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Chapter 1: CENTRAL COMMAND VESSEL SONTOK
"Entering standard orbit around the fifth planet."
Standing in the center of the bridge of the Cardassian survey vessel Sontok, Gul Monor clasped his hands behind his back. "Excellent. Full sensor scan, Ekron. I want confirmation of those zenite readings."
"Yes, sir." Glinn Ekron manipulated a few commands on his console, situated just below and perpendicular to Monor's command chair, which was on a raised platform at the bridge's rear. The console's lighting illuminated Ekron's face, casting shadows that were accentuated by his unusually thick facial ridges. Monor thought the ridges made his second-in-command look like the statue on the grave of Monor's father -- which of course looks nothing like Father, but what do you expect from those idiots who call themselves sculptors these days? The shadows on Ekron's face actually were an improvement, as it cut down on the resemblance to the statue. Monor's father, of course, looked much more noble in life -- he had a good, strong Cardassian face. Ekron, on the other hand, just had an ordinary face, one that didn't stand out in the least. Nobody would ever notice that face, except maybe to comment on how thick the ridges were. Occasionally, Monor cared enough to wonder whether or not Ekron cultivated that.
The glinn announced, "Preliminary sensor data does verify long-range readings. This world is rich in zenite." That mineral was used to combat botanical plagues, and was vital to the continued efficacy of several Cardassian farming colonies.
Hope in his voice, Monor asked, "Any life signs?"
"None so far, sir."
Monor sighed. "Ah, well. I suppose that'll make annexing it easier. Still, it'd be nice to not have to import a labor force to mine the stuff."
"I'm sure that's true, sir," Ekron said.
"Assuming this isn't another one of those damned sensor ghosts. Damned equipment's never totally reliable, is it, Ekron?"
"No, sir, it isn't."
The gul started pacing the length of the Sontok's bridge, moving away from the command chair, past Ekron's operations console, as well as the navigation and tactical stations. The cramped confines did not allow him much room to have a proper pace. It was a failing in the design of the Akril class of ships, to Monor's mind. "Ekron, make a note for me to send a memo to Central Command complaining about the amount of floor space on the bridge."
"But not the lighting. I like the lighting." Again, he sighed. "In any case, what we need is more reliable equipment. We could probably learn a thing or two from the Federation about sensors. They always seem to be one step ahead of us on that. Amazing, for such a backward people. No conception of how to run a government, for one thing." Monor grew tired of pacing, and finally decided to sit in the command chair. "Though at least they have manners, for the most part. The humans, anyhow, and the Vulcans, of course, and those Betazoids. Tellarites, now they're another story. How soon until the scan's complete?" He stepped up the two stairs of the platform and sat in his chair.
Ekron glanced down at his console. "The full scan of the northern continent will be complete in one hour, sir."
"Good. That's what I like to hear." Monor shifted position in his chair; it let out a squeaking sound. Now he remembered why he had gotten up from the chair in the first place. "Ekron, make a note to have that chair fixed."
"I've already informed engineering of your problems with the chair, sir, but that is the standard command chair for an Akril-class vessel."
"Damned excuses. Hiding behind standards like that. In my day, engineers knew how to fix things -- how to make them better, not just make them adequate. They just don't make 'em like they used to, Ekron."
"No, sir, they don't."
Monor clambered out of his chair, and it made another squeak. "Tell them at least to get rid of that wretched squeaking noise. I assume that isn't standard?"
"I'm sure it isn't, sir."
Nodding, Monor once again clasped his hands behind his back. "I should damn well hope not. If we're going to add this world to the Union, we need a vessel in top condition, not one with squeaking chairs. It's unseemly, dammit. Cardassia isn't going to be able to survive in this galaxy without resources, and that means we need zenite. And people to mine it. You sure there aren't any life signs?"
"Only plant life and lower-order animals, sir. No indications of sentient life at all."
Shaking his head, Monor once again started pacing. "Damn shame. That's the nice thing about Bajor -- lots of uridium and a population we can put to good use. Nice spiritual people, too, Bajorans. Much easier to take control of. Well, in theory, anyhow. I mean, the Klingons are pretty spiritual, too, but I wouldn't want to try to conquer them. At least, not yet. Have we gotten any new reports from Bajor, Ekron?"
Ekron looked up from his console. "Nothing since last week, sir. As far as I know, the new government has been set up and Bajor has officially been annexed, but I'm not completely sure. I can put in a message if you want -- "
Waving his arms, Monor said, "No, no, that won't be necessary. We'll get a dispatch soon enough. Central Command's usually good about that sort of thing. Mostly, anyhow, when it serves their purpose. Long as the Obsidian Order isn't involved, anyhow. Damn bunch of voles, the Order."
"Uh, yes, sir."
Frowning, Monor looked over at Ekron. Something sounded wrong with the glinn, like he wasn't paying full attention. That was unusual, in and of itself, so Monor assumed something else distracted him. "What is it, Ekron?"
"We're picking up something odd."
Since neither sitting nor pacing was doing him much good, Monor decided to walk over to Ekron's console. He stared at the readouts, which were utterly meaningless to him -- not aided by the intensity of the light from the console. Monor had to blink the spots out of his eyes as he looked over at Ekron. "What do you mean by odd?"
"We've picked up refined metal, and some of what might be DNA traces, in a small area on the northern continent. No life signs as such, though -- and there are no other indications anywhere else on the continent." Ekron looked up and almost changed his facial expression, a rare thing. "Sir, the readings we're getting are consistent with a crashed ship."
"A crashed ship, sir. I recommend we send a squadron down to investigate."
Monor frowned. "You've confirmed that the atmosphere is breathable?"
"Yes, sir, quite fit for Cardassian life," Ekron said with more enthusiasm than he'd ever shown in Monor's presence before. "I'd like to lead the squadron, sir."
That made the gul suspicious. "You've never been this eager to go planetside, Ekron."
"It's a new world, sir."
Shaking his head, Monor said, "It's just a pile of dirt, Ekron. Some day you'll realize that. You children today, you think the galaxy's full of wonder and new experiences, but the damn truth of it is that it's all the same. Just more and more piles of dirt." He waved his arms in disgust. "Well, fine, go check this pile, and see who it is who crashed."
"Thank you, sir." Ekron moved off to the aft doors.
Again, Monor shook his head. "You'd think he was anxious to get off the bridge for some reason."
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