caught the way some people averted their eyes when they were near him. Maybe some of them just hadn’t seen a Cardassian before and they were simply afraid of being thought rude for satisfying their curiosity…but whatever the cause, it had made high school in Phoenix a rather lonely period for the Mendral brothers—as if their experiences weren’t already enough to set them apart. Attending a real school had been quite a different thing from being educated by their parents with their older and younger bothers as their only classmates. True, Mother and Father had brought the best of their eidetic memories of their own educations to bear, so it had taken only a year of private tutoring to catch up enough to enter the ninth grade…but that hadn’t made the environmental shock any easier. Perhaps, Hirhul thought, he’d had enough of feeling cast adrift in this alien society. Perhaps applying for Starfleet Academy in his senior year had been about tethering himself to something. About belonging. But even under that rationale…some things still didn’t quite hold up, for that society was one he had observed at length and found, in spite of its great promise, to be wanting.