Redeployed Part 3 – End of Mission

In spite of the complexity of the codes on which she was trying to concentrate, Melset constantly found her thoughts straying to Cardassia's alliance with the Dominion now that the meaning of the locusts in the vision had become clear to her: innumerable Dominion forces which were stationed on each system within the Union. It was inevitable that, at any sign of non-compliance, they would exact a high price from Cardassia.

Now that Deep Space 9 had been taken by the Dominion, Jem'Hadar and Cardassian militaries had replaced Federation personnel; the Cardassian occupiers were once again using the station's former name, Terok Nor, a name which profoundly disquieted the Bajorans, reminding them as it did of the horrors which had come to an end only eight years previously, making them fear renewed occupation of their world as well as renewed Cardassian atrocities. For a time, there were hardly any Bajorans living on the station.

After some weeks, however, the first of them returned with their families, trusting that the Dominion would honour the non-aggression pact and see to it that the Cardassians would also respect its terms. Bajoran security forces were soon armed again after Odo had spoken to Weyoun at Kira's urging in spite of Dukat's and Damar's opposition.

For everyone in the Alpha Quadrant, the present situation was reason for greatest concern. Once it had absorbed enough enemy unions to eliminate any group who could still present a challenge to its power, the Dominion would be looking to subjecting further systemss, most likely not even honouring non-aggression treaties.

At hearing someone knock on the door to her office, she called to enter.

"Gul Melset," It was Chief Manhardt, with whom she had frequently cooperated. The grudging acceptance he had begun to show her in the course of the past five years had faded to a degree since the inception of the Alliance.

Without any of the usual introductory phrases Humans used, he stated, "No doubt you will already have tried to contact your reliable sources of information. I call your attention to the fact you are expected to voluntarily share any relevant details you access with us. Furthermore, as of today, Security will monitor all communications you transmit or receive."

That is something new. For me, your laxness about many aspects of security has been a source of concern ever since my arrival. "I understand; the present situation indeed requires this measure. If you wait, the necessary changes can be effected immediately." She turned to her communications system, began altering the settings, only once asking Manhardt for a code she needed to initiate the monitoring demanded. Outwardly complying with expectations is the best defence, undermines suspicions

While watching her quickly input a number of codes besides the one requested he again noticed how innocuous she appeared without Cardassian uniform, especially as the cold fierceness typical of her people was not so pronounced, nor did she have only contempt for non-Cardassians, but actually seemed to value contact with diverse peoples, was interested in their worlds and cultures. This fact had made the security officer slowly accept that Melset apparently did not correspond to his and propaganda's idea of Cardassians.

Leaning back in her chair, she turned to him, "There, done, Chief Manhardt. Your department now has full access to my communications files. Test procedures when back in your offices and notify me in case of any problems. I do wonder, though, that this is demanded but now. Surveillance is a normal precaution which should always be effected as a matter of course, not only in times of crisis." And you don't realize that I have long since established secure channels of my own, thus can afford to sacrifice the five to which I have just granted you access.

"For your people, perhaps, but for us surveillance is only acceptable when circumstances require it."

"Ah, Chief Manhardt, at times a potential risk can be eliminated if the first signs of some development or another are recognized and pre-emptive measures effected well before the situation evolves into an acute hazard. Remember that the civilian population of Cardassia staged their successful uprising against Central Command only after the Obsidian Order was eliminated, not before."

"Who can blame your fellow Cardassians for rebelling against a repressive military government?"

"The arrangement we had did function perfectly well for over five hundred years," was Melset's retort, "kept us safe, both from invasion and revolution."

Both Manhardt and she often indulged in these short arguments to work off tension, especially now, with the threat of war.

He changed the subject. "You were trying to reach your contacts. Have you managed to do so in the meantime?"

"No, regrettably not. I can only access propaganda or explanatory messages to our colonies and allies, all other channels are closed. It would seem there are certain details which should be concealed from other worlds or unions. The only alternative are my contacts on Bajor who may know more about recent developments because they get information via their contacts on Terok Nor. I have modified my communications so that you can access them directly as soon as contact is made, or if not, they are automatically recorded for later reference." She quickly transmitted a subspace message to Bajor. "I would suggest you place an alert to signal activation of this specific channel and record the exchange."

"Will do," he left for his own offices where he found any amount of duties waiting for him. Security had been stepped up, finally expanding his own personnel whom he had immediately assigned posts in various sections he considered vulnerable. It took this crisis for my section of security to be assigned the additional personnel I was always demanding….

An hour later, non-visual contact was established. "Is it you, Melset Iníki? This is Syvan Derin."

"Yes. Contacting you via SFCCEI, Earth."

"Source confirmed."

"Syvan, do you have any details about recent developments? I can no longer access my contacts."

A loud argument in the background was followed by silence: the others present were now listening. "This is not a good time to have contact with Cardassians, but you are a friend. All I know is that the inception of this Alliance has come as a shock to us all. Bajor has signed a non-aggression treaty with the Dominion in accordance with the Emissary's advice after he was sent a vision by the Prophets. Nevertheless, there is unrest here, even panic, most of us fear renewed occupation of Bajor by Cardassian forces…" Suddenly, the connection broke off.

Turning to the Security Chief who had just entered, she commented, "I fear this will be the last contact for a long time. In essence, we haven't heard anything we didn't know already."

"They probably weren't willing or able to talk openly as their channels are most likely being monitored. I have another question, though, one of far greater relevance," he added. "Will Cardassians who live offworld or have sought refuge on Federation planets be recalled to serve the Alliance? What political positions do these expatriates, such as refugees from Cardassian justice, represent? They could constitute an incalculable risk for the Federation if they support the alliance with the Dominion. Even when forced to flee offworld, they remain fanatically committed to their Union. There's another critical factor: you people absorb even highly complex information within moments."

The question was one she herself would have posed in his place. "Not civilians, and certainly not I, due to my posting here. The Military will hardly be so desperate with masses of Jem'Hadar forces fighting at their side. Traitors or dissidents who have fled off-world are waiting to see what turn events take, stay where they are until the situation has been resolved one way or the other. Remember, their sentences have not been overturned, and will not be, unless…" She did not continue, as it meant a worst-case scenario she did not want to consider. At least not yet.

"I understand." The Chief of Security officer left, well knowing what she had left unsaid.

As the weeks passed, developments became increasingly ominous. When news came in that the first few battles had been catastrophically lost by Starfleet, the atmosphere at SFCCEI grew increasingly tense. Discussions among security staff were no longer held in the open, but took place where they could not be overheard by chance listeners.

In Manhardt's office, a group of his personnel had begun discussing the topic shortly before beginning their respective shifts, and Lt Johnson said, "From what I've heard, the conflict is not going as we had hoped, whatever we throw at them, they get through unharmed, and we end up limping back after sustaining severe losses."

"I wouldn't exactly say they come out of those battles unharmed, but they can afford to lose massive numbers of troops and materiel; I don't know how many of their warships we've already taken out, but there's plenty more of the things at their disposal, thousands of easily replaced Jem'Hadar troops, but we? How long can we sustain these losses and still put up a fight worth the name?"

"Say it as it is: Our losses are becoming catastrophic; in spite of our best strategies, our best efforts, all we do is constantly engage and retreat. So far, all our side is seeing is a battle of attrition, and guess who'll be worn down first? Damn! I tell you, it would feel so good to hear a report about a winning battle for a change!" was Lt Moreno's comment.

Danson added, "Strategies developed by our best military minds are turned against our own forces. The Dominion's second guesses are usually spot on. We can't keep on like this. Just look at the lists of casualties and missing personnel that are updated every morning, if not more often – there's not one among us who hasn't lost friends or family."

"Hate to sound negative, but at times I get the feeling we're stuck on the losing side."

There was a moment of uneasy silence before Hinricks added, "The last engagements saw over half our ships destroyed, hundreds of personnel killed or taken captive. It seems the Dominion is unstoppable …"

Major Daniels interrupted him, "We'd be, too if we had those tens of thousands of Jem'Hadar fighters and the thousands of warships at our disposal that entered the Quad before the Wormhole was mined!"

"And just you wait until that minefield has been removed; and the Dominion won't rest until that has been done. We won't have a snowball's chance then, unless something unexpected turns up. Can't see that happening anytime soon; it would take a miracle…"

"May as well get going" said Manhardt, "Got a meeting on security measures in a few minutes, for all the good it'll do. Those Jem'Hadar can beam into any installation of ours, it seems our most advanced shields are nothing to them."

Lt Danson tried to lighten the mood, "And here we were, seven or eight years ago, complaining about the Cardis…."

"Only thing to be said for them is that they didn't come in swarms and that we had at least a fair chance of winning conflicts."

On their way, the group avoided the area where the lists of casualties were displayed, surrounded, as usual, by aliens and humans alike, all of whom were anxiously reading the displays, hoping against hope…

"Wonder whether such lists are posted on Cardassia, too," commented Johnson.

No one answered.

Endless series of meetings, analyses of incoming data, processing encoded messages became a new, exhausting routine. All personnel familiar with the strategic situation remained in headquarters, spending their waking hours in an attempt to find weak points in Dominion strategy, only leaving their stations for a quick meal or a short rest period. The atmosphere was no longer relatively relaxed as it used to be; with everyone's present workload there was hardly any time to exchange news except for that on the situation along the Cardassian border. In effect, various sections of SFCCEI had virtually become branches of Starfleet. The times of cross-departmental presentations had become a thing of the past….

One of the most marked changes at SFCCEI was that the Cardassian department and its staff were now more or less isolated from the others.

Manhardt's questions only served to confirm what Melset had suspected for quite some time already: she was now considered a high-risk factor to be avoided, a regrettable state of affairs in her opinion. How many details had she obtained during an apparently harmless conversation with her acquaintances at SFCCEI. Humans and others were not very cautious once they accepted someone, a fact she had frequently used to her advantage. In addition, the socializing involved had been a pleasant distraction, briefly made her forget that there were no other Cardassians on site; by nature, her people were gregarious, isolation nearly insupportable.

Upon returning from the canteen one afternoon, Melset noticed her offices had been searched during her and her staff's absence; she had been expecting this all the while. No doubt security had seen her bugs and transmitters, but considered them strange ornaments the way they were integrated in the frame encasing the hologram of Loo'Wess. The precautions the visitors had taken were not without merit, but she had taken some of her own as soon as the situation in the vicinity of the Wormhole had become volatile. Detaching a panel in the Cardassian symbol behind her desk, she slipped the data carrier it contained into her annex. Indeed - Chief Manhardt had organized the search, along with four other security officers she did not know.

The recording showed them copying promising-looking files planted as bait which were in one of the codes she had developed together with Gul Juriak who, as she, had intensive training in the Obsidian Order before joining the Military. But the files were useless to their finders. What the search party had recorded were files on the geology and ecology of Bajor, complete with diagrams. Melset saved the sequence for later reference, then replaced the panel before resuming her work. Until they were transmitted to Sitela, the classified files were safely concealed in her quarters, inaccessible to personnel who knew neither the codes nor precisely where to look. Sitela Ranok of the Obsidian Order, who had come by for a visit three years previously, had approved of this measure.

The duties assigned her became increasingly unchallenging until a newly-admitted recruit could have completed them with ease. It was a remarkable change indeed; before, "that Cardássian" as she was surreptitiously called by a few, had invariably been assigned any projects involving highly elaborate deciphering, tactical analyses or projections, was even encouraged to propose and develop security measures for internal use.

At the next meeting, her suspicions were confirmed beyond any doubt: she was considered a security risk. When the problem of discovering and apprehending possible infiltrators was addressed, she learned a team had already been established, but she not assigned a position on it in spite of her expertise which was common knowledge at SFCCEI. Choosing to ignore the fact she was effectively sidelined, Melset offered, "I have extensive experience and training in surveillance, use of tracking devices as well as in developing safeguards; can submit a compilation of unsupervised, high-risk areas together with proposals to ensure their protection."

"Your offer is duly noted, but work was initiated four days ago. We prefer Federation methods of enforcing security as we can be sure of retaining full control over equipment at all times." The phrasing was a deliberate insult, but if Major Matthews had hoped to provoke a reaction, he was disappointed.

G'Kathor turned to her, uttered a low grunt of dismissal, remembering their discussion about the quality of Terran safety measures; some weeks after arrival, she had dropped into his department from a conduit above his office with an annoyingly smug "Qaplah!" demonstrating the accessibility of nearly any room in the building. His department and hers now shared periodically updated systems which offered excellent protection.

In the meantime, news from the front became increasingly worrisome; small groups could often be seen standing together whenever time permitted, discussing the implications of the latest developments. With every defeat, morale took a blow, personnel was becoming discouraged, a dangerous development. Everyone knew that it was possible to get so used to defeat that it was actually expected, then became reality again and again in a downward spiral of increasing hopelessness.

Before the Alliance, she had usually joined one group or the other which resulted in her finding additional contacts, which slowly weakened prejudicial attitudes; soon these chance meetings had even become something to be anticipated for their own sake.

Now however, the atmosphere became icy, at times even lively discussions were dropped whenever she went past or entered a room; at present; an inactive Cardassian military was considered every bit as dangerous as an active one, reminded the others of the Border Wars and current events.

One afternoon, a group of Starfleet personnel were discussing the Federation's alleged plan to retake Deep Space 9, and whether this could influence the outcome of the present conflict. Apparently, nothing had been decided, no one knew whether such a plan even existed as yet, but the very thought offered a source of cautious optimism and any number of discussions.

"As far as I have heard, there are plans for a massive….Hey!" Lt. Marks protested at being elbowed by Danson.

"Red alert….," whispered Danson.

Lt Marks fell silent in mid-sentence at his colleague's warning then murmured, "Our resident Cardi."

"Better move on," was Moreno's advice. "She may have information for us, but her people is at war with the Federation. I'd rather be cautious, not mention any strategies or new developments in that one's presence. Who knows what she'll do with even a hint of a plan."

"Look, I talked with her shortly after the Alliance was formed. She was just as disturbed at the news as everyone else, is concerned about her home worlds and people just as we are about ours," Andrews replied. "…I don't like the idea of cutting her; Melset doesn't deserve that after always sharing information with us."

"It's not against her as a person, but because of what she is and the people she represents." was Moreno's reaction. "And you know exactly how fanatically committed they are to their union – she's a typical Cardi in that respect although she's friendly enough." He hesitated, "To be honest, I don't even trust her friendliness. It may well only be a front used to gain our confidence. Her sort stops at nothing to obtain info for their government."

With a wave and "See you later on," from Danson, the group separated.

Andrews covertly watched the Cardassian who had briefly stopped to look over, obviously wanting to join them, but at seeing the group disperse, she continued on her way. She's noticed that quite a number of personnel have begun avoiding her, he thought with a feeling of guilt.

At the end of the first shift, Melset left her rooms to go to the archives; in the corridor, Prylar Artos caught sight of her and held up a data carrier. "News from Bajor. We are preparing to view it. Join us, Gul Melset, it could be of interest to you, too."

She noticed that one of the other staff walking along the corridor had unobtrusively stopped, and was apparently reading a notice on the display. No doubt listening in to find out what we are planning. "Is contact with me wise, Prylar Artos? I have officially become The Enemy," was her answer, "and would not want you to become suspects as well for interacting with me."

The listener, realizing he had been noticed, left for his own area.

Artos gestured at her to join him, "Gul Melset, I assure you it is not a question of wisdom. You have friends, we families on Bajor about whom we are concerned. None of us is holding developments against you. They are not of your making and do not influence us in any way."

Melset entered with him, prepared for hostility from the fifteen Bajorans who were already there, crowded around the screens. They were more interested in the news than in anything else, and readily made room for her. "You have come just in time."

The message was unsettling even though some details seemed positive at first sight. "Safe as yet, no occupying forces. We have been given 15 industrial replicators by Gul Dukat as off-world trade has come to a standstill. Some fear of renewed occupation; a number of Bajoran families back on Terok'Nor, but Bajoran security forces only recently allowed weapons. Cardassian hostility is undeniable, but held in check by the Vorta."

The report continued, but Melset already knew about most developments, "I am grateful for the information. But now it is best I leave before my presence causes problems for you."

During her off-shift, she decided to readopt military clothing and hairstyle as she always did at official gatherings or special occasions. At Manhardt's suggestion, she had opted for civilian clothing shortly after taking over her posting on Terra. This concession to the others' sensitivities was now useless; uniform or no, she was The Cardassian, with all the negative traits ascribed to her race. I wonder how long I will be left undisturbed. The way developments are going, I may already be under suspicion.

Slowly the other off-worlders with whom she associated realized that they were also being considered with distrust because they interacted with her, rather than with the harmless curiosity of former times which had often led to conversations and even meetings later on. Melset, at her contacts' insistence, still joined them every now and then to spend a few hours in one of the parks or on walks through the area in an effort to relax in spite of the tension created by the situation and enhanced security measures.

During one outing, however, security personnel approached them and ordered. "You others are free to leave, but your Cardassian friend will come with us to answer some questions."

Without any overt reaction, she left the group, held her hands out, wrists together, calmly submitting to arrest.

"She's stationed at SFCCEI, as are all of us," was Arnema's protest. "Melset's already been here for five years, has cooperated with us throughout that time and, as you have correctly said, is a friend."

Hedron, a trill, addressed her, wondering about her silence, as she did not protest against what seemed an arbitrary procedure. "Why don't you say something, Melset? This is outrageous. You have done nothing to warrant this treatment, much to the contrary."

"I know them and their customs. Cardassians never resist when arrested; she told me some time ago that, among her people, showing fear or even protesting against arrest or questioning are considered signs of guilt. We had better go back to SFCCEI and notify the Commander," whispered Nerad, one of the Bolians, for once not as loud and verbose as he usually was, "We cannot do anything on our own without making things worse for her and, possibly, placing us under suspicion as well."

Why have I been arrested? They have nothing to do with SFCCEI – had Security noticed my bugs, one of Manhardt's teams would be here. Or have I been denounced in revenge for what Gul Dukat has done? Did an enemy make a false statement? Or have my communications been traced? She pushed her apprehensions aside as futile, but observed everything, recognized the building they were going to as a branch of Headquarters. Her guards headed to an unfamiliar area of the premises before custody was transferred to two security officers.

"The Cardassian department is closed until further notice."

"Very well. I have been expecting this." Her calm reaction to arrest was disconcerting as the guards had expected threats or angry protest. "Better not remove the manacles," was her comment, delivered with a slight smile. "Rather keep me defenceless. I am a Cardássian, vicious, treacherous and very untrustworthy, perhaps in possession of concealed weapons. I am also highly trained in hand-to-hand combat."

"There is no escape from here," said one of the officers, removing the restraints.

"Are you that sure? Perhaps there is a Dominion ship in orbit at this very moment, ready to beam me out and back to where I belong."

"You would be eliminated," answered a human male, Major Bolden, according to his name tag.

"What an inestimable loss of potential information that would be!"

The major briefly looked at the Cardassian whom he had often seen at SFCCEI, noticed her often turning discussions to her advantage, and now, with only a few words, she was showing what she thought of procedure. There was no shaking one of them. No wonder, with their system. This Cardi knows we cannot risk harming her, and uses the knowledge to her advantage.

Their prisoner's reptilian aspect, the arrogance and viciousness concealed under the veneer of friendliness abandoned at arrest, her light eyes that seemed to be analysing her captors for weaknesses reminded him of the horrors he had heard about and seen of her race's treatment of prisoners. This one's involvement in such actions in the course of her career was inevitable.

He nodded at his men.

"Move," Lieutenant Kennick prodded her with his phaser.

Melset briefly turned to look at him contemptuously.

They were beamed into the basement of the building where a secondary security department had been established at the beginning of the Dominion threat. Her captor was saluted by a Starfleet officer "Everything is ready, Major."

"Good." Wordlessly, he indicated a door at the other end of the room. It opened soundlessly to reveal a series of holding cells. The men shoved their captive into the first one. "A force field passes through the walls. Try to escape, and you will get quite a shock. Be assured, it will be non-lethal."

She sat down on the bunk, calmly facing them. Once alone, she checked the cell it contained the usual amenities, but no way out; so she lay down, relaxing. The anti-Cardassian propaganda shown her by Central Command and the Obsidian Order had prepared her for what could occur in case of renewed conflicts between their respective peoples.

When the guards returned, one deactivated the forcefield to place a tray just inside the cell while the other covered her.

"You will be questioned within the hour."

Avoiding any quick movements she took it, then returned to the bunk. Placing it on the floor is a deliberate insult. Cautiously, she tasted the food, I wonder if it contains drugs to ensure compliance; that was my own method. Yet off-worlders had hardly any knowledge of Cardassian physiology, thus usually were cautious. May as well eat it. They won't risk poisoning me, in case of negative effects, they will face unpleasant results.

The guards waited for her to finish.

"You are generous. I was expecting to forego rations until after the interrogation in accordance with our own procedures."

She did seem grateful, but they wisely refrained from analysing her expression more closely.

A little over an hour later, a shout of "Proceed!" She rose to face three security officers who were as tall as Klingons.

Slight vertigo. So the food was indeed drugged. Curiously, she considered the guards, "Ah,well done! Size as a method of intimidation, frequent shifts in personnel, extremely bright light, low temperatures to create discomfort. Do begin. You surely have others lined up for interrogation."

This time they went along a corridor to enter a room where two guards grasped her arms, forced her onto a chair.

In disbelief, she commented, "I'm not being immobilized? It is essential to make your subject feel helpless. Fear makes for compliance."

There was no reaction to her remark.

"Name and rank."

"Gul Iníki Melset of the Fourth Order."

"Present status?"

"Inactive - medical discharge."

"Earth, reason for presence?"

"Negotiations. Cross-cultural projects to reduce mutual preconceptions after Federation-Cardassian treaty."

"Contacts?"

"Bajorans in SFCCIE, Klingons, members of other departments, Hew-mons." At her imitating the Ferengi pronunciation of the word, Kennick glared at the woman.

"You tried to contact an individual on Cardassia Prime last month. Why?"

"Information on developments; the Dominion Alliance was unexpected."

"Who is Masati Denaro?"

Melset remained impassive; that had been her alias of some years before at her alleged attempt to defect. "I have never heard the name."

"You should. She is either a Gul or a Glinn; members of Central Command are informed on each other's postings."

"It could be she was recently promoted. In which connection is she mentioned?"

"Denaro is responsible for the loss of the Federation Starship Shishaldin and the death of over four hundred crew members, damage to other ships. If you give us information leading to her capture, we will be grateful and repay the favour upon her extradition."

No doubt your offer is as reliable as our own would be. Melset shrugged, "I do not have this information."

"We have a voice recording and can analyse, then compare it to those of other Cardassian militaries."

"Then you do not require my assistance." She had modified the communications array to distort tonality and vocal patterns, permitting the bridge crew to understand her, but make the transmission useless for analysis.

Major Bolden felt sudden deep hatred for the "scaly bastards" as he called them. It seemed she sensed this as her eyes met his with an unblinking reptilian gaze. He held her glance, stating, "You are here to access information for your government, you damn spoonhead b****. Promoting mutual understanding … Cardassians interested in that, of all things. What a joke!"

Her eyes narrowed, glittering resentfully.

The guards drew their phasers, expecting an attack, but Melset only gave her opinion about the whole procedure. "You are not very good at this, are you? Resorting to ethnic slurs indicates frustration." She added sarcastically, "I could teach you some of the less violent methods after this debriefing. They are not too complicated, but quite effective, surely acceptable to the kind and gentle Federation."

"What's going on out there?" He angrily turned to the door at suddenly hearing a loud argument outside the room, a calm voice countering annoyed queries with peremptory statements until the speaker was finally admitted, accompanied by four guards Melset recognized at once.

Finally….

Dr. Sarnoh stood by while Manhardt went over to Major Bolden with an official datapadd, "The arrest of Gul Melset is unauthorized, as is this … questioning. She is to be transferred into our custody at once."

After taking back the padd, he went over to the Cardassian, quickly murmured, "Sorry about this."

Concealing his anger, Bolden said, "Gul Melset, you are released into the custody of Security Chief Manhardt."

"Most impressive! You comply with orders with nearly Cardassian promptitude; there's hope for you yet. Do remember my offer to instruct you in interrogative procedures. You know where to contact me," Her voice was gentle, but subtly threatening when she added, "And I am informed about your whereabouts…"

At getting up, she realized her vision was blurred, the vertigo slightly more pronounced. Seems the drug has taken effect, may as well make use of the fact. Melset gave in to its effects, exaggerated them, fell to her knees, feigning inability to take another step, and closed her eyes.

"Cardassians are extremely sensitive to most of our drugs; if she has been harmed, your department will face serious consequences." Turning to her, the Vulcan said nearly inaudibly, "We first had to find out where you were being held, encountered some problems, thus the delay."

Every movement made her feel queasy, so Melset remained motionless, listening to an argument cut short at beam-out.

When the group had rematerialized in SFCCEI's medical section, Melset quickly got to her feet, much to Dr Sarnoh's concealed surprise. With a slight smile, she explained, "The vertigo is already fading, my vision clearing. All I need is something against a particularly severe headache."

"That drug still has to be filtered out of your system, so lie down. This will take care of the problem." He attached a dialysis pack to her arm, saying, "I have some paperwork to see to, then a short meeting with Commander Chandler. I'll be back in roughly an hour."

When he returned, he took off the pack and informed her, "A full report has been sent to Starfleet Command and Intelligence, a protest filed on your behalf, countersigned by Commander Chandler and myself. I trust you can resume duty?"

"Yes, Dr Sarnoh. Thank you for your assistance. Yet, the Dominion threat and Cardassia's role in it justify what was done." Gul Melset got up, "Now to see what duties, if any, remain for me."

"You can resume them. The Commander has revoked closure of your department."

Quickly, she attached the armour to her uniform and walked towards the door as if nothing had happened.

"Wait. You have been assigned a permanent bodyguard to preclude further attempts at coercion. Commander Chandler wishes to apologize for this incident – he was not informed."

"I never suspected he was involved as I know him to be trustworthy. The guard, what race?"

"Klingon. His name is N'Kreth. G'Kathor chose him, stating you would not accept anyone else after this."

"Indeed not."

"Ah, N'Kreth!" was her greeting when he entered. Melset knew the Klingon well, having frequently practiced hand-to-hand combat with him.

As they walked along the corridor N'Kreth snarled angrily, "They should pay for that outrage. They think that as the only Cardassian here, you are in their hands."

"No, it was to be expected. They fear the Alliance. I am a Cardassian, we are talented at obtaining information; they were only hoping to get useful details." She added with amusement, "I have to remember how they questioned me: rapidly alternating between topics in an attempt to disorient me. Won't work with one of us, but possibly with others."

When they arrived at her office, N'Kreth got between her and the door. Melset stepped aside to let him precede her. To her relief, her civilian staff was present, after briefly exchanging information, she set to eliminating the backlog.

As the weeks passed, a number of the Human staff she had known were transferred; especially Security saw a massive turnover of personnel; when she encountered their replacements they invariably considered her with barely-concealed animosity until they saw her SFCCEI badge.

The old attitudes have returned in force...

From one day to the next, the atmosphere at SFCCEI shifted for the better, became one of tense waiting, of expectancy mingled with hope and apprehension; rumours were circulating that an immense Federation fleet under the command of Captain Sisko was gathering in preparation for an attempt to break through the ranks of Dominion and Cardassian warships in a desperate bid to retake Deep Space 9. Everyone knew and grimly accepted that this massive attack would mean the loss of numerous ships and crews. For security reasons information about exactly when and how this battle was to be engaged was kept classified.

The atmosphere increasingly became one of tense waiting as the rumours took on a life of their own. When would reports on the outcome of this venture be given? A day or two after the news about the plan had been announced, there was a burst of excited calls, yells and shouts of triumph in the corridors; the Cardassian and her staff listened, then, wanting to know what had happened, she opened the door, went out into the corridor followed by her staff.

To judge by the intonation and vocal quality of the calls, the Federation had achieved its goal – Deep Space 9 was free, once again under Federation and Bajoran control.

While she was outside, still listening, undecided about whether to join the others, Andrews and Delios walked past and saw her hesitation.

Andrews spoke first, ignoring the looks he got from the others, "Have you heard the news yet, Gul Melset? Deep Space 9 has been retaken. The Klingon fleet arrived just in time! The station is virtually undamaged and - Guess who has been taken captive? Gul Dukat himself."

The reaction was sheer disbelief. "Gul Dukat? How can that be? The Dominion, and we, too, protect our superiors from being captured at all costs!"

Greeting the Cardassian as though nothing had happened, Hinricks joined them, "Then we won't have too long to wait for him to stand trial for war crimes."

"Has he been extradited yet?" was Marks' query when he came over as well, anxious for news.

"That is what we were hoping, but he had to be admitted to a clinic – severe mental breakdown. He was found weeping over the body of his daughter who had been killed by one of his officers. No one will get any information out of him for quite a while as the man's totally incoherent. Not until he's able to understand the accusations will he stand trial for his crimes. Remember, the Bajorans have some massive bones to pick with him as well, have already contacted the Tribunal with a list of his crimes, together with evidence and how to reach witnesses. Believe me, that'll be one looong trial. Bet it'll be transmitted on all Federation channels. I, for one, won't miss it; I've seen enough of the atrocities."

"He was my commanding officer when I was a Glinn 3rd level, was a good mentor, yet when he became Prefect of Terok… Sorry, Deep Space 9, he changed. But the past is the past. What actually happened?"

"Seems when the minefield was detonated, massed Dominion forces were ready to come boiling out of that Wormhole; at Sisko's order, the Defiant changed course to fly straight into it; he was prepared to sacrifice his life in a suicide mission to save the Alpha Quadrant." Delios added, wondering, "Sure would like to know what happened in that wormhole because only minutes later, the Defiant flew back out, undamaged, but with not one single Dominion ship in pursuit." He added, "If I was a Bajoran, I'd say the Prophets did away with them, protected Bajor and their Emissary."

"The Dominion forces evacuated the station as soon as they saw what was going to happen, but Dukat refused to leave without his daughter. Good thing – or else he would have snuck off and escaped unpunished."

Andrews saw the Cardassian woman had relaxed slightly. "Look, I know attitudes have changed, things have become difficult for you due to the Alliance, but join us as you did before. Everyone here is worried, even afraid of what might happen." He took the risk of a personal remark and added, "The same is the case with you."

Briefly, she met his glance, her expression for once vulnerable before she looked away. "Yes, I fear for Cardassia, for my people, what will happen to all of us here in the Alpha Quadrant."

For the next few days, her work continued, was all routine, but while checking reports and communications one afternoon, she whispered to herself, "So it has come to this."

The speaker was a Cardassian male, a military. "Gul Melset, Renessa and I have been accorded temporary refuge on Earth. We should meet as soon as possible. Here are the coordinates."

She had been mentoring Glinn Kermec just before her last battle. The young officer had shown remarkable potential and soon been assigned a pre-command position. What has made him quit his post?

Kermec's requesting asylum on Earth showed how far the situation had deteriorated. Normally Cardassia, with its surveillance and highly-developed security systems, was the only safe haven her people could imagine. She briefly wondered why they had not come directly to her. So used to peace that I did not think of the obvious reason: he and Renessa are fellow Cardassians; we would immediately be suspected of clandestine activities, thus his requesting I go to them.

Melset briefly considered her options, then activated her communications outlet. "Commander Chandler, I must confer with you immediately."

The Human replied, "It will be requisite to have security present."

"Of course. I'll come with my bodyguard."

"Report to my office at once if you have no urgent projects."

Accompanied by N'Kreth, she went to the Commander's office.

"Come in." Commander Chandler rose to meet her, "Have you been given an apology for the incident of some weeks ago?"

"No. But you and Dr. Sarnoh filed a protest on my behalf. For that I thank you, as well as for your own apology although you were not involved."

"I have taken steps to preclude a recurrence. If there's any excuse at all for what was done, ascribe it to frayed nerves, the fear of Changelings, paranoia due to a threat that cannot be countered by the usual methods, the way this war has been going. Nevertheless, the action was uncalled-for."

"It did remind me of my home as it once was, but there arrests were justified." Her tone of voice implied that she still resented the incident. "I am a representative of the Cardassian Union, it has joined the Dominion and I have an extensive network of contacts, as is our custom, thus am suspected of having access to crucial details of strategy and plans."

"What is the problem?" Chandler leaned back, considering her. All he knew about Melset was the information in her personnel file. It still astonished him how quickly she had formed a friendly relationship with the Bajoran staff in spite of their peoples' history, speaking with them in their language, evidently enjoying the contact, even meeting them off-duty within weeks after their arrival. Apparently they had information about this Gul which they kept to themselves.

She placed a data rod on his desk, "This."

Chandler listened to the message, "Evidently you wish to meet your compatriots, but why notify me? You are allowed to travel freely on Earth." He considered her, suspicious. "You are very secretive about everything else."

She did not react to the accusation. "It is safer. Glinn Kermec has a relatively high position in Central Command, so his flight implies developments that transcend our loyalty; I want to know what they are."

"Then you will no doubt obtain valuable information which is to be shared with us in detail." He saw her eyes harden. "In this case, all considerations cede to security. We have made generous allowances for your ways in the interest of cooperation, but I can protect you only so far, and you will understand that, at present, trust is out of the question. The government you represent is allied with a hostile power, and you are a military in spite of your discharge," he continued. "It was advisable to contact me about this; had you left and been apprehended..."

"I am fully conscious of the fact. You will however understand that compliance on my part entails the risk of committing treason which, according to our laws, means a public trial and execution." To herself she thought, when I first arrived, you expected a human with scales, not an alien with vastly different customs and values. You see me on a daily basis but would accept my execution for giving you classified data under duress. And you dare judge us!

"I know," he replied and input some data while telling her, "You are granted 6 hours. I will organize your departure for 13:00 hours, your return for 19:00. Any delays will see you arrested upon arrival."

Melset got up wordlessly to stand facing him.

He rose to dismiss her, "Perhaps you will finally obtain news about your family. You have received no messages for over half a year, and for Cardassians, family is everything."

There was no response to his attempt at a more personal tone. The various phrases used to interact with most peoples were either ignored or treated with disdain by Cardassians. Moreover, he had implied her contacts had been observed well before the Alliance. Surveillance as such was not offensive, but ran counter to the Federation's constantly reiterated ideology of acceptance, tolerance and innocent until proven guilty. She did not realize that his comment and conciliatory tone showed he disliked pressuring her but was forced to do so by his own superiors.

When the door to his office slid shut, he muttered, "That reptile," then registered her personnel and security codes before speaking into the intercom, "Gul Melset is granted a stay of six hours. Two to beam over to these coordinates at 13:00 hours tomorrow, return at 19:00."

Back in her offices, Melset considered the situation - both Sitela Ranok and Gul Juriak would have reported her to the Obsidian Order after this conversation. Yet had she left without notifying Commander Chandler, she might have been followed, potentially endangering her fellow Cardassians. Under circumstances, she would possibly face exile, as had Garak. For a moment, she wondered about his situation on Terok'Nor, among Federation members and Bajorans.

The next day, she was beamed into an enclosed area with her bodyguard; Kermec came to meet her, accompanied by a civilian introduced to her as Renessa, his fiancée.

"Welcome. I never expected we would meet on Earth,"

"I thought you were either on Cardassia Prime or Terok'Nor. I have been granted a stay of 6 hours." She turned to her bodyguard, "This is N'Kreth; there have been problems since inception of the Alliance, so G'Kathor assigned him to protect me. He knows both Standard and Cardassi."

G'Kreth greeted the couple in their own language.

Glinn Kermec inclined his head, replying; "N'Kreth, we have information about the situation on Q'Onos. Renessa will grant you access to the files."

"It is best he does not hear what I have to tell you."

Melset replied, "We have heard about developments"

"The situation was coming to a head; Klingon forces had destroyed all of our systems: agriculture, communications, health services; in spite of losing most of the fleet, the surviving militaries organized everything as best they could. Yet there were and still are epidemics, starvation. The Federation helped generously, but the situation remained critical. Gul Dukat disappeared shortly after the Klingon invasion, realizing the civilian government had no plans for a counterattack, not even with the information found on the captured Klingon warship.

After some months he returned … with the Dominion fleet. We soon eliminated the Klingons and the Maquis, regained our position in the quadrant after massive reconstruction; even our medical facilities are functional again, our Fleet nearly back to pre-invasion strength, but some of us have preferred to go into voluntary exile rather than to become subjects of the Dominion, commanded by Vortas and Changelings."

"And Glinn Damar?"

"He remained on Gul Dukat's staff, on Terok'Nor until the station was retaken. As far as I know, he has replaced Gul Dukat and is now a Legate.

"Cardassia and its systems?"

"Under Dominion rule. Jem'Hadar everywhere with their Vorta facilitators who can only be called occupying forces. Each city has several barracks, so that we are more a Dominion province than a discrete Union. Cardassian citizens are stopped arbitrarily, questioned about their business, arrested at the slightest doubt about their purposes."

"Then it is worse than expected. Is there a dissident movement or the beginnings of one?

"There may be as many of us resent the Dominion and its involvement in our affairs, they have become occupiers, not Allies." Glinn Kermec then asked, "What consequences have developments had for you?

"The expected ones." Melset shrugged. "The old hatred has resurfaced; I am The Enemy and under constant observation. Some weeks ago, I was even interrogated! I have never seen such incompetence: Trying to disorient me by asking questions about an array of different elements after drugging me, questions that would not trick one of our children. Fortunately I was with friends when I was arrested – they reported the incident to Chandler who sent over the Security Chief and some of his men with the order to 'hand me over.' "

The two Cardassians burst out laughing, but Kermec knew his former mentor well enough to notice her unease. "Gul Melset, there is more to this."

"Before leaving, I was ordered to pass on any information I obtain or risk imprisonment in a Federation penal colony until the end of the Dominion war. As far as I can tell, I have not been equipped with a tracer. Fortunately Security has not found the Cardassian surveillance devices distributed throughout the building or I would not be here."

Kermec smiled mockingly, "Well, well, well, our morally superior Human friends... You have a Cardassian? Use it against its own kind, then leave it to its fate. Yet when we use these methods, we are evil, with no respect for other beings' integrity." Kermec inquired, "What is his position?"

"He has no formal authority over me as I was deployed by Central Command, but now considers my civilian staff and myself his hostages."

Knowing how difficult it would be for Cardassians to find assistance, Gul Melset, asked "What are your plans? Have you requested permanent sanctuary? Safety for Cardassian citizens, especially militaries, is no longer assured, not even in one of the alien enclaves. G'Kathor would assist you for my sake. I know you have no reason to trust Klingons, but he is a friend."

"We plan to stay on Terra until we see which direction the Alliance takes." Glinn Kermec opened a drawer, taking out a data rod which he handed to Melset, "Here, this is for your Commander. After all, you cannot return empty-handed."

"I only hope it is not another collection of scientific data as the last files they obtained were just that. Too bad I did not see their faces after they had cracked the code." Melset grinned broadly.

"These are reports as broadcast via our public screens to inform the population on developments. It is news, some elements possibly unknown to the Federation, but no classified information. Even a Vorta or two is presenting the reports, which should make for even greater credibility. The information covers the time from inception of the Alliance until my departure; it will keep your Commander's staff very busy."

Glinn Kermec hesitated for a moment, then advised, "Gul Melset, exploit humans' weakness, their compassion. It can be quite useful at times. You do have a slight advantage."

"The fact that I am not much taller than a Bajoran female. That is one reason I was chosen for this assignment; I am less intimidating than a Cardassian of the predominant ethnicity."

"Not to forget your re-education by the Obsidian Order to suppress the so-called unpleasant characteristics of our people." Glinn Kermec considered that procedure questionable, as did the Obsidian Order and Central Command, but unavoidable, if a level of cooperation with representatives of other races was to be established.

"It did make it difficult to cope with the open prejudice and resentment I encountered in the beginning, but my reactions, slight though they were, made some people reconsider; while interacting with me, they give me invaluable details without even realizing it."

"In a few days we will move again. You will get messages from either of us, but their source will be untraceable. You, however, will have no problem recognizing their authenticity. Should anything change, you will hear from us."

After a moment of hesitation, he gave her a second rod, "This is a clandestine recording from Terok Nor. Under no circumstances should it get into the hands of anyone but you or your Bajoran contacts. Fortunately, Federation scanners cannot detect this kind."

She met his eyes, nodded and briefly left the room.

A little while later, Melset left, "My time is up." N'Kreth joined her at the beam-up point, and they dematerialized.

The disorientation of the beaming process was hardly over than Melset recognized they had arrived at an entirely different place than agreed on. Turning to her bodyguard, she saw two Starfleet security officers instead who had phasers levelled at her. Two more officers entered, and, without a word, forced her into an adjoining room.

Once again she looked around for N'Kreth, then snapped, "What is the meaning of this? Where is my bodyguard?"

"He is unharmed, these are merely security measures. Remove your clothing."

She complied, "Excellent! I see you are trying to learn from us. Always make the individual to be interrogated feel exposed." She calmly handed over the armour and the basic uniform then, unembarrassed, watched her captor scan them.

He triumphantly held up a data rod, "Look! I'll see if there is more, a transceiver or whatever," He went to her, holding a scanner, "Any resistance and you will be stunned." But he was disappointed as she submitted.

Upon getting her uniform back, Melset redressed and again demanded, but in a sharper tone of voice, "Where is my bodyguard?"

"That is not your affair. Your Klingon watchdog is in your office, unharmed. You have nothing to fear either, provided you cooperate."

"In whose authority are you acting? I have been accorded immunity after being stationed here for the past five years. My security clearance is up to date, nor have I committed any acts that could justify false accusations of my being an agent of the Order or of the Dominion."

"Starfleet Security. Your trips on Earth are being curtailed for security reasons. As of now, you are restricted to this area until the end of the war. To ensure your compliance..." He held up a tiny object which she recognized with cold anger.

"A subdermal tracking device."

"To monitor your movements."

"This is illegal under Federation law. After your first attempt to extract information, Commander Chandler filed a protest with your bureau and with Starfleet. It is to be hoped you have valid reasons for this renewed attempt at coercion."

"As the Commander stated, and as did you: all considerations cede to security." He again held up the device, "Do you agree?"

"No, not unless all off-worlders at SFCCEI and Starfleet are similarly equipped."

"You have no other choice but to submit. If you have this device removed, disciplinary measures will be taken."

He turned to the guards, "Immobilize her!"

The two security officers wrestled her to the floor, but she fought so hard they could not pin her down. A door hissed open, someone entered, pressed a hypospray against her neck; the last thing she knew was that she was laid upon a bunk.

When Melset woke up she was in her office, as if she had fallen asleep at her desk. "N'Kreth?" She got up and went around her desk only to see him sprawled on the floor. At her touching him he jumped to his feet with a yell of rage. "Gul Melset, this is not the arrival point!"

She did not answer at once, wondering about the leaden exhaustion she felt, then remembered what had happened between her taking leave of Glinn Kermec and arriving here. "Time." The chronometer showed 20:45. "Over an hour later than we should have returned." Quickly, she reached under her armour – the data rod was there….

"G'Kathor will be informed immediately about this renewed outrage." Violently angry now, the Klingon reached for the comm unit.

She caught his wrist before he could select the Klingons' code. "N'Kreth, we cannot do anything now; apparently many here on staff are affiliated with Starfleet Security so that we can no longer have unsupervised contact with others."

"When it suits their needs, the Federation abandon all their principles. G'Kathor and I know you to be honourable. There is no reason to doubt your word."

"Ah, N'Kreth, this is most kind of you, but remember: I am a bloody Cardi who cannot be trusted," She contacted Commander Chandler. "Gul Melset reporting. I have information for you."

"Then come."

She looked up at N'Kreth before they left and whispered, "Human reactions."

N'Kreth sneered disdainfully, recognizing what she meant, then joined her.

She entered his office with N'Kreth at her side.

"Sit down, Gul Melset."

She complied, then handed over the data rod. "This was given me by my contact. Hopefully it will prove informative, provided it was not manipulated during transit." Her voice was even but its undertone indefinable as she said, "I have not had occasion to view it myself."

"Any news on your family?"

You would like details, wouldn't you, to use them against me. "Yes. They are well, my brother has been promoted." Uncharacteristically, she hesitated before continuing, "Our people are fighting for the Dominion, no longer for Cardassia, their lives sacrificed in service of an Ally for whom they are only phaser fodder!" She seemed distressed and N'Kreth laid a hand on her shoulder to underline the fact.

As expected, Admiral Chandler, who only knew her as a typical Cardassian, arrogant, vicious and calculating in spite of her outwardly friendly manner, said, "Something is wrong," and activated a scrambler, "You can speak freely; all listening devices are inactivated. I will protect you."

Outraged about her experience, she reported, "You will recall we were to return here at 19:00? N'Kreth and I were separated at beamdown; I was arrested, strip-searched, the data rod I have given you found, possibly copied or manipulated. I was forcibly equipped with a tracer. When I awoke in my office, N'Kreth was unconscious. Someone is obviously seeking to discredit me with you and Central Command, make me appear a traitor working for both sides, not as a mediator between the various cultures represented here."

"I assure you this was unauthorized." He turned to his commlink to contact Sarnoh, "Doctor Sarnoh? Admiral Chandler here. We have a problem."

When the Vulcan entered, he was informed about the occurrence. Wordlessly, he took out a scanner, and, after one or two passes, said, "It is under this scale, very superficially implanted; it can be removed immediately."

"You will find the object rather intriguing."

Within moments Sarnoh placed it upon the desk. Admiral Chandler stared at the tracer before inquiring, "Did you recognize anyone? This device is illegal."

"No, but they were Starfleet and knew about my contacts as well as our recent conversation, 'regulations cede to certain conditions'," she paraphrased, the implications all too clear: what if Commander Chandler himself was behind the last two attempts to coerce her into betraying the Union? It was conceivable.

"Perhaps you should spend some time at an undisclosed location. I can see to it that you will be safe," he offered.

A contemptuous "Commander, seriously, would you accept?" was the reply.

"No, most likely not." He hesitated, "Look, I understand your distrust, and would not react differently after those incidents. I'll try to find a solution that will neither compromise security nor your standing with your own government."

"Agreed." She met his eyes directly, her own vicious, "I can rest assured that, under circumstances, my only option will be to turn myself in to the Cardassian authorities after this war. I believed the Federation respected the precept of 'innocent until proven guilty'. My race apparently excludes me from this privilege." A salute, an about-face, and she left.

From there she went directly to the Bajorans' area - they were neither under observation nor their offices bugged. Vedek Yarim had already left, so she gave Inyon the second rod Kermec had passed on to her.

After exchanging greetings with her civilian staff, she asked, "Have there been further developments?"

"None, and no communications, either." One of her staff sought eye contact before quickly glancing at her desk.

"You are dismissed for today, work resumes at 9:00 tomorrow. Mr Talik, there is something we must discuss."

Once the others had left, he came over, casually touched a marking in the wood. Gul Melset examined it more closely, nodded once. A listening device, but she had never seen one so diminutive, nor was it hers. The two briefly went over some routine security measures before Mr Talik also left. For now she did not feel like returning to her quarters. Here she could concentrate on her plans. Something finally had to be done. Two attempts at coercion, an observation she could not accept as she had that of the Obsidian Order, as the Federation always praised the way it protected freedom, respected all sentient beings, yet abandoned its fine principles at being confronted with the wrong species of alien.

Clandestine departure? For a moment she thought of Glinn Kermec and Renessa with apprehension, but both were survivors as were all Cardassians. Yet, it seemed that to stay where she was would attract even more attempts. Everyone thought she had in-depth knowledge of what was currently happening on Cardassia, although her contacts were now inaccessible.

"N'Kreth, you may as well leave to spend the evening with your family."

"I have my assignment. I stay."

Together they left the building; when a small transport stopped next to them, N'Kreth stepped in front of Melset, his posture threatening, weapon ready.

"It's me, Chandler. I'm taking you to quarters to avoid surprises."

They arrived at the walled enclave which housed several family groups of aliens. It was obvious that a human was slightly out of place.

"Come in," she said, imitating Human ways; the three settled in the living area and, without introduction, Commander Chandler said, "After the first incident Vedek Yarim and G'Kathor demanded the removal of the officers involved from Starfleet. Their approach was heavy-handed enough to antagonize them."

Gul Melset shook her head. "I do not agree. Pro-active security personnel is absolutely necessary to ensure the safety of your institution and Starfleet. The measures as such were not offensive, only in total contrast to my expectations. You say that everyone is innocent until proven guilty, yet I was singled out because of my race, as if I had been involved in negotiating the alliance about which I am as concerned as anyone else. I consistently shared available information with you, but now my contacts are inaccessible."

"Cardassians have surprisingly extensive networks. There should be some you can still reach." It was evident he was hoping she would respond to his offer of help by greater trust.

"You are correct. We begin establishing them from childhood onwards; they ensure us information, resources, support in times of danger."

"And your own network?" he asked again.

"It is quiescent now and has been since inception of the Alliance. Any attempt at contact could mean disaster for them: immediate arrest and execution. If the message was traced back to me, I wouldn't be safe anywhere. Glinn Kermec took a great risk when he contacted me. He, too cannot contact any of his associates lest he, or they, be traced or denounced. At present, his and his fiancée's safety has priority." She hesitated then added with a rueful smile, "There may be no more purpose in keeping my department open. Security anticipated the situation."

"You need not be concerned about your subsistence – you and the others will be integrated into our system." He gave her a data rod, "I took the precaution of conferring about you with Starfleet. We need information, but Cardassian and Bajoran linguists are rare."

"I was and am a member of Central Command, which makes my participation impossible."

"There is no treason involved in transposing messages."

"As if you did not have skilled people of your own at your disposal!"

"There is one important factor; frequently non-natives do not recognize hidden messages, fail to recognize allusions a native would. Remember how bewildering our humour and some of our expressions were for you during the first few months."

Melset considered the situation. It was true this would not force her to betray her people, and the thought of waiting until the Dominion war was decided one way or another was not appealing either. Transpositions are easily manipulated, disinformation not hard to plant…..

She met his eyes, "I accept. The only condition is that at no time will I be expected to betray Cardassia. I serve the Cardassian Union alone, whatever happens."

"Good. So that has been resolved. Report to me day after tomorrow, at 8:30 hours. We shall then discuss the exact terms and conditions of your contract.." He got up to leave and, at the door, looked back, "I can assure you that you will have no reason to regret this decision."

"You have been most supportive in the past, considering how difficult it is for humans to cooperate with us, our values and mentalities being so disparate." She noticed his surprise when she added, "I never expected to experience kindness from Humans, especially one who would have all reason to exercise extreme caution, knowing how treacherous we are reputed to be."

"Not all of you - and us - are alike, I learned that years ago, as, no doubt, has Chief Manhardt in the course of your cooperation."

She wondered just who was trying to put whom off-guard when he said, "Remember: 8:30 tomorrow." and left.

"N'Kreth, you can go home to your family now. I am safe here, with all the security devices I have installed."

He left without replying, knowing duty was satisfied. Melset set to work at a security scan for Manhardt. She knew he disliked Cardassians, yet had been supportive of her more than once and they cooperated well. Now she wanted to throw him completely off balance. By sacrificing some minor elements of her system which would self-destruct without a trace at discovery, she would be protecting the more important ones. Humans used this method themselves, but here the concept of 'our very own Cardassian' came in useful.

"Chief Manhardt, I am transmitting an enhanced variant of my own security protocol. It is quite elaborate and highly effective."

His surprise was evident, "Why this? You were excluded from the team established to establish comprehensive safeguards."

"You are neither responsible for that decision nor for either incident. I have the feeling we are facing a common threat, an effort to create enmity that could lead to conflicts among staff, which must not be underestimated. What I have for you should help make your systems virtually fail-safe. You or Lt. Hinricks can pick up the requisite elements tomorrow." You will find some suspicious objects, but they will self-destruct before you can remove them for analysis, leaving no evidence or trace of their provenance. This distraction will make you intensify the search, but in the wrong direction...

With a friendly smile she closed the connection, "Melset out."

There. I think my back is covered. As long as the Dominion War is in progress, I cannot send anything to Sitela, but there may be a chance of transmitting my information at a later date. For now, to bide my time and dissimulate my real duties here.

The next development, a positive one for a change, was received with elation by all members of Starfleet; the first to find out about it via the personnel's grapevine spread the news as it would soon become public knowledge anyway.

A security officer, Major Walter, one of Manhardt's friends, went over to SFCCI as he usually did during his downtime, but this time anyone could recognize he had the best of news to share.

"Chief, this will be announced in a few more hours, but this info is too good to keep under wraps until then: reports have it that the Romulan Empire has joined the war against the Dominion in spite of their non-aggression treaty."

"How so? That is something new…" called Johnson, who had overheard him and now rushed over.

Within moments, a group of security personnel had congregated around the three men.

"When did this happen? Dominion ships were moving through Romulan space with impunity to attack us along the border, why the change?"

"Apparently a Romulan senator, Vreenak, was killed when a bomb planted on his runabout exploded shortly after his departure from Soukhara on his way back to Romulus. The Romulan Empire blames this act of terrorism on the Dominion. It is something they would do. Their suspicions have been substantiated by the discovery of an optolithic data rod in the debris. It was severely damaged, sure, but could be partially reconstructed, enough to view sections of the data contained: A recording of Weyoun, Damar and Damar's adjutant discussing a surprise attack on the Romulan Empire in spite of the non-aggression treaty was the clincher."

"There has to be more!" was Moreno's comment. "Out with it, man!"

"There is. I was just leading up to it. The Romulans, after attacking and destroying fifteen bases along the Cardassian-Romulan border have officially allied themselves with the Federation and the Klingon Empire in their war efforts against the Dominion." He punched the air, "I say this is reason enough to hope for a positive outcome!"

The men reacted to this unexpected news with whoops of elation and renewed hope; finally, it seemed, factors were shifting to the advantage of the Federation and its allies. The Romulans remained an enemy, but possibly, after the Dominion was defeated, there would be the possibility of finally negotiating a peace treaty with their Empire…

This was the break for which all had hoped: As expected, the news was officially announced in the late afternoon and greeted by all personnel with loud cheers and applause even though it had long since spread like wildfire throughout SFCCEI.

Before departing the auditorium, Commander Chandler called out, "One more thing: In the name of Starfleet Headquarters' personnel and upper echelons, the entire personnel of SFCCEI has been invited to attend tomorrow's Join The War party over in Starfleet Headquarters, which is to begin at 18:00. I, for one, want to see all of you there. Things are finally looking up. If this is not a cause for optimism, I don't know what could be."

Talking animatedly, the audience filed out, more cheerful than they had been for months, all of them anticipating the occasion… That news and the invitation were the best morale boosters anyone could have hoped for.

Her offworld contacts finally managed to convince Melset to attend, that she would indeed be welcome, but instead of wearing dress uniform, she selected a heavily-embroidered Kelani outfit, and arranged her hair in her minority's style; the Cardassian's attire was in marked contrast to that of the other military attendees. Only the Bajorans, all non-militaries, attended in civilian outfits.

At Rojin's inquiring glance, she explained, "Consider the times we are living through: a Cardassian in uniform at such an occasion can only be seen as a provocation, a reminder of the conflict between the Federation and the Alliance, possibly leading to an unpleasant incident which would ruin the celebration for everyone. At this moment, no one needs that. After all that has happened, I, too, only want to enjoy this occasion, meet with staff outside of duty; it has been so long since we have had a positive event to celebrate."

On the way over, they met other members of SFCCEI, all of whom were anticipating a few relatively carefree hours after the anxiety and bad news of the past months, joined them…

At least for the moment, everything seemed to be working out so that the apprehension and concern of the past months were relegated to the back of everyone's mind; the atmosphere was nearly as it had been before the onset of the Dominion threat. At walking past the Commander with a group of friends, Melset responded to his smile and gesture of greeting before commenting, "Commander Chandler, SFCCEI should soon be welcoming representatives of the Romulan Empire if all goes right."

"There is still an unoccupied suite of rooms on the top floor; I'll take your suggestion under consideration and discuss it with Starfleet," was his rejoinder, "and I plan to entrust the process of helping those Romulans integrate to you, Gul Melset, considering how rapidly you made contact with others."

"Indeed, Commander. You need but ask when the time has come. Seeing as Cardassians have thicker skin than Humans, it would make perfect sense."

He did a double-take, this was the first time she had shown any humour. "Figuratively or literally?"

"Both."

"I do wonder," Chandler said, "What strategy would you suggest for the conflict proper?"

"Not engage the enemy as one unified force, but constantly change the composition of attacking fleets, at times three discrete fleets entering the battle from different areas and levels, using different strategies, at times combinations of two, or only the one, again each with their own strategies, or marginally paralleling those of an arbitrarily selected ally. It is a method which is difficult to realize, but it would keep the Dominion guessing." She waited a moment for maximum effect, then said innocently, "Do visualize the effects of this strategy, Commander."

Chandler did so, but unsuccessfully, as all three options promised pure chaos; he then saw her expression and began laughing.

Within moments, a mixed group formed, curious, and participated in a lively discussion about strategies to be implemented, the discussion itself at times punctuated by amused reactions at particularly ridiculous suggestions …. It was a welcome sign of cautious optimism.

The fact that the Romulans had joined with the Federations and the Klingons in an Alliance against the Dominion had raised everyone's hopes that the Dominion could be contained, then vanquished and forced back to the Gamma Quadrant.

News of the Dominion War came in unceasingly, but now the situation had finally shifted in favour of the Federation and its allies. Developments were rapidly becoming more and more ominous from the Cardassian - Dominion perspective. For one, the Monac shipyards, crucial to the war effort, had been destroyed by an unidentified Klingon cruiser, and, only some weeks prior to that incident, the orbital defences deployed in the Chintoka System had been eliminated by one single Klingon ship. Little later, the Vorta cloning facilities were attacked and severely damaged, making them inoperative for at least a month. The atmosphere in Starfleet Headquarters and SFCCEI was becoming cautiously optimistic.

Due to some factor on Deep Space 9 which remained classified, the Allies began to win decisive victories against the Dominion, overrunning Cardassian outposts with devastating results for their defenders. Perhaps, just perhaps….

It was with greatest apprehension and concern that Starfleet Headquarters received news of the inception of the Breen-Dominion Alliance; this alone was reason for reconsidering operations and strategy, stepping up efforts to obtain intelligence, a reshuffling of forces. Tension once again spread throughout Headquarters and the sections of SFCCEI involved even though, as yet, no one knew what they were really up against. Everyone knew about the Breen Union's existence, but no one had any information on their military capabilities or their organization or even their system; but everyone knew that they were well able to protect their borders and highly reluctant to make contact with other Unions. As to enemies, attackers were consistently eliminated.

Through a reliable source, Starfleet learned of the outcome of the battle for Septimus III: 500 000 Cardassian troops had been wiped out virtually to the last man; apparently Dominion strategists had purposely left the planet unprotected to encourage the Klingons to commit materiel and forces in an attack on a relatively unimportant world to distract from more important areas. What reactions, if any, would this provoke from their Cardassian allies? According to the words of the Talsvar Kardassu they were prepared to fight and sacrifice their lives for Cardassia without hesitation, but for a non-Cardassian political entity to deliberately sacrifice these same forces was an entirely different matter.

Only some days later, a report came in that Legate Damar, who had become the new leader of Cardassia after Gul Dukat's disappearance, had freed two Starfleet captives, clandestinely sending them back to Deep Space 9 with the message that the Federation now had a friend on Cardassia.

One afternoon, only a matter of days after this news, Melset, started at sensing a sudden change in air pressure, followed by a low-level vibration; looked up from the transposition she was processing, trying to locate its source. Even before Red Alert echoed throughout the complex she had already called to her employees to go to the shelter at once. They left at a run. The next moment, the network had shut down, all screens gone dark.

"All personnel, report to emergency shelters! Repeat: report to emergency shelters!"

Following her staff, Melset joined the personnel quickly moving towards the emergency stairwell that could accommodate eight people abreast. Within minutes, they had reached a subterranean hall from which corridors led to other areas: dormitories, offices, in essence a complex paralleling installations on the surface.

Feeling a subtle, pulsating vibration issuing from all around her which she remembered all too well, she instinctively reached for her phaser, then took a deep breath. No, there cannot possibly be an attack. There is no enemy nearby! Who could conceivably manage to penetrate the defences protecting the very heart of the Federation?

Security personnel had hardly sealed the doors when heavy detonations shook the entire area, followed by a deafening roar. Numbed by the realization that Earth was indeed under attack, all present remained silent, not moving except to instinctively seek physical contact. This was the first attack on Earth in the past two hundred years and more. No one doubted this was the beginning of a full-scale battle for Sol's system.

"I wonder what that was," was the query from one of the human staff who was hoping against hope that there was an innocuous explanation after all.

No one wanted to pronounce the words, avoided openly mentioning what everyone knew.

There was a comment from farther back in the hall, "It seemed very close by, not more than a mile or two off."

For once the Klingons did not rage about running for shelter like cowards instead of confronting their attackers … how did you fight an enemy who came in under sensor range, attacked without warning, wreaking massive destruction? That was a kind of warfare they regarded with contempt, considering it unworthy of a warrior race. Sha'Kor looked over at Melset from across the rows of seats.

She met his glance. What if the Klingon Empire has made an about-face and joined the Dominion? The very thought was chilling. No, impossible. Not Klingons. Their sense of honour precludes such alliances.

In the Federation and in the Klingon Empire itself, rumours had circulated two years before of a Changeling who had replaced a high-ranking member of the High Council having been discovered and eliminated. This very Changeling had provoked the invasion of Cardassia by feeding fake news about Changelings who allegedly had replaced members of Detapa to the Klingon High Council and, later on, had urged its members to consider attacking the Federation as well. The question remained if it was only a rumour or the doing of the Dominion or even an uprising within the Empire. Nothing seemed impossible anymore.

The Cardassian did not show any reaction to what was happening, avoided making eye contact with anyone else. The past months had become increasingly difficult as preconceptions had resurfaced with a vengeance, anti-Dominion propaganda in which Cardassians were pre-eminently featured was once again being sent to her department, so that, feeling surrounded by potential attackers, she had withdrawn from some of the other staff, even though she often left the perimeter of SFCCEI, accompanied by N'Kreth.

Cardassians normally regarded such reactions as an indication of fear, and so it was in most cases, but here? She was accessible, her compatriots, light years away were not.

The attack angered her; Cardassians were not exactly known for high ethics in warfare, but the Dominion's only goal was that of enforcing its sense of order, a hive-like sense of order, upon all solids it encountered. Soulless Jem'Hadar and Vorta, robbed of the willpower and individuality their peoples had once possessed, were the Dominion's forces. Hadn't Gul Dukat realized that this could be the fate of the Cardassian people as well?

Andrews, who was in the row in front of her turned to ask, "Could you feel where that came from, Gul Melset? It seemed to issue from all over." He knew from experience that Cardassians were excellent at sensing the source of vibrations.

"NNW, at roughly 1.6 miles' distance."

"Do you realize what you're saying?" Andrews met her glance, then repeated, saying to no one in particular, his voice rising until it became a yell of horror, "Starfleet Headquarters! Those bastards! They've hit HQ!"

The Cardassian said nothing, but leaned forward to place a hand on his shoulder in a gesture of comfort she had learned from him. He had been one of the few to establish friendly contact and keep it up even after the Dominion War had begun. Melset felt she owed him the gesture. When he turned to her again, she said in a very low voice, "HQ has been hit, but their personnel and ours were warned simultaneously, could get to safety." She knew he had friends there, his wife.

"It was a surprise attack." Andrew's voice was hoarse with stress as he turned around.

It was no use trying to contact HQ via communicator as the attackers could home in on their frequency, trace the source and target their shelter in spite of its being protected by a damping field. As it was, they could remain in that shelter for up to half a year: the ten storeys above ground were paralleled underground; this subterranean complex was equipped with everything that would be needed. She had inspected it herself together with Manhardt, who had agreed to show it to her. There were even individual quarters, more restricted than was Earth standard, but more comfortable than those at the disposal of the average Cardassian citizen.

Her voice was nearly a whisper, so that he could hardly hear what she said, "Now the war has been carried into this system as well. And we have Gul Dukat to thank for it even though it is the Founders who command."

He briefly turned to smile at her to show personnel nearby that he knew she was not one of them, "The situation is bad, but not hopeless."

She did not reply, thinking of the lists of casualties that were updated twice, at times even three times a day, the apprehension of those who read them, hoping against hope that they would not find the names of friends or family members. Only Starfleet personnel was recorded. No doubt the same grim ritual was taking place on Cardassia, provided the Dominion considered it necessary to inform their allies about loss of personnel. How many millions of civilians had already been killed, collateral damage in military terminology, was an open question. No doubt some cultures would disappear, their worlds devastated by Dominion forces.

Roughly an hour later they were notified, "Attack by Breen warships; most eliminated, only few have escaped. Alert status lifted. Personnel authorized to depart shelter."

All filed out and took up work as if nothing had happened.

Fortunately, data transferral between the buildings and the shelters was automatic, so that even if the complex had been destroyed, no information would have been lost, thus making it possible for survivors of an attack to continue their duties and organize defence or assistance.

Reports came some time later. It had indeed been Starfleet Headquarters that had been severely damaged together with adjacent buildings, among them the Academy and, at a distance, the Golden Gate Bridge. No news yet about casualties. Details would arrive soon enough as all buildings were interconnected by underground corridors, protected from collapse due to shifting masses of rock by means of a technology of which she had desperately wanted to obtain specifics - safety from earthquakes would be invaluable. To her annoyance, her most refined ways of getting into the data banks where the schematics were stored had met with no success. Even should I obtain specifics now, I fear the data will no longer be of use.

The advantage given the Federation by its unknown informant who supplied Starfleet with details about troop movements and Dominion strategies did not last; not unexpectedly, the strategically important Chintoka System was retaken with the help of the Breen who deployed their most effective weapon, a weapon that drained even the most powerful ships of energy within minutes, leading to structural collapse and destruction. Rumour had it that the Defiant had been destroyed, but its crew saved.

The retaking of this key system, an important Federation foothold in Cardassian-Dominion space, led to renewed concern within the Federation and its allies, so that possible further developments were continuously reviewed and analysed by Starfleet's top strategists who were attempting to anticipate the enemy's next moves and targets. It was feared, but not openly admitted, that the Breen joining the Dominion Alliance could mean a disastrous turn of events. Renewed hope risked being supplanted by discouragement, followed by loss of morale unless a solution was found as quickly as possible.

Opening breaches in the Federation's defence systems by destroying warships and installations represented a potential hazard, unless effective counter-measures could be taken, research initiated to circumscribe the range and technology of the Breen weapon so that methods of countering its effects could be developed. Capturing a Breen ship became an element that was accorded top priority.

One discovery gave hope, however: Klingon ships turned out to be immune to that weapon due to their systems' configuration which, regrettably, was incompatible with Romulan or Federation-built starships. At least for the time being, the Empire's forces would be spearheading all attacks until the Breen technology was analysed and countermeasures instituted.

The reports and the news that came in put all staff through a veritable roller-coaster of emotions, but the only option everyone saw was to continue working, analysing all options at their disposal, in the hope of finding the one weakness that would help them finally gain the advantage.

An unexpected message that had been received on Deep Space 9 was finally routed to Starfleet Headquarters and SFCCEI after a delay of roughly two weeks; as was the case with all important transmissions, personnel was called to view it, but no one among those present in the auditorium knew what to expect or had heard any rumours. It turned out to be a transmission no one would have expected, but whose content gave everyone renewed hope.

In an address to the people of Cardassia, Damar stated that the Union had no other choice but to leave the Alliance with the Dominion which had meant nothing but disadvantages and losses for Cardassia, even to its very integrity. His speech became impassioned as he continued, urging all Cardassians to rise up against the Dominion. This was followed by evidence of this turn of events: the Cardassian military had attacked and destroyed key Dominion installations and positions in Cardassian territory just after Damar's call to resist. Shortly after, he was said to have dropped out of sight.

Melset looked up at the screen, taken unawares: her brother Damar had become a leader worthy of being Gul Dukat's successor. This was cause for, but she well knew and accepted that thiswas the last time she had seen him alive. Damar, you have sealed your fate with this decision! May the sacrifice you will inevitably be called upon to make lead to Cardassia's salvation.

When personnel returned to their stations, she was so lost in thought that, in contrast to her usual vigilance, it went unnoticed Manhardt and Hinricks were escorting her back to her station together with N'Kreth to keep anyone from addressing her for details about Damar and the situation on Cardassia.

Before entering her offices, she looked around only to see the two humans and her Klingon bodyguard and remained where she was, expression wary, posture tense, preparing to defend herself. What are you doing here? Are you planning to arrest and question me, hoping that this development has made me more vulnerable because I now know how this war will end, making me willing to give you the information you have always suspected I possess?

At seeing the distrust in her eyes as well as her defensive attitude, Manhardt said, "Gul Melset, you know I have reservations against your people and always will. Yet you never refused to cooperate, even passed on information. But that is beside the point. The security protocol you have shared with us has already come in useful; apparently, some bugs had already been installed. We are still trying to find out their provenance. My staff and I will see to it that you are not bothered by anyone, at any time." His expression was unreadable.

"I appreciate the gesture, Chief Manhardt, and thank you." She met his eyes, saying, "I fear there will be interesting times in store for all of us. Hopefully this turn of events will lead to the outcome for which we are fighting. Please, come in."

Manhardt, Hinricks and N'Kreth followed her in and she sat down with them, "I can only tell you the following about Legate Damar: He, like all of us, has been raised to regard our people as inherently superior, the survival and expansion of our Union and culture the ultimate goal. This goal is being endangered by the Alliance since the Dominion does not consider Cardassia a separate entity anymore, but a part of itself, with Legate Damar no doubt relegated to the role of a figurehead, a leader in name alone. Our reputation for being treacherous and unscrupulous is justified, but we are true to our Alliances unless some element is revealed to be detrimental to our interests." And, as if to herself, "I have no information on what he may be planning, but know he is a true Cardassian, prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for the Union."

The Dominion had ceded Cardassian systems to the Breen in exchange for their allegiance, considering as it did allied Unions and Empires not discrete political entities in their own right, but literally cells in the superorganism called the Dominion; Cardassian militaries were being sacrificed by the hundreds of thousands, if not even more, to engage or distract Federation forces in a war of attrition, a tactic inconceivable to his own people. The situation had become untenable for any Cardassian worthy of the name, thus Damar and a number of his peers were now planning to rectify the situation.

When Legate Broka became the new leader of the Union, it became obvious exactly what role any leader of Cardassia was to play in the Alliance: a powerless leader, not speaking for his Union, but bound to the will of the Dominion alone.

From that moment on, Legate Broka was the spokesman for the Cardassian section of the Dominion. He seemed untrustworthy to everyone, and, to Melset, unworthy of his people. G'Kathor's description was precise and to the point when he said Broka was a Dominion puppet with no sense of honour.

This change in the leadership of Cardassia led to a wave of rumours about instability in the Dominion, impending revolution, even rumours of illness among the Founders circulated... No one had precise information, and those that possibly did were not forthcoming. Within weeks, news came in of increasing unrest in what had been the Cardassian Union and, from then on, at an ever faster pace, victory after victory began to shift the balance against the Dominion, giving renewed hope to the Federation-Klingon-Romulan forces.

Resistance against the Dominion did not end; much to the contrary; fellow militaries who felt the same as Damar did joined the revolt, there were rumours of the Cardassian resistance receiving assistance from some unknown source or another, until a Breen ship with the energy dampening technology finally found its way into the hands of the Federation; had the Cardassian resistance liberated it, or was it captured by other means, no one knew.

When the Dominion withdrew to an area well inside the Cardassian border, no doubt to rebuild and gather forces for a final, decisive attack on the Alpha Quadrant, the news that the Federation and its Allies would possibly stage a massive attack met with approval from all who were informed, or heard the rumours. These developments were greeted with hope and enthusiasm by all in the Centre. As one, they hoped for the imminent collapse of the Dominion Empire, rejoiced in each victory …

What would be the outcome for Cardassians and their worlds? Their people would fight to the very last man and woman as they had so often done in the past, even if victory was out of reach. For the survivors, to regroup, rebuild, fight for Cardassia's survival on a new front…

Two years after the conflict had erupted, news of the Dominion's defeat and surrender came in, and immediately after, a detailed report on the results of retaliatory measures the Dominion had taken on the Cardassian homeworlds, even footage of the final battle itself. All personnel were called into the auditorium to witness the end of a conflict that had cost so many lives and so much devastation in the Alpha Quadrant.

It was Admiral Ross, the commander of the Federation Forces, who gave the report.

"The Federation-Dominion Conflict has ended this day with the surrender of the Founder and representatives of the Dominion Alliance, followed by their signing the peace treaty. The Founder has agreed to stand trial for crimes committed against the peoples of the Alpha Quadrant and has been extradited."

The Admiral briefly interrupted his report. "The instigator of the Cardassian -Dominion Alliance could not be arrested to stand trial for his crimes against the peoples of the Alpha Quadrant. Nor are there plans to initiate a search for him at this time.

The situation on Cardassia Prime as well as that on numerous other worlds within the Union is catastrophic after the Dominion's attempt at systematic genocide. Locarian City was reduced to a wasteland when communications, transport and power had been sabotaged little after Damar had called on the Cardassian people to rise up against the Dominion. There were no survivors" He waited for a moment, "The majority of cities have been reduced to rubble, not one left undamaged, reports are coming in of hundreds of millions of dead and rising, many more injured, a total loss of infrastructure in all areas; survivors are trying to form provisional networks to ensure the survival of the remaining population.

Melset, incapable of reacting, could only stare at the footage in stunned disbelief as the report continued.

"Unfortunately, the man who we had hoped would head a new Cardassia, establish its post-war government, Legate Damar, was killed while taking Dominion Headquarters; sources report that his family was executed shortly after he had called on the Cardassian people to rebel against the Dominion."

"This war has cost untold millions of lives, inestimable damage to all we hold dear. Let us begin rebuilding our lives, our worlds and assist those who do not have the means to effect this on their own."

The communication ended.

This outcome took neither Melset nor anyone else by surprise; all who had watched developments since inception of the Alliance had expected something like this, but the extent of the destruction was a severe blow that left her numbed.

There were only murmurs in the audience; the few words she overheard expressed horror. One person said, "Those Cardis devastated many worlds during their expansionist wars. But this? Throughout the entire Union? That's attempted genocide."

Yes, we were to be eliminated to the very last individual, our worlds left in ruin as a warning to those who would defy the Dominion… Melset, who was in the company of her staff, concentrated on breathing evenly as shock slowly set in. Show no reaction, avoid presenting a weakness.

Sensing someone come to stand next to her, she looked over to see Janseda who quickly grasped her hand and whispered, "The Dominion invaded my own home world, Betazed, there was damage, but nothing even remotely comparable … to this."

"We committed atrocities on many worlds, anyone would call this poetic justice, and so it is. Yet - these worlds whose cities are now burning and blackened ruins were and are my home, a home I had hoped to see again … as it once was." Melset took a deep breath, "And civilians who only wanted to live in peace are the ones who are suffering, others like them have been killed in their hundreds of millions..."

Whatever I say could well be too much for her. There is no comfort I can offer, not in face of something like this. After meeting the Cardassian's eyes and giving her a slight nod, Janseda went back to the others.

Grieving for what now lay in ruins, lost forever, Melset began the Talsvar Kardassu in a whisper song then built up to her normal clear singing voice. Her stance was proud, even arrogant, as though she was once again among her peers.

There were no comments, only total silence as she continued. During the third verse, the militancy of the words did not disguise sorrow. At finishing, she stood at attention, saluted, called "Talsvar Kardássu!" then once more looked up at the last scene before marching out of the auditorium as if ready to face battle, alone except for Talik.

After some moments of silence, someone asked: "What was that?"

"The Cardis' anthem."

A Bolian, Manod, stated, "Before anyone here makes an ill-advised comment, remember: every anthem glorifies a Union or an Empire. Cardassians defy the enemy, demonstrate that whatever he can conceivably do will not break them. You keep on fighting until you either die in combat or prove Cardassia's strength in victory. She's alone here, with no conspecifics to turn to, yet will serve Cardassia whatever the cost."

Back in her office, she saw to her tasks, waiting to be contacted before deciding on her next move. Impatience or worrying only distracted from fulfilment of duty. Reports arrived, one worse than the other; whenever she left her department, comments on the situation. Her Cardassia was gone: cities reduced to heaps of rubble, the dead too many to be counted or buried so that they were vaporized, the injured without access to help. The impact of the reports served to hold off her grief for Damar and his family, for the Cardassia she had loved and served with all her being.

For the first time in her career, she hesitated before reading the data her bugs registered. There was no other choice, however, but to fulfil her duties in accordance to orders. Our priorities will shift in favour of organizing reconstruction.

"Gul Melset, report to my office provided you have no important projects to complete."

"On my way, Commander." I wonder what he could possibly want.

He was already waiting for her. "Have a seat, Gul Melset."

Melset complied, her expression neutral.

Chandler considered her for some time, As unreadable as any Vulcan. "In view of developments, a day or two of compassionate leave seems advisable. Expecting you to work as though nothing has happened would be asking too much."

"I appreciate your consideration, Commander Chandler. But I am a Cardassian, trained to 'suck it up and move on', to use one of your terms. Should I find myself overwhelmed by the situation, I shall make use of your offer."

Sensing what she was going through, Commander Chandler asked, "Are you sure?" He wanted to add, 'I have been informed Legate Damar was your brother and am sorry about your loss,' but, strangely uneasy, could not bring himself to pronounce the words, I didn't know about this until some minutes ago

"Commander, your generosity is appreciated; as is you recognizing my concern about the situation in the Union, but do understand: I have to remain on duty."

"As you wish, but my offer stands. There will be no questions, and, above all, no surveillance. Chief Manhardt informed me that you are being shielded from prying."

"For that I am grateful, Admiral Chandler." She got up, saluted the commander, turned to leave.

"Just a moment, Gul Melset, that song – it is your anthem, isn't it?"

"Yes, Commander. Anyone can see what our future holds; it will take decades to rebuild our cities, lives, and culture. And we shall, with everyone doing his or her part. Talsvar Kardássu is both an anthem and a rallying call, reminds us of our duty to Cardassia, a duty which always comes first in times of crisis, no matter what the cost for the individual." She met his eyes unwaveringly; giving Chandler the distinct impression she was challenging him. And you have repeatedly made a promise – are you prepared to keep it now?

The next day the transmission she had been awaiting arrived, "Incoming message. Source unknown."

"Put it through." Melset closed the door to her office, activated the lock.

"Diyala here."

Dejar! Melset was astonished that there still were ways of getting a message through, that the operative had survived.

"Gul Melset. Duty to Cardassia supersedesall! If you encounter problems leaving, remember this," Dejar's voice was uneven, hinted at despair.

She quickly memorized the code. "Understood. Success, my sister-in-arms." A burst of static ended the contact. Duty to Cardassia supersedes all. She did not have to remind me. Commander Chandler has repeatedly promised me help when I need it. Now I will see whether his offer was honestly meant.

Better speak to Dr. Sarnoh first as I have duties to complete. Quickly, she walked over to the medical area.

"You wish to consult me?"

"Yes, Dr. Sarnoh. I require assistance. Circumstances are making it difficult for me to fulfil my duties adequately." She looked away, ashamed of the admission.

The Vulcan considered her for some moments, "The appropriate … treatment was sent by one of your agencies when you arrived."

Dr. Sarnoh opened a separate cabinet and returned with a hypospray. "This will block responses to traumata for roughly a day. Yet, at some point a reaction, shameful as you and I think it is, may be advantageous; I have been observing and analysing interactions here carefully, as have you."

Melset inclined her head. "I'll remember your advice."

For the rest of the day, an endless stream of messages and notifications arrived, followed by meetings with the other departments to prepare for new developments after the armistice as well as to plan reconstruction programmes. Melset knew the others were observing her, but no one mentioned the situation on Cardassia in her presence.

The masses of details to be considered left her no time to think. One of her human contacts, Delios, gave her a report and quickly said, "Andrews and I are sorry about the news, we didn't know, only were informed this morning," then left. Sorry about what? Only one of Humans' phrases.

Hours later, at the end of her shift, everything was completed. May as well get some rest before continuing… In the corridor two new security staff went by, commented, "Just look at that cold-blooded Cardi female! When the reports came in, no reaction at all, she only sang that infernal fanatic's anthem. … Hope that devastation teaches those brutes a lesson; sure hasn't taught this one anything."

She walked on as though she had heard nothing. Without that medication…..

A shout startled her, "Roberts and Sanders, stay right where you are. You're on report! I heard you – your comments are unacceptable!" The order was peremptory, angry. "They are unworthy of Starfleet, the institution you represent. The Commander will hear of this. You sure didn't have the guts to mouth off in the auditorium, before witnesses, but you see that one lone Cardi and yap…"

Curious about how the confrontation would end, Melset stopped, turned away to stare out of a window, pretending to watch something or another.

"You all right?" When someone addressed her she looked up, suspicious.

For a moment Hinricks hesitated. "Gul Melset, I'm sorry about what just happened. I swear those two officers will be flamed. They won't forget the Chief's reprimand or Chandler's so quickly." Turning around, he called, "Lt. Johnson, accompany her to her offices."

"Will do, Lt Hinricks."

Johnson saw Melset try to leave unnoticed, but quickly fell into step beside her. "Lousy way to treat someone after, has it been six years?"

"Ask the Chief of Security to consider that those two men normally are respectful. The Federation has incurred inestimable losses because of Gul Dukat's alliance with the Dominion. As the only accessible Cardassian, I am at the receiving end of the resentment." After some moments, she added, "He has destroyed everything, for all of us, even the beginnings of reconciliation with the Federation."

How can she stay so calm, even consider those two officers in spite of what they said? Cardi training is reputed to be among the harshest, but they must have a limit. "Whatever. This was unacceptable."

With that they arrived at her department and went into her office. Johnson waved away her staff.

"Is there someone you trust? I've seen combat against your lot, know you prefer to deal with things on your own, but the situation as is may be too much, no disrespect meant."

"Two of the Bajoran staff, and my bodyguard. Thank you Lt Johnson."

"It's all right. I'll see what I can do," was the reply as he left.

Melset quickly readjusted the listening devices she had installed so that the conversation could be neither transmitted nor recorded.

Some minutes later Inyon came into her office. "I have the time to stay with you. Vedek Yarim will follow later."

She looked up at the Bajoran. "Your kindness is valued, as is your willingness to associate with me, a Cardassian, after Dukat fought against your Emissary."

Inyon answered, "We live according to the rules of the Prophets; although atrocities were committed you were not involved in them. Now the time for forgiveness has come: resentment has no place when faced by need, even if an enemy is concerned."

Melset opted for honesty. "After the defeat of the Cardassian Union, the devastation of our worlds, I have to return home, was contacted some hours ago by an associate. According to our code of conduct, my duty to the Union has taken priority over my duties at SFCCEI."

You are in shock, blocking all feelings. He remembered Cardassian stoicism, realized what it was costing her.

N'Kreth came just as she ended her sentence. "I have heard talk.…"

Inyon interrupted N'Kreth. "I trust you", he quickly looked around, "…to keep what I'm telling her to yourselves. Melset, your people will not have to cope with this alone, nor will the others. The Federation plans to establish a branch of SFHS on Deep Space 9 as our world has escaped undamaged, thanks to the Emissary and the Prophets."

Yarim entered, heard Inyon, "Many worlds will need assistance in reconstruction as well as humanitarian aid. Personnel to organize relief efforts is being recruited; you should have no problems cooperating with representatives of other peoples."

"They would put me in charge of a branch of SFHS? A damn Cardássian butcher?"

He ignored her words. "Why not? Your militaries possess the skills needed for this."

"Vedek Yarim, do you really think the Federation will help us rebuild our worlds, lives and culture? Haven't you heard the comments?" Her voice rose in open pain, "'The Cardis are finally getting a taste of their own atrocities!' That is what is being said. 'Leave the Cardis to rot!' or 'Distribute their systems among neighbouring unions,' No one will listen! Scenes of our devastated cities, our dead, are constantly shown!"

"That is the truth of the matter," said N'Kreth. "When I was in the corridor with Kathok and Sha'Kor, I heard some comments. When we confronted the speakers, those p'tak showed cowardice, attacking one single person, but running like targh when challenged by more."

"Look at what has happened, the lives that have been lost… and the hatred that still existed, but disguised, only to reappear after this war."

There was no reply.

"Rebuild, work towards a stable peace, renew efforts to improve relations," Yarim said.

"We can only hope that peace will not be disrupted again. The price of the past conflict is inestimably great."

They still remained together, in silence.

"Melset, we have to return to our departments," Inyon said, "A basis for reconciliation is what must be found now. Will you be all right?"

""Yes. I only needed these few minutes and the information you just gave me. Vedek Yarim, Inyon and N'Kreth, thank you for your presence. I must also continue work, then speak with Commander Chandler as soon as possible."

Once alone, Melset chose an encoded message to process before contacting Chandler's office. "Ms. Arnolds, I would like to make an appointment with Commander Chandler."

She heard a brief discussion in the background, then Ms Arnolds was back, "You can come immediately."

Taking out an optolithic data rod, she gazed at it for some moments, then left. May as well make use of the fact Dr. Sarnoh's dose of LMAA has worn off.

The Commander was already waiting, briefly met the Cardassian's glance. Have to handle this very cautiously – she seems unmoved, but is barely holding on. "Come in, Gul Melset. I'm in no hurry, we can take our time."

"Thank you, Commander."

Once they had entered and sat down at a table, Melset handed him the data rod. "This will explain my request." "I have chosen the abbreviated version; our laws are phrased as convolutedly as yours. If you click on the end, you can also see the original."

He inserted it into the reading device.

According to Cardassian mores, if Cardassia has been struck by catastrophe, all its citizens, civilians living offworld, officers, employees, are duty-bound to return to assist in reconstruction. The same applies to political refugees. For those guilty of crimes, amnesty becomes effective upon their return to do their part as sons and daughters of the Union. Duty to Cardassia supersedes all other considerations.

After reading it, he remained silent. When she finally spoke, the phrasing was not what he had expected, a simple reminder of the promise he had made.

"Commander Chandler, you repeatedly offered: 'If you need help of any kind, tell me, and I'll do what I can, as long as it isn't against our laws.'" She rose, held out her hands in a gesture of supplication, inclined her head, "Commander, It is now that I desperately need your help and plead with you: Let me return home. I have to return to Cardassia, have been notified, recalled: Duty to Cardassia supersedes all…"

"Gul Melset, you received a message from an undisclosed source just a day ago."

"Yes, from a comrade. After the defeat, this message was sent to each and every Cardassian off-world: You can contact her via this code." She began inputting it.

"No, keep your source confidential; but contact her with the information I have for you. Come, sit down; there are positive developments."

"The organizers on Cardassia as well as those on other worlds are preparing requirement lists for the branch of Starfleet Humanitarian Services to be opened on Deep Space 9. The contract was signed by the Bajoran Council of Ministers two days ago. Many worlds require assistance so supply lines must be shortened. Their inhabitants may tend to suspicion and xenophobia, thus individuals representing their populations will be stationed there, among them your present staff. Duties? Processing requirement lists, organizing distribution of aid, logistics, initiating reconstruction. A commission is screening volunteers who are contacting SFHS."

Melset listened, remained wary, suspicious, expecting a ruse.

"After contacting the departments of SFCCEI I've shortlisted you. Your profile and our observations show your ability to cooperate with other races; as a member of Central Command, you are highly experienced in developing and streamlining organizational processes. You, Myssiro and Andrews will head SFHS together as your people usually work in groups of three. I trust this arrangement is acceptable? You can hire further staff, perhaps a Cardassian or two, as the workload will be considerable." He briefly smiled at seeing her disbelief.

Taken unawares, Melset stared at Chandler, having expected her request for repatriation to be refused. Instead, he had anticipated it, giving her a position at SFHS to work for Cardassia and other worlds; plans were going forward even as Chandler spoke. This, recent events and incidents, the situation on her home worlds… The apprehension and stress of over two years suddenly lifted; fighting for composure, she briefly turned away.

"At your arrival on Deep Space 9, the branch of SFHS will be up and running, all programmes compatible with Cardassian and Federation norms. Your first month? Travelling on Cardassia Prime, assembling and completing requirement lists to process them upon returning. Staff are assigned quarters on the same level of the habitat ring, get the wages you had here."

"Commander, this is unexpected. My reaction ….." she could not continue.

"…such as it was, is forgotten…. Serial traumatic events, severe emotional stress: Legate Damar's death, near-genocide of your people and more. In my opinion far too much to take, even for a Cardassian military."

He rose and Melset followed suit, "I take it you accept. The contract, a copy of which you will get this afternoon, will be signed in two days, in Starfleet Headquarters." At seeing her distrust, Chandler added, "Such procedures are always effected at Headquarters. Ah, yes, the records of your service here are already registered on your padd; they may come in useful. "

The other staff, fifteen people with four assigned to the Cardassian section, will begin work at SFHS in six weeks. Two weeks from now you will leave for Deep Space 9. After three days' orientation, departure for Cardassia. Transit has been organised: info is on the padd, contact established with the Commander of Deep Space 9 as well as with the chief coordinator in Loo'Wess who will be on-site when you arrive."

One of the surviving militaries or Order operatives! Melset thought with anticipation. A start has been made, information ready and waiting as well as a contact who will link me up with former comrades.

"Transferral of the team which will establish the branch of SFHS on Deep Space 9 is scheduled for a week from now, your personal schedule on Cardassia will dovetail perfectly with our own." He saluted her, saying in Cardassian, "Do you accept this mission, Gul Melset?"

Her answer was a Starfleet-style salute as she replied in Standard, "Yes. I shall fulfil my duty to the best of my abilities."

All that remains for me to do is to activate my devices' self-destruct sequence. Mr Sterlin can keep those in my quarters. Perhaps, in some years, the Cardassian Department will be reactivated.

In spite of knowing the extent of destruction and attendant difficulties she would be facing on her homeworlds in less than three weeks, she was prepared to serve Cardassia together with fellow Cardassians, all with the same goal in mind.

Two days later, Melset activated the self-destruct sequence of the surveillance devices she had installed and waited what the results of the series of small detonations would be. The resulting upheaval throughout the building was satisfying, as was the explanation finally agreed on and accepted by all personnel: Obviously, it must have been the work of one of the Changelings that allegedly had been on Earth and had unsuccessfully attempted to destabilize Starfleet installations…. The residue left behind? Its origin could not be determined. Her suggestion it was the remains of an electrocuted Changeling found no acceptance.

When the time had come for departure, she left exactly the way she would have left any Cardassian posting to take up duties at a new one; took her two duffel bags the day after Commander Chandler had returned the padd with her personnel file and confirmation of her new posting, then beamed up to the Starship that was headed for Deep Space 9.