Tain, Entek and Major Korinas had selected her from among five candidates for this position a year before Tain's alleged retirement and departure for the Arawath Colony. After calling her into his office to notify her personally and give her the datapadds with the information she would require for preparation, Tain explained, "We have decided to entrust you with this mission. You have proven highly adaptable, know how to interact with most non-Cardassians, and do not have the propensity to lose sight of Cardassia's interests." He had come around his desk to stand facing her, "Be strong, Gul Melset. This long-term mission will see you advance in our ranks - provided you do not falter."

"I shall not, Enabran Tain." She met his eyes, saluted with a call of "Talsvar Kardassu!" then walked out.

A week before she was officially despatched, Entek informed Melset, "You will be the only Cardassian on staff as we invariably keep to ourselves, whereas you will be expected to actively make contact and associate with the others stationed at SFCIE; however, you already have cooperated with the civilian members of your future staff. Your profile has been marginally altered to include elements advantageous when interacting with the peoples represented there; in case of confrontations you know how to manipulate witnesses and, at times, detractors to react in your favour. Income is in accordance with your status; the first two rates have already been transferred - here is the authorization code. The Federation no longer has a currency-based economy, so this prevents your being vulnerable to pressure. Your quarters are in a mixed enclave near SFCCEI. Everything you need to know is on the pads you have been given. Commander Chandler, the head of this institution, will meet you."

At arriving at the beaming centre a week later, Melset registered at the check-in office. She was standing in front of a screen in the rendezvous hall, listening to reports about developments when someone called her. It was her brother, Glinn Damar.

"Gul Melset, Gul Dukat has accorded me time to see you off. It may be a while before we both have leave on Cardassia."

"Tell Gul Dukat that I appreciate the gesture." She briefly hesitated before adding, "It will indeed be a longer time before I am repatriated. TDY is a minimum of five years."

"That is what Gul Dukat said, especially as the situation is becoming volatile. Tymaris wanted to come, too, but she had to go to her own family." They stood together talking quietly until Melset was called to the transporter bay. "Iníki, take precautions – you know Humans can be treacherous." With that, her brother saluted her, "Gul Melset, I wish you success."

"And success to you, Glinn Åvron Damar."

She watched him walk away, then looked up at the Cardassian emblem over the main entrance. Serving Cardassia in whatever role is the highest honour.

A week later Melset beamed down to Starfleet Central; after looking around to get her bearings, she quickly threaded her way to the reception area through the crowds of humans and aliens. The more or less covert glances and remarks of some who saw her reflected suspicion, even hostility due to the anti-Cardassian propaganda of the past years. This posting will be quite a challenge…

No sooner had she reached the reception area than a tall, dark-haired, dark-eyed human addressed her, "Ah, there you are, Gul Melset. How was transit?" He held out his hand in human custom. "My name's Commander Chandler. Very easy to remember, for obvious reasons."

"The trip was uneventful, if slightly strenuous – Central Command gave me an entire array of data carriers to review in connection with my posting."

"It never fails, does it? Anyway, welcome to Earth – and to the Starfleet Center for Cultural Exchange and Information." Chandler clasped her hand with a firm grip.

On the way out, she noticed him glance over at her repeatedly. Surely he has seen Cardassians before! When Melset looked at him in turn, he said with disarming honesty, "Pardon my curiosity. We always believed that your population is virtually homogenous, unlike ours."

"I am from one of the provinces." She briefly smiled, saying "We are said to all look the same, but our people is as diverse as yours with slight variations as to features, colouring, build. Not all females have a bluish tint to some neck scales and the central one, nor are we all grey-skinned – the Ubari, for example, are darker."

"I admittedly have some reservations about the terms of your posting; Cardassians are said to work in teams of at least three, so sending but one individual is unexpected." For a moment, he hesitated before adding, "Be very cautious outside the perimeter of SFCCEI; attitudes towards Cardassians have become extremely negative after the liberation of Bajor flooded us with reports on the atrocities committed during the Occupation."

"I have been informed about the situation and understand this view of my people may prove difficult to overcome. But perhaps information can make a slight difference."

"If you are not too tired from transit, we'll not take the direct route; no doubt you have never seen a typical Earth city."

"It would be most interesting." The Cardassian seemed pleased at the gesture.

With that they reached his private transport. The city was fascinating. So much greenery, no covered passageways, mass transport housed in transparent tubes, broad, sunlit streets, the pedestrians' areas shaded by dense masses of vegetation. All the houses in the residential areas with open gardens not enclosed by high walls. She looked around in disbelief. Decorative lakes and channels as well as open spaces; so different to our cities….

The Centre was much the same. This is the administrative centre of the Federation's equivalent of Central Command? In Loo'Wess, the buildings of Central Command and the Obsidian Order are tall, massive, dominate the skyline. This Terran city of San Francisco and even Starfleet Headquarters are nearly like a Bajoran city! This is unexpected … I saw visuals of Starfleet Headquarters, but thought them forgeries made to give an illusion of prosperity ….

"Here we are," was Chandler's comment. That he was proud of the institution he served, of his world was obvious when he turned to her with a welcoming gesture.

Melset looked around in silence then took in the Centre, a huge, squat building several storeys high.

"I'll accompany you to your department. Normally, my adjutant sees to showing newcomers around, but as you are the first Cardassian officer stationed here, I want that honour for myself."

Melset could not suppress a smile. So used to peace and to the safety of your worlds that you think that everyone cedes to the charm of your planet.

"Level 4." Chandler opened a door leading to a series of bureaus and a meeting room arranged according to Cardassian style; as they walked through, he introduced her to her staff, then preceded her into her office which resembled a Cardassian ready room, complete with the Union's symbol on the wall behind the desk.


"Yes. I appreciate your planning everything according to our norms." She walked around the room, inspecting all details. "The temperature is at a comfortable level too."

"Has Central Command reserved quarters for you?"

"Yes, in this complex for SFCCEI personnel," she took out the padd to show him the address.

"Good; I'll contact Mr Sterlin and direct him to let you install the security devices you consider necessary." He did so immediately. "Commander Chandler here. Can I speak to Mr Sterlin? Thanks. I'll be coming by with your new occupant shortly. She requires additional security. …. No, she'll take care of it herself. Thank you."

"Done. Let's go to the various levels. If you appreciate diversity, you'll find it here."

The tour proved interesting, offering as it did the possibility of first unofficial contact. After an hour, they went to her quarters which were well-appointed by her people's standards.

The enclave was only half a mile from Starfleet Headquarters, enclosed by a high wall and, for security reasons, only accessible through a guarded gate. Each unit offered total privacy, a small area of greenery. Placing her duffle next to the entrance, she turned to the Commander, "Your assistance is valued."

"About the tour: apart from the reason I gave you, I thought you may like to speak with me off the record in the beginning, as interactions in our respective hierarchies are different." He met her eyes, "I want to make one point very clear, Gul Melset. If there are any indications of prejudice, any racist comments or acts whatsoever, they are to be brought to my attention at once. Such elements have no place anywhere within or outside of Starfleet Command. Remember this, too: Should you need any kind of help, contact me."

She inclined her head in acknowledgment. Now this is interesting. I wonder whether his words are sincere or only standard phrases. He does seem open-minded, far different to what my prior experiences have led me to expect.

"There'll be a meeting tomorrow to introduce you to the staff. In the meantime, you can settle in. If you have questions or need anything, I'll be in my office. By the way, on the ground floor there's a replicator that offers Cardassian preferences as well as a canteen catering to off-world representatives, both good places to make contact with members of other departments."

Once he had left, she returned to the Cardassian department's office to speak with her staff; they had already worked with her people, thus knew their ways; Talik, a Lissepian, Azin and Rekor, two Khobeerians, were acquaintances from one of the offices in the Order which oversaw relations to allied worlds; in a week, two more people would arrive. "What duties have you had so far?"

Azin stated, "Installed all necessary devices, put them through a test run. Work? Decoding, translation of incoming messages, judicial conflict resolution, full range of administrative duties."

"They will remain the same. As of tomorrow I shall take over my duties and new procedures as they develop." Melset checked the data carriers that had been delivered some days before, the other material provided.

"How are shifts?"

"We start at 8:00, shifts are 6 T-Standard hours but can be longer, all depending on the individual's work rhythms and the workload in general. The sixth and seventh day of the week are off."

"Far shorter ones than ours," All the more time for research, a definite advantage. The Commander had pointed out the collection of data in the complex's archives which were accessible to all personnel. No doubt useful information was stored there.

Once back in her quarters, she considered the situation while unpacking. Her staff was competent, the department to her satisfaction. Being the only Cardassian was disquieting however; cooperating, combining talents and knowledge, thus making for a high level of efficiency normally was her people's way of doing things.

Lost in thought, she gazed out of the window. Here, on Earth, she represented a fanatic, highly aggressive, xenophobic race, would be judged and approached by others in accordance with her people's reputation until contact was made while cooperating on projects. The looks of distrust and even loathing from non-Starfleet personnel said it all; only the organizer of the complex had seemed relaxed, greeting her according to Terran norms.

First priority – find emplacements for surveillance devices and transceivers within four weeks.…. All I can do for now is see how my assignment develops. Before preparing for rest, she checked her rooms for surveillance devices. No security measures apart from locks, and those can be deactivated easily - not even listening devices! Safeguards would be installed the moment the supplies she had been promised arrived. Elaborate security measures as were norm on Cardassia would definitely make her quarters seem like home.

The next day Commander Chandler accompanied her into the auditorium, waited for the conversations to end, then said, "As yet, we have no diplomatic relations with Cardassia. Central Command has, however, assigned us an interim liaison, Gul Melset of the Fourth Order, to actively participate in our programme of cultural exchange, resolve conflicts due to disparate methods thus avoiding misunderstandings. A series of reunions, lectures and diverse comparative studies will be implemented within the next months, once the last group has arrived. After speaking with her yesterday, I have the impression she will appreciate cooperation with representatives of the various departments and is familiar with our methods and most of our social patterns. Hopefully this first step will soon be expanded to include further personnel."

The welcome was friendly enough. Chandler, who introduced her to the attendees as they walked around, noticed that she knew the rituals used in establishing contact. For her, though, it was obvious that the greetings of most staff disguised marked reservations which she carefully ignored. The Lissepians, Bolians, Vulcans and Betazoids, as well as the Trill were friendly enough according to their respective ways, thus definitely first points of contact.

One human, introduced to her as Security Chief Manhardt, hardly acknowledged her except for an icy glance and a "Hope you like it here," that was barely civil.

Chandler explained in a low voice, "You will have to find a way to get along with him. He's a fine officer, but was in the Setlik massacre, so please make allowances."

Melset knew about the rumours of Federation weapons depots, civilians quartered in the buildings as human shields, the subsequent slaughter that had reinforced her people's negative image. It would be impossible to ever find out the truth about the incident. "I understand."

The Admiral spoke to him directly, "Chief Manhardt, remember those codes you were swearing at the other day?"

"Yes, Sir. I still haven't made any progress." He avoided looking at the Cardassian.

She decided to offer assistance directly in imitation of human ways, "Security Chief Manhardt, I will be pleased to help you." Her Standard was flawless except for a slightly different intonation and modified formation of some consonants.

Manhardt looked at her, said curtly, "Perhaps you can make sense of them," then turned to leave. Sure you can, they're of your own making, scaly brute!

Minutes later, a huge, dark-skinned Klingon came to join them. He obviously did not even consider adapting to any regulations but his own as he wore his hair in the standard curly mane.

"General G'Kathor, this is our Cardassian liaison, Gul Melset. I'm glad you could come after all." Chandler went over to him.

"The problem was not as serious as it first seemed. If humans could just do what they are told to do and not argue about whether it is effective or not, or endlessly repeat 'we don't do things this way...' like Cardássians, it would be easier to get things done and in a fraction of the time. Give me Klingon staff – you say, they do."

He abruptly turned to face Melset, stared at her challengingly, only to see her stare right back at him, then approached her far more closely than acceptable by either humans or her people, waited for some moments to see whether she would back off before pointedly looking down at her, greeting her in Klingon, to which she replied in kind.

He bared his teeth slightly before retorting, "You've already decided to become subjects of our glorious Empire, Cardássian. An excellent start, studying our language. You can learn about our Empire better as you will be able to appreciate our culture and literature once our Empires have been combined."

The Cardassian woman advanced until they were nearly chest to chest, tilted her head slightly to meet his eyes, "Ah, that is not the entire plan, General G'Kathor. By learning about your culture, we can develop strategies permitting us to infiltrate your Empire, gradually taking control and finally making you fully integrated members of our own Union. You fight, we plan," was the reply.

The result was a snarl, a threatening gesture followed by reasons why her idea was erroneous, even perfectly impossible to which she offered her own provocative comments whenever he interrupted his tirade to take a breath.

The exchange of mutual insults and allegations went back and forth, growing progressively louder, until G'Kathor laughed and grasped her upper arms in a friendly gesture. Finally someone not intimidated by his people's style.

This could be an opening. At turning away from the Klingon, she noticed curiosity, some amusement as well as grudging approval among the other staff.

The complex expanded rapidly, with new groups arriving at regular intervals, some of them from peoples not yet in the Federation or waiting for admission. Periodic reunions of all personnel effectively and quickly integrated the newcomers.

Some weeks later, one of Chief Manhardt's staff, Lt. Hinricks, came in while his superior was working on a code together with Melset. The two were sitting far enough apart to avoid the least physical contact; he was cooperating with her but obviously resented every moment spent with the Cardassian who was relaxed, deeply absorbed in the task at hand.

Hinricks gave the barest of greetings before giving his superior some news which clearly disturbed him. "Chief Manhardt? The last group is a team of Bajorans, due next month. Ten to start with, five more later. Their area is to be selected and furnished. The top floor is unoccupied, so they have a choice of offices. I've already notified Colonel Arnold."

"What?" Manhardt quickly went over to him, "It'll be a minefield with that damn Cardassian here! How can they assign Bajorans offices in the same building with one of those?" he said in a very low voice, covertly glancing over at Melset, who was inputting some last codes.

She pretended not to have heard the insult and said, "Pardon my interrupting, I'd advise assigning the Bajora the suite of rooms with a view of the park; they will appreciate the gesture as their cities are integrated in natural surroundings. I can inform you on how to arrange their offices – their patterns are different to both yours and ours. There will be a Vedek and his aides on their staff; I have details about their shrines; to have access to one will make adaptation easier for them as they are a very spiritual people."

"Lt. Hinricks, pass this info on to Col. Arnold. Thanks Gul Melset," was Manhardt's reply. The anticipation in the Cardassian's voice had been unmistakable; for a moment he met her glance before turning back to Hinricks.

Hinricks whispered, "Will do, Chief, and … what about requesting a nice little labour camp for that Cardi at the same time?" before adding in a vicious imitation of her accent, "She will appreciate the gesture."

Amused, his superior grinned, but then hesitated, looked over at the Cardassian.

Although she expected attacks, this remark took her unawares; Melset dissimulated her resentment; she was not about to dispel the rumour that Cardassian hearing was not so acute, their vision restricted by their ridges, but mentally cursed the Obsidian Order's behavioural modification at feeling her throat tighten. That comment was meant to be heard! They won't have the satisfaction of seeing they have scored a direct hit!

Manhardt saw her quickly turn away to open a drawer, look for a rod, then straighten, laying one on the desk with a click. You were already holding that one …

There was no denying Melset had committed the same atrocities as any other Cardassian military, had been merciless to her prisoners, but had considered the camps on Bajor a serious error together with mass executions, poisoning fields, destroying shrines and liberating orbs.

"Lt. Hinricks, when I suggested Bajor become an ally, the consequences were most … unpleasant. This incident is recorded in my files. Not every Cardassian is a Gul Dar'He'el," she replied evenly, facing him.

Hinricks left.

Wordlessly, Chief Manhardt resumed work with her; when they had agreed on the meaning of most of the symbols and transpositions, he said, "Thank you for your help, I think I can take it from here, Gul Melset. By the way, Hinricks has passed your info on to the Admiral. Colonel Arnold's secretary will contact you this afternoon." He seemed uncomfortable, "A favour for a favour is your way. I have a suggestion that might make things easier in the beginning."

She nodded, waited for what he had to say.

"Adopt Cardassian civilian clothing and hairstyle if it isn't against one of your regulations; that uniform reminds people of the typical Cardassian brute. Wartime propaganda is still being transmitted."

Did he notice my response to Hinricks' remark? Evidently humans may despise a race, but are unwilling to hurt an individual.

"I thank you for the advice. In turn, please remember that all sentient beings, even we, vary widely as to personality traits." Her voice was matter of fact.

Manhardt's reply was a shrug.

When she entered her department later that day, Colonel Arnold's civilian aide, Delios, was already waiting for her. "Lt Hinricks says you are familiar with Bajoran culture."

"Yes." Her attitude was just short of being defensive.

"We need a layout of arrangements in offices and of a typical shrine. Lt. Hinricks told us you have the information." The young civilian's attitude was polite, friendly.

"It will be ready within the hour," was the terse reply.

Before he left, he hesitated before asking, uncertain of her possible response, "Were you stationed on Bajor during the occupation?"

No attack, only curiosity, Melset turned to him, "No. I was on border patrol. During a meeting I suggested integrating Bajor into our system of Allies. For that I was given the works, barely escaped court-martial. Some years later I was sent on a mission to Bajor. While there, I learned their ways and appreciate Bajorans as a people and a culture."

The Human appeared genuinely embarrassed. "I did not mean to imply…"

"This Centre has been established to make contact, learn about each other and eliminate preconceptions." She shrugged, "All of us are in for learning experiences."

"The propaganda … you've seen it?"

"As full of disinformation about us as ours is about the Federation, not a good basis of understanding."

Obviously, he was taken off guard by her reply and regretted the implications of his query.

Give him an opening. "Do you have time to wait? I can sketch the layouts while explaining them to you. Their culture is among the oldest in the Alpha Quadrant."

"Thanks." He sat down next to the Cardassian, watched her quickly lay out the plans of the rooms and, finally, of the shrine itself, even to the colour scheme, explaining each detail's meaning. Delios noticed she actually seemed approachable while describing these details and their basis in tradition. Now this is something I never would have expected, a Cardassian who respects Bajorans. He did not notice that he was being observed in turn, his reactions analysed to the smallest detail.

Handing him the rod, she said, "Here it is. This contains all necessary information."

Melset left together with him to accept a delivery of equipment, wondering how to make the contacts she needed. The prejudices were pervasive, nearly insurmountable. The equation "grey skin + scales = Cardassian = unmitigated evil" seemed an incontestable fact for most. Yet, it was only the beginning. The appropriate reactions could dispel at least some of the preconceptions.

Moreover, she had learned something else. Entek had not exaggerated - humans were soft touches, much more so than Bajorans. She remembered Gul Previn's story of how he had induced a Starfleet officer to speak for repatriating him. At the time some details of his account had sounded incredible, but after what she had just seen, it no longer seemed but one of the tall tales officers often shared.

Otherwise, duties were identical to those assigned her after Gul Torel had taken command of the Orissà, except for processing some excerpts incomprehensible for humans or, conversely, Cardassians. Details destined for Central Command or the Obsidian Order were stored on a concealed data carrier integrated into the surface of her desk.

The problem of making useful contacts soon resolved itself. Late in the morning, a mixed group came to her department and a Betazoid, Mereda, said with a gesture of welcome, "There is a break of roughly three hours, so we are going to look at the area just outside of Starfleet's perimeter, relax in one of the parks, then have lunch together. We thought you might like to join us."

"So late already?" she pretended surprise and locked her annex. "I will come with you, thank you for the invitation." So that is another way they make contact, spontaneous invitations, something never done among us. She looked at the group and added, "I was wondering how contact is made here; with us, it is always according to rank."

"SFCCEI may belong to SF, but we get together with whoever we think might enjoy some company."

"Have you left this building at all since your arrival, Gul Melset?" was a Trill female's query.

"A simple 'Melset' will do." she hesitated, "Yes, to go to my quarters. I was cautioned against leaving this area alone because of negative attitudes towards my people."

"You'll be in for a surprise, a positive one."

A week later, G'Kathor and Vatra came by at the end of her shift. "Join us this time – you'll see something else than sights." Whatever it was, the Klingon woman's attitude showed contempt mixed with derision.

As they walked towards the commercial centre, Melset began to feel uneasy, then finally asked. "No observation screens anywhere, no guards, no security forces. How is safety ensured?"

"They live in what they call a 'paradise.' No crime, no violence, no wars in their system for over two centuries. They have the luxury of having neither internal warfare nor political upheavals. All concentrate on reaching their full potential in whatever they are talented. No risks, no dangers, no challenges or poverty - that is why they risk becoming soft and weak," was G'Kathor's comment. He clearly did not approve of this state of affairs.

Vatra suggested, "Let's see what the clothier has managed to put together – if he has succeeded in producing Klingon attire to our satisfaction." She looked at Melset, "If he has, you can trust him to serve you well. For some reason, personnel is expected to have various outfits for each occasion; it's a given here." Her expression became mocking, "For us, a uniform and two sets of civilian attire are more than enough."

"For us, too. One to process in a cleaning unit, the other to wear. Last week this was explained to me by the people with whom I spent some time looking around. They mentioned social expectations and the prejudices evoked by my uniform. What was unexpected – the people we encountered looked at us – even at me – with curiosity, were not unfriendly."

G'Kathor explained, "We were told by a contact some weeks after arrival. In your case, the security chief spoke to Mereda after work."

"There was an incident which made him feel … uncomfortable."

G'Kathor muttered something she could not understand.

While the three of them walked along the promenade, some people covertly stared at the unlikely combination of aliens, quickly looking away at seeing the glares of the Klingon couple.

"Here we are." When they entered the clothier's shop, the merchant came out of his office and stopped in his tracks, staring at Melset until G'Kathor snarled angrily, "We will go elsewhere if you think off-worlders are displays to be gaped at, but first, we demand our goods!"

He brought the articles out at once, nervously watching the three examine the outfits, loudly commenting on his work in Klingon. Those things were quite a project – far worse than the showy clothing that Bolian couple ordered some months ago. What a combination of materials, even metal.

"They'll do," G'Kathor said dismissively, handing over his card.

"Sorry about before," the merchant said, "I'd never seen a Cardassian."

"Then stare all you want at this one right here," Melset said coldly before detailing her requirements, the colours and styles.

Embarrassed, he helped select material appropriate for various occasions and climatic conditions. Nine articles, not counting the Bajoran outfit I brought along… Melset shrugged. What else is 'a given' here? Once all was done, she gave him her identification card which he scanned, then returned. Expecting further formalities, she waited until he said, "This is all - the sum will be debited after you have picked up the goods, which will be ready within two days. Things different at home?"

With a brief access of homesickness, she recalled security measures on her world, "To conclude this order, our merchants would still expect two forms of identification, a retinal scan and an identification number."

Together, they looked at the other displays – three floors of shops –such wealth! And not one shop without customers in it! For Melset, the profusion of goods was overwhelming. Even with so many worlds in the Cardassian Union, only little merchandise from those worlds was openly available and if, affordable only for the wealthiest, for the most part far beyond the means of a Gul of the Fourth Order. Here? Goods from all over the Federation and at moderate prices at that.

G'Kathor said, "Many of us come to this complex to look around, even we do." He laughed loudly, "Found a bat'leth here once. The Ferengi – yes, there is one here - jumped behind his counter for protection, coward that he is, when I tried it out for weight and balance. He approved of the people crowded in the door, though, said, still hiding behind his counter, that it was good for business." Melset tried to imagine the scene, then heard him say, "After a time, no one will react to you anymore. You know human behavioural patterns, an advantage."

She uttered a low, derisive sound, "Used to a Cardássian? There are as many preconceptions about us as there were about you before the Khitomer Accords. Remember 'Klingons cannot be trusted?' I have seen some of the old reports, as well as recent ones about us, my people is ascribed not one positive trait."

"That is how the Federation stays unified – by presenting a common enemy," was G'Kathor's interpretation of the matter. "Now it is our turn to be trusted, to a degree. Join us when our staff comes here. We stretch the 'we are all friends here to the limits.'" He gave a toothy grin, "They have live gagh and even racht. You enjoy our foods and company? It is as good as it gets, to use an Earth term."

She had already seen groups of Klingons having their idea of a relaxing time, so was not about to refuse the invitation. The advantage of not being observed "I shall do so."

"Let's return. Our shift starts in an hour."

At their return, Manhardt, Arnolds and Chandler were already waiting. "I see you had an outing with friends. The Bajorans arrived an hour ago and are settling into their offices and quarters."

You removed me from the premises to keep them from seeing one of us at arrival. Seemingly her stance betrayed her suspicions as the three humans looked at each other.

Ah yes, we are vicious when offended. She remembered, Klingons never let themselves be used for anyone's purpose. This was only a coincidence. She allowed herself to relax.

Chandler continued, "They were very pleased as they had not expected their area to reflect their customs so well and asked who had made the plans to thank him or her personally. I only gave them your surname. Vedek Yarim will come to see you tomorrow morning."

"Is it wise not to mention my race and status? The Occupation ended barely two years ago; Bajorans lived through traumatic times because of us, so there is justified resentment."

"We'll just have to see what happens, won't we?" was the unperturbed reply.

No doubt you will have someone nearby waiting to see just what happens; this seems a test of sorts. "Indeed. But this encounter could be difficult."

The next morning Melset arranged her hair Kelani style and chose a civilian outfit, close-fitting but allowing the full spread of her neck membranes. While preparing for the meeting, she was worried, yet hoped to establish amicable contact with the Bajorans in the future. It was not all that difficult to imagine their feelings at being confronted with a representative of their worst enemy.

When she came in, Mr Talik inquired, "Should I be present at the meeting?"

"No. It is best I be alone. The Vedek and his aides should be able to save face in case they react too negatively. Without witnesses, an incident can be forgotten."

Within the hour Vedek Yarim came into the reception room. He looked impressive in his heavy brocade robes, as did his staff in the purple robes of their status. "We have come to thank the planner. Not one element is missing. It is rare for non-Bajorans to be so well-informed about our customs."

Talik replied, "Melset is in her office. I'll notify her that you are here."

After a minute he returned, "She will see you now."

At hearing the inflection of Talik's voice, Yarim noticed he seemed worried. "Is there something we should know?"

"Yes, Vedek Yarim. She respects your people and has been anticipating cooperation since learning of your being posted at the Centre."

Pleased at this information, Yarim smiled slightly and, followed by his aides, walked to the door, only to see the Cardassian emblem on the wall, and, behind the desk, a Cardassian female. They noticed she had adopted the Bajoran posture of respect, yet all they could do was stare at her in revulsion.

This was not unexpected, considering their two peoples' history; undisturbed, she made the Bajoran gesture of welcome. Indicating the chairs arranged according to their custom when receiving honoured guests, she said, "Do sit down, Vedek Yarim, Prylars Inyon and Myssiro. I trust everything is as you require?"

Wordlessly, they sat down, waiting.

Speaking in Bajoran, her manner friendly and respectful, Melset explained, "I attended services on your world with the Bajorans who had sheltered me after I was sentenced to death for suggesting you become allies. Their kindness was greater than one of us had any right to expect. I will never forget this." She looked at them directly. "It is our custom to repay a favour, though this is but a very small gesture indeed."

"We did not expect to meet a Cardassian concerned or even knowledgeable about our way of life; everything is according to our customs. I have brought a data rod with information about our world, culture and religious system to facilitate contact, to thank the planner. It is now yours," Vedek Yarim replied and rose, took it out of his belt and, with both hands, gave it to Melset who raised the rod to her forehead then her chest in a gesture of thanks.

"You are kind. I shall view it then make it accessible to the others. This will help create greater understanding as most stationed here have had no prior contact with your people. Be assured that you will find immediate acceptance and contact, but react promptly to patronizing. Some have the habit of treating favoured peoples in such a way."

"That will be all. We have preparations to make." Yarim made eye contact when he said, "I thank you for your assistance and the assurance." At leaving, he used the Standard greeting which Melset answered in like.

Once the remaining equipment was delivered, Melset immediately installed the security elements, then invited G'Kathor and some of his staff to test them to see whether further adjustments were necessary.

"My staff is the best security system. We need none of those clever little devices of yours, Cardassian. They show that your warrior instincts have been lost; even when we sleep, we cannot be surprised," was his challenge.

Melset was unperturbed, "We shall see."

Hours after the conversation, N'Kreth heard a loud crash and a bellow of sheer outrage from his superior's office. He raced in with two other staff, phasers at the ready, only to see a panel of the ceiling lying on the floor. Following G'Kathor's glare, he saw Melset look down at them from a hole in the ceiling, slip through it, briefly cling to the edge and let herself drop.

Coming to stand at attention, she called, "Qaplah!" then stated, "All of the conduits above your offices and mine are easily accessible, thus I was given permission to have a security system of my own. Which I modified after it had been examined. Getting to your area unchallenged was no problem, a failing of this building's security system, not of your staff or your own vigilance. My safeguards have already been installed in and around mine – non-lethal, according to Federation norms. I suggest combining systems once you have decided on your own one, it will mean greater safety for us both. The information I have just received from the home world indicates developments in the quadrant that may threaten us all." Together, they replaced the panel, then discussed measures.

As her department slowly became established the amount of work rapidly increased. She had expected decoding, but not tactical analyses; these concerned non-Cardassian military movements as it was tacitly understood that no one would pressure her for classified information about the Union.

In spite of appreciating her duties and contacts, being the only Cardassian was difficult; the other off-worlders were good companions with whom she often explored the area or met for relaxation, but too different in customs and values to be more than casual acquaintances, while most of the human staff kept her at arm's length unless when cooperating. So far, only a few besides Delios and his friend Lt. Andrews at times spoke with her outside of work.

Most of her time off was spent in the archives, looking through the various transcripts and accounts of Federation and non-Federation worlds, gathering information she had never hoped to access.

After locking the door one evening, she returned to her office to find two of Manhardt's staff, Andrews and Hinricks, waiting with him.

"Where were you?"

"In the archives."

"We want you to look at something," Together, they went into one of the other offices. "What do you think?"

The monitor displayed energy patterns that were strangely familiar. Carefully she compared them to those she knew, "These are definitely not from any source with which I am immediately familiar. Where were they recorded?"

"In the vicinity of Deep Space-9. They have been appearing at fairly regular intervals ever since the Dominion became more active, seemingly penetrating into areas previously left undisturbed, as though to case for regions where they can strike most effectively."

"And yet, no ships have been detected so far. We would need information on their capabilities, the technology used," was her comment. "Capturing one is essential, your engineers could cooperate to make detailed analyses of the technology, permitting both you and us to establish appropriate defences."

"We already know one thing. Commander Sisko and a Ferengi were briefly taken prisoner; escaped and returned to Deep Space 9 with a member of the Dominion who had pretended to be a fellow prisoner – It appears they have highly advanced long-range beaming technology."

"The Dominion threat has been common knowledge for the past months. That must be the report Commander Sisko filed on an incident in the Gamma Quadrant."

"How do you know about that?"

"Our government has a network of reliable sources. Federation vessels hardly take the trouble to encode messages. These are, of course, easily accessible to all."

"Your Union seems to spend an inordinate amount of time listening in on others' transmissions," was Andrews' comment.

Melset's eyes narrowed, "Now do refrain from that reproach, Lt. Andrews. All Unions do this, including the Federation. How else can valuable information be obtained? There is no nefarious plot involved as everyone suspects the moment we enter the equation. This threat is one we will all be facing in future. In essence, we should be sharing, not hiding what we find."

Andrews immediately backed down. "Look, no offence meant, but old habits die hard." He looked at her, embarrassed.

"Well, what do we do now?" She decided to accept his words as an apology.

Hinricks met her glance. "If you know more, you could share the information with Starfleet; both our systems are at risk, so we could join forces in case of an imminent attack."

"I have no detailed information on the Dominion or its activities. At intervals Central Command transmit what I need to know for my duties at SFCCEI, whereas details on strategy and military operations are only meant for active duty members of Central Command, which I no longer am."

"If you are trying to find ours in the archives, you will be disappointed, as we have nothing about those developments, either. You do spend quite a lot of time in there," Hinricks remarked.

"We value knowledge for its own sake, and not always because of a desire to find material of interest for the Union." Melset remembered human patterns and added, "We do not require extensive periods of rest. Moreover, our reputation for being inquisitive is not undeserved."

"Then you are lucky that you have access to those archives." Andrews was curious in spite of himself, much to Hinrick's carefully-hidden irritation.

"Indeed. Your worlds are prosperous, you can afford long periods of leisure. For us, even a minor detail can make the difference between survival and an untimely end. We have a history of periods of extreme poverty which ended when Central Command began expanding its activities outside our system."

"Then why commit atrocities if you are mainly interested in gaining knowledge and trying to survive as a people and culture? Your former situation should make you respect others' efforts, not exploit their worlds then devastate them upon leaving." Mr. Johnson's expression was both curious and suspicious.

"There is no denying our lack of compassion and potential for cruelty. No offence meant, but consider your own history: genocide, brutal forms of colonization because of the colonisers' notions of racial superiority. Propaganda justified it all. Respect for others as practiced by the Federation - provided they are as like you as possible, thus acceptable - is a luxury of those whose subsistence is assured."

"Now for the analyses," she ended the discussion, went to the tactical centre of the complex with the others.

On the way, they met Yarim and his aide, Inyon, who were just returning from the communications area. To the other's surprise, Vedek Yarim gave her a friendly greeting, "Gul Melset, Come to our area when you have time. We must speak as soon as possible."

"I shall contact you immediately after this project is done, Vedek Yarim." She used the Bajoran gesture of respect.

The three humans exchanged glances, briefly looked at the Cardassian; she looked as cold and arrogant as usual.

After the work was completed, she went to the Bajoran department to look around - her designs had been meticulously reproduced.

Vedek Yarim was watching her and recognized her pleasure. "You approve."

"Indeed, I was not sure whether the designers would keep to the details I'd given them."

Inyon looked over at Yarim who nodded once before saying, "We made inquiries after meeting you, and were put into contact with two families, the Varuns and Arnas with whom you had lived for nearly a year before recapture. They were surprised at our inquiry as they feared you were executed."

"I have friends in the leading echelons who thought I might be useful, as I had even managed to survive and make contact with Bajorans. My adaptability, according to my superiors, is valuable."

"This is surprising. Mercy is not exactly a Cardassian attribute. Your friends said you were terrified when you were retaken." Yarim looked at her, watchful.

"It was unexpected; I was sure I would be left behind on Bajor after withdrawal. There are sentences that keep the guilty alive to face a lifetime of misery. For us, having to live off-world, with no hope of ever returning home, is a sentence worse than execution." After some moments, she added, "Or I never would have agreed to adoption by the Arna family..."

Had Vedek Yarim not heard the account from the Bajorans concerned, he would have thought it a lie. But how else would she have known what she did and, as Azin had said, anticipated cooperating with Bajora, used their language and had in-depth knowledge of their culture?

Inyon came over, "If there are problems or conflicts, you know to whom to turn."

I worked for Cardassia, betrayed your people, and now I am offered protection... Melset was pleased the reason for her stay remained a secret, but Inyon continued, "We know what you did, but also that you tried to protect those people, demanded they not be harmed. If you had really passed on all of the information you obtained, the cells in the province would have been lost."

Melset felt terror overwhelm her and stared at the Bajorans, for once speechless. If this is in my files, I am dead. But I passed on all details until the operative was killed! Or am I to be kept alive here, part of a long-term plan, then charged with treason and executed?

At seeing her reaction, Yarim exchanged glances with Inyon. "Gul Melset, this is in our files on Cardassians, inaccessible to the Order or Central Command. We have made lists of individual officers and collaborators in the hope of making them pay for their crimes against us. You have nothing to fear, child, I assure you." He added, "The villagers saw how brutally you had been abused during interrogation, realized you were under duress, thus gave you outdated information. According to Rendon Tevren, you withheld part of that. You paid dearly for speaking for us. Anyone would choose life. We also had to make agonizing decisions."

They have misunderstood the incident as extortion, not voluntary work! "Is this information secure?"

"Yes. We have no surgically-altered operatives among us," he added, "That cell lost twelve people in that one year. It could have been many more."

"I am grateful for your help and assurance," with that she left, rejoicing inwardly. With their support, fulfilling the duties assigned her would be easier, though she would have to be extremely cautious. Colonel Manhardt and his staff knew her people's methods annoyingly well. Yet even they did not suspect that the components of the security systems delivered to her department could easily be modified to intercept incoming transmissions, simultaneously recording and transmitting them to a hidden carrier. Sitela, listed in her files as a close relative, would be notified about the initiation of her duties.

That evening, she told G'Kathor she would be working in the conduits, recalibrating some elements, expanding others.

"Do you require assistance? I have a specialist I could free for the time necessary."

Safer to agree to his offer - less suspicious. "I do not, but it would expedite work."

"I'll send you Sha'Kor."

Within days, the first systems were installed; she gave them a trial run then relaxed, satisfied - transmissions were recorded and routed to her office flawlessly. Now for some more experiments. Melset went to all of the areas to which she had access, ostensibly to test the security devices, but in reality trying to get into her own systems or discover them. Good. They cannot be recognized or traced. All that remained was to install similar devices in the Federation members' areas, including Chandler's offices and security. The challenge was to do so undetected, but the conduits in their area were relatively accessible, and their security measures easily found. Nothing would be hidden from her thus from Cardassia. A minuscule receiver in the Cardassian emblem on the wall was the final element. In case of detection, it had been programmed with a self-destruct sequence that, in a chain reaction, would not leave enough residue to trace the bugs' provenance. Nothing would point to her.

With the arrival of the Bajorans, the various departments had begun cooperating to initiate a routine of presentations and joint lectures, their representatives participating in, respectively organizing and presenting courses on xenobiology and ethology, a wide spectrum of subjects selected during meetings of the groups involved. Three or more departments cooperated in each project to make even relatively dry subjects more interesting.

These multicultural presentations and lectures were such a success that they were soon open to both members of Starfleet and civilians interested in offworld literature, music, ethics, society, history, stories and legends, even, and this was fascinating for many, communication and body language.

At the end of some of these presentations, a few of the participants were approached for interviews. After a time, the others realized Melset consistently stayed in the background, avoiding the reporters, even quickly leaving the auditorium when she saw one approaching her or turning away when a hologramme was taken.

When Beron, one of the Bolians, who considered himself quite the diplomat, addressed her about the matter, she explained, "I was on border patrol, commanded a cruiser…. There were conflicts with members of the Federation." She did not specify – there was no need to do so. How many captives were made, a number of whom I interrogated. Confrontations with visual contact…

"I understand, Gul Melset. But that is over, a treaty has been signed, ending the Border Wars. I have neither seen nor heard about lists of Cardassian officers wanted for war crimes except on Bajor. Even if there were, you would hardly be on one of them, or else you would not have accepted this posting," Beron replied. He obviously wanted to continue, but at seeing the Cardassian woman's stance – not aggression, but apprehension, if not fear, he fell silent. "If someone asks me, I'll say that you have met with … injurious questions."

"Thank you," was the reply, "all of us who participated in that conflict…" she inclined her head, fell silent, as though afraid of possible consequences if she mentioned specifics.

You are afraid of being recognized. He looked around pensively. Many of us who participated in that conflict or in others would also have to fear being on some list or another, but you are in a far more vulnerable position than we. "I understand."

After one such occasion, Delios watched Melset leave with a mixed group after they had presented various styles of instrumental and vocal music from their respective worlds to show parallels and differences in subject matter as well as in tonality. Vulcan, Klingon, Bajoran, Cardassian and Bolian had been the styles selected; Melset had interacted with the others with obvious pleasure, had been invited to join in one of the Klingons' battle songs; in the Cardassi part of the presentation, she had data carriers for examples of instrumental music or group vocals. Towards the end, she had just begun one of her minority's songs when Isena, Myssiro's wife, spontaneously joined her along with her husband. Two languages, two worlds, two cultures, yet one melody, a perfect match, this had led to astonished comments, questions….

Listening to the group talk animatedly, begin planning the next project, Delios thought, Seems we missed a chance at making real contact with this Cardassian, but they are so hard to read, don't just join a group. She may not realize that we are also uncertain of how to make contact. The border wars, Bajor, their treatment of prisoners, enough information for prejudice and little else... Perhaps if we explained how we interact? And why did her superiors send only her? The sense of isolation must be incredible. It can't be any easier for her than it would be for one of us.

Impulsively, he enlisted his friend, Lieutenant Andrews. "Look, do you realize that Cardi has already been here for four months and has little contact with us outside of duty?"

"She doesn't seem to want it. Have you ever seen her join us or sit at table with us? All she does is glance at us and walk past." Andrews shrugged. "She sure isn't lonely – look for her among the Bajorans and other off-worlders, even the Klingons."

"I've noticed something. Let's go to her department." Delios seemed very determined. "At least we can try. After all, this place is meant to surmount barriers."

Andrews looked at him a little dubiously. "Cardis have a strict hierarchy, remember what she said in her last lecture? We may just be politely invited to leave."

"We can try. If it doesn't work, it doesn't."

Together they were admitted into her office and now, face to face with her, did not know how to start, were even slightly embarrassed. Delios decided to take the initiative. "Gul Melset, do you have a moment? There is something we'd like to address."

The hesitancy of the two men, both fellow officers, was strangely disarming, so she gestured at them to sit down, joined them. "I take it there is a problem? There is nothing that cannot be solved with some effort."

"No, not exactly a problem," was Andrews' reply. "We hope this is not too personal, Gul Melset, but you hardly have contact with us outside of duty. Yet we've heard Cardassians are gregarious. You walk past our groups during breaks, nor do you join us during mealtimes." He stopped, uncertain at seeing her unmoved glance. Nearly as bad as a Vulcan! "The other day, you quickly looked over, then away again, so I thought I should speak to you."

"Everyone is polite, assists me or cooperates when necessary, especially in the presentation of facets of our respective cultures, we appreciate working together, even go on trips, but especially humans seem to avoid me. Yet … I have the impression some of you are waiting…. For what?"

"Our ways are far more informal than yours. Don't wait to be invited into a group. Just come over and speak to us. Today Lts Johnson and Marick nodded at you in greeting – Manhardt's staff, and they were offering you an opening. I can't imagine anyone refusing contact."

Her eyes widened slightly. "I have heard comments which were not welcoming."

"Then we'll invite you. You are the only Cardassian here, so …" he said quickly, hoping he was not crossing a red line, "…the feeling of isolation must be extreme. I know how I would feel."

Their manner indicates that they are sincere. I'll accept their offer to see if it works. Contact should provide me with more information after a time…. Melset rose and they followed suit. "I thank you for calling this to my attention. It is … kind of you and," she hesitated, "very unexpected."

Once they were back out in the corridor, the two men exchanged glances. "Hope we didn't mess up big time. I just cannot make that Cardi out." Delios looked down the corridor worriedly.

"Nor I, although she is less forbidding and arrogant than those I have met so far. But she was watching us as if we were some novel kind of humanoid. She knows our phrases, our gestures, but not the cues, and that is the whole problem."

"Whatever, but I hate to see anyone feel excluded, especially a person whose contact with other species was limited to combat and is unsure of how to react in a new situation." Delios added, "She may find our ways every bit as incomprehensible as we do hers." He added, "Remember propaganda – who knows what image we have on her world."

It was half a year later that a message from Cardassia arrived. Melset noticed that it was not official, but nevertheless transmitted from Gul Dukat's ship. After closing the door to her office she accessed it only to see her brother Damar's image appear on the screen.

His usually disciplined manner had ceded to happiness. "I have to make this short, Gul Melset: Tymaris has given birth to our first child. We have chosen the name Jivan. In about a year I should be granted leave and, situation permitting, will come to Earth with my family. It has been too long already. Damar out."

Melset was pleased that the family name would be continued via her brother. On Cardassia, the birth of a child was celebrated in spite of the restricted means of the general population. For a moment, she sat at her desk, lost in thought, feeling the isolation from her people more acutely than usual. I can tell my contacts, so we can share. Just a little like home…

On her way, she met Commander Chandler and exchanged greetings with him. He looked at her curiously, noticing that she seemed different in some way. No use asking, there will be no answer anyway…. The Commander knew her well enough or thought he did, having heard that Cardassians were nearly paranoid in their distrust of other 'aliens'. After informing him about a new project, she left to share the news with her contacts.

In the afternoon, some of the human staff were surprised to see the Bajorans, G'Kathor, N'Kreth and Melset, as well as some of her contacts from other departments celebrating some occasion; although one or two of them went by no explanations were forthcoming, yet when Melset saw Andrews and Delios she gestured at them to join. After watching the group covertly for some time, the others turned back to their own conversations, at times wincing at a burst of loud laughter from the Klingons.

An inquiry came over the videoscreen in her office. "Gul Melset, you have a visitor from Cardassia, a Major Sitela Ranok. She is listed as your half-sister, and has ... demanded ... to see you."

Seem very pleased about the fact. She smiled as if he had given her the best of news, and, in fact, it was. She had not expected the operative to get clearance so easily. "Thank you, Lieutenant Andrews."

Far later than I expected, over half a year; she was slated to arrive to inspect my work nearly three months before.

Little later, Lt Moreno, looking slightly shaken, came into her department with a Cardassian female. "Sitela Ranok."

Sitela greeted her curtly and, it seemed to Moreno, without any friendliness. She then informed the officer who had accompanied her, "You may leave. Your presence is no longer required."

She turned to Melset, speaking in Cardassi, "Or do you wish to retain your subordinate a while longer?"

"No." Melset turned to Moreno, "Lt Moreno, I thank you for accompanying Major Ranok to my department. I appreciate it."

"Glad to help you," with a last look at Sitela, he left. I sure wouldn't want to meet that one again so soon. Melset is downright lovable in comparison.

When he had left, Melset explained, "He is not my subordinate. I have no humans on staff, but he and some others are always ready to offer assistance."

There was no reaction to this as Sitela came straight to business, "You have notified me that preparations have been concluded."

"Yes. I request you examine what I have installed. The data of the past five months is ready for transferral."

Sitela's expression showed surprise, "You speak so openly? I should expect total surveillance in this installation. We would, if we had members of the Federation in our Headquarters."

"Indeed, on our worlds it is thus. That is so disquieting here. There is no surveillance whatsoever except in restricted areas; I had to install each element myself, including those ensuring my personal safety; this was accepted without further inquiries after I had told Security and Commander Chandler that I needed these measures. If you think we are under observation, you are mistaken. After all, this is considered a personal visit, due to your desire to see a close relative. Your title makes no difference." At seeing the coldness in Sitela's eyes, she thought, The Order matches the talents of those who cooperate very well – the way we contrast as to manner is an advantage here, too. She inquired, "What did you say to Lt Moreno? He looked shaken."

"After he said you would be pleased to see a fellow Cardassian as you most likely missed your own kind, I told him that I consider it offensive to force a Cardassian to associate with non-Cardassians on a permanent basis." She met her glance, "You do surprise me - the way you fully adapted to other peoples in the past and are doing so here ... That human seems concerned about your well-being."

Melset did not react to the disapproval in the comment. "If you do not initiate contact, show some interest in off-worlders' and human ways and customs, you have no access to interesting details; you can obtain so many during an apparently harmless conversation. They do not exchange information as we do, nor watch what they say as carefully. It is all on a personal level. I dislike phrasing it like this, but you literally have to become their pet alien; once you are, you have little to worry about and will be protected. Two officers even told me how they establish contact among themselves."

She knew Sitela was like most of her compatriots, a Cardassian who only accepted their ways, and considered her too open to other peoples, too liable to be influenced. Yet, in spite of her reservations, Sitela considered her useful as she had managed to insinuate herself into the trust of Bajorans and here, apparently even into that of some humans as well as other peoples represented at SFCCEI. They cooperated well and this fact alone was relevant. If Melset made a disastrous error of judgement, that was none of her concern. A replacement operative would be found quickly enough….

"I shall dismiss my staff so that we can speak freely." She went into the adjoining room, "Your duties are over for today and tomorrow. You've earned it after putting in a number of supplementary hours."

Sitela shook her head - that tone of voice... You sound like one of them. Re-education will be difficult, I fear, but your flexibility is indeed most useful.

Melset returned and, with Sitela, went to the Cardassian symbol behind her desk to dismantle part of it. Together they examined the installations, ran the entire gamut of processes. Everything checked out perfectly.

"May as well test your work - and hope it doesn't call the entire security staff into action." Sitela attached a registration padd to the data storage element, and, while waiting, they discussed information about promotion procedures. Data transferral was a critical point, as there was no method of making this process totally unobtrusive. After a quarter of an hour, everything had been recorded, the padd detached.

"Have you taken quarters for the duration? If not, I have a room you could use during your stay," was the offer, "You would have total privacy. At times, friends come by, but would not disturb you."

The answer was prompt, "The Order has seen to accommodations; your offer is noted, but unnecessary."

The two left Melset's offices and walked along the corridor, talking animatedly in Kelani, exchanging information and various details on systems in the complex. A few of her contacts met them on the way, gave them a friendly greeting, but received the barest of replies as was the Cardassian way of interacting with off-worlders.

The next day, at the beginning of her shift, Inyon came in, "Gul Melset, Vedek Yarim wishes to speak to you. He has received news that should prove interesting."

"Show him in." Melset felt Sitela's stare, but there was no comment. Immediately after, the Vedek entered to first tell her about developments on Bajor, precautions taken to avert the Dominion threat. Melset did not call his attention to the fact Sitela was fully conversant in Bajoran, thus could understand the entire report. Yarim then mentioned the discovery of a number of ancient texts that had been thought destroyed when the Cardassians had reduced a number of important shrines to rubble at withdrawal. This would provide the best example of how things worked here, on Earth.

At hearing this news, Melset gave a low call of pleased surprise as she was kept up to date on research. The result of her reaction, which was according to Bajoran norm, was information on safeguards installed to preclude any illegal activities in this isolated area while work was being effected to remove these texts. They had sustained some damage, but with appropriate precautions could be preserved well enough to be reconstructed, then read and translated. Before leaving, the Vedek looked over at Sitela and told Melset, "Please tell your relative that I meant no offence; give her the information, if you wish. This discovery is a momentous occasion and worthy of rejoicing even in these times. Certainly she can understand."

Melset quickly translated the details, to which Sitela replied with "Knowledge is always invaluable. Vedek Yarim, I praise your tolerance and consideration even towards us; it gives hope our peoples may soon cooperate in peace."

Yarim smiled at her and, to Melset, "Walk with the Prophets, child. Remember, in two days we will have a meeting - some of the topics should be of interest to you, too." With that, he left.

"Sitela, is there a possibility of being accorded access to specific information in my files?"

"To what purpose?"

"Vedek Yarim told me that there was an entry in my personnel files - to which I personally granted him access to initiate cooperation - stating I had not passed on all the information I had gathered during my mission on Bajor."

"Of course - which one is it? The one produced for the Terrans, the one for the Bajorans or the official one?" Sitela's eyes glinted with cold derision in spite of her smile.

"The official - Cardassian - one and that destined for the Bajora." Melset sensed her colleague's contempt, but made her expression and posture hint that this information was too important for her to reject it out of pride, as if too much depended on what she would find.

The other Cardassian quickly input a code and, on the screen of the datapadd, two files appeared side by side; she handed it to Melset who began reading them with some apprehension. At arriving at the critical entry, she could not repress a sigh of relief. "My file has been changed."

"Melset, have you forgotten we do these things?" Sitela's intonation became insultingly condescending, "Let me remind you: we manipulate files to suit whatever purpose for which they are needed; thus, for the Bajora, the fact you held back critical information makes you a friend. For the Terrans, it is the fact you are highly interested in and tolerant of other cultures. For us, it is your sense of patriotism and duty, your absolute loyalty to Cardassia and its Way, your readiness to make even greatest sacrifices. I presume the third remains the correct one."

Melset smiled at her, pleased at her success.

"There is nothing at all amusing about your failing to remember these basic facts; it is a serious weakness, that makes me question the wisdom of sending you on this mission," was the reaction.

"Oh, but I did remember, Sitela – I only wanted to test whether you, could see through my pretence. After all, I had little possibility of practising this specific skill before coming here. It worked with the Bajorans stationed here, but a fellow operative?"

Sitela briefly returned her smile, "I assure you, Melset, your act was entirely convincing. Well, whatever works."

After two more days, Sitela returned to Cardassia; in spite of some reservations about the methods used, she had been forced to admit that Melset had obtained an unusual amount of information, much of it obviously very useful.

"There is something that may be of interest to you," was the statement of the human vice-admiral who had contacted Gul Melset. "Stand by for transmission." It did not take much knowledge of human reactions to recognize that developments were at best very disturbing.

"Thank you, Vice-Admiral Toddman."

She could not suppress a call of surprise at seeing Enabran Tain appear on the screen. The former head of the Obsidian Order who, as Entek had told her, had gone into retirement and settled in Arawath Colony, had apparently used his retirement for other projects rather than spending some quiet years indulging in the cultural pursuits he so much enjoyed. Here he was, addressing Cardassia and the Federation.

Via her contacts, Melset had already heard rumours about clandestine activity in the Orias system; installations for the construction of cruisers and weaponry were said to be based in this relatively isolated area of Union space, but up to this very moment all of this had been a matter of conjecture alone, nor was there any reason to suspect these alleged activities were more than a rumour. Rumours did tend to take on a life all their own and evolve in unexpected ways.

The revelation that the Obsidian Order possessed cruisers of capabilities surpassing those of Central Command's fleet had proven disquieting for this institution, so that preparations to counter a possible coup had been taken under consideration.

Upon hearing about this development from both Guls Ocett and Lemec, Melset had a suspicion that was totally in keeping with her people's mentality: a great number of her fellow militaries still resented the incursions made by the Romulan Alliance two centuries before, thus hoped to strike a decisive blow against it. The Nebula Wars, although officially termed a "minor skirmish", had not been forgotten; neither were the duration of the conflict nor the recollections of Romulan arrogance relegated to the past. Cardassian memory was long, especially as to affronts or defeat. And now, unexpectedly, these old enemies, the Obsidian Order and the Tal Shiar, had combined forces against a greater, common foe... At Tain's closing words, "Let history be my judge," Melset shut off the comm unit, thinking, If the Dominion threat could be eliminated, it would be positive for all unions in the Alpha Quadrant.

"Talik, put me through to Central Command. Subspace, closed channel – automatic encryption procedures level six..." was her request after some consideration. "I urgently need more information on how to respond to the inquiries that will no doubt follow within the next few days, if not sooner." My former commander should find the means to transfer the necessary information to me without it being traced as such.

Some hours later, the unit activated. Melset input her security code, then waited. The screen cleared almost at once - it was Gul Dukat himself who appeared, his expression unreadable. At recognizing Melset, who had served on his cruiser just before his promotion to prefect of Bajor, he briefly smiled. After gauging each other's responses, they had cooperated well, combining tactics to a degree she had never expected. Her previous commanders had always shown reluctance to accept input by lower-ranked officers, unless the suggestions were made in private. In that respect, Dukat had proven to be an exceptional commander, nearly a true comrade-in–arms.

Now, however, she noticed Dukat's smile did not reach his eyes; this alone gave Melset the impression the situation was at best critical. No good news then, was her thought, which was cut short by his words.

"Central Command had no prior knowledge of this operation. In the course of an incident involving the hijacking of the Defiant by a Maquis subgroup under the command of Thomas Riker, Central Command was strongly advised, even threatened by an operative not to provoke a conflict by sending cruisers into the Orias System where, according to the sensor logs that were subsequently placed at our disposal, the Obsidian Order had installed their own shipyard. However, Central Command are confident this joint operation will succeed in eliminating the threat presented by the Dominion and ensure safety from further incursions." He considered her briefly, recognized her concern. "Gul Melset, it may well be that you will indeed soon find yourself pressured for details. Expect a visit from a friend within the next four days, no later. He will provide you with specifics that can be … revealed … without any undue risk of security breaches, together with a detailed list of facts that should under no circumstances be divulged."

"Thank you, Gul Dukat. That was going to be my request." She smiled briefly, "In fact, I am prepared for a call to report to Headquarters as soon as the outcome of this mission becomes general knowledge. So far, however, the attitude here is one of waiting." She shrugged, "You don't want to do the task yourself? Find someone else to do the dirty work for you, so that your reputation will remain untarnished."

Dukat laughed about her intonation and mock-resigned attitude.

There was a brief surge of interference - no doubt security had registered the unusual structure of the transmission and was attempting to trace and record it. "Gul Dukat, I thank you for the information; it is commendable to end transmission statim. The source of this message may otherwise be traced. Gul Melset out."

She closed the channel before leaning back in her chair to pensively gaze out of the window – it was obvious that Gul Dukat was as outraged by the Obsidian Order's initiative in this action as she. If the plan proved unsuccessful, it could well provoke a massive response with inestimable consequences. In spite of knowing that there was clandestine activity of some sort in the Orias system, the attack took her by surprise. The idea of the Order equipped with warships and weaponry of defensive capabilities far beyond those at the disposal of Central Command had been a source of apprehensive speculation among her peers, especially as the Order had always been expressly forbidden possession of any military equipment apart from phaser rifles.

During her second phase of training with the Order, she had seen for herself that diagrams for improved weaponry were consistently placed at the disposal of Central Command's Department of Strategy and Defence within a day of completion, as were all other technological developments that would serve the Union. On Cardassia, roles were carefully defined, with the military providing security from extraneous threats, the Obsidian Order from internal upheavals. What will happen if the Order is… She shook off the very idea as inconceivable.

It was no secret to her however, that, for some time already, the Order had been observing a growing number of Central Command's officers with increasing reservations. The attitudes of some individuals among the higher echelons revealed that, in their innermost thoughts, patriotism had been irretrievably corrupted by ambition, by visions of personal power. In spite of the oath all recruits took on their first day of active duty, as did all officers and troops at their promotions or at receiving medals for distinguished service, Cardassia had been relegated to second place in their considerations. And I realized this even when I was a recruit. Everyone said 'I wish to serve Cardassia', but only a very few really meant this. Status, income, privileges…. When had this development begun?

This very factor was giving the dissident movement added impetus, the fear that Cardassia's integrity was being risked for the sake of personal gain, that corruption was spreading through the structures of Central Command and possibly through those of the Order itself. The concept of total dedication to Cardassia, subjecting personal goals to their people's and Union's greater good was fading. Even Justice Procal Dukat had fallen into this trap; he had, after giving a public statement acknowledging his guilt, faced his execution unflinchingly, knowing he would serve as a warning to others. A warning to those not yet corrupted by dreams of absolute individual power at the cost of Cardassia's integrity

Melset knew it was no use wasting time worrying about possible repercussions of this punitive expedition; together with her staff, she continued duties as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening.

True to Gul Dukat's word, the information arrived within four days in the hands of Gart, a Ferengi merchant whose services she had cultivated with the approval of her Order supervisor. The military who called her was slightly irritated when he reported, "Gul Melset, Lieutenant Carter here. Gart, a Ferengi merchant, insists you are expecting him, says you have ordered merchandise." She heard a burst of speech in the background. "He is complaining about the delay, says that he does not have time to wait all day, not with his schedule."

Melset disguised her relief with pleasure, "Ah, good! Accompany him to my offices at once. Most likely he has what I ordered. Thank you, Lieutenant Carter." She quickly put away anything that could be of interest to avoid unnecessary discussions, then waited, anticipating the scene. It was as amusing as expected.

The lieutenant had a slightly testy attitude - Gart and his assistant, Lodak, a younger Ferengi, were trying to establish a business connection, maintaining that Starfleet personnel had numerous contacts throughout the galaxy, got around so extensively, that they could obtain most goods at the best of conditions. Why, he, Lt. Carter, could even earn additional income as they would give him a share of the profits.

When the two caught sight of the Cardassian, Gart, grinning broadly, quickly went over to her desk with a container. "Gul Melset, I have what you ordered." He opened his case to take out a box which revealed a heavy necklace, a reproduction of a piece of Hebitian jewellery. While discussing the clandestine delivery of miniaturized transceivers and data carriers with one of her Order intermediaries Melset and her contact had decided to use a necklace with hollow components to smuggle the equipment.

As she had explained, imitating Ferengi accent, "A female always wants jewellery to hang around her neck and in her ears." No, this object would not raise any suspicions.

Gart took out another flat container with a set of data carriers. "As a bonus I have included some data carriers and padds of Cardassian design as you are an excellent customer. You complained last time that Federation ones do not have enough capacity for the information you need to register in connection with your duties."

"Excellent – if these are as good as you say they are, I'll order more in future," Carefully, she picked up one of the padds to examine it closely, inquiring, "Where is Kelgan anyway? He usually accompanies you."

Gart seemed pleased about the inquiry and explained, "I have entrusted him with a minor business venture. He has proven very adept at dealing with a number of our more difficult customers, so this is a test for him."

"Ah good. Greet him from me." She held up one of the padds and gestured at Carter to come over, "Look, this is a really advanced model, diminutive, yet its storage capacity triple that of your own." This offer will allay potential suspicion as the carriers are what they appear to be.

He was interested but replied, "Later, Gul Melset," He had seen the gleam in the two Ferengis' eyes and did not feel like listening to another series of sales pitches.

Turning back to Gart, she said, "Always reliable, my dear Gart! This is a beautiful object…" and made a gesture to lift it out of its container.

Bemused, Lieutenant Carter watched the scene; suddenly he had the impression that this Cardassian's responses were not all that different to those of human females, only more suppressed so that they were actually appealing. What he did not realize was that this entire scene was meant to make him let down his guard.

"Permit me." Gart took it out and fastened the necklace around her neck. It looked unusual, though nevertheless attractive to Carter: wide Cardassian neck membranes combined with an ornament - grey patterned scales and a silvery matte chain made up of flat elements engraved with complex geometric motifs... She went to her desk, took out a pouch, dangled it in front of Gart's face. "This is the price negotiated, my dear Gart. I have added a supplement for prompt service - do make sure there is no error." With a laugh, she added, "I have decided to modify the First Rule, 'Once I have the goods, I never give them back.' I want a receipt, but do not include the supplement."

He made a show of calculating the funds, then handed Melset a padd for her to verify the data and give her imprint. "Gul Melset, all is in order, as usual. You asked me to take a gift to a Bajoran contact, Yarai Lerim, at no extra cost. We should arrive there in roughly three weeks' time as we have some more deliveries to make and orders to pick up."

If only you knew who this Yarai is... was the Cardassian's thought when she saw the human's curiosity. She carefully took an elaborate carving out of a safe, slipped it into a container which she sealed before handing it to Gart, saying "When you arrive in Nevaris Village, do not forget to greet my friends there. I will come to Bajor in roughly half a year. For now, I have this for them – It was found among smuggled goods that had been confiscated and, as I knew its provenance and owner, I was given it."

Melset handed him and his assistant a strip of latinum each which they quickly pocketed. The alleged carving was in fact hollow and contained data carriers with information she had recorded via her surveillance devices; these carriers themselves were small enough to be slipped into data rods that apparently contained nothing more nefarious than Federation literature.

To herself, she thought, Entek has already admitted that his reservations about these contacts were unfounded. These Ferengi are very reliable and, among the personnel here, arouse no suspicions, especially as I have an unusual number of offworld contacts. What puzzled her was the fact she had not heard from Entek for over eighteen months – apparently he had been replaced by another member of the Order, a Major Kedan Pathak. She did not inquire about his new posting – Order personnel was frequently relocated to avoid their becoming too well-known.

It was but two days later that a general transmission was put through. All personnel was requested to report to the auditorium immediately, provided there were no essential duties to be performed. What they heard made all of them fear for the worst.

Commander Sisko appeared onscreen, his expression grim. "The joint fleet of the Obsidian Order and Tal Shiar was ambushed and destroyed to the very last ship, according to Constable Odo and Garak, both of whom fortunately managed to escape. To our knowledge, there are no survivors. Details of the mission were passed on to the Founders by a Changeling who had eliminated, then replaced a Romulan officer, Lovok. No doubt this defeat and the attack itself which has rendered the Founders' home planet uninhabitable will make a Dominion invasion more likely. Effect security measures. To be caught unprepared would present an unacceptable risk."

Melset was in the Council Room of the complex and at the news, she was unable to suppress deep apprehension. If the Dominion is even the least as we are as to the concept of retaliation, we now have the worst to fear

Seemingly, a human staff member had seen her tense up, as he addressed her directly, "Well, Gul Melset, it seems the Obsidian Order is a thing of the past. You people should be glad. After all, you were under constant observation, in constant danger of arrest, and, to judge by reports, the Order itself was made up of sadistic brutes with no respect for civil liberties and the integrity of sentient beings. The population of your Union is finally free from terror. You should be rejoicing!"

Yossip Senasse, a human civilian, was open-minded, friendly and greatly interested in learning about other peoples, including hers, not one of those who always questioned or derided every aspect of Cardassian life, so his reaction took her by surprise.

"Mr Senasse, try to understand and accept my people's way of life and the institutions created in the course of our history. You believe in tolerance and respect for other cultures and mentalities, but apparently any population or institution the Federation considers inimical is exempt from these principles. Please listen, and keep an open mind. The Order was not an agency of terror.I had the privilege of cooperating with a number of its personnel. Great minds all of them, true patriots representing each of our people's ethnicities, the Order was a repository of knowledge and culture, knew details about the Hebitian Empire, had restored and preserved the few artefacts left from that period. Ten levels of specimens, of displays underground, protected. Do not judge! We are free as long as we respect our laws and principles."

"A repository of history and culture – we never knew of that," he admitted, "All we ever heard was that people were brutally interrogated for, as we would consider them, minor infractions."

"This is not your fault, Mr Senasse. Federation reports only described it as an institution that suppressed the Cardassian people, made us unfree, terrorized us. In fact, it was invaluable – whatever information you wanted, the Order could provide it." She met his eyes. "I myself was at the receiving end of detailed interrogative procedures some years ago, but my interrogators recognized I was innocent of treason, so that I was released to retake command."

At returning to her office, Melset decided it would be advisable to contact Central Command for last-minute advisories. No doubt her presence would soon be required by Starfleet Headquarters as she was the only Cardassian stationed in a Starfleet institution.

A week later, the call for which she had been waiting finally came. Talik entered her office to relay the message, "Vice-Admiral Toddman wants to speak to you."

"Put him through." She quickly activated a recording device, then waited. The admiral was unfailingly polite, showed none of the overt distrust she had come to expect from most of his fellow officers. Nevertheless she knew it was there, though very carefully disguised. He was not trained in diplomatic affairs for nothing.

"Gul Melset, please report to my offices at 2:45 tomorrow. If there are any prior obligations on your part, I shall see to it they are deferred with no consequences for you."

She quickly glanced over at a display. "That will not be necessary. Talik and I will be there. Melset out."

Talik waited briefly while transferring some data to a padd he had brought in. Melset considered him for a few seconds, then said, "It would seem the Vice-Admiral is trying to obtain supplementary information." He nodded, then left.

During the past week, she had spent her nights reading the details Central Command had sent to her via her Ferengi contacts; Melset was only all too aware that the situation was at best critical. There were disquieting reports of increasing unrest among the Cardassian population, a previously unimaginable situation that had only become possible due to the near-total elimination of the Order.

Melset knew that her Order contact, Sitela, was still alive, as she received periodic messages - information about her family and developments, but in fact cleverly encrypted data which were useful as a basis to select the information the Order needed. It was no use wasting energy on worrying about possible developments, but the situation appeared ominous, making her wonder what the future held for the Union. Her brother had wanted to come to see her together with his family, but shortly after Sitela's departure he had notified her that the visit had been called off. His phrasing had been the usual one: "Due to unforeseen circumstances." This was not unusual in itself, as duty always came first, but disquieting nevertheless.

Even though her position demanded she make immediate, independent decisions, their scope had always been circumscribed by advisories from Central Command and the Obsidian Order. With a sigh, Melset leaned back in her chair as she reached for a padd. My next decisions will have to be made within the parameters of our politics and general requirements, risky business at best in the current situation. No one knows what will happen on Cardassia within the next weeks or months. To be far from home was bad enough – to be virtually isolated was unsettling, even frightening. There were so many ways of unwittingly running afoul of official policies.

Within minutes, she contacted Talik who entered immediately. "You will take the role of my bodyguard. It will mean additional security."

"Akor will take my place and accept messages. There may be something of importance in the current situation, and to store it, thus make it accessible for a short time would present too great a risk."

For the appointment she selected the Cardassian equivalent of dress uniform - the symbol of her rank etched in silver on her armour, the Cardassian emblem at the left and, on her left sleeve, the medals representing the honours she had attained in the course of her career. While looking in the mirror, she thought, I would far rather be on the Orissà, facing a combat situation. Those were far simpler times. Satisfied her appearance was according to regulation, she turned away.

Talik was already waiting for her in the vestibule of the complex, wearing his people's equivalent of formal clothing which underlined his massiveness and size. His normally slow pace belied his combat training as did his fleshy build his strength. At times, they squared off in the holosuite for combat training which N'Kreth or G'Kathor would join at times, demonstrating their own techniques in hand-to-hand combat, as did some humans and others on staff. During these sessions, there was an openness and a level of communication, even camaraderie as differences became irrelevant; nearly all who participated were militaries with virtually the same expectations and careers in spite of their respective political systems.

They opted to walk over to Starfleet Headquarters, and, as usual, Melset observed the reactions of the people they passed on the way – she recognized curiosity, distrust, but mostly resentment. That a Cardassian military evoked a wide range of responses, especially apprehension, was not disturbing in itself. 'Fear is the best ally' had proven true more than once; her people took pride in this specific feeling they inspired in other, weaker populations. But now, considering what she knew about Dominion tactics, she found herself hoping that Cardassia itself would not, at some time in the near future, become an object of pity and derision.

At arriving in the lobby, Melset addressed the receptionist. "Gul Melet reporting. I have an appointment with Vice-Admiral Toddman at 10:00 hours. Please notify him of my arrival."

The young officer input a code, quickly spoke into the communicator then replied to an inquiry from the other end of the connection, "Gul Melset is here. Yes, I'll tell her." He again turned to her, "Lt Manod will meet you shortly to escort you and Mr Talik to the Vice-Admiral's office."

She stared at him, suddenly suspicious. He immediately recognized the change and explained, "By our standards, your status would make it offensive to expect you to find your own way to the office without the escort due your position. I don't know how Cardassians proceed, but it is our custom to extend our forms of courtesy to everyone."

Melset gave the human a friendly smile, "Ah, thank you for explaining this procedure. There are such great variations in protocol that misunderstandings are often unavoidable."

Within moments, a Bolian male came into the lobby and was introduced. "Gul Melset, this is Lt. Manod who will take you to the Admiral's office." They knew each other from courses in the Centre, but here, under the observation of Starfleet personnel, opted for formality.

"Thank you, Lieutenant." With a nod at the human who had admitted them, they left the area.

Following the Bolian, Melset and Talik were led through what seemed like interminable corridors; the Cardassian soon realized they were taking a far more circuitous path than necessary, no doubt to preclude her registering the route. It had become evident to her in the course of her stay that everyone was concerned about Cardassian photographic memory, yet apparently did not know exactly which precautions to take. In the past three years she had been able to gather so much information due to human incaution that this procedure here appeared ludicrous in its futility.

Finally, they arrived at the office - on the top floor, she noticed; Manod entered a code, then waited. "We have stepped up security measures with the Dominion threat becoming more immediate."

The comm activated and Manod reported, "Lt. Manod here. Gul Melset and her secretary, Mr Talik, have arrived."

Moments later, the door slid aside to admit the group. At one glance, Melset recognized what this was to be - an inquiry of sorts. Central Command had informed her on which details to keep to herself and which ones to divulge if necessary or if under pressure, but the slightest error in judgement would mean disaster - for her.

"Please, Gul Melset, take a seat. We have just begun the discussion," said Admiral Toddman. "At the moment, the implications of the Tal Shiar's and Obsidian Order's attack on the Dominion home world and the subsequent total destruction of their respective fleets are of greatest concern. We do not know what the response will be, but doubt that this attack will remain without consequences, constituting as it does a declaration of war. What are your Union's options?"

"Our fleet is under the command of three Guls of the Second Order and their Command's Forces have been alerted to respond immediately to attack, troops deployed to protect sensitive areas. You will understand that I cannot give you classified information, nor do I possess it, but rest assured we have the defence capabilities requisite to protect our Union from any incursions, even though we, unlike the Dominion, have no mass-produced, quickly replaceable troops at our disposal."

"In case of an attack, our respective Unions may be obliged to join forces. How do you estimate the odds of such a proposition meeting with the approval and acceptance of Central Command?" The Vice-Admiral asked the question slowly, trying to gauge her reactions.

She remained silent for a moment, absorbing this development, so unexpected after decades of bitter conflict and mutual suspicion. The very idea was alien to her. Her people did cooperate, but normally only within the Union and their system of Alliances. Fighting side by side with former enemies who still showed distrust and resentment, protecting or, of necessity, being protected by them was quite another matter.

Federation and Cardassian methods in military operations were so different as to appear incompatible. Certainly, discussions of procedure were customary to both as was a measure of individual initiative, but the latter only permitted within the top echelons of Central Command's ranks. She had been an exception, valuing and even requesting the input of Vars or first-level Glinns who had proven they possessed exceptional strategic abilities.

In the beginning of her command, her own methods had initially been considered with some disapproval by her superiors, but accepted once they had proven successful. Her request an Order operative be assigned to the Orissá had made for additional acceptance.

She met his eyes, "Vice-Admiral Toddman, it is not inconceivable, but putting your suggestion into practice may prove exceedingly difficult for both sides, owing to marked cultural differences and our respective Unions' former conflicts. Consider this: For our forces, total commitment, unwavering obedience under all circumstances, severest consequences if orders are not carried out to the letter are the expectations we have... All of us are prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice to ensure Cardassia's integrity; surrender is not in our vocabulary, unless as a court-martial offence.

"Your system allows for more leeway, for far more individuality; as a result, the Federation considers our methods, our mentality threatening. Add to that the distrust that developed in the course of the Border Wars. You do have a saying that 'Cardassians can be trusted to be untrustworthy.'" She added, "This very fact makes it a distinct possibility that we may well end up observing each other's actions more intensively than those of our common enemy, with the slightest error leading to unmitigated disaster."

The human gave a nod of agreement. "That is my concern, too. And yet, it may become inevitable. Cooperation with our Allies, including the Klingons, or, in a worst case scenario, with the Romulan Empire may become necessary to ensure the safety of the Alpha Quadrant." He fell silent when his communit activated. "Yes,... Gul Melset is already here... We are waiting for you."

Within minutes, Commander Chandler, General G'Kathor and a Vulcan officer Melset did not know entered. After the customary exchange of pleasantries, the newcomers were brought up to date. It was obvious that all were concerned in spite of their different patterns of reaction. One detail, though, she recognized at once. They were unanimous in regarding the Cardassian Union as the one high-risk factor in the conflict that seemed to be imminent. Cardassia's decision could turn out to be an unexpected one, possibly meaning catastrophe for the entire Quadrant.

When addressed as to Cardassian commitment to agreements, Melset replied evenly, even though the implications were offensive. "Rest assured that we keep to our alliances and never switch sides without serious provocation. Recall that - like the Federation - we have a network of allied peoples both inside and outside our economic and military sphere of influence. Many of these alliances have been in effect for over 300 years." She waited for a moment before adding, "And we have been mutually supportive throughout this time."

"What are the odds for cooperation within the framework of an alliance committed to protecting the Alpha Quadrant?" was Commander Chandler's query. "Negotiations will have to be initiated at some point."

"Commander, you will understand that I cannot speak for either Central Command or the Obsidian Order or Detapa. The Order has been eliminated, so it is Detapa which will determine the response together with Central Command; nevertheless I can safely state that cooperation as such is not inconceivable under the appropriate conditions, provided the body of people leading the negotiations gives us fully documented and countersigned guarantees that no attempts will be made to coerce us to enter a permanent alliance. We would take any such procedure, be it of an aggressive or a subversive nature, very seriously and react accordingly." With a very slight smile to alleviate the obvious threat, Melset added, "Any form of coercion would see us leaving an alliance immediately, as would the attempt to obtain control over even the smallest element of our fleet or of our troops. These can only be under the command of Cardassian officers and military leaders as stated in our laws."

"The Obsidian Order as such no longer exists as a political or social force; the majority of its personnel died in the Gamma Quadrant … honourably." commented G'Kathor. "What will replace it?"

Melset turned to the Klingon, "Admittedly so, General G'Kathor, but it will be recreated; in fact, new members are being recruited and educated even as we speak. Order and security are our primary concerns to preclude the chaos dissidents could create. A breakdown of our state institutions would lead to the loss of all we have established over the past centuries," was the reply before she again addressed the others. "May I call your attention to the fact that this very institution which you consider a source of terror and suppression is, for us, a repository of information in all areas of culture, literature, history and statesmanship besides ensuring the safety of Cardassia. It has helped us develop into what we are, one of the greatest cultures and powers, if not the greatest, in this Quadrant."

There was no reaction to this statement apart from a frozen expression on the faces of the human members, a guttural snarl from G'Kathor and nothing at all from the Vulcan.

The Cardassian's words were a rude awakening for most. Most tended to forget that Melset's tolerance of and openness to other peoples were a thin veneer overlying her unwavering belief in her people's superiority and its destiny to rule over others.

In spite of his snarl, however, G'Kathor respected her attitude which was no different to that of his own people. Among Klingons, the individual was not valued as highly as in the Federation, even though any harm done to a family member or friend demanded revenge. Honour lay in supporting the Klingon Empire, in leading a warrior's life to the very last consequence and doing so with pride. For Cardassians, it was their own Union that demanded everyone give his utmost, without regard for personal consequences, be they death or traumatic personal losses.

After a moment, the Vulcan, Admiral Savrin, stated calmly. "It may be commendable to return to the question at hand. Cardassian ethics and principles are known to all present. As to an alliance - would you, as a Cardassian, consider our addressing this request to your government an option? Detapa could receive a communication within a week."

Ignoring the veiled condemnation expressed in Admiral Savrin's words, Melset leaned forward very slightly. "Yes, definitely. But it is not Detapa you must contact. All questions pertaining to potential alliances or non-Cardassian affairs are to be referred to Central Command and a joint commission of advisors; no doubt some members of the Order have survived, it is to them to approve and initiate negotiations. As to personnel involved in this matter, I suggest you decide on which individuals you would have actively participate in these negotiations, make a list of their credentials and abilities, their methods of negotiation, and include these details in your first communications. Central Command will subsequently select three representatives with whom to cooperate in establishing an agreement."

The others remained silent, trying to absorb the idea that negotiators or even diplomats could be chosen by the very government requesting this personnel be sent by the partner chosen for negotiations. Commander Chandler was the first to recover. Cardassians did do things differently! "Do you mean to imply that our choice of personnel may be considered unacceptable?" His words came out more roughly than intended.

The Cardassian did not take offense as she knew how hard it was for her people's procedures to be accepted by others not accustomed to them. Her calm rejoinder was, "You select representatives according to different norms than do we. If we feel we cannot negotiate with someone according to our way, a common basis of negotiation cannot be established. If someone shows distrust or suspicion, it is of no consequence, but if we recognize any form of contempt or disregard for us as a people or for our ways, all efforts are doomed to failure." Melset inclined her head very slightly, her race's gesture of subtle warning, "As I was informed before being assigned this post, the Federation has adopted the Vulcan principle of 'Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.' I sincerely hope we are not exempt from this principle. If so, it could otherwise provoke unforeseeable consequences."

Admiral Savrin inquired before any of the others could, "No offence meant, but why and how were you selected for this posting? It is only logical to assume you have been confronted more than once with the very attitudes you have mentioned as potential deterrents to negotiations." She had never seen or interacted with this Cardassian but was trying to analyse her, infer the characteristics of her people as a whole at least marginally from this one Cardassian woman facing her. "And yet, you remain here, associate with representatives of Federation and non-Federation peoples who have been posted at SFCIE with the goal of learning the procedures customary within the Federation and about each other's cultures; you have obviously formed friendships with General G'Kathor and many others."

Melset had been expecting this query. "This is different. I have faced those offensive elements both as a victor and as a P.O.W. I am a Gul Fourth Order, have risen through the ranks by means of constant hard work, dedication and sacrifice. The Obsidian Order and Central Command tested my responses before giving me this post, interrogated me in detail…" She waited for a moment for maximum effect, "... in this case without our methods of persuasion, of course … My reactions were considered satisfactory, my interrogators judged me flexible enough to perform the duties I presently have, regardless of the circumstances and the attitudes I may encounter. Other factors were Obsidian Order and Military education, devotion to duty, the will to sacrifice everything for the sake of Cardassia, no matter what the personal cost. There is also the question of patriotism, warding off influence by others, the ability to function within Cardassian and off-world parameters without undue difficulties. Another factor is the ability to interact with non-Cardassians and understand their mentality at least marginally, transpose its aspects in order to comprehend and react properly to their responses - individual preconceptions are not pleasant by any standards, but easier to cope with than institutionalized ones. And you have to have proven yourself in the past."

She indicated the five medals on her left sleeve. "I received these medals – which Central Command's commission does not accord lightly - for securing systems for the greater glory of Cardassia. The price I paid for this one …" she indicated the largest, most ornate one proudly, "… was high indeed, but I paid it willingly."

Talsvar Kardassu is more than a rallying call. It expresses the very essence of our commitment to Cardassia. At seeing the others' expressions, she calmly met their eyes in turn while saying, "Consider that we were not alone in our expansionist tendencies, nor are we alone. Thus I would strongly advise refraining from the comments you would evidently like to make. My proven willingness to sacrifice my very life for Cardassia is no less honourable than your own willingness to do the same for your respective Empires and Unions, respectively the Federation."

There was no reply to this statement, only a moment of uncomfortable silence as the others noticed she had recognized exactly what they were thinking. With bitterness Melset thought, you condemn us at every turn. No doubt you are, at this very moment, thinking about accounts of Cardassian brutality, as you choose to see our actions, about an arrogant, xenophobic reptilian people who should be put in their place.

"And you have coped honourably. In the interest of cooperation, you have disregarded slights and verbal attacks a Klingon would not have accepted without taking due action." General G'Kathor's words broke the uneasy silence. His voice was relatively low as he said, "Gul Melset's statement has been corroborated many times in the past. Klingons remember that, when Praxis' moon exploded, the question of granting us assistance in coping with this catastrophe came up. One Admiral Kirk, a Federation officer whom we had always respected as a worthy opponent, whom any of us would have been honoured to face in battle, said, I quote, 'They should be left to die.' This statement is not in keeping with Federation principles as they have been explained to us many times. We have signed and respect the Khitomer Accords, adhere to them, but will never forget these words." Or forgive them.

Vice-Admiral Toddman said, "General G'Kathor and Gul Melset, you have made your respective points quite clear, and I concede that Admiral Kirk's comment was extremely ill-conceived. But this is beside the point. Let us return to the problem at hand."

There was a murmur of agreement from all those present. Preconceptions were notoriously difficult to overcome and even when they were, one misinterpreted word or gesture could suffice to undo all the efforts made in the interest of normalizing relations.

Once again, he addressed Melset, "What is your prognosis pertaining to the political situation on Cardassia and probable future developments?"

Searching for information… She briefly hesitated before replying, "Conceivably a temporary destabilization of our political structures due to the loss of the advisory capacities of the Obsidian Order. Most of the population, however, will not permit dissident factions to take control of the Union. Our society as a whole has attained its current stability and relative prosperity thanks to Central Command and its sustained efforts on the behalf of Cardassia." Which again tells you nothing

"Is it within your area of competence to select possible negotiators?" was Admiral Savrin's query. "As you interact with many of our personnel both while on duty and during downtime, you are in the best position to make suggestions. This would greatly simplify and expedite the process."

"Regrettably not. All credentials and statements are routinely evaluated by a joint commission composed of Central Command, Obsidian Order and Detapa members specifically chosen for that procedure. Be assured the process is quite brief, though exactingly performed. I advise you to preselect a total of six candidates so as to be able to send a team. It is our custom to work and negotiate in groups of at least three. This ensures us witnesses, corroborates individual reports on proceedings and facts and precludes any attempts at later manipulation of documents."

Commander Chandler interrupted her with an undertone of irritation at the veiled arrogance behind her words, "Gul Melset, do you mean to imply Federation representatives are considered prone to falsifying documents?"

The Cardassian did not rise to the bait. "No, Commander Chandler, this is not the case. But it is additional assurance, both for you and for us. Recall that Starfleet staff subjected my own credentials - jointly established and subsequently sent to you by Central Command and the Obsidian Order - to meticulous examination. Furthermore, an inquiry was sent to Bajor, specifically Nevaris Village, Rellaketh Province, where I was left six years ago. The very procedures you effected before accepting me as an officer for cultural exchange and are now questioning as prejudicial towards your own officials are no different to those to which you subjected my credentials to verify the credibility of my references." She smiled very gently as she stated, "Of course, in my case, it was you who were questioning the authenticity of Cardassian documents, fearing possible manipulation of facts."

A barely audible grunt from G'Kathor before he added, "That, in essence, is the truth of the matter. It is only equitable that the same conditions are applied to both parties. We also customarily subject your diplomats' credentials to the same exact scrutiny as you do ours."

No one was aware that, all the while, the conversation was being registered. The medal Talik wore contained a recording device. He and Melset knew that they had been screened at various junctures in the corridors, but the alloy of its components was a new kind that did not reveal the electronics inside its shell. This fact pleased Melset. Under circumstances, she would finally have the chance to plant a few bugs here as well, provided she found the right strategy.

The discussion came to an end; Vice-Admiral Toddman said, "That will be all – it was a fact-finding session. Thank you all for your time."

At walking to the door along with Talik, Melset appeared to have problems breathing and remained where she was for a few moments, one hand against the wall as if uncertain.

"Are you all right?" Concerned, Commander Chandler came over, reaching out a hand to offer support.

"Yes. I regret this. It's only the result of an injury sustained during my last command," she briefly smiled humourlessly, "Earned me that last medal." The Cardassian seemed disturbed, even irritated at the weakness and avoided Chandler's glance. What he had not noticed was her quickly inserting an extremely miniaturized transceiver just below the frame of a picture of Starfleet Headquarters.

On the way out of the building, Talik, preceded by Lt. Manod, saw to it that she walked between him and the wall. Every now and then, she hesitated as if getting her bearings. We would be checking each single stop was her thought as she surreptitiously inserted a pinlike device into the rubbery seam connecting the wall elements. I hope these prototypes work. At arriving at a water dispenser, she took out a flat container, swallowed a tablet. "Just a moment, Talik. This should take effect within a few moments." She looked up at Lieutenant Manod, "I am most thankful for your patience. This is rather embarrassing."

"I do not think so. One of my relatives also suffers from the after-effects of injuries sustained in combat some years ago." His voice expressed honest concern. He knew this Cardassian from a number of courses and presentations in the Centre, had found her to be invariably friendly unless attacked and ready to share information. She had, in fact, immediately put him into contact with the Bajorans at hearing that he was planning to study their culture in preparation for a posting on Deep Space 9.

Shortly after, she commented, "Ah, good! There will be no more problems." She adopted her normal, brisk pace, as if impatient about the delay and anxious to return to duty.

Once Melset had returned to her offices, she closed her door to effect some trial runs. Some data was already being transmitted, but only four of the transceivers worked within acceptable parameters. They were experimental devices she had been sent in one of the elements of the allegedly massive necklace. Immediately after the trial runs, Melset transmitted a series of encoded messages to Cardassia, purportedly inquiries about relatives' successes in contacting friends, greetings to former associates… That done, she took up her normal work.

The following day would be interesting – a joint lecture on procedure, phrasing of requests, mutual expectations as well as preconceptions to be overcome and elements to be avoided in order to circumvent incidents in the course of dealing with Klingons, Bolians or Cardassians. She had decided to offer it together with G'Kathor, and Nerad, stating that 'observation is better than a list of details.'

After its conclusion, a group of Federation representatives came over to be introduced to Melset and G'Kathor. They had been sent by Vice-Admiral Toddman to obtain further advice on negotiating with Cardassians. Melset was very pleased, knowing that this would mean further information. Every now and then, she left the room under the guise of answering incoming inquiries and transmitting messages, or fetching some padds for the candidates to read. What none of them realized was that every word they said while she was outside was being registered. Late in the evening, Melset activated the recording device installed in her bedroom to listen to what had been said. Afterwards, she stretched, relaxing – her plan had worked far better than expected.

Quickly, she encoded another message outlining her ploy and notifying Central Command as well as Detapa of the facts she had given the individuals who had been selected. Thus the reactions of the Cardassian personnel entrusted with these tasks would corroborate what she had told these officials. Melset had suggested those who had a slight tendency towards being amenable to manipulation – her people's methods were very subtle, so that only humans who had frequently interacted with her race could recognize what was being attempted.

The next morning, Toddman contacted her. "We have made our choices as to personnel in accordance with your comments. Prepare to receive documentation."

"Thank you." She read the documents and annotations as they scrolled down her screen, then, in an uncoded transmission, sent them on to Legate Parn with an encoded addendum stating the purpose of the procedure in innocuous terms in case there was a leak together with further recommendations as to the most promising candidates.

After sending the transmission, her role in the process was completed. As if there was nothing out of the ordinary, she contacted some of the other departments – they, a group made up of Vulcans, Trill, Bajorans and Klingons as well as herself, would meet later that day to plan and outline a project slated to explain shifts in meaning when speech was combined with various gestures and changes in intonation.

Now, to wait for developments…The situation is obviously becoming critical with the Order eliminated and the threat of the Dominion …