Redeployed – Part 2 – The Gathering Storm

In the course of the first three years after their arrival on Earth, the alien members of SFCCEI had gradually become accustomed to a peaceful, welcoming environment which, for the few representatives of non-Federation planets and Unions, was something they had never experienced before; the idea of enjoying such a life in permanence was undeniably seductive for all but the Klingons. Over 200 years of peace….

During a break, a group of offworlders spent time together in front of SFCCIE like any group of humans would have done, relaxing before their downtime ended, some stretched out on the grass, sitting on benches or, in the case of a Cardassian, on a flat, sun-warmed patch of concrete, talking together animatedly, for once forgetting about their work, most of which had already been completed except for some last details.

"It seems that none of us had any greater problems getting used to being here and interacting with the other offworlders, or moving around together outside the perimetre," commented Arnem, a Bajoran, "Quite surprising, really, as different as we are to one another and to humans."

"Individuals in unfamiliar places tend to group together – an ancient reaction, seeking strength in numbers, if you are different to the natives," replied Mereda.

"You did notice that, wherever we go, we are watched, looked at more or less openly, but with curiosity, not aversion or hostility," was another comment. "There only are some questions about where we come from, about our homeworlds, a little about our respective way of life - come to think of it, exactly the same questions they would ask one of their own from a colony world." Bolgar added. "Quite friendly."

With a smile, Evro looked over at Melset, "I remember you were extremely suspicious in the beginning, always expecting an attack. When Mereda invited you to join us the first time, we could see you were rather surprised, as if you had expected us to avoid contact with you, a Cardassian."

"Not without reason, considering our reputation after the Border Wars and the liberation of Bajor," Melset replied, "Harmless curiosity about my people was unexpected, especially as, in the beginning, some members of SFCCEI tended to covert hostility. I had been warned to expect verbal and physical attacks, not friendliness. In general, my experiences were and are positive. Even Manhardt is all right now."

"You calmly made your point, or explained the matter then moved on, even though it cannot have been easy at times," a human, Yung, said. "I did hear some comments by chance. And, believe me, I was not calm when I had a talk with those people."

"Yes, you sounded like a Klingon," Arnem laughed. "I heard you once. Interesting."

Melset explained, "An angry response would have confirmed our negative image, torpedoed what I was sent here to do. My values and ways are Cardassian, will always be, but a few may have realized that the average Cardassian is no brutal killer. We were shaped by our lives, which were and often still are, a struggle for survival."

"I assure you, not one of us is viewed without some kind of idea of how we should be according to rumour, then the surprise follows upon closer or even casual contact," Bolgar laughed briefly. "Opinionated, overbearing, know-it-all Bolians, for example. Look at me, I'm a retiring, quiet one."

Laughter from Yung was the result.

"Then you must have met another Bolian, not me!" Bolgar said seriously, "After all, we do look alike…"

"Or what about Vulcans having no sense of humour?" added T'Pyran. "And no emotions at all, whereas we only have them under strict control to not invade someone else's privacy by showing them, thus eliciting a reaction from the witness in question."

"Noisy, loud, vulgar Klingons who'll attack anyone just for a sideways glance," Vatra offered. "My husband always enjoys making the most of that idea."

"When I first arrived here, General G'Kathor and I had a mock argument – it was a test that made me feel welcome; my responding in like, accepting his verbal challenge made a difference."

"I remember. A human next to me said, 'That one sure has guts,'" definitely respectful." Ysendro, a Betazoid, added, "Some were afraid of getting too close to me; they thought I could read minds like others read a book!"

Azin stated, "We Khoberians are said to be smugglers, trade with anyone, be it enemy or friend, who offers us enough. And are untrustworthy otherwise, too."

"Come to think of it, have we had a presentation about this topic yet? Add some Vulcan humour?" was Yung's suggestion.

Talik stretched, then said, "No, Yung, that has indeed not been done yet. Not a bad idea… So far everyone has avoided the subject of preconceptions, as it is considered a risky topic."

"Not if handled the right way – exaggerations, stories, misunderstandings…. Make it amusing in a way that everyone can understand and, more importantly, not be offended."

They still spent some time together, laughing about some of the ideas they had been confronted with, exaggerating some, reacting with disbelief at others, beginning to collect the more amusing incidents. Anyone could see that these offworlders had become friends without even realizing it.

If they still made excursions or short outings in mixed groups, it was no longer for safety in numbers, but simply for the sake of sharing experiences and each other's perspectives, interacting peacefully, enjoying a feeling of security not due to military rule or surveillance, but to cooperation and tolerance of differences. The projects in which they cooperated helped further mutual understanding, gradually had friendships develop.

In spite of enjoying the contacts, it was with some unease that Melset discussed a problem with G'Kathor, a detail that had proven disturbing for quite some time already.

"I fear we are being influenced by the seductive philosophy of peace and cooperation, the Federation's ideals, without even realizing it…" she admitted to G'Kathor when they met for a session of hand-to-hand combat a few days later. "If I had been stationed here with fellow Cardassians, this influence would have been circumvented as we would have kept to ourselves, yet this very fact would have made my work difficult, if not impossible. I was obliged to find offworld contacts to fulfil my duties."

"And that you did, very quickly, too." He stared at her challengingly, "Like snakes, you Cardassians always find cracks through which to slither to gain entrance; and you, Reptile, found, then made use of every one you could find for your purposes."

"Everyone knows Cardassians are inquisitive, and I wanted – and was expected - to learn about you all, obtain information on your ways – and," she hesitated, "see whether the Federation and its principles are really followed or only are enticing bait that bites when you reach out to take it."

"That is why we are here; our governments wanted information on or simply to see what the Federation is all about, its goals, its principles as they are reflected in its actions, its principle of IDIC. When we return home after our respective TDYs, the Federation expects us to be multipliers, vectors of this message of IDIC and spread it among our friends and families along with all the other ideals we may have adopted."

""For the two of us, it is not difficult to imagine what the result of that would be on our respective homeworlds. For me, it would be an accusation of spreading subversive ideas, followed by a detailed interrogation and public execution."

"And I would find myself dishonoured beyond redemption, not worth being challenged even by a child. This would have serious repercussions on my entire house, even on that of my wife. You well know my people is not one of peace as it is understood here nor, for that matter, is yours, even though it once was, thousands of years ago."

The Klingon met her eyes, held her glance challengingly for some moments, "I ask you, think this over carefully, Gul Melset, do you still think about the various peoples here the way you did before you were deployed to SFCCEI? Could you give the order to open fire or even do so yourself upon a spacecraft carrying some of the individuals you know and interact with here on a regular basis today without the slightest sense of guilt or regret?"

He saw her expression shift ever so slightly, become unreadable. "As I expected. That is why I have applied for repatriation in another two years. You should as well."

During their fourth year at SFCCEI, this peaceful life was suddenly brought to an end by ominous news that could no longer be kept secret: the Wormhole was opening and closing at regular intervals, making it seem that something was entering the Alpha Quadrant, yet no ships were registered by Deep Space 9's sensors, no explanation found for this phenomenon. Nor did the Bajorans' religious leaders discover any explanation for this strange occurrence in their sacred texts.

News about another, even more disquieting incident had been leaked in spite of the upper echelons' measures to keep it under wraps to avoid panicked overreactions: a dying Changeling had told Odo, the Security Chief of Deep Space 9, "we are everywhere," indicating that the Founders had already infiltrated the entire Alpha Quadrant, were prepared to do whatever was necessary to further the cause of the Dominion …

Lt. Marks, a security officer at SFCCEI commented to Andrews during a break, "If those Shapeshifters have the goal of destabilizing the Federation, they will no doubt attack planetary governments first, then the military."

"Sabotage of crucial installations would be another, possibly even more effective method leading to mutual suspicion if the right kind of evidence is planted," added Andrews. "Only think of the Defiant."

"But even though there have not been any incidents as yet, have you noticed that everyone has become more circumspect, tends to watch what is happening around him?" Moreno said, "If this attitude spreads, distrust will grow to finally undermine the progress we have made so far, perhaps even ruin relations among the members of the Federation."

Major Veith had overheard the last part of the conversation, came over and added, "The Federation's stability is based on mutual trust, rules and regulations that ensure equal rights for all member unions and planets – if but one leading politician is replaced by a Changeling interested in triggering conflicts, the entire structure could possibly be undermined. Sabotage, a remark here or there, allegations…"

"That's towards what the Dominion is working: having its enemies destroy each other. Then it can take over without firing a shot," added Marks, "I wonder whether they could really get the Federation's member planets and systems to take aggressive measures against fellow allied worlds."

"Hate to say it, but at times you need but infiltrate one single government and it will appeal to its old allies to side with it, accusations will be made, messages misunderstood, warnings issued, leading more systems to take sides … The Federation is by no means immune to this weakness."

A few days later, security personnel was present throughout the installations of Starfleet and within the perimeter; to Melset's surprise and that of the others, grapevine had it that a shapeshifter wearing Bajoran uniform had arrived from Deep Space 9, accompanied by a Starfleet Commander to assist in research to find ways of discovering Changelings, no matter which form they adopted in order to ward off the danger they presented.

This was followed by a notification for personnel of SFCCEI: "Commander Chandler will be unavailable for a week due to recent developments. In urgent matters, contact him via Starfleet Headquarters. Security measures are undergoing an extensive precautionary overhaul. You will be informed about changes and consequences as soon as they have been effected."

To Melset's frustration, both the meetings and the experiments took place directly in Starfleet Headquarters - she had expected a less important building to be the site of the experiments, one with a multi-species staff to make detection of a specific group of aliens even more of a challenge, ideally SFCCEI with its wide range of off-worlders, and with her prepared to obtain as much information as possible ….

Hoping to gain access to the information she wanted after all, Melset went to the area of Starfleet Headquarters armed with a bag, something that would not arouse any suspicion as she had already watched other people amusing themselves by feeding the gulls. It admittedly was entertaining, and soon the whirling seabirds attracted a family who joined her, and while feeding the gulls, glanced over at her, curious.

Do you do this at home too?" was the woman's question that had potential in Melset's opinion.

Excellent! Seeing me spontaneously interact with others should make for less suspicion, perhaps distract those security officers, so she answered, smiling slightly, "Flying creatures, certainly, but they look much different, like a cross between reptile and what you call birds. But, on my homeworld, food is much too scarce to be casually shared like this. What I am doing here and enjoying would be considered the greatest act of wastefulness imaginable, taking much-needed resources away from fellow Cardassians and I would be addressed accordingly."

"No doubt after the Border Wars," the man commented.

"Regrettably enough, even before. When I first came here, the impression I got of your world was of a peaceful one with immeasurable wealth." The Centre to which I went with General G'Kathor and Vatra. For me, the place was incredible.

"Do you like being here?" asked the couple's teenaged son.

"Yes. Your people, humans, have been kinder to and more accepting of me, a Cardassian, than I would ever have expected. Your openness to and tolerance of all peoples is remarkable so that even I feel welcome." With satisfaction, she saw the teen's expression brighten with pride. Proud of the Federation and its principles of tolerance for every race's ways

They still talked a little, walking around slowly, enjoying the peaceful atmosphere but to her annoyance, she noticed that Starfleet Security was unobtrusively observing her carefully so that there was no way of even getting close to Headquarters in order to case it, let alone entering the building.

Apart from one especially large, sleek gull which did not join its conspecifics' aerial fight for titbits but flew on as if it had business of its own to attend to, she noticed nothing out of the ordinary, in spite of surreptitiously observing everything and everyone. It was worth a try….

Unfortunately, at returning, she saw her bugs had only registered the usual messages and conversations, some tantalizing hints at developments, but not one detail of what was happening over in Headquarters, nothing about safeguards, elements that could be of potential use to her home worlds. Would have to get into Starfleet Headquarters for that, but I do not have the authorization and the one or two times I was there, security personnel watched my every step, exactly the way they did just now, and apparently all of this is happening far away from the bugs I planted months ago. Certainly the results would, at some point, be transmitted to the complex where she was, and thus become accessible.

Little later, a new directive was issued for all personnel, both Starfleet and those affiliated with it, which included everyone in SFCCEI. "As of this moment, all Starfleet personnel and their families will be subjected to random blood screenings to ensure no one has been replaced by a Changeling. Take the following precautions to keep this possibility as unlikely as possible. Move around the grounds of Starfleet HQ and other installations in groups of at least two. Avoid losing sight of each other even within buildings."

"What? That's something new! I'd like to know the reason for this." Lt. Markham said to his neighbour.

"I think it is because of the danger presented by Changelings on Earth – they have no inner organs or blood, cannot reproduce them even when they adopt the shape of a humanoid, thus this specific measure," Dr. Pelham, Dr Sarnoh's colleague, explained.

"Well, I can just imagine what civilians will have to say about this."

"Most likely not much – the fear of Changeling infiltration is too great for anyone to speak out against any kind of security measures. Fear makes people accept even invasive procedures."

Rumours soon circulated of a higher-ranking Starfleet officer having been killed and, for a brief time, replaced by a Changeling; during that short period he had sabotaged elements of the Defiant, nearly provoking a conflict with another union. The fact only Odo had recognized him for what he was added to apprehensions. Until then, he had moved through the ship, adopting the form of personnel, briefly interacting with crew. It was this very Changeling who had given Odo the information about Shapeshifters in the Alpha Quadrant. This detail had some few personnel of the centre, among them Melset, decide to remain there with alternating personnel on a permanent basis until the crisis was past.

One evening, shortly after this precautionary order, when all personnel were still at work in SFCCEI, the lights went out together with electronic equipment of all kinds except for the most crucial installations that were powered by emergency generators within moments. Everyone rushed to the windows to look what was happening outside, wondering what was wrong, whether it was a local or a general blackout, only to see that there were no lights to be seen anywhere, not even a glimmer. As even security installations had been deactivated, Earth was wide open to potential invaders. No one gave in to the apprehension they felt, but instinctively, by means of flashlights, moved around the complex, gathered in groups that slowly made their way to the auditorium to wait for further information and orders.

One security officer noticed Melset, who, due to the good night vision of her people, had no problems navigating the corridors. He waited for her to arrive abreast of him before addressing her.

"What do you think, Gul Melset?" He asked in a low voice.

Immediately on the defensive, she quickly turned to face him, phaser ready, before recognizing Lt. Danson, then replied, "Deactivating power sources is a standard method of destabilizing a planet's population by literally leaving it in the dark, disrupting communications, production of goods, curtailing everyday activities, thus eliciting fear and even panicked reactions, finally opening a planet to invasion." She briefly met his eyes, "Our own forces resorted to the same tactics in the course of the Border Wars, especially in the case of well-protected colonies; this method rarely met with failure."

"No doubt the Changelings will use this planet-wide blackout to the same effect as most of our security installations are down; in a worst-case scenario, they could possibly be replacing high-ranking government officials even as we speak, or the leaders of the Federation and those of other institutions in the confusion." With an attempt at humour, he added, "Now if I had the choice of invaders, I'd rather take you Cardis than they – no shape-shifting with you guys."

She recognized his comment for what it was. "Then don't complain about us next time, Lt. Danson, if there ever is one, but think: Oh, the Cardassians are invading our planet, what a relief! They don't change shape, only are somewhat vicious, so let's welcome them, then surrender unconditionally!"

Both shared a moment of suppressed laughter, then walked on in silence, side by side, patrolling one corridor after the other, and at meeting security personnel on the way, sharing observations, mainly of other members who were doing the same thing. Everyone's nervousness was so pronounced that no one felt like standing or sitting around, passive, waiting for what would happen next. Anxiety made everyone look for contact, for any kind of company while preparing for the news that would most likely be cause for greatest concern.

Within barely half an hour, the auditorium was filled to the last seat; while waiting, there were whispered conversations, comments, mention of details that had been observed, then everyone stopped talking, lost in his or her thoughts.

Much in contrast to normal times, those present in the auditorium were silent while waiting for the Commander to arrive. But all had one suspicion in common, that this was the first phase of the expected Changeling takeover of the Federation, with Earth the first goal of activities because of its being the administrative centre.

After some time, Commander Chandler entered, looked around; there was not one unoccupied seat. In spite of the situation, which could only be called critical, he briefly thought: In better times, this would be a fitting opening for some presentation or another of literature or art. …a sea of lights

"Advisory from Starfleet for all personnel, including that of SFCCEI: No one is to leave this building until further notice. In case of a protracted blackout, the night is to be spent in emergency quarters."

After waiting for comments to die down, he added, "Martial law has been declared. Armed security forces are being deployed in and around critical installations as well as in cities throughout Terra. I call your attention to the fact this personnel is authorized by Starfleet to demand identification and effect blood screenings at any time and from anyone. Whoever fails to comply with these procedures will be arrested and held for further examinations. This will be all. Dismissed."

As the people left the auditorium, reactions ranged from "Didn't think something could happen here, of all places," to "Would be nice to get more information," to "Hope these measures won't lead to unrest in the general population." Small groups formed to discuss what this new development would mean for them, for the others and for society at large.

For a day or two, most work, except for the most essential, nearly ground to a standstill. After routine duties, people met to pass the time; some groups continued planning their projects, outlined factors to be considered, took down some proposals, rejected others, but this was done half-heartedly, without the usual motivation and the humour that had become elements of the planning process. The shock about these unprecedented developments here, on this very planet, was too great for personnel to return to normal routine. From a "paradise" as many had considered it, Earth had become a military-run planet, made all the more frightening because of the abrupt change.

A day later, Melset was invited to join a group who wanted to go out and look around for the sake of a change of scenery and to see what was going on. Only two blocks further, they were addressed by a pair of Starfleet security officers.

"Identity check and blood screening."

They lined up at once, waiting, had their identity cards ready for verification, and submitted to the screening as if though it was a normal element of life.

One of the men reacted with surprise at the question the Cardassian, whose blood sample he was examining asked him. "How can this procedure determine beyond any doubt whether we are what we say we are? How difficult can it possibly be for a Changeling to transport a vesicle of stored blood from one area of its body to the area where it is required? This would especially be the case with those who have taken the form of offworlders whose blood is based on iron compounds, as this kind is in the majority." She added, "A DNA scan in addition to this would offer the possibility of double-checking the results which, as is the case here, are purely visual, thus liable to manipulation."

Count on a Cardassian to find the holes in a procedure… He quickly rallied, "It's the best we can do at this time and, as to the scan, we …." He broke off in mid-sentence, nearly admitted to that Cardi that we lack enough miniaturized DNA scanners…then quickly rallied, "lack the time."

But thanks to his reaction she already had the information she had been aiming for. Ah, as I expected - apparently you lack the manpower as well as the portable scanners for this specific procedure, have been caught unprepared in spite of knowing about this potential threat for the past two years, A dangerous weakness due to Federation complacency, Melset thought as she went back to the others.

Once they were out of earshot, Sevrim, a Bajoran, said, "That comment was typical for you. We would have been disappointed had you said nothing." He added, grinning, "Suspicious lot, you vipers."

"Actually, I was expecting one from those humans in return: 'Well, Cardassian, you should feel right at home at present, now that martial law has been instituted on Earth.'"

"Do you?" was T'Pyran's query which reflected the thoughts of the others.

"No, not at all. I grew up on Cardassia, accepted what I saw and experienced as a normal element of our way of life, thus always felt protected. Even at night there is no danger of criminal activity; in the beginning of my TDY here, I felt exposed and threatened because of the lack of surveillance measures, did with the absolute minimum of sleep until I finally received the equipment I needed. Now, however, after experiencing a peaceful world like this one for nearly four years, then seeing it become like this from one day to the next,…" she gestured at the Forces who were testing a group of humans just down the block, "does not feel normal. Look at people closely – anyone can recognize fear, anxiety in their stance, they covertly look around as if expecting an attack. Law-abiding Cardassians in contrast are confident, you can see they feel secure, protected at all times."

Normally there would have been a lively exchange of comments about her statement, some joking, some serious or challenging, before abandoning the discussion, but now? No one could muster the enthusiasm to continue the conversation as the situation was too frightening. No, the atmosphere did not encourage anyone in the group to indulge in the activities they had enjoyed before.

"Imagine, you might discover your meal is a changeling trying to remain undiscovered, I wouldn't want to try to cut, let alone chew that!" Mereda suggested. "Come to think of it, I wonder what it would do…"

The laughter that followed this comment was forced.

"May as well return to SFCCEI and have lunch there," was Boran's suggestion which reflected the thoughts of the others.

Turning to the Bolian, Melset said nothing at all, only nodded once in agreement; the atmosphere could only be called oppressive. Militaries all over on Cardassia was perfectly fine by her standards, but here, on Earth? Their presence and the screenings were subtly disquieting, even to her.

"I wonder what will come of this," was Isena's query.

"Nothing positive, you can be sure of that," was Sevrim's rejoinder. "No doubt some facts are even being held back to avoid unrest in the general population."

"It's definitely possible that we are headed for war in the near future," said Yung in a low voice. "And this time it would not be restricted to far-distant regions of the Alpha Quadrant either, but involve many worlds and Unions. In essence, we are all at risk, even here, on Earth itself."

No one replied, realizing what wide-spread destruction would ensue, the thousands, if not millions of lives that would be lost if this was really the future facing them.

Uncharacteristically silent, the group split up as everyone returned to their respective departments, disheartened by what they feared would happen.

Then, from one day to the next, there was yet another startling change. Everyone had but this one bit of news to share and comment on, news which quickly became a matter of conjecture and discussion.

"The security forces have been recalled," was Azin's comment to Delios, whom he had met in the lift. "Do you have any idea why?"

They arrived at their floor, and, getting out, Delios answered, "Yes, I've noticed it, too. On my way over here, there was not one control, nothing. I haven't heard anything about this shift in policy on the news either, nor did I see them beamed back to their stations. I've already seen Chief Manhardt – he had not been informed either."

"Any info on why they have left? I've heard nothing about martial law having been lifted. Normally we are given such information by the Commander," said Johnson, who had come over to join them. "No one seems to know, or even want to know anything about what has happened."

"As I just said to Azin, no reason for this change has been given. Late last night, I was only notified that I was to resume my normal duties as of this morning's shift - that was it," answered the human. "Odd way of doing things."

"Perhaps she knows something; our resident Cardi is usually good at finding out whatever she wants to know; she would certainly be after info about this and, possibly, be willing to share it with us," commented Andrews when he caught sight of Melset walking towards them, accompanied by Talik.

"Have you heard anything about why everything's back to normal?"

"No, only that martial law has been lifted, nothing about the reason why. I considered it wise not to ask too many questions as I was more or less directly advised to mind my own business. To me, it seems as though someone were trying to cover something up, something potentially… " She did not continue as voicing her suspicion could turn out to be unsafe. Knowing the others were waiting for a Cardassian-style remark, she added with mock exasperation, "My reliable sources were either unavailable or knew nothing…"

"Yep, and no doubt heard nothing and saw nothing either." Delios ended the sentence for her, smiling. If the producers of that old series knew some of the phrases are still known and used todayAnything to relieve the tension even marginally, he thought as his fellow humans briefly smiled in recognition.

When he saw the Cardassian was puzzled about his addition to her sentence, he said, "I'll explain this to you later, a bit of trivia that is part of our popular culture."

Melset continued, "Nevertheless, the atmosphere as is does not feel … right in spite of termination of martial law. Everyone, be it human or offworlder, is tense, seems to have the same feeling of apprehension as during those few days of its inception. Admittedly, I am glad to see everything back to normal, yet," She fell silent, unable to put her sensations into words. "Have you noticed people tend to be more guarded at present, look around more often while walking along halls, during meals or when they are alone outside? Are disquieted about objects that are where they shouldn't be? There was a normal Starfleet-issue duffle on a chair…. It was scanned, then, at seeing it while walking along the corridor, N'Kreth stabbed it to see whether the thing was what it appeared to be. Your Federation Standard expression that someone is jumpy is an excellent description."

"Same feeling here." admitted Johnson. "I nearly jumped out of my skin when I was on my way here and a flock of pigeons flew up unexpectedly on the other side of a hedge, nearly took aim at them. Normally that would not have startled me in the least."

"This may be just the beginning, a very effective method of softening the target," commented Delios, and admitted to his fears, "Peace may well be in danger again, more now than at any time since the Border Wars, and that conflict was far from here, did not touch Earth directly."

"Except for the casualties, the condition of prisoners taken and interrogated by …" at realizing Melset was next to him, could hear what he said, he fell silent. What he had wanted to say were facts, but as things were now, everyone was touchy.

Melset said nothing, remembering her joking conversation with Lt Danson during the blackout and returned to her department, accompanied by Azin who had joined her and Talik.

Late at night, a series of piercing whistles roused Melset who had the feeling she had barely closed her eyes. Ingrained reflexes from her years as an active-duty military officer had her alert at once; she got up quickly, then realized that the alarm was only the signal of the communit installed in her room; she had adjusted it so that when a message came in from one of her contacts or from Cardassia, the signal sounded like a shipboard alert. Quickly pulling on basic uniform, she activated the screen, only to stare at it in astonishment when it cleared. "Legate Parn…!"

The officer looked haggard, as though he had been pulling triple shifts. His words were rapidly pronounced as if he were in a combat situation. "Not much time, Gul Melset. Sealing borders of Union. Shutdown of communications. Central Command deposed by Detapa. Civilian government now in power. Contact when situation stabilized. Legate Parn out." After those words, the screen abruptly went dark. Normally the Cardassian emblem would have appeared before contact was closed, so apparently he had just managed to transmit the information before the communications blackout went into effect.

Broadsided by this information, Melset sat down on the edge of her bed, blindly staring at the screen, momentarily incapable of any reaction. This turn of events was totally unexpected. With the loss of the Obsidian Order, the Union's stability of the past five centuries which had assured generations of Cardassians security and continuity, had collapsed like a ruined building… With a low cry of horrified realization, she thought: The Dominion! It has certainly infiltrated Cardassia! There is no other explanation for this development. This revolt would be the only way to destabilize us so far as to permit Changelings to wrest away power from the legitimate governmental bodies and replace their officials with politicians compliant with Dominion interests or even with Changelings themselves.

Desperate for information, Melset tried to contact her superiors, close relatives, finally good friends and associates who had been supplying her with clandestine deliveries of materiel, finally Damar, even Gul Dukat, via the numerous channels at her disposition; but after some hours she was forced to resign herself to the fact that her efforts were in vain. With a low sigh of despair, she turned to a last resort, attempted to get into touch with Sitela. Surely she, a fellow agent of the Order, would somehow have managed to preserve an open channel as she had been coordinating the activities of operatives scattered throughout the Quadrant. The only contact she got was a message loop: "Communications shutdown. Access denied…" repeated interminably.

"Five years since withdrawal from Bajor, and now this." She lay back, shivering with reaction, blindly staring up at the ceiling while considering her options. I have no other choice but to remain here and wait out developments. At present I may gain access to more information here on Earth than ever before, but how to work without information or any form of advisory from my superiors? It will be only too easy to make some disastrous error due to the present destabilization of Cardassian governmental institutions.

For a moment, she considered contacting Garak. He would know what to do! But according to her informants, he had been exiled shortly before the end of her mission on Bajor. She did not even know whether he was still alive or had been liquidated as had been the case of so many others among Tain's remaining associates. He had survived the battle in the Gamma Quadrant, thanks to Odo, yet anything could have happened in the meantime with the situation as volatile as it was. Contacting Terok'Nor in an attempt to reach him would be too much of a risk as Odo screened all incoming communications, especially those meant for the alleged Cardassian spy and, more importantly, contact with Garak would reveal beyond a doubt what her duties at SFCCEI really were in case the message was intercepted. That risk was unacceptably high.

Here, on Earth, my subsistence is assured, but what about Cardassia? Will we lose even the modicum of prosperity we have managed to attain by means of the efforts of Central Command and the Obsidian Order? Melset rigorously suppressed renewed concern about her family, her people. To leave my post at this point would be paramount to going AWOL and see me facing interrogation, court-martial procedures and execution – a Cardassian remains at his or her post whatever happens, unless in a worst-case scenario: the collapse of the Union and widespread destruction. In that case he would be expected to return at once... Trying to relieve the tension which was slowly becoming unbearable, she curled up on her side, breathing slowly, evenly to get her heartbeat back to a normal level, wondering where to turn for information on current events at home.

The rest of the day was routine for which she was thankful; although she was nearly frantic with worry, no one with whom she came into contact that day noticed anything unusual about her comportment. The only thing that proved a distraction was N'Kreth coming by with an invitation from G'Kathor to join the Klingon staff for dinner as he had a guest of his own, a veteran of the last battle between the Federation and the Klingon Empire, just before the signing of the Khitomer accords.

"He will only be here for two days, so you would do well to join us. Staying in your department, working even after hours will not solve your Union's problems, but could raise some questions because you normally are always in contact with someone or another even when you have an excessive number of duties to attend to. G'Kathor and I have told him about you and your interest in Klingon culture – and that we consider you a friend." N'Kreth laughed with anticipation. "Ah, that one! You will enjoy listening to him! He can tell stories and sing about the most glorious battles any of us can imagine! You feel as if you were reliving it all."

"I will join you, even though I have no songs about the battles my comrades and I have seen."

"Then you shall join in ours."

The evening proved very interesting indeed. Admittedly, the old Klingon's accounts were the usual array of accounts of gory massacres, of audacious deeds of valour, of victories just realized thanks to the bravery of one or two warriors who seemed to be veritable sons of Kahless himself in the inspired strategies they established, relayed to other units and realized within moments, putting their enemies to route… These tales were frequently outrageously embellished, recounted in songs which served to mark and preserve the glory of these deeds for as long as there were true Klingon warriors to retell them; accompanied by shouts and calls of admiration and triumph or derisive laughter and comments at descriptions of the opponents' cowardice, the combat situations they had lived through, the group relived it all wholeheartedly.

When she was repeatedly urged to give an account of her own, Melset told them about a joint mission with Guls Parn and Jasad, when they had put Federation ships to route and acquired a new system for the Empire in honourable combat. Without revealing sensitive details, she managed to approximate their style complete with the expected exaggerations, improvised a song of triumph. It was very late when the group finally left for their quarters, laughing and shouting, much to the apprehension of groups of other off-worlders whom they passed on the way to their respective enclaves. Sha'Kor accompanied her to the gate of the complex where she had her own quarters and said, "I shall be waiting for you tomorrow. We share the same shift."

At arriving in her living area, Melset first listened to the recordings that had been transmitted to her quarters, then registered those details that were of potential interest. That done, she turned in, and, exhausted, fell asleep immediately. With a start and a complaint of "Not again!" she woke up to a piercing comm signal well before sunrise the next morning, wondering whether there was an attack here, too. After a moment of disorientation, she realized it was indeed once again the signal of her communit, but the signal that meant non-Cardassian contact. It was still dark, no later than 4:00 – possibly the communications blackout is finally over, she rushed over to the comm to activate the unit; perhaps this meant she would finally be able to receive news and directives from Cardassia as well later on. "Gul Melset here."

The face that appeared was Chief Manhardt's. She stared at the screen speechlessly, apprehensively. Something serious must have occurred for Security to contact any of us at this time.

In spite of having to cooperate with her at times this human usually avoided her which was only to be expected in light of his experiences with Cardassians on Setlik III; yet in spite of his personal experiences with her people he had helped with and advised her on various details, at times even protected her, as she had been told. At recognizing the outrage reflected in his eyes, she briefly wondered, has he found the transceivers? No. Otherwise he would already be at my door with a security team, very pleased about arresting a damn Cardi and no doubt hoping to get in a kick or two while doing so… To judge by his expression, however, the security officer was every bit as apprehensive as she was, but deeply shaken, too.

"Gul Melset, I am sorry about contacting you at this early an hour, but a disturbing message has just come in from Deep Space 9." He hesitated, as though searching for words before saying, "There is no kind way of phrasing it, Gul Melset: Klingon forces, under the command of Chancellor Gowron and General Martok, have invaded Cardassia. The members of Detapa are safe and have returned to Cardassia Prime since, thanks to Commander Sisko's and Gul Dukat's efforts. The Khitomer Accords have been scrapped by the Klingon High Council as the Federation has condemned and subsequently refused to participate in, the invasion of Cardassia. Some systems, such as Arcanis, have been annexed." In the background, Melset could hear the incessant beeping of an intercom. Manhardt said, "Just a moment. I'll be right back; this place is a madhouse."

All she heard of the conversation was a few words, strained, staccato in their delivery, then Manhardt's reply. "Yes Commander, we will be present. I have decided it may be safer to accompany her to the meeting. There is no telling in what reactions this news may result; keeping all personnel safe has top priority. Lieutenants Markham and Lenard are on their way to the Klingons' areas to provide escort for them as well. That lot'll be mouthing off like crazy at being escorted."

Moments later, he was back. "Meeting scheduled for 6:00. I will come for you as soon as I can manage. Security measures, you understand. Just a word of caution: under no circumstances accept communications from whatever source or admit anyone to your quarters apart from myself or staff you know well. Manhardt out."

Melset remained where she was, briefly numb with shock, before she felt violent anger well up. While she had been spending a relaxing evening with her Klingon friends, enjoying their accounts, their company, the kind of comradeship that, apart from vastly different behavioural patterns was so much like that which she had enjoyed with her fellow officers while still an active member of Central Command, their own forces had invaded her home worlds! Cardassia had not been subjected to any form of invasion in over five centuries, had fended off all her enemies well beyond her borders, had at times even invaded the worlds of the would-be aggressors, thus securing resources. Unsuccessfully trying to suppress mounting rage, she thought, Now Detapa and the dissident movement can congratulate each other on having won Cardassia's alleged freedom from military and Order rule. Ah, yes, you traitors, we are safe now, our rights as Cardassian citizens guaranteed together with the integrity of our worlds and their inhabitants! And this may well only be the beginning.

She quickly dismissed the recollection of discussing the threat presented by the dissident movement with Guls Jasad and Parn prior to annexing a Federation colony, or the information that the movement was based in her home province. And with the Order gone, they could plan and execute their treasonous acts without fear of detection.

Hastily, she prepared for the meeting, once again calm and controlled, as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened. In no way would it be commendable to show even the slightest reaction to current events. Melset well knew the thoughts of the humans around her whenever there was some crisis or another; on the other hand …. Delios and Andrews along with some others had offered companionship and introduced her to their ways in the beginning, when many others had constantly watched for the slightest hint of her being The Evil Cardassian of propaganda. Concentrate on the essentials, this new development and the extent of its effects on our worlds. What members of the Federation think about us is none of my concern as I know it anyway and can cope with it.

Within half an hour, Manhardt and Hinricks were at her door. While she entered a new access code, Manhardt explained, "Sorry about this, Gul Melset, but the situation is critical. Admiral Chandler has ordered the heads of the departments to report to Headquarters at once."

In silence, they got into the glider and arrived at the complex within five minutes. The streets were empty, everything once again looked deceptively peaceful after the past crisis had been resolved. In the distance, Melset could see the glint of the lakes in the park, the muted glossy sheen of leaves, the brightly illuminated buildings of Starfleet Command and the Academy as she walked towards SFCCEI with the security offiers. At taking a deep breath, she smelled the moisture carried on the ocean wind… How safe, how protected this world had seemed when she saw it for the first time three years before, as though shielded from any imaginable attack. More than once, she had caught herself wishing that the people of Cardassia could enjoy such a privileged existence as well.

Earth had appeared so far removed from all the conflicts that were taking place elsewhere in the Quadrant; suddenly, she clearly realized how alien her people's militant and strictly regimented way of life seemed to humans who lived in a veritable paradise, a world of peace and plenty, without any concerns about subsistence or revolution or potential attacks.

Everyone on this world was free to develop his or her potential, unhampered by any constraints but those established by law, moral precepts and personal abilities. Over two hundred years of peace and prosperity… She could not even begin to imagine such a life – no other Cardassian could, either. Her people had been shaped by a constant, often bitter struggle for survival throughout countless generations.

Without her noticing, Hinricks repeatedly glanced over at her, seeing with slight aversion how her scales glistened in the light. The Cardassian looked even more alien in the half-darkness which stressed her facial ridges, her reptilian profile. The female's face was expressionless, unmoved, as if nothing had happened, yet her eyes… they seemed to reveal a slight hint of what she was feeling.

The realization of her being more than his and Manhardt's enemy image of the stereotypical 'bloody Cardi devoid of feelings and scruples' took him unawares. This Cardassian next to him was a sentient being with emotions she concealed behind a façade of cold arrogance, with family and a home system she dearly loved. Her compatriots were no different to his own in this respect. Hinrick's concern about the situation made him wish to soften the impact of the news; he quickly whispered to her in an effort to suppress his own mounting apprehension, "Perhaps this news is an error after all, a misunderstanding."

Melset briefly looked over at him with a nearly imperceptible smile, but only replied, "I know what you are trying to do in spite of our differences, Lieutenant Hinricks and am grateful for your effort; yet remember we are systematically trained to cope with all events, no matter how traumatizing, from early childhood onwards. We accept whatever happens, and do our utmost to uphold the Cardassian way whatever the cost. I do, however, thank you for your kind gesture, especially as I know the Federation may be no safer from this threat than we were. These are unsettling times." With a low sigh of discouragement she added, "And our cooperation at SFCCEI had already generated a slight measure of mutual understanding. Now? Back to square one."

He did not reply, only nodded briefly before saying, "Strange – how things can change so quickly, within mere seconds. We knew there was a danger beyond the wormhole; however it seemed so very remote as to be unimaginable. We certainly did not expect our incursions into the Gamma Quadrant to entail such repercussions. And now? We may well be attacked at some time even by those whom we once considered our own allies. And the attack on your Union? Motivated by a desire to put a stop to Dominion activities."

There was no comment. All three were caught up in their own thoughts. In silence, they went into the auditorium – here, too, reminders of what had happened. Holographic representations of scenes from the worlds whose representatives were stationed at the Centre hung along the walls. At looking around, she caught sight of Vice-Admiral Toddman, and Commander Chandler, even Admiral Savrin.

While walking along the aisle to join her staff, still accompanied by Manhardt and Hinricks, Melset could feel the stares of the others nearly physically; everyone knew of her associating with the Klingon, Bajoran and other alien staff virtually within weeks of her arrival onwards.

The Cardassian's attitude was outwardly calm, unperturbed, her uniform and hairstyle as impeccable as always. Neither her posture nor expression hinted at any feelings but pride and arrogant self-confidence.

A quick glance around… No, none of the Klingon staff are presentMost likely on their way to join the conflict.

For a moment, she gazed up at the holograph of Loo'Wess before tearing her eyes away from it with an effort and going over to sit among her staff, close to the Bajorans. Moments later, she felt a hand lightly brush over hers then turned to see Vedek Yarim who said in a very low voice, "The news is very serious indeed, child. The Klingon staff – they were contacted, too, but none of them has come. There has been some conjecture about a brief power surge when the security detail tried to notify and escort them to the Centre. It seems they were recalled and clandestinely beamed up to a cloaked cruiser before anyone even knew what had happened. As far as I know, this is a briefing on the situation."

Vice-Admiral Toddmann went to the front of the room. "If all are present, we can view the report from Deep Space 9."

Immediate silence fell over the hall when Sisko appeared on screen. "Klingon invasion of Cardassia. Tried to convince Gowron to call it off, but he refused, stating security concerns. Chancellor Gowron's justification for this questionable act is that the civilian government could never have wrested power from Central Command on its own. Objectively seen, it is exactly the method that Dominion infiltrators would use to destabilize systems and planets they want to bring under their control. We have managed to save the members of Detapa with Gul Dukat's help. Its members have been screened and proven not to be Changelings. The Detapa Council has since returned to Cardassia Prime, but the systems annexed by the Klingons in the course of the invasion have been placed under the jurisdiction of the Klingon High Command. The Klingon Government refuses to even consider withdrawal. We have since received news of massive destruction, massacres of civilians. The greater part of the Cardassian fleet has been destroyed, effectively rendering the Union defenceless.

Deep Space 9 was subjected to heavy fire, but fortunately damage was not serious and has been repaired. The Khitomer Accords have been revoked by Chancellor Gowron, Federation-Klingon diplomatic relations broken off, all Klingon personnel recalled from Federation territory, our diplomats expelled, theirs recalled. I fear this means war, but fortunately a war on two fronts, Klingon against Federation, Federation against Klingon Empire and Dominion, could be averted. We convinced Chancellor Gowron to call off his fleet and end the attack on Cardassia once he accepted that this may be a Dominion ploy to have us destroy each other, thus leaving the Alpha Quadrant wide open to Dominion forces. Sisko out."

Renewed silence. Total silence after the end of the transmission. After a few more moments, a murmur of voices arose as those present absorbed the implications of what they had just heard. The horror of the news left no one indifferent – it was the worst possible kind, evoking recollections of the Klingon-Federation Wars which had seen uncountable thousands of people killed, entire populations eradicated. Now that Cardassia, one of the leading powers in the Quadrant, had fallen, all other Unions and systems had become potential targets. For many Klingons though, the peace of the past years had lasted too long already.

Chief Manhardt rose to say, "Security will be tightened on all Federation and Starfleet installations, failsafes put in place. My men and I have already contacted all branches of Security onworld. This also applies to the quarters of personnel. I would advise all present to return home after this meeting to get what they need, then return here for the time being. Quarters will be placed at your disposal until all measures have been effected."

"Gul Melset? You demanded we evaluate your personal security measures – they are effective enough for me to assure you that no additional modifications are required. But - I still advise you to remain here for the time being."

She inclined her head in a gesture of acquiescence.

"What about our families?" was the query from one civilian employee. His question was greeted with murmurs of assent by the audience.

"We will ensure their safety. Families, that is, civilians, will hardly be targeted. Earth itself is reasonably safe, being virtually in the heart of Federation territory. Enemy forces entering Federation territory would be detected and intercepted well before entering Sol's system.

"Those who are in immediate danger are the settlers in our colonies. Recall the destruction of New Bajor by the Dominion roughly two years ago. It is our installations and offices on outlying worlds that will be targeted first in the event of an attack to cut them off. Moreover, we must consider the fact that Klingons are infamous for squadrons that continue a battle on their own in a quest for the kind of glory they desire. The loss of these colonies would lead to a collapse of important elements of infrastructure, disrupt supply lines and communications in their respective sectors, provided incursions are not effectively countered."

Chandler added, "For a few of the off-world staff, subsistence may be a concern. I will personally notify the individuals who are touched by this factor and assure them that they have nothing to worry about. A detailed list of average requirements is included in their files, so their needs can be met without undue delays or restrictions."

He addressed Gul Melset, "Have you managed to contact members of Detapa or anyone else in the Cardassian Union?"

She rose to say, "I have been trying to do so since being notified about the situation by Legate Parn two days ago, but unsuccessfully. The only result I get is Communications Shutdown or Access Denied. The same holds true of my family as well as of my contacts in Central Command, respectively the surviving members of the Obsidian Order whom I know. My half-sister, a coordinator in the Order, cannot be reached either. The Cardassian repeated, "All I get is 'Access denied' or 'Communications shutdown' on all channels. I, too, require information." Her voice was steady as she met his eyes from across the room.

"I assure you that I shall continue my attempts to establish communications with my contacts and associates and will share the information I am able to access with you at once." Her manner was calm, her glance even so that no one could recognize her desperate concern for Cardassia, for her family. For a Cardassian, especially a military, it was a matter of pride to remain outwardly untouched by events even in face of devastating news, to show no reactions to avoid presenting anyone with a weakness that could be exploited at some time.

Vice-Admiral Toddman addressed her and the audience in general, "If even you cannot get through, then the situation must be critical indeed. All our own attempts have been unsuccessful as well. The outposts along the Federation-Cardassian border are silent; it is unknown whether they have been destroyed or placed under a communications blackout."

From the back one of those present called out, "You don't really believe a word she's said! Cardassians would never openly admit to such a state of affairs, or to any other kind of difficulties. They're too proud for that. You just can't get the truth out of them! Remember their networks of 'reliable sources' and their reluctance to share any form of information with non-Cardassians lest they lose the advantage. The Klingons have kicked Cardassian butt, so the Cardis may find that hard to swallow and are plotting revenge on whomever they can reach, be it the Klingons themselves or their Allies. After all, we did not even warn them of the invasion in spite of our information because of the Prime Directive. Everyone knows they can't be trusted, and, at present, that holds true even more than was the case before, now that they are literally fighting for survival, like cornered rats."

Melset did not recognize the voice – No doubt personnel from another section. Your intonation shows exactly for what you are hoping … She did not show her outrage at the comparison openly, but looked up in surprise when she heard Vice-Admiral Toddman say, "You are not incorrect as to your statement about Cardassian secretiveness and behavioural patterns, but we have repeatedly cooperated with Gul Melset since her being assigned to the Center four years ago; she may be an Order-educated military and her predominant attitude what can only be described as typically Cardassian, but I know she is not concealing anything, and is as perturbed about what is happening in her home system as any of us would be in her place. Klingon forces are not known for their compassion towards the vanquished – much to the contrary. Her reticence and stoicism are based on her culture's precepts, not on any desire to deceive or harm us. Her lecture – given together with General G'Kathor two years ago, was very clear as to this fact."

In a conciliatory gesture, he addressed Gul Melset directly, "I ask you to ascribe this and recent reactions to this unprecedented development and concern about our worlds. It was no attack on you personally, nor is your integrity being questioned."

There was no reply to his words, nor did she meet his glance. The Cardassian gave a quick nod which, in her people's repertoire of gestures could mean either acceptance or rejection, all depending on the relative spread of her neck membranes.

Vice-Admiral Toddman waited for a moment then nodded at Commander Chandler before stating, "There is one more detail that must be addressed, and the comment that has just been made is the best introduction. There have been a number of incidents: offensive messages, visuals and articles have repeatedly been sent to the computers of the Cardassian Department. While tensions are running high, this institution is not the place for such acts. It is a centre for cultural exchange and information, definitely not a place to wage a private little war by subjecting staff to discriminatory and offensive material. We have traced the source and will take appropriate measures to preclude a recurrence."

He again turned to Gul Melset, "I know you did not mention this problem because you did not wish to add to the tension, nor did your staff. Nor did you ever mention prior attacks. The situation was brought to our attention by a … good friend, or should I say, a reliable source? Let that suffice."

Again to the others, "One last element. A joint session of all department heads at Starfleet Headquarters has been scheduled for tomorrow at 9:00. You will be notified of changes to be implemented within the day. Dismissed."

He went over to Gul Melset and said, "Due to security concerns, Lt Johnson will accompany you to your offices and take over N'Kreth's position as your bodyguard; I have repeatedly seen you cooperating, so assume you have established a measure of trust. I have already spoken to Chief Manhardt. Some attitudes are shifting towards inimical again, so this precaution is necessary; regrettably enough, it always gets the wrong people. He will also see you get from and to your quarters without incidents until further notice."

"Thank you for your concern. I am most grateful for your consideration." She turned to go out, keeping to herself, but before arriving at her department, she heard someone call her name and turned to see Andrews and Delios. It was Andrews who spoke first, "Look, Gul Melset, we can only imagine what you are going through right now, what with that news on the invasion. If there is anything we can do to make things easier, don't hesitate to tell us."

Delios added, "My wife has contacted me to invite you to stay with us this weekend. You have visited with and invited us more often, and she knows there are no other Cardassians here with whom you could speak about the whole matter or just share some time. You could use the distraction."

The offer was unexpected. These two people were invariably friendly, had sided with her more than once, offered her invaluable advice, but she had always remained slightly suspicious, even when accepting invitations or inviting them and their families in turn. This gesture at such a time, however, showed her beyond a doubt that they were really concerned about her as a person, not as she had suspected all the while, attempting to cultivate contact with her for the sake of having a token Cardassian to show off to friends in an effort to display open-mindedness and tolerance.

Her reply was given gently, with a slight smile, "I am very thankful for your consideration, but regrettably, I cannot accept the offer at this time. Please, do not take offence, but rather understand that I have to continue to try and establish contact. Under circumstances, someone may attempt to reach me at my offices or my quarters with valuable information. These are unsettling times which require unremitting attention to developments."

Without a trace of sarcasm, Andrews said, "I know, 'Our counsellor and our comfort is duty alone.' Remember, the offer stands. Just contact either of us at any time and you will be welcome."

With that, the two humans left, speaking quietly. Melset stared after them, surprised at this gesture. It was honestly meant, that I could see. But my contacts must under no circumstances be seen by humans or anyone else as one or two of them are surgically-altered operatives. Contact with alleged humans in areas in which I have never been could possibly raise some questions, especially as they will send encoded messages which should not be accepted by anyone but me.

After they were out of sight, Chandler said, "Perhaps you should reconsider and accept their offer after all. This situation is unnerving for all of us, but most have recourse to family and other members of Starfleet, whereas you are alone to deal with developments on your home worlds which no doubt is traumatizing." He was interrupted by a beep from his communicator. Glancing over at Melset, he quickly activated it.

"Chandler here."

"Incoming message. Classified information."

"I'm coming. Route it to my office, closed channel." When he turned back to the Cardassian, he saw she had made use of his momentary distraction to escape into her department, followed by Johnson. Just for a moment, he recalled what he knew about 'her kind,' and left in turn.

After returning to her office, she dismissed the lieutenant and repeatedly attempted to get through to anyone at all on Cardassia Prime. It was frustrating at best, but she was reluctant to give up. After some hours, she decided to go to the Klingons' department to see whether the reports of their having left were indeed correct. When she arrived at their department, the entrance was sealed. Reacted like a human – had hoped it was all disinformation….

For some moments she stood in front of the entrance, lost in thought, deeply concerned about what was happening on Cardassia. The stories and songs she had heard two evenings before had amply demonstrated what everyone knew anyway: Klingons were born to fight, respected strength, bravery and aggression alone, a fact that held true of each single one, without exception, regardless of status. She thought of her own people – no doubt they would have the Klingons' respect; a Cardassian military went down fighting to the end, considering surrender and captivity the worst disgrace imaginable, paramount to treason. If someone was taken, he or she was honour-bound to try to escape under all circumstances and, in doing so, make the captors appear ridiculously incompetent and liberate information or weaponry at the same time. She and her comrades had done so as well, years ago. And civilians? They would be outwardly friendly, but attempt to sabotage an invader's equipment and communications and, like any military, they were prepared to pay the price if discovered.

Among Cardassians, according to what she had heard throughout her childhood and experienced herself as a military, the Military and the Order had the respect of all citizens; these institutions in turn respected the citizens as the guarantors of Cardassia's future. What had driven the civilian population to turn against Central Command? The entire matter was incomprehensible. With a sigh, she turned to leave only to find herself facing Manhardt and Hinricks. The brief moment of mutual understanding was over, the old patterns of suspicion and distrust seemingly had resurfaced.

"They are gone, you know. Most likely your friends are in the thick of the fighting, adding to their usual collections of trophies," was Manhardt's comment, his intonation however, lacked derision, seemed as though he was inviting her to an argument to relieve the tension both felt due to the situation.

The Cardassian briefly considered him before answering neutrally, "No doubt they are, Chief Manhardt. They are Klingons, after all, far different in their values to either your or my peoples. It is always best to keep this in mind this when relating to them." With those words, Melset returned to her own department.

At entering her offices, she instituted an automatic trial programme so that certain channels would be contacted repeatedly at irregular intervals, then registered for later reference if they were clear. It was no use wasting time doing so herself, unless she wanted to risk neglecting other, more urgent duties.

The situation remained unchanged throughout some weeks. Her attempts to obtain information on the situation in the union were unsuccessful; then, two months later, unexpectedly, she was called to Commander Chandler's office.

The Human was already waiting for her at the door; he met her eyes as if trying to gauge her, his own showing just a hint of concern. In a quiet voice, he said, "Come in, Gul Melset, there is something you should know before you hear it from other sources as it may well prove extremely disturbing. I can see that you have not yet been informed by your own sources." He pulled out a chair to sit down next to her, a totally unfamiliar gesture which proved far more disquieting than his words.

Something serious must have happened, or else he would not use these human gestures towards me. A wave of apprehension made her heartbeat accelerate unbearably. Concentrate on equanimity. Avoid displaying any reactions at all. She prepared for the worst.

"Replay recorded message."

The Cardassian who appeared on the screen was neither Gul Dukat nor Legate Parn, but Kotran Pa'Dar, one of the leaders of Detapa. He looked tense, as if expecting a renewed attack at any moment, but then she recognized that he was desperately worried. His voice toneless, he began his account. "Thousands of Cardassians have been slaughtered on outlying colonies by Klingon troops, regardless of sex or age, inconceivable atrocities committed towards our population. Apart from this, the Klingon forces have effectively destroyed our industrial base on dozens of planets, thus leading to total economic collapse. We are presently experiencing widespread starvation because our reserves of foods and our farmlands have been burned or produce taken to support the invaders' own forces. Due to the destruction of our hospitals and medical centres, illnesses are breaking out in epidemic proportions in our provinces and on a number of our outlying planets. Freighters are being targeted by the Klingon forces, their goods confiscated, their crews either killed or taken captive. We cannot escort these convoys ourselves as Central Command has experienced a catastrophic loss of manpower and vessels. Much as it distresses us to be reduced to asking for assistance, we have no other alternative but to request emergency aid from the Federation unless we want to resign ourselves to this direst of situations. We only ask for enough to help us get the situation under control, and assure you in the name of Cardassia's population that we will make restitution as soon as we are in a position to do so. Kotran Pa'Dar out."

Distressed at what she had just heard, Melset stared at the now-dark screen motionlessly, silently. Kotran Pa'Dar's report on conditions, his plea for aid, his admission that Cardassia had been rendered defenceless, open to all attackers, went totally against the Cardassian precept of: "We solve our problems on our own." No doubt he is even keeping the worst to himself. She was all too aware of the Commander's observation, but struggled in vain to disguise what she was feeling. Now all of you, all of our enemies can triumph. Cardassia is forced to beg for help from the generous Federation. She concentrated on stoic acceptance of the facts; ceding to her emotions would not change anything in the least and, even worse, cost her the Commander's respect: Never show what you are feeling to anyone, lest you lose their respect and their trust in your decisions or, if it is an enemy, lose the advantage of instilling fear… She realized that, at least for now, Pa'Dar had chosen the only option he had.

As if from a distance, she heard Commander Chandler's voice. "Gul Melset, the Federation has already established a list of the most urgent requirements – medical supplies, food, among other goods, to tide your people over until we can obtain more precise information on your needs. Starbase 25 has organized convoys that, as I speak, should be on their way to the Cardassian Union, escorted by Federation cruisers. At the same time, a second, larger delivery is scheduled to arrive in some weeks, as soon as we have the materiel: 12 industrial replicators will be stored on Deep Space 9 prior to being transferred to and installed on Cardassia Prime as well as other affected worlds in the Empire to permit you to rebuild your industrial base as well as housing and hospitals, to get you on your feet again. Only then will we expect them to be returned."

Taken unawares at the unexpected willingness of the Federation to grant humanitarian assistance to her people, she looked up at the Commander, met his eyes. Not this! Now we have become dependent on our former enemy, will be indebted to the Federation. What will they demand in exchange? Her breath caught in her throat. For a few moments, Melset fought to appear unmoved, deeply humiliated as she was at her people's situation, at her own reaction to events. She was thankful that her people were receiving aid, that the invasion had not placed the entire Cardassian Union under Klingon control; nevertheless she was deeply shaken by the situation. Stoicism was the rule by which she lived, as did all her people, but the sustained stress of the past weeks together with this unexpected willingness to grant immediate help proved nearly unbearable; outwardly, there was only the slightest hint of what she was feeling as she inclined her head very slightly, then took a deep breath to relax the tightness in her throat. And the Order's behavioural modification certainly isn't helping either!

She felt Chandler briefly place a hand on her shoulder, grasp it gently. "I can well imagine what this message means for you. If you wish, I'll leave to give you time to recover from the impact of this news. It would be hard for anyone to take," and, so quietly she hardly heard the words, he added, "In no way does your slight reaction undermine my respect for you as a person as you may fear is the case in accordance with Cardassian expectations." After a moment of silence he said as an afterthought, "I only wonder that your government sent but one Cardassian."

You can spare me your sympathy. You may even mean your gesture honestly now; you feel so very superior, granting assistance to the 'poor Cardassians who have been victimized by a brutal enemy', but within hours we will be back to the normal scope of Cardassian-Federation relations. She suddenly realized that she herself had just fallen into the trap of permitting past experiences to influence her view of humans. No, my reaction is unjust, the Commander has always been unfailingly supportive. Once again, she reminded herself of Cardassian military principles: Turn sorrow, pain into anger and thus overcome your reaction, find the strength and resolve to decide the battle in your own favour. Melset took another deep breath when she got up, once again calm and with no sign of what she was feeling.

"No, that will not be necessary, Commander Chandler. We are trained to strict control. Expressing emotions such as joy or sorrow is only permitted within the confines of the family, never in public, never in front of a superior. I am grateful for your consideration, however. As to repartition of personnel, that is not within my purview. When I joined Central Command, I accepted to go wherever I was sent, either alone or accompanied by staff." She smiled faintly, "As far as I know, the same is the case with members of Starfleet." She opted for honesty, "Actually, the rationale was the following: If there had been more of us, no contact with the representatives of other peoples stationed here would have been initiated on either side, as we invariably keep to ourselves."

Commander Chandler stared at her in wordless surprise; the extent of Cardassian emotional control was incomprehensible to him, unlike that of Vulcans. "Please wait just a moment. Remember, Gul Melset, I told you some time ago that if you should ever require help, you need only request it. As long as it is not against regulations."

"I do remember your offer, and, Commander Chandler, I fear the time when I need it may well not be far off." With that, she left.

At arriving in her ready room, she noticed the communications blackout seemed to be over, tried to reach Detapa. It was Gul Marrett who appeared on the screen – she remembered him from her year of training in the Order after her medical discharge from Central Command; he had repeatedly requested information, was ambitious, highly intelligent, invariably making use of every opportunity he found to advance his interests. What has happened to Gul Dukat? Was he killed in combat? And what about Damar? She was worried, but did not permit herself the luxury of allowing her feelings to show.

The Cardassian woman's voice was even as she stated, "This is Gul Melset, presently stationed at the Starfleet Centre for Cultural Exchange and Information on Earth. I urgently require current information as to procedures as well as directives for my duties here. Commander Chandler has already informed me about our request for assistance from the Federation, so it is well possible that at some point or another, I shall be called upon to present details on the situation on Cardassia Prime and our outlying systems."

"You will be contacted within a week at most, but I can give you one fact which, I fear, is already known throughout Starfleet: With the present state of affairs, it has become exceedingly difficult to transfer material, be it goods or even important information, to our off-world bases. The danger of Klingon raids is a constant in all projections, even convoys of humanitarian deliveries are being attacked by their forces in an effort to isolate and subsequently force the Cardassian Union to capitulate unconditionally. Fortunately…" His expression became bitter, "…the Federation is generous enough to provide escort for the convoys, now that we have been rendered incapable of seeing to these operations ourselves."

"Fortunately, there has been little destruction on Cardassia Prime proper. It was mainly the colony planets that suffered from the incursions, which is enough of an outrage, and some of them have been annexed by the Klingon Empire. Be assured of one thing, Gul Melset. We shall regain everything we have lost." For a moment he stared at her from the screen and said quietly, "It is difficult for us to request assistance from a former enemy, but…."

He turned to someone in the background who had addressed him. "Ah, yes, good, Gul Sherkan. I'll inform Gul Melset." With a slight smile, he said: "What Gul Sherkan has just told me may be of interest to you, for obvious reasons. I know that Gul Dukat, his crew and his freighter are safe, but we have received no communications from him in some time. Marrett out."

So there is hope Damar and the rest of the crew are still alive. Wordlessly, Melset turned away after some minutes. Back to duty… At least I still have that left. It helped me through the loss of my active duty status and command, of my fiancé Glinn Kovar, later of Gul Renor; duty to Cardassia will help me – and my people, through this setback as well. Talik and Akor were already waiting for her… All the rest would develop as it was meant to be. The only thing left for her to do at present was to continue working for Cardassia as was her duty.

Worse was to come…

Only days later, an encoded message from Deep Space 9 was routed to her offices. Neither provenance nor sender were traceable but she immediately recognized that it was from an Order operative based there.

"Gul Melset, Maquis activity in the DMZ and in the general area of Deep Space 9 has escalated massively in the aftermath of the Klingon invasion and destruction of our fleet. The twelve replicators that were to be shipped to Cardassia were stolen two days ago by the Maquis which had a clandestine base on the station consisting of one non-military freighter captain who has since been arrested and one security officer, rank of Commander, who actively participated in this crime before going AWOL to join the Maquis. The activities of these terrorists have escalated to an intolerable degree under the command of this traitor."

In disbelief, as if not understanding what she had just read, she stared at the screen, then, seemingly indifferent to the news she had been given, sent a copy to her clandestine files and deleted any sign of the original.

For the Bajorans, though, there was a report about a highly positive development; thanks to his detailed research on an ancient painting, Captain Sisko had discovered the coordinates of a long-lost Bajoran city, B'hala, which he had subsequently found, covered by thick layers of sediments laid down in nearly 10 000 years. For the Bajoran people, this was further sign sent by the Prophets. This man, a non-Bajoran chosen by the Prophets as their Emissary, had managed to accomplish within days what their own scientists had been trying to discover for decades.

At present, B'hala was being excavated by teams of archaeologists assisted by prylars and some Vedeks. That the discovery had been made by a Starfleet Captain, who was considered the Emissary of the Prophets by the Bajora, had proved a major surprise for all except for the Bajorans who considered this a sign sent by the Prophets. The only people who were uncomfortable with Sisko's status among the Bajora were some members of the upper echelons of Starfleet and the Federation who could not accept his eminent role in the Bajoran belief system; in fact they were profoundly disquieted about this fact, thinking Sisko's acceptance of his role came dangerously close to violation of the Prime Directive.

However, this little detail was readily pushed aside as irrelevant when the discovery of the lost city by means of Sisko's visions had a most desirable consequence – shortly after, Bajor's Council of Ministers signed a petition that Bajor be admitted into the Federation.

At SFCCEI, this world's admission to the Federation was to be celebrated by all, even non-members as it would mean additional security for Bajor as well as further diversity in the Federation itself. The flags of all member and non-member worlds and unions were being prepared for display on the walls of the auditorium, and, when this news was formally announced, the event was to be shown on screens throughout the Federation. Only five years after having won its freedom from its Cardassian oppressors, Bajor was now to become a member of the Federation, on an equal footing with all other worlds and unions, no longer an impoverished world struggling to put itself together after Cardassian withdrawal.

It was but weeks later that Bajor was scheduled to be admitted to the Federation in a ceremony held on Deep Space 9 – everyone was anticipating the celebrations that event would mean. In fact, preparations were already being effected in Starfleet Headquarters and SFCCEI, decorations prepared, speeches written by some selected heads of departments, there were to be various performances demonstrating the diversity of this political institution, high-ranking guests, all members were anticipating the occasion. As the humans put it, it was a "bright light in disturbing times, a sign of hope."

When her communit activated, Melset was in her office, working at a speech Yarim had requested she hold for the occasion and, hoping for news from Cardassia, she at once accepted the message only to see Prylar Selon's image. He looked both concerned and disquieted when he said, "Gul Melset, we have received a message from Bajor. Vedek Yarim requests you to please come at once. No matter what you are doing, make the time for this! It is urgent."

With a sudden sense of foreboding, Melset asked Talik to take over for her, left her department and barely kept from running to the Bajorans' area. For a moment she hesitated. I should not go there like this - am in full uniform! But Selon had seen her already and had not reacted to her appearance.

He was already waiting for her outside the Bajoran Department.

"Melset, the news we have just received is greatly disturbing for us, and may be even more so for you."

When she gestured at herself, indicating her uniform and military hairstyle, he only said, "This does not matter to us, not at this time, and we know you."

Wordlessly she followed him in to see all of the Bajorans clustered in groups around every available annex, obviously worried; their stance reminded her of the people of Nevaris Village just before an attack by her people so many years ago – she could not imagine what threat to them was imminent here, on Earth. Myssiro's wife, Isena, who had become a friend, was there too, and pulled over a chair for Melset in a sign she was welcome.

"Replay the message."

"The visions sent the Emissary by the Prophets have revealed the following: in the first vision, after the Emissary's discovery of the coordinates of B'hala, he recognized that he was in this very city whose population was preparing for a ceremony – it was a joyful occasion, the city was filled with people, everything was decorated, the smell of incense was in the air, everyone was rejoicing. Suddenly a deafening roar, like that of a gathering storm was heard. Startled, the participants looked up to the sky only to see an immense swarm of locusts gathering over this ancient city like a storm cloud before flying off in what he realised was the direction of Cardassia.

Only days later, when the documents for Admission to the Federation were to be signed, the Emissary was absent because, thanks to Kai Winn's generosity, he had been granted the honour of an orb vision, something that can take days – the formalities were about to begin under the supervision of Admiral Whatley when the Emissary entered the ready room, barely able to stand, barely capable of uttering the warning the Prophets had sent him. Their message was the following: If we ratified membership with the Federation, Bajor would be destroyed. Before collapsing, the Emissary of the Prophets called out once more that to sign the admission form would bring destruction over Bajor, see our world devastated. The Ceremony has been called off, Bajor's admission to the Federation deferred until after the things to be have played themselves out."

With these words, the message ended. Not one of the Bajorans present commented on this totally unexpected development, yet all were paralysed by a sense of apprehension, of fear of what would possibly happen in the near future.

This was in itself unprecedented, a prophecy that addressed something not of Bajor, a vision that lead to the cancellation of something that had been so important for Bajor's future, a hint of the possible fate of so many allied worlds and unions.

Her voice little more than a whisper, the Cardassian asked of no one in particular, in her shock not even realizing what she was saying, what she was revealing: "Oh you who know all, you, the Bringers of Light who protect us: the locusts … flying to Cardassia … Who are they? What does this part of the vision mean? What will happen to us all?"

Vedek Yarim, startled at her words, remained silent, looking at her pensively despite his apprehensions about the report; A Cardassian who has a tradition strangely resembling our own. He remembered the song in which Myssiro and his wife had joined her towards the end of one of the very first presentations. Some inquiries are definitely in order…. I remember reading something in the Kai's residence long ago, when I was but a prylar.

The message of the Prophets was clear, did not allow for any interpretation – and pointed to the prophecy which had been sent to Prylar Orenas in a vision over eight centuries before, warning of a disaster, a catastrophic reckoning beyond comprehension that had nothing to do with the omnipresent threat of the Pagh Wraiths, but with decisions that had been made in the past, decisions whose outcome would now be felt by the descendants of the Bajorans and the Cardassians who had made them in the far distant past. But this prophecy had long since been forgotten, was only recorded in the chronicles in the Kai's residence. …

For all personnel of SFCCEI reports on developments in the area of Deep Space 9 became even more ominous after this news spread; some clearly considered the entire matter an indication that the Bajorans were not yet ready for admission after all, believing as they did in the powers of the "Wormhole Aliens" as non-Bajorans considered the Prophets, permitting so-called visions and prophecies to determine their decisions and actions, but did not mention their opinion openly as the Federation had accepted the deferral.

Not long after, news came in that Gul Dukat had entered an Alliance with the Dominion; Cardassia had effectively become a part of the Dominion, with Gul Dukat as his union's representative, but this news was considered with some doubt – who would be so very desperate or foolhardy as to agree to such an Alliance? That could only be misinformation, an effort to create unrest.

The only possibility everyone took seriously and feared was that this very chain of events would lead to a conflict that would determine the fate of the entire Alpha Quadrant.

When the conflict appeared imminent, a massed battalion of Romulan Warbirds and Klingon ships were stationed in the vicinity of Deep Space 9 to attack Dominion forces; it was with apprehension that the captains saw an immense number of Dominion warships emerge from of the Wormhole, gather in the vicinity of Deep Space 9 as if ready to engage in battle … however, when the order to engage came through, Gul Dukat's captured Klingon vessel, to everyone's horrified disbelief, broke formation, turning to join the Dominion fleet which departed in direction of Cardassia, ignoring the fleet waiting at Deep Space 9.

Dukat's speech, in which he addressed the Cardassian people, was shown in the auditorium of SFCCEI; everyone listened in stunned silence while he described the fact that Cardassia had been reduced to a weak shadow of its former glory, its population a broken, beaten people who no longer believed in themselves, nor even had the courage left to defend themselves against a brutal aggressor, afraid as they were of losing the little they had left. The Alliance with the Dominion would make Cardassia great again, make it a strong Union, to help it regain its former power. With the support of the Dominion, the Cardassian Union would regain all it had lost, finally rule the entire Alpha Quadrant, giving the Cardassian people the dominant position that was their right.

There was even a rumour circulating that Gul Dukat had contacted Captain Sisko of Deep Space 9 to convince him that membership in the Dominion would be the best option for the Federation as well, as it would ensure peace for all but that his offer had been summarily rejected as traitorous, as this would go against all the Federation represented, against all that he represented as a member of Starfleet.

Within weeks, the Maquis had been removed from the DMZ and reduced to hunted, homeless people struggling for survival on some few planets on the Federation side of the DMZ and only little later, the Klingons were driven out of the Cardassian systems they had annexed, sustaining heavy losses in the process.

In face of the facts, Gowron had re-activated the Khitomer Accords at Sisko's urging. No longer could the Empires of the Alpha Quadrant afford to fight among themselves when a far greater enemy was patiently waiting for them to wear each other down, subsequently reducing one after the other to Empires in name alone that could be picked off at leisure and absorbed into the Dominion. From that moment on, nothing would be able to stem the spread of this superorganism, as it was considered by some.

Melset's first, instinctive reaction to these developments had been triumph and joy that the Klingons and the Maquis had been removed from the territory of the Union, that Cardassia would finally regain its status in the Alpha Quadrant, possibly even become a superpower with the support of the Dominion which had agreed to install Gul Dukat as the future leader of Cardassia, but her euphoria soon faded as serious doubts surfaced; she recalled having read an account about a planet in the Gamma Quadrant whose inhabitants had been infected by an illness called the Blight because they had either refused to join the Dominion or had rebelled. What about the Romulan Tal Shiar as well as the Cardassian Obsidian Order which had attacked and destroyed the Founders' home world, rendering it a barren, uninhabitable wasteland? If the Dominion's concept of retribution was reflected in this one planet's fate, Cardassia as well as the Romulan Empire would have even worse to fear, would inevitably face a revenge that would finally eradicate both Empires to their very name. Cardassia is now a member of the Dominion, but if an alliance proves detrimental to our interests, we break it; when that point is reached in our alliance with the Dominion... that is when we will face a retribution whose scope no one can even begin to imagine.

It was some weeks later that she heard a familiar commotion in the corridor, shouts, and loud orders. After locking her office, she removed the access panel to one of the conduits. Sitela had approved of at least this; installing safeguards that would set off a security alert if anyone else but a Cardassian moved through those conduits. A few times, repair crews had been caught, setting off ear-splitting alarms, but no one protested as it was common knowledge that any Cardassian had enough enemies to warrant such measures. Melset had informed Commander Chandler about it and both the Bajoran staff and the Klingons, had the latter still been there, would come to her defence immediately.

As you see Sitela, my contacts, much as they displease you, they have their uses, she thought as she worked her way along the conduit. At arriving above the offices of the Klingon Department, she hesitated and listened. Yes, the sounds and voices were unmistakable. The Klingons were back, their department re-opened. Melset felt slightly uncertain; normally she would have dislodged the usual panel and literally dropped in. But after all that had happened … she had heard chilling reports on atrocities committed on Cardassia, and on the barbaric custom of collecting trophies of battle – she did not know if she could or even would re-establish the friendly contact she had had with the Klingon staff, provided it was indeed N'Kreth and G'Kathor who had returned with their comrades. Nevertheless, they had always supplied her with valuable information, had been supportive, thus initiating contact would be necessary.

She did not have long to wait. Only two days later, her comm unit activated to reveal the scowling face of a Klingon.

"We are back," was the greeting.

"So I see. I trust you had a pleasant stay on Q'onos, and an interesting TDY on Cardassia?" She forced herself to say, "I do hope you did not forego the occasion to take a tour of Loo'Wess. It is a most interesting city and our oldest, too."

"No. We were not sent into battle as we expected at being recalled. That glory was reserved for others. We were relegated to organizing troop transports, logistics in addition to non-combat duties." G'Kathor's face reflected purest rage as he said, "I demanded I be sent back here as soon as the Accords were reactivated; if I was not considered enough of a warrior for combat duty, to be given command of a ship or at least a position as first officer, I could continue representing our Empire on Terra as I had before." He fell silent and seemed to be waiting, gazing at Melset with a cold expression, wordlessly, motionlessly.

He wants me to come to his department - no doubt he knows something of importance for me and my people. "I shall come to your offices at once. Just warn your staff not to stand under the usual panel, or there may be collateral damage," was Melset's response.

"I am waiting. I, too, consider it better for the Terrans not to see we are already back in contact. They cannot understand that combat does not automatically make for enmity among all members of the conflicting parties." He laughed, "What would they say if they knew some of our literature and battle songs, where enemies celebrate together, drinking, eating, singing about old, glorious battles, then fight to the death the very next day?"

Melset nodded, "Indeed. Warriors all of them, fighting for their leaders, their Houses, for honour itself, but unified as Klingons in life and, after death, meeting in Sto'va'kor." She admittedly considered these stories and legends barbaric and even primitive to a degree, but could respect this people. In some aspects, their respective mentalities were not all that dissimilar.

After a short time, she arrived only to see the panel had already been removed. It would appear I am welcome. Staring up at her was General G'Kathor. "Enter, Reptile. You will not be slaughtered as were others of your kind, and you can keep your scaly hide and neck vertebrae; we don't want either of them," was his snarling welcome.

Melset knew enough not to take offence, realizing she was being challenged; even though the words as such deeply angered her, reminding her as it did of the devastation visited upon her worlds by G'Kathor's people, even though the idea of Cardassia having been reduced to requesting help from the Federation by Klingon forces rankled, she did not show it. This race was so much different to her people - barbaric, uncivilized savages. Cardassians were methodical in all they did, calculating, careful to reveal only the militant aspect of their culture.

"Starfleet would hardly appreciate your massacring a Cardassian in a Federation building, by far too messy for its sensitivities, and it would definitely entail some diplomatic complications. After all, 'We are all friends here', provided we adopt Federation norms." With that comment, she let herself drop and came to stand in front of the General.

"Q'aplah! Gul Melset." He grasped her arms in greeting before telling her, "Your leader, Gul Dukat has entered an Alliance everyone considers dishonourable. All of us here are now forced to wait until the implications for the Alpha Quadrant become clear." He looked down at her, met her eyes, his own sombre. "From that very moment on, it will be all we can do to watch each other's backs and confront those who would attack us in whatever way, attacks effected out of fear because the instigators of the situation are out of reach."

Melset looked up at him, concealing her apprehension. Cardassia, ruled by one individual alone – this goes against all that we have preserved for the past five hundred years. In essence, this presents a regression to the past that can only lead to deleterious consequences, the past of local rulers and one supreme ruler, the Koymar…. All of Cardassia …, the fates of us all lie in the hands of one man, all of us are at the mercy of his pursuit of power.

"I see you are aware of the consequences even though you say nothing and conceal what you are thinking. We have a ruler, advised by council, who, if he proves unworthy of his position, has no honour, will be challenged by one of his immediate subordinates and, if he loses, killed and replaced by the victor. You Cardassians are not a people to challenge your own leaders or to rebel." You are raised to unconditional obedience. And that very fact will be your undoing. The Federation, we, and the Romulan Alliance will resist you and your Dominion Allies with all the strength and fighting power we can muster.

When she left for her department to resume work, G'Kathor demonstratively joined her and, on their way through the corridor, loudly and volubly cursed Cardassians in general and their lack of honour in particular. At the door to her offices, he only said, "I do not include you among those P'tak, but Gul Dukat has betrayed himself and his people for the sake of his own dreams of power; it is well possible your race as such will be destroyed in the end, except for a few individuals cloned for a fate like that of the Jem'Hadar once the Dominion is established in the Alpha Quadrant." He met her eyes, then said, "Watch your back, no one will dare attack you openly. I repeat: You have our support as far as is possible. N'Kreth will retake his assignment as your bodyguard, alternating with Lt. Johnson. I have already notified Manhardt and he has agreed."

In her office, she decided to renew her efforts to contact Order colleagues of whom she knew they were still alive; I have to obtain more details about what is happening on Cardassia, to get a precise account of developments. Hours later, Melset finally gave up; all channels except for those delivering propaganda justifying the Alliance and extolling the glory the future held for Cardassia had been severed. In essence, all I know about the situation of the past weeks is what I have obtained from Federation reports

She rose to look out of the window in a gesture unconsciously adopted from the aliens with whom she associated for want of her own kind, seeing and yet not seeing, the alien landscape which was as green and as fertile as Bajor.

G'Kathor was right. Those developments would have as yet unforeseen consequences. There were a number of Cardassians on Federation worlds, fugitives from Cardassian justice, dissidents who had been trying to establish and expand networks as well as to find allies to end the rule of Central Command and the Order which, in the course of time, had evidently become self-serving organizations for whom safeguarding the general population was less important than expanding their own power.

These dissidents and their fellows had been granted asylum on the planets they had fled to, were protected in every way because their goals coincided with the beliefs of the Federation. But now? They had officially become representatives of an enemy power as had she. Those outside the Federation? Nothing was known of their whereabouts or what had happened to them.

Melset considered her own situation and three potential alternatives: an order to return to Cardassia or deportation as a representative of a hostile power, respectively internment in a penal colony for the duration of the conflict. In spite of having established a level of trust with most of the staff at SFCCEI, as well as marginal acceptance for and understanding of her people, prejudices were subliminally present, though far less marked than at her arrival. The new situation would inevitably mean a return to old patterns, a resurgence of resentment, fear and all the reactions these elements provoked. But - there was one consideration that was far more important than the fate of her fellow expatriates or even her own: Gul Dukat, I hope you realize that even the slightest indication of an attempt to leave the Alliance you have made with the Dominion may, under circumstances, mean the end of the Cardassian Empire - and its people.

Only shortly after, there was more news which created apprehension and concern: Yarim, who was given the news by Commander Chandler, decided to first inform Melset, then the rest of the staff of SFCCEI about a new directive from the Emissary.

This time, he went directly to her office. "Gul Melset, do you have the time? There are some things you must know."

"Yes, I can make it. Your information and advice are always highly valued," Her friendliness, he sensed, concealed renewed dread of developments.

"Gul Melset, you will hear this news I have for you anyway, but I thought it may best to forewarn you. The Emissary has strongly advised the Bajoran High Council to follow the Romulan Empire's example as well as that of a number of other systems and Empires and sign a non-aggression pact with the Dominion for their own protection, to keep Bajor safe. This has already been effected. Without this treaty, there would be the very real danger that, if the Dominion itself did not invade Bajor, Cardassia would. Once again, your Union is capable of defensive as well as offensive action and now, ruled as it is by Gul Dukat who would inevitably work towards realizing his vision of retaking everything Cardassia lost with all this implies, Bajor is in danger of being occupied by Cardassia, possibly with a gradual return to former conditions."

"But there is a treaty between our peoples, negotiated by Gul Turell and Vedek Bareil, subsequently formalized by Kai Winn together with the Bajoran High Council, I am well aware that a number of my people still want to re-occupy Bajor," she repeated, "but there is a treaty, to break a treaty, and at this point, too, would be unwise, see us facing even more enemies than before." Her reaction was incredulous. "We keep to treaties as long as the other side does, too."

"Both you and I know that occupying Bajor as well as Deep Space 9 once again is a goal Dukat has never left out of sight, considering the loss of both a challenge to his striving for power and a humiliation he has been consistently planning and scheming to transform into triumph," Yarim reminded her. "If he does that…"

"He will no doubt attempt to subvert the non-aggression treaty between Bajor and the Dominion. Yet he cannot possibly risk retaking Bajor without the Dominion's approval; this union is not forgiving of individual members breaking pacts the Dominion itself has signed or of their acting in their own interest alone. The consequences would be catastrophic."

"What is to happen will happen, we cannot change anything, only witness developments, remember them, and live to tell about this time as a warning to future generations. Child, I wish the information I had for you had been more hopeful."

"So do I. Vedek Yarim; I am prepared for the inevitable, as far as can be." She watched him leave, thinking and the inevitable will mean… Melset did not finish the thought, but turned back to her work after deleting all records of her conversation with the Vedek. There is always duty.

The information that came in next made for even more apprehension among the personnel of SFCCEI who were called to the auditorium to view an informative transmission at the same time as did that of Starfleet Headquarters; it was a report, audio only: "The crew of the Defiant has mined the entrance to the Wormhole with self-replicating mines to keep further fleets of Dominion ships from entering the Alpha Quadrant. The Dominion's stationing uncountable numbers of Jem'Hadar fighters and warships on Cardassia is a serious concern as, from that area, numerous Federation worlds are within relatively easy reach.

During a brief conversation with Captain Sisko on Deep Space 9, in which the Diplomat of the Dominion warned Sisko that this procedure constituted an act of war; Weyoun unsuccessfully attempted to convince him to abandon this effort, citing that the Cardassians, shaken after the attack by the Klingons and realizing their Union was defenceless against all potential attackers, had asked for the presence of Dominion forces for assistance in ensuring their safety from further incursions as well as for help in improving the situation in general. After negotiations the wording of which clearly revealed that neither side would yield, Weyoun departed the station. In spite of both negotiators' conciliatory words, it was obvious that war was inevitable, and that the crew of Deep Space 9 itself would find itself facing a massive attack by Cardassian and Dominion forces within hours at most.

The minefield was completed under Martok's protection, as the first warships had already arrived from Dominion Space and had immediately begun their attack, first attempting to destroy the Defiant, then concentrating on taking out Deep Space 9's defences after the mines had become invisible, thanks to cloaking technology.

Now, after the departure of Federation forces, Bajor is cut off from the Federation; its population fears that, in the interest of friendly cooperation between the Dominion and Cardassia, Bajor is once again to be occupied by the Cardassians in spite of the non-aggression pact Bajor has recently signed with the Dominion. End of message."

Everyone left the auditorium of SFCCEI in silence to return to their respective departments, depressed and apprehensive about this development of which they had hoped it would not culminate in open conflict. That the Dominion presented a serious danger had been clear to all, but war? A conflict that would potentially place all worlds at the risk of invasion? Not only staff at SFCCEI had hoped this development could be circumvented but everyone living in the Alpha Quadrant. For now the only thing that could be done would be to wait what happened, perform their duties … and hope against all hope that the worst-case scenario could still be warded off by diplomatic means.