DUTY TO CARDASSIA SUPERCEDES ALL – PART 2

Seven months after the end of the Dominion-Federation conflict, the organizers realized their network of 150 members was by far not extensive enough to address the challenges that they were facing on Cardassia, so that anyone with the required skills was requested to join their team for at least a few weeks or even permanently. On Deep Space 9, the branch of SFHS was functioning at full capacity, providing logistic and humanitarian support for most of the planets in the sector. However it, too, was severely understaffed in spite of fifteen full-timers; Starfleet had lost so much personnel in the Dominion war that its institutions were in nearly the same situation.

When Melset came in after an hour of downtime, Myssiro was already waiting for her. "Gul Melset, urgent message for you, Loo'Wess area, Natíma Lang requests you contact her immediately."

"Put me through." She quickly smoothed back her hair which never stayed sleek for any length of time in the relatively dry air of the station.

Within moments, the screen cleared, showing Professor Lang. She looked exhausted Things are extremely difficult for all of us, will possibly remain thus for years; so much to be effected, so few who can be called away from the basic tasks of clearing away ruins, seeing to repartition of aidWe would need at least triple the current number of organizers to maintain the network required in our central system and the outlying ones. Melset suppressed her frustration. How to cope after losing nearly a third of our population, if not far more? Even top priority projects cannot be accorded the necessary staff; nor is the Federation any better off in spite of not having sustained such massive destruction or loss of civilian populations on its own worlds.

Natíma's words pulled her out of her thoughts. "I'll make this brief, Gul Melset. We are extremely short-handed. Most of the population is still clearing away the ruins, seeing to distribution of aid. Up to 40 of us are constantly underway to inspect projects in areas where damage is not quite so severe. On the plus side, Federation and Cardassian technicians have made provisional repairs to a dam in Saranji Province, thus ensuring a reliable supply of energy and water for the citizens preparing to reclaim that area of the province.

The repatriates have donated the funds they earned or were given off-world or brought goods, but even the largest donations hardly make a difference, considering the conditions. The Federation made good on its offer of technological support a little over four months ago by setting up computer annexes equipped with programmes to streamline registration of evacuees and match their skills to requirements in relocation projects. As a result, they can use their abilities for the benefit of all instead of improvising or taking over tasks not within their area of expertise." She waited for a few seconds before inquiring. "Is there any chance you can be released from your duties on Terok Nor for another period of roughly four C-standard weeks?

"I will contact my supervisor. Provided he agrees, either you or your secretary will be notified within three days at most. Melset out." Short-handed here, too. Double and triple shifts…. The Cardassian briefly leaned back in her chair, looking out the viewport. I would far rather be on Cardassia, in spite of conditions. Annoyed at herself, she shook off the thought. Nostalgia is a waste of time; the sights and experiences I miss so much no longer exist, except in my memories.

May as well get this over with… She went to the Security Chief's office where she asked, "Chief Remosi, I need to speak with Colonel Kira as soon as possible. Do you or a deputy have the time to escort me to OPS?"

Getting up at once, Chief Remosi answered, "I can make the time, Gul Melset." While they went to the Operations Area, he repeatedly glanced at her. He despised Cardassians, but this one adhered to all station regulations and, this was the most important aspect for him, treated his people with respect, showed interest in their way of life.

"Commander Kira, Gul Melset wishes to speak to you." With a salute, Remosi stepped aside to let Melset enter the office, then left.

"Commander Kira." Melset saluted her.

Kira pushed aside her instinctive feeling of aversion at seeing the Cardassian. I do wonder why she, a Cardassian military, was posted on Earth, at SFCCEI, and is now here instead of where she belongs … "What can I do for you?"

"Commander, is it possible to establish contact with Commander Chandler at SFCCEI? It is an urgent matter. Professor Lang has inquired whether I can have leave for a month to assist in organizing a relocation office in the Loo'Wess area."

Kira nodded, "I will establish contact, then reroute it to your office. Your shift ends…."

"A triple shift has become necessary today …. on duty for another eight hours," was the reply. "…followed by six hours of downtime; you can contact me at any time; I am returning to my office at once so that there will be no problems reaching me."

The same routine for the past fifteen weeks! Kira gave her a brief, evaluating glance. "I will keep it in mind."

A day later, contact was effected. "Commander Chandler here. Commander Kira said you request authorization for a four-week stay on Cardassia to set up a relocation programme."

"Yes, Commander. The Federation has sent us computers and annexes with programmes for registration and skills matches. However, it is extremely difficult to find enough staff for implementation as the situation is still critical at best; clearing away ruins, effecting repairs where possible, resettling relatively undamaged areas…. Professor Lang inquired whether I could be freed to assist in the work in spite of SFHS' own need for further personnel."

"The matter of additional personnel for SFHS has already been resolved. Organizer Garak sent a request some days ago, as did Commander Kira." He saw her eyes widen slightly in what he remembered was a sign of tension. "Your request is granted; you can go to Cardassia at any time in connection with your duties; the year originally stipulated has been extended to 18 months as such details are part of SFHS' tasks. I have more good news: SFHS' offices on Deep Space 9 have been accorded five additional personnel. Mr Delios has selected three civilians you still remember from your time at SFCCEI; the other two? Choose them during your stay on Cardassia Prime. It is obvious that the workload has increased to such an extent that fifteen people are not enough to keep everything running smoothly. Further staff may become necessary in future, but next time, Gul Melset," he looked at her from the screen, "demand, don't wait to be accorded additional staff or try to tough it out. One last detail: address requests to me directly."

"Commander Chandler, this is generous, both the authorization and the personnel." Melset smiled with pleasure. "You have our gratitude."

He smiled in turn, recognizing she was sincere. "For the first, I accept your thanks, for the other, address both the station commander and the medical officer. Be strong. Commander Chandler out."

At that moment Andrews came in. "Gul Melset? Do you have a moment? We have just been notified that three new personnel are on their way, a mixed group: one Bajoran, Selon, two Humans, Mr Gardner and Mr Landon. I have seen to reserving their quarters and those for the two employees you are to select."

"Andrews, please explain why we have been accorded new personnel so quickly and generously, and without my involvement?" She met his eyes.

He looked slightly uncomfortable before telling her, but knew she would inevitably find out sooner or later. "About two weeks ago, Commander Kira had a data padd with information for SFHS and found you asleep at your annex. You did not react, neither when she addressed, nor when she touched you. She promptly went to Dr. Bashir. It seems the two of them had a rather energetic discussion with the organizers of SFHS - Earth." He shrugged, "Look, we knew you were having a break, but Kira didn't. The misunderstanding is worth it: the new personnel will reduce all our workloads so that response times to unforeseen events will be shorter. We are seeing to deliveries and assistance for an entire sector."

Recognizing the validity of Andrews' argument, she said, "Indeed. All of you have been doing far more than stated in your contract: I have seen to notifying the centre about each extra shift."

"As we have about yours …." Before leaving, he added, "I have already arranged passage for you. The Gettysburg will dock at the station in two days."

As soon as he had left, Melset contacted Natíma's office to inform her secretary. "My ETA is in about five days. Captain Gerald, the commander of the Gettysburg, has agreed to give me passage; representatives of Federation relief agencies and private initiatives are on board, travelling to Loo'Wess to deliver goods for various areas. Relevant details can be discussed during transit as most personnel are uninformed about our responses and what to avoid."

Medavrik consulted his terminal for information. "The organisers will be notified. I'll see to reserving quarters for you, Gul Melset. Medavrik out."

Back in her quarters, Melset quickly packed. A clause had been added to her contract, allowing her to return to Cardassia as often as needed within the first eighteen months to assist in setting up relocation centres, streamlining registration of families and individuals prior to assigning openings in the provinces as well as evaluating progress reports. Evidently Garak's report had been very graphic; she well remembered his way with words.

However, the Commander himself had most likely recognized from reports that the greatest problem at present was the number of evacuees and homeless arriving in Loo'Wess and other population centres from outlying areas, straining resources in camps throughout the system. Most of the survivors had already reported to the offices in these centres so that only newcomers and repatriates had to be registered.

In the meantime each of the former population centres had up to six resettlement camps, the same needs and problems … Melset wearily leaned against the bulkhead; the sheer immensity of the task facing her people was daunting, success by no means guaranteed in spite of everyone's determination to do his utmost.

For the organizers it was humiliating that the computers and annexes at their disposal were donations from the Federation, given in exchange for permission to establish an allegedly temporary base for repartition of aid; this institution was connected with a science centre which, it was said, was to assist Cardassia in re-creating an information centre specialized in industry and mining operations; the data assembled would determine reactivation of productive mines.

Both the members of the provisional government and the organizers resented having had to cede to this request; they suspected a refusal would have alienated the Federation which, and such would have been their own reaction, might have suspended the much-needed its assistance it was giving.

A favour for a favour was the Cardassian way, but the favour demanded of Cardassia was immeasurably greater than what the Federation was according their people.

Conditions and Concerns

At arriving on Cardassia Prime, Melset beamed down and was met by Ferad Dimos, Garak's assistant, with whom she had repeatedly spoken via subspace.

"Organizer Garak is supervising reactivation of a hydroelectric dam in Saranji Province; I am to tell you that he will come to Loo'Wess I as soon as he can. Medavrik has reserved your quarters there."

She inclined her head in acknowledgement. "So, Loo'Wess I it is."

The small shuttle they used was of Federation provenance... Ruins, cleared areas, piles of rubble, camps … words were unnecessary. Melset avoided looking at Dimos while commenting, "It would seem we are being granted more assistance than expected."

"This…" he indicated the runabout, "is on loan. We have repaired a number of our remaining suborbital ones in the past weeks; soon organizers and others who have functions requiring frequent trips will be assigned them. Perhaps," he said, not quite managing to disguise his frustration, "… we can become independent of some minor elements within a few more months." Dimos inquired in turn, "And the situation on Terok Nor?"

"Not too bad, all considered. The staff mainly consists of people with whom I interacted on Earth. The branch of SFHS on Terok Nor sees to deliveries to affected planets in this sector, with priority given Federation and non-aligned planets. This has become very obvious to all of us; remember, each delivery within this sector goes through our hands as files …."

"At times we hear remarks from some off-worlders when they think we are out of earshot," said Dimos. "While resentment is understandable, as Gul Dukat aligned himself with the Dominion, it is the civilian population which is suffering from the aftermath of Dominion retaliation. Adults and children on the brink of starvation, crowded together in those camps, the risk of epidemics, emotional problems due to inactivity … For the most part the Bajorans are kindest. I saw one give his rations to a woman and her children saying, when he saw her hesitate to take them, that accepting what he was offering was no humiliation as she was helping him by accepting it."

"His people maintain that helping those in need is a sacred duty," Melset explained, "All of us are children of the Prophets, according to one of the Vedeks to whom I have spoken."

Dimos' expression was mocking. "Still clinging to their superstitions even though we tried to bring them enlightenment and knowledge. Very useful in this case."

A little later, he added pensively, "I personally do not know many Order operatives, and but few militaries, but just some days ago, I worked side by side with a Legate to uncover a pipe at a water purification plant that was to be tested."

"The time for privileges is past, Dimos. All of us have to do whatever is necessary for reconstruction, regardless of former status." Melset lowered her voice, "My main concern is the danger that extremist groups that formed after withdrawal from Bajor and the inception of the Cardassian-Bajoran peace treaty may use this time of chaos and uncertainty to regroup and recreate their structures. Such a development would risk dividing our people into factions, provoking the Federation to withdraw assistance. We would survive even that, but the consequences? Catastrophic, with civil war a distinct possibility; we cannot afford even more deaths and destruction." She turned to him, made eye contact. "If you know people you can trust unconditionally, enlist them to watch for and circumvent any such developments. The Organizers have their contacts; what we need is a network of reliable informants to eliminate this danger. However, do not speak openly of this to anyone you do not trust implicitly. And: justice must be swift and, above all, final."

Dimos' answer was prompt. "I shall see to precautions. Many of my friends and family have the same reservations. We can count on them."

With that, they arrived; after skirting an area of ruins that were being removed and guiding the runabout to a landing, he preceded her to the village of containers that was to become Loo'Wess I. "Our guest quarters and administration."

Melset considered the prefabricated containers erected in a large cleared area, surrounded by masses of rubble, remembering the immense city that had spread to the horizon, its architecture reflecting Cardassia's collective striving for power. It had been dominated by Central Command's and Detapa's buildings, the squat headquarters of the Order nearby. To return after a mission, see Loo'Wess again, had always been an experience that made all sacrifices and losses worthwhile.

Dimos gave her the code then said, "Here is a map of the centre's layout, Gul Melset; I wanted the honour of giving you a personal tour, but have been directed to return to my posting immediately: guarding a depot for humanitarian aid about ten kilometres from here."

"I thank you for meeting me, it was very kind of you. Succeed, Ferad Dimos." Melset watched him return to the shuttle. Garak has a fine assistant: dutiful, circumspect, with the correct instincts …

Left to herself, she stood in the middle of the small room for some moments. He had a high position in administration; all of us are doing what has to be done, no one balks at being assigned work formerly done by lower ranks or simple workers.

After settling in, Melset pushed aside her recurrent fear that their culture and way of life would disappear, Cardassia end up a nondescript, third-rate power open to outside influence, an Empire in name alone. Yet, considering how little time had passed since the Defeat, the situation was improving visibly: Quarters for administrators and organizers as well as offices were no longer in domes, but in a complex of containers, simple but far more serviceable than the domes had been. An extensive hospital complex was also housed in containers, greatly improving the situation. Many of the incapacitated were receiving regenerative therapy on bases throughout the sector which was earning the Federation the sincere gratitude of many Cardassians because those who returned were able to join the common effort.

At recalling the domes, Melset felt uneasy about the quarters she was assigned, which were far better than those the majority of survivors had and would have for months if not years to come. Military principle was that, in battle, all ranks shared the same conditions, the same dangers and risks; in essence, the remaining population were fellow combatants, everyone fighting for the survival of Cardassia in his or her own way. According to their culture's norms, civilian families were given priority. In return, they took in individuals until housing became available for them as well; in times of great need, Cardassian solidarity was invaluable, had often helped their people survive catastrophic events in the past.

Have to contact Natíma or Gul Madred. She went to the central module of the complex. It did not take long to reach Madred's office.

The communit was on audio only.

"Gul Madred? This is Gul Melset. I have just arrived from Terok Nor and have a supplementary programme for resettlement procedures."

After a few seconds the screen cleared. Gul Madred gazed at her impassively.

"Ah, yes. Natíma mentioned it." He looked to the side before continuing in a very low voice, "I assume you will wish to see what has been effected on-world in this area. Some new institutions and installations have been established." He briefly consulted with someone in the room. "In two hours. My assistant will take over the rest of my shift."

"Agreed. In the meantime I can set up the programme, determine parameters. Melset out." Anxious not to waste one moment she went to the central computer to begin uploading the programme; two technicians entered and, as of common accord, the three of them began installing necessary subroutines.

The former Order liaison came into the office just as she was testing a supplementary programme given her by Andrews. Absorbed in the work as she was, Melset looked at him in surprise before inclining her head in greeting. "Gul Madred, it is good to meet you."

"Gul Melset. I am pleased that you have been given leave to spend the next four weeks here. We did not know whether the request would be granted."

Madred was smiling, something he rarely did; usually he kept apart except for cooperating with his peers. He had spent his childhood on the streets after being orphaned at the age of five, then been educated, recruited and subsequently furthered by the military. Sheer determination combined with high intelligence and ambition had seen him make his way out of the rank and file to attain a prestigious position as Gul and Order liaison.

He got a smile from Melset in response; she respected Gul Madred both as a person and for his patriotism, never hesitating to serve Cardassia, no matter what the circumstances. At the beginning of her career, the older officer had readily made the time to advise her.

"Had Commander Chandler refused, it would have been because we have too few personnel at SFHS on Terok Nor. During my time on Earth we did not see eye to eye on some issues, but he was as tolerant and as helpful as a Federation officer could be, considering past Cardassian-Federation relationships. Even now, his support is invaluable." Melset indicated the annex she was using. "We have been given a supplementary program to facilitate various procedures; it is for all of the centres." She addressed the technicians. "Just a moment, Ortan and Pyras." She took over the annex, saying, "You are welcome to observe as this programme will be standard after its transferral to the other annexes."

The technicians moved aside when Madred came over to see a demonstration of the various options which he considered with approval. "Before, we would never have needed or accepted anything from off-world." There was no reply. All present felt the same.

An hour later, the two organizers went out together after initiating transferral to other annexes which would now proceed independently under Ortan's and Pyras' supervision.

An Unwelcome Presence

While walking across an extensive area cleared of ruins, Madred indicated a small cluster of buildings. "Look, Gul Melset." His voice was uncharacteristically soft.

It was noon and a number of children were leaving containers on their way to a nearby canteen, speaking animatedly, looking at each others' padds. This familiar sight made the two adults smile as it gave the surroundings a hint of normalcy. Melset looked over at Madred who no doubt was reminded of his own child; both she and her mother had been found, were now in a relocation center until Madred secured housing.

"Educational facilities have been opened; SFHS agreed that our children need familiar structures to help them overcome trauma in our own way, so this was given priority. The instructors are Cardassians, so there is no risk of their being indoctrinated with alien values and concepts." With a barely perceptible shrug, he added, "These containers are donations from Betazed."

Moments later, Madred took out a padd, touched various surfaces, then gave it to Melset, "This may interest you: What we have recuperated from Order headquarters so far is in storage, heavily guarded, of course. Once all civilians have been housed, the ruins demolished, the Order's new building will be erected on the foundations of the old. This first nucleus of containers is the beginning of Loo'Wess I, the future administrative centre." He gestured at an area of roughly four square kilometres displayed on a map on the padd. "Nine other satellite towns of the same size or larger will be built in the following areas." The display showed three concentric circles, with Loo'Wess I forming the hub. "And here is the Federation base," he indicated a blue square.

When he activated the glider he had been assigned, Melset commented, still looking curiously at the map, "I am surprised about the amount of progress made; we do work efficiently, but so much accomplished in so short a time? In a little over seven months?" There is more to that, and I fear I know just what….

"The sites of those future towns are nearly ready for housing units, a limited number as yet, of course." With a barely audible sound of displeasure, Madred continued, "You may not like what I'm telling you: this has only been effected because of an agreement. Perhaps Dimos informed you during your last stay that we permitted the Federation to establish a centre for repartition of their own in connection with a science base which is in constant, direct contact with Starfleet's central database." Madred's expression was grim and the way he pronounced the words made his guest look at him searchingly. "You might want to see into what that has developed since its inception four months ago."

Strangely hesitant, with a feeling of dread, Melset whispered, "No doubt each incoming ship from no matter which Federation world is scanning our systems, each single planet with impunity, transmitting the information directly to that centre and from there …." She did not continue, meeting his eyes, her own expressionless. Madred, tell me this is not the case. The hope was not realized.

"Those involved neither conceal nor deny what is being done. The Federation has finally realized its goal of obtaining comprehensive data about each of our worlds. All details as to cities, colonies, resources which we had kept confidential since our first contact with the UFP are most likely being discussed by that Union's officials as potentially useful strategic factors in case of future conflicts, or as the means to force us to comply with future demands." Madred sounded demoralized.

Her worst fears had materialized; Melset inclined her head very slightly. "It was inevitable, Gul Madred. This development began after the Klingon invasion when our outer systems were attacked and so devastated we had no choice but to ask the Federation for assistance." With a bitter laugh, she added, "Perhaps, if we protest, the UFP may decide to rearrange the rubble; the outcome of Dominion retaliation is so dire we have no other option but to accept the situation."

"No, there would be no attack." He did not recognize her resigned humour. "During the negotiations their officials stated they want to help us. After all, we, both the civilian population and the Cardassian military, were the decisive factors that helped defeat the Dominion after the destruction of Locarian City revealed Dominion ethics." With that, he fell silent for a few seconds before adding. "There is help from SFHS, but only enough to avoid being accused of not giving us the assistance promised. So far, private initiatives and the Bajorans have been the most active. A Vulcan company has been repairing our beacons which, fortunately, were not destroyed. Retaliation was aimed at our people alone. The idea was to leave them intact to transmit their warning against entering our territory until they broke down, their message testimony to the futility of resisting the Dominion."

Melset recognized Madred felt as overcome with hopelessness as she did. Cardassia was now defenceless, its worlds accessible to all comers, be they peaceful or aggressive. Everyone was well aware that most, if not all of their outer, resource-rich systems could have been annexed but for the generosity of the Federation. It was a generosity, which, while the Cardassian people knew it was preserving them from impoverishment with all its consequences, made for resentment at owing their Empire's integrity to a former enemy's mercy and good will, at becoming an object of compassion or derision, all depending on the attitude of the personnel in question.

"What do you think, Gul Melset?" He waited for a reply and when none came, said, "Had the decision been mine to make, I would never have agreed to those terms as stated in the contract. That decision was made due to sheer despair; we can only hope this contract will not prove detrimental to our security in future."

Even more worried after hearing his evaluation, Melset glanced at her fellow officer. Madred's features were hard, his lips a tight line, reflected concern and outrage. "Certainly we could expect nothing as innocuous as help in housing and supporting displaced people. Everyone knows that when the Federation moves in, so does Starfleet," The sibilant undertone of her voice became pronounced. "That is the Federation's Order of Things. I can imagine what is happening in Starfleet Headquarters even as we speak, Gul Madred."

After a few more kilometres, they arrived at a large complex. The area that had been cleared seemed far more extensive than it had on the map. Melset choked back a call of anger. Federation guards on Cardassia Prime, in Loo'Wess, protecting their administration's buildings? The idea was perturbing, inconceivable; according to custom, Cardassian troops, or a combination of both Federation and Cardassian personnel should have been pushing guard duty. No Cardassian security forces anywhere within the perimeter! The few civilians were vastly outnumbered by Federation personnel in the uniforms of Sciences or Engineering, making the base appear even more ominous, a malignancy that was threatening to spread …

As soon as the officers reached the gate, an armed guard addressed them. "State your purpose and show your identification chips." His tone was peremptory but not contemptuous. That at least was positive.

"I am Gul Madred, one of the organizers in the Loo'Wess sector of Cardassia Prime, and this is Gul Melset, employed at SFHS on Terok Nor. We want to inquire whether the commander of this base is willing to grant us the privilege of a tour of this installation."

The two presented their identity chips for verification before they placed their right hand on a scanner. The guard returned their chips.

"For what purpose?"

"It would be interesting to see the work currently being effected on Cardassia Prime. Which, incidentally, remains our planet." Madred said the words evenly, meeting the officer's eyes. "We have been given no details so far, although this was one of the terms of the agreement."

For a moment, the guard considered the two Cardassians facing him, considering him in turn, their expression neutral. Both the tall, heavy-set uniformed male and the smaller, slender female wearing basic uniform and regulation hairstyle were members of Central Command, but now worked as organizers. Doing everything within their means to help their people. Every waking moment spent trying to rebuild, reorganize, make their cities, culture and lives whole again. You have to admire Cardassian tenacity. He felt grudging respect, recognized that there were some elements their otherwise so very disparate peoples had in common: love of home, family and world, the will to preserve them at all costs.

He gestured at them, saying in a less peremptory tone of voice, "Please wait here a few seconds. I'll see what I can do." He went into his office, spoke into a communit, then came out moments later. "Guls Madred and Melset, everything is arranged. In fact, here is Lt. Lewis already." He indicated a human officer who was on his way over. "He will show you around. Commander Kharek, the commander of this base, is expecting you. You can speak to him of your concerns afterwards."

Startled, the two Guls exchanged glances. Are our offices and communications being monitored? How else could Commander Kharek have known we were on our way? If this is indeed the case, we no longer have any possibility whatsoever of seeing to procedures without surveillance! The situation apparently was far worse than expected.

"You are most considerate. Although I am stationed on Terok Nor, employed by SFHS," Melset feigned embarrassment, "Oh! I apologise! Deep Space 9!, I was not informed that this base had been established, only heard about it recently."

In the meantime, the lieutenant had joined the group, saluted the Cardassians and, after a whispered conversation with the guard, explained before they began the tour. "Starfleet and SFHS thought it more effective to have a provisional science base on-world to coordinate assistance with the organizers in Loo'Wess and the other provinces; a further aim is locating sources of raw materials throughout the Cardassian Union, help reopen mines, repair equipment, re-establish refineries, get factories up and running again, in brief, create an industrial basis for reconstruction and economic development. Effecting this in SFHS on Deep Space 9 would overstretch capacities. Staff already have their hands full seeing to repartition of aid. Assistance for this entire sector is being organized in that one branch."

Melset felt a chill run down her back even though Madred had already informed her about the situation. To hear this in Federation Standard, mentioned as though it was of no consequence, was disquieting, even frightening. Our worlds, all our worlds have been scanned. Everything is known, our most carefully-guarded secrets, our remaining resources, our population, everything!

Noticing her slight reaction, Madred unobtrusively touched her hand when he asked, "What will be done with the information after implementation of your plans?"

"It will be registered in SFHS' central database then transferred to your centres on-world for your use." Lt. Lewis' seemed surprised at both the suspicion and the hint of distress in the woman's eyes.

"Secure from unauthorized, potentially aggressive use, I presume?" Madred's question came like a shot, harsh, resentful.

The officer replied in a conciliatory tone, not responding to Madred's barely-veiled outrage. "Your concern is noted, Gul Madred. These reservations were also voiced by other representatives of the provisional Cardassian government. You have our assurance that this information is classified, thus inaccessible to unauthorized personnel."

Melset asked, "For whose use is it destined precisely? And who is 'authorized personnel'? I have been at SFHS for six months and have yet to see even one element of that data. My staff and I are involved in registration of goods, donations and repartition, planning and organizing future settlements in various provinces, in addition to effecting deliveries of goods to other worlds within this sector: We are entitled to this information which would markedly simplify implementation of projects even though, as you correctly state, we are inundated with work.…" Melset shrugged resignedly, "I make you no reproach, Lt. Lewis, especially as this is not within your area of competence. I fear the higher echelons of the Federation think Cardassians cannot be trusted, not even with the data on their own worlds lest it be misused." She looked away at pronouncing the well-known prejudice.

Lt. Lewis was taken aback by her statement which had been made in a calm, yet bitter intonation. "Gul Melset, if this is true, that oversight must be rectified at once. The information is destined for Cardassia Prime and SFHS' offices on Deep Space 9. Otherwise, please recognize that, at present, various aspects must be considered, no offence meant when I recount them: a few mines and ore-processing centres can be reactivated within one or two months. Our engineers are working at implementation together with Cardassian staff. Due to the catastrophic loss of manpower and machinery you can hardly see to the task without logistic support from a second party. Those involved in procedures are trying to speed up the process, so this most likely is an oversight."

His expression was open, honest as he gave his explanation; it was impossible for a member of the Federation to fully grasp what the situation meant for Cardassians. "Most of the mines in this system have been played out, in contrast to those in the outer zones. None of your colony worlds has been annexed. This is one term expressly stated in the treaty," he sought to reassure the two Cardassians who were staring at him, concealing their apprehensions. After all those centuries of secrecy, they feel helpless, exposed. If they get the assurance and, more importantly, the information, it will reassure them and further amicable relationships. "These are the facts as I know them; the terms of the treaty were transmitted by Starfleet; all members of Starfleet and the UFP are informed."

They were forced to accept the humiliating truth.

"I see that you still have reservations about procedure. You will get further information from my commanding officer. If you permit?" He activated his combadge. "This is Lt. Lewis. Commander Franklin, is Commander Kharek in his office? Two Cardassian Organizers are here, Guls Madred and Melset. ... No, no trouble whatsoever …. They have expressed concern about data registry, and as they are organizers, meeting the base commander should help clear up any doubts they may have. … Yes? Now? Thank you, Sir! Right away, Sir!"

Turning to them, he said, "Commander Kharek is in and will speak to you at once. Follow me. We can have the tour afterwards, if you wish. There will be time enough."

Together, they walked through a corridor from which a warren of laboratories, annexes and offices branched off. Curious, the Cardassians surreptitiously looked into each one, but suddenly Melset grasped Madred's hand.

He quickly glanced in the direction she indicated only to see a male Vorta at an annex. Exchanging glances with her, Madred stated in a low voice, "That is one question that will be answered to my satisfaction, or the provisional government will be informed. Under these circumstances it may be best to forego all aid from the Federation. No one can condone having critical information transmitted to the Dominion or other enemy alliances."

Their guide had noticed nothing, continued presenting an overview of various projects, giving them information that would have been encouraging had it not been for what they had just seen.

Minutes later, they were ushered into a large office and found themselves facing a Tellarite. Neither Melset nor Madred had ever seen a representative of this race before, but took the supervisor's slightly startling aspect in stride. Commander Kharek was tall, massively built, with thick, cream-coloured fur, a strange, snouted face, beady dark eyes, plump, short-fingered though dexterous hands; his alien features were inexpressive, but his body language indicated openness, willingness to discuss matters. After some moments, Melset decided he was trustworthy and indicated as much to her companion. Unfortunately, as he was not humanoid, the human gestures she often used to her advantage would not influence him.

Lieutenant Lewis addressed him, "Commander Kharek, may I introduce Guls Melset and Madred? They are Organizers responsible for repartition of assistance at SFHS on Deep Space 9…" he nodded at Melset "… and for reconstruction, relocation and security," indicating Gul Madred. "I am to give them a tour of the base, however, they have questions I have neither the authority nor the information to answer to their satisfaction."

"So you advanced the meeting rather than risk saying the wrong thing." Uttering a grunt of amusement, the Tellarite got up in the Federation gesture of respect, came around his desk, indicating a low table with chairs around it. "Please, sit down. We can speak more comfortably here, like the equals we are." He was trying to put the Cardassians at ease, showing with gestures what his features could not express.

"Lt Lewis, you may leave. I shall notify you when our guests are ready for the tour on which I shall accompany you up to the fourth unit."

Once alone, the three gazed at each other in silence, calmly, evaluating one another, neither wanting to be the first to speak.

Supervisor Kharek broke the silence. "How can I help you? You may have questions as this is the first time in your Empire's history that representatives of another Union are stationed on your world. No doubt this is profoundly disquieting."

It was Madred who took over when Melset inclined her head. Tellarites were a patriarchal society, so following their customs could be an advantage. "We wish to express our gratitude for the assistance we are being granted by the Federation and allied worlds in spite of past conflicts. Yet the methods involved in implementing the aid programme have raised some questions concerning the security of our Empire. ..." Gul Madred added, "more precisely, what is left of it. It has come to our attention that all of our worlds without exception have been scanned by Federation vessels, the data transmitted to this base, but shared neither with us nor with the branch of SFHS on Terok Nor where Gul Melset is currently stationed. You will understand that this arouses fears concerning our Empire's security now and in future." Madred tried to keep his voice even, friendly. "Now that we are defenceless, struggling to cope with the outcome of the Defeat, our strong distrust of non-Cardassians has increased."

Kharek nodded, "Your concern is noted and justified from your perspective. As Lt. Lewis may have informed you, this is a project to assemble data for the purpose of assisting you in rebuilding your health system, industrial base, as well as locate resources, reactivate respectively initiate mining operations, and restart industry partly with our assistance. We have no nefarious intentions." The words were accompanied by a gesture of spread hands, paws rather, denoting honesty of purpose. "To leave you to your fate would go against all principles of the UFP."

Her voice very low, Melset inquired, "No offence meant when I ask why we were not given this data as soon as it was complete? I assume you have had it for some time already. The Federation has given the provisional governments of our provinces computer annexes with enough capacity to store these files and the required programmes. Plans are currently being made to initiate construction of housing in less devastated provinces cleared for extensive resettlement. The data would be of inestimable value in streamlining these procedures. We also wish to transfer populations back to less-damaged outer systems as soon as feasible, lest these be lost to opportunistic groups."

"The information is classified so no unauthorized personnel can access it. Your security installations are as yet inadequate for the task." Commander Kharek was encountering Cardassian distrust for the first time; it irritated him until he recalled the suspicion his own people had had for non-Tellarites at first contact, leading to initial conflicts. "To address your misgivings about your outer systems, we have positioned supplementary beacons transmitting a warning that they are part of the Cardassian Empire."

"Hopefully that precaution will suffice. As to the files, no one among us would attempt to access them without due authorization." Madred stated, "At present, we have only one collective interest: to safeguard our worlds and resources, not to stand by, helpless, while non-Cardassians exploit them." The thought was disturbing; the two Guls quickly exchanged glances, recognized each other's apprehension.

With a slight hiss, Melset pounced, "Another question must be answered to our full satisfaction, Commander Kharek. May I inquire why there is a Vorta on base, working at an annex providing him with a direct link to Starfleet's information centre, when we are not given even limited access to your database on our own worlds? Information that is ours and ours alone must be protected at all costs." Her eyes glittered resentfully. "We will not risk having information on our worlds sent to the Dominion!" The last sentence was pronounced with despair and outrage.

The Tellarite did not react to the vehemence of her words, only made a conciliatory gesture, "I repeat: there is no cause for concern, Organizers Madred and Melset. Vorta Karnell's project is tracing rumours or even sightings of Changelings. The Founders, on Odo's advice, negotiated for permission to do this research, they sent Vorta Karnell, who is being observed by a Federation Captain, Robert B. Parker at all times. As you are stationed on Deep Space 9, Gul Melset, you may have heard the story of The Hundred, infant Changelings who were sent out by the Founders. Address Commander Kira about the incident with Laas. He was on Deep Space 9 for some days before escaping." He repeated, "Karnell is under constant supervision, has restricted access to Starfleet's files, certainly not to those about the Cardassian Empire." He met the organizers' eyes in turn. "We realize your habit of secretiveness makes our presence even more frightening, if you permit the use of this word."

Unsuccessfully, he tried to grasp his guests' mentality. Tellarites were proud of their people and culture, often arrogant and suspicious, thus he could understand the Cardassians' reservations, yet his own people had never shown xenophobia and nearly paranoid distrust to such an extreme degree. "No doubt Lieutenant Lewis has already told you what I will tell you now. The data will be sent to all of your annexes within the day, beginning with that on Deep Space 9, as a sign of our good faith. When I say 'our`, I mean the Federation. We only wish to help. I ask you to make an effort to trust us in spite of past conflicts."

There was no immediate answer as the Cardassians considered his words, had a whispered discussion. Profoundly distrustful and xenophobic as they were, any off-worlder presented a serious threat. To put these attitudes aside after five centuries demanded a great effort. Finally, a barely discernible gesture from Melset.

It was Gul Madred who broke the renewed silence. "I suggest notifying our authorities of the data's transmission well in advance. This will allay suspicions. Our destination is registered in the provisional government's files as we are organizers. You understand the problem …" The Cardassian gave a slight smile.

Commander Kharek met their eyes in turn, a conciliatory gesture among his people, "So, to avoid a rather unfortunate impression, the head of the provisional government should be contacted first as Professor Lang was among those who participated in negotiations concerning this base."

"Yes. In accordance with standard procedure, she will transmit the information to the provisional governments in those provinces currently slated for early resettlement; these governments consist of teams of supervisors overseen by an organizer charged with determining emplacement of villages," Melset explained. "Our strict hierarchy is still in effect."

Commander Kharek nodded. "Then I shall proceed accordingly." He placed his hands together – a gesture of satisfaction at his success or one of pleading? "You, Gul Melset, will receive your data at once in a gesture of goodwill. I presume this meets with your approval?"

She nodded once.

"Again, I request that both parties involved in this procedure make an attempt to overcome past conflicts and not consider one another as potential threats. We will neither occupy your worlds nor re-educate your people in accordance with Federation norms as you fear. Our principle is to respect diversity and appreciate differences among all peoples, whether humanoid or not."

"I sincerelywish we could believe this, no offence meant," stated Madred, "Yet how to forget constant war with the Federation with the exception of barely five years. Even during that short period of peace there were repeated attempts to annex colony planets, to obtain information by means of agents; the Maquis attacked our colonies in the DMZ, and Starfleet sent agents, only think of Captain Picard: of course he was a victim of Starfleet's trusting an unreliable source."

Refusing to be provoked by Madred's addressing one of the more infamous incidents, the Tellarite replied, "This is well-known among Starfleet personnel, Gul Madred. But I can change nothing about the situation. I have my orders as do you and can only reiterate: You have to try and trust our good faith. Should you learn of or witness any infractions whatsoever, address me or any Starfleet personnel you feel you can trust and we shall see to rectification at once." At seeing the pair still seemed unconvinced, he uttered a short staccato series of grunts, his people's expression of amusement. "I hoped you would think me slightly more trustworthy than the others: after all, I am not human, not even humanoid."

The Guls facing him remained distrustful, but the situation had to be resolved amicably. To peremptorily send them on their way would create more distrust and possible enmity; an affront to one Cardassian would reflect upon Federation-Cardassian relations in general.

With a shrug, Kharek came to a decision. "Please, come with me." Lumbering to his feet, he led the way, the Cardassians trailing after him, to the computer annex where the Vorta was busy with his research.

"A word with you, Mr. Karnell." Commander Kharek addressed the Vorta. "Organizers Madred and Melset happened to see you and are wondering about your presence on this base, on Cardassia Prime; as you represent the former enemy, they have misgivings, considering past relations with the Dominion."

The Vorta turned to Commander Kharek's guests; disguising his apprehension, he smiled slightly, his large blue eyes friendly, ignoring the suspicion and enmity he saw reflected in the eyes of the two Cardassians facing him. He had no doubts about what would have been his fate had they found him walking around outside the perimeter, unguarded. We have to work at establishing peaceful relations under all circumstances; there is nothing in my work that I need conceal. Honesty is the only option in this case. Knowing Cardassians, my discoveries will interest these two. For them, sharing valuable information is an overture.

"It is my pleasure to meet you, Guls Melset and Madred," He inclined his head in respectful greeting. "As you may know, I was granted the privilege of searching this database for reports on shapeshifting aliens to trace at least a few of The Hundred sent out thousands of years ago. So far, I have found nothing, not the slightest lead as to their whereabouts. My findings are restricted to some few peoples who have nearly the same shapeshifting abilities. It would appear these abilities are not the Founders' alone, thus not uniquely godlike." He sounded disappointed by his lack of success and disillusioned at realizing that the Founders' abilities were not theirs alone, yet he was determined to fulfil his mission. I am glad I did not meet these two unawares. To judge by their reactions to old transmissions, Cardassians hate us bitterly. It will be extremely difficult to overcome the barriers between our respective peoples, yet I have to try. Even the smallest step would be a success.

Wishing to see the Vorta's obsequious manner falter, the female Gul met his eyes before saying, "They have to be somewhere, Vorta Karnell, unless they were all hunted down and killed." Satisfied at seeing quickly-disguised horror, she added, "That possibility appears quite remote, however. Commander Kira has informed me about stories Odo told her." Still distrustful of his motives, yet interested in spite of herself, Melset asked, "Which races would those be? I have never heard about other korrigans." Her stance hinted at curiosity.

The Vorta gestured at the Cardassians to look at the screen. "Guls Madred and Melset, if you wish, I can show you my results. I have nothing to hide" He stepped aside, ostensibly to let them see his results, in reality in an attempt to keep out of their reach, before opening the file he had assembled.

Once he saw the three absorbed in conversation, Commander Kharek said, "I have to return to my offices. Lt Lewis, you can continue the tour with our guests once they have finished here. There should be no incidents, the way it looks." He glanced over at the Cardassians. Relaxed neck membranes, no sibilance in speech, eyes not widened; they seem satisfied.

"Yes, Sir!" But for now, we are not going anywhere. Lewis felt grudging sympathy for the Vorta who was not very successfully trying to conceal his nervousness; yet even the human recognized the Cardassians' attitude had shifted marginally now that they could see for themselves that access to Starfleet's files was restricted to one about alien contacts outside Cardassia alone.

For the moment, Karnell was stuck where he was, explaining in detail what he had found. Captain Parker observed them, repeatedly smiling because their curiosity, even their attitudes, appeared so very human.

The Cardassians were not aware of his watching them, nor of his reaction until Madred looked over at him by chance, then stared at him in annoyance, thinking he was considering them with contempt or amusement.

In response to the shift in the male Cardassian's attitude, Captain Parker went to the group, "I see you are as fascinated by these findings as I was. When I first saw them, it was impossible to resist reading those accounts. The diversity is astonishing. I observed you because you are reacting the way I did. Have you encountered representatives of these peoples in the course of your research missions?

"No," Madred indicated the screen, "Vorta Karnell's findings are interesting. As to your question, we never did leave the territory of our Empire for any greater length of time, mainly searched nearby systems for exploitable resources. You may recall that even the Border Wars were restricted to an area of about 5 light years."

Karnell quickly smiled at Melset who, glaring at Madred with annoyance for having caused the interruption, was waiting for the file to continue. He raised his voice very slightly, "Look, Gul Melset, this one is especially fascinating: nearly like a Founder, but not completely …."

That again attracted Madred's attention, so that the three once more stood side by side, discussing details of the findings together with Captain Parker who had decided to join.

After nearly an hour, they left the Vorta to continue his research undisturbed.

Turning to Vorta Karnell and Captain Parker, Madred said, "It was most kind of you to share your information with us; we did not know about these peoples." He added, even though he felt the words would strangle him, "Success in tracing The Hundred, Vorta Karnell. You, Lt. Lewis, have our gratitude for giving us assurance the information on our worlds is not spread throughout the Alpha and Gamma Quadrants."

Vorta Karnell nodded his thanks at Madred whereas Captain Parker replied, "Spreading knowledge to which we have promised to restrict access would not make for good relations, would it? I hope you are at least partly convinced of our sincerity."

"Yes, to a degree. Even if it were not the case, none of us want further conflicts at present," was Melset's reply. "We have lost too much."

Madred then addressed Lt Lewis. "If you wish, you can show us the rest of this base." This command, Lt Lewis realized, was typical Cardassian phrasing. As they left, the Lieutenant said that the Vorta would be leaving in two days as he had nearly completed his mission.

While continuing the tour and listening to the young officer's explanations, they found it hard to conceal they were impressed by the base; it was not all that large, but housed so much! Nevertheless, such an installation on their central world rankled. It was there with due authorization, certainly, but it was there. Left to themselves, they could have accessed all details on the Federation, its worlds and populations, all areas of knowledge within a day at most. How could a union that revealed so much to outsiders continue to exist and even expand? That was an element that remained totally incomprehensible.

An hour later, the tour was concluded, and, speaking quietly, the three went to Madred's glider. Lt. Lewis said, "Gul Madred, Gul Melset, I am to convey Commander Kharek's regards and his sincere hope that your distrust has been alleviated. Should you have further questions, feel free to contact him."

"We are grateful for being accorded this tour, as we are for his offer. In return, express our regards to Commander Kharek. His conciliatory gestures and attitude will not be forgotten. We thank you as well for making the time."

With that, they got into the glider which Madred activated. After some moments, he asked, "What do you think, Gul Melset?"

"Commander Kharek and Lt Lewis seem sincere. That is not the problem. For me the problem is that this base should never have been established on Cardassia Prime. Why do they not share their data about the Federation with us? All of it? That would be an equitable exchange for the comprehensive knowledge they now possess about our systems!"

"Only the data they have on the worlds of the Cardassian Empire is to be transferred to our government. Not one element more …." Madred fell silent. The humiliation of their people was complete.

At arriving outside the installations at Loo'Wess 1, Madred accompanied Melset to her station where they still discussed some problems that had arisen, then met the personnel currently on duty. That at least was one comfort. No one was holding back in his or her efforts to improve the circumstances in which they now found themselves, difficult though the situation appeared so soon after the Defeat.

Demolishing and removing the ruins was a nightmarish duty in which most were now participating. "Like ants repairing their hill," commented Jake Sisko who had been sent to report on the situation. "Whatever they see or find makes no difference. They keep on working, even pulling double or triple shifts."

The equanimity with which they went about that work was a shield against the horrors they encountered, made it possible for them to carry on. At present, individual quarters, formerly a coveted luxury, were rejected in favour of quarters shared by at least two individuals; no one wanted to be alone with the recollections of what he or she had seen; even the company of strangers was preferable to facing the inevitable onslaught of scenes that invaded a mind relaxed in sleep. To wake up from a nightmare and reach out to feel the touch or hear the voice of a fellow Cardassian kept the horror at bay for some hours.

A few days later, Natíma called Melset to her office. "Before your departure from Terok Nor, I was notified that SFHS had openings for employees of your choice."

"Yes. Do you have someone in mind, Professor Lang? If so, you would have my gratitude. I need Cardassian staff, if only to gain the trust of recipients of help on our worlds. The only drawback is that staff has to leave Cardassia for an extended period of time. That may prove more of a deterrent now than it was before The Defeat."

Natíma explained, "That specific requirement may even be best in this specific case. The person under consideration worked for our government, proved her competence throughout some years. She has just returned from a clinic off-world. Her story is typical of so many. She was found sitting on a pile of ruins outside what was left of her home; her entire family was killed when the building collapsed. She only escaped because she was outside to speak to a neighbour about the blackout. Daryn resisted removal, had to be sedated before she could be evacuated with the others in the sector. Slowly, she is beginning to show interest in everything again, works two or three hours a day and has inquired about permanent employment. If you want to speak to her, I can call her in as she is on the premises at the moment."

"There will be no difficulties as my staff is multi-ethnic, knows how to interact with us. Furthermore, we have medical facilities on Terok Nor in case of problems; Dr. Bashir is highly competent. By all means, have her come in."

"I was hoping for that answer," Natíma said with a slight smile, "Cratol, call in Daryn." He left at once. While waiting, she gave her a padd "This contains the data from Varon and Baryn Provinces to match skills and openings, the main project as of tomorrow." The two women grimly watched the details scroll down. Over 4.5 billion dead and still rising on Cardassia Prime alone, not counting the casualties suffered in combat … villages planned where cities used to be, housing primitive by most standards, yet these first signs of progress were encouraging.

The door slid open moments later to admit a tall, slender Cardassian female. Melset looked at her: her irises were nearly black, an unusual colour among Cardassians; her grey skin had a slight hint of bronze, the blue of her central scale and two of her neck scales was very intensive ... An Ubarit ancestor? The woman met her glance briefly, searchingly, looked away again.

"Take a seat, Daryn," Natíma said gently. "This is Gul Melset who requires two employees for the branch of SFHS on Terok Nor where she is currently stationed. The workload has become so heavy her office has been assigned further personnel."

Daryn hesitated before inquiring, "What are the requirements for the position? I was in administration before The Defeat, and am familiar with most procedures."

"I will gladly give you details. We are eighteen people, a mixed group: six humans, four Bajorans, a Bolian, two Lissepians two Trill, one Betazoid and one Cardassian. Myself. We have been assigned five more personnel and I have been authorized to select two of them. Duties will consist of data registry and transferral, coordinating and tracing deliveries of assistance, tracing inception of projects, feasibility studies, in brief, an entire spectrum of procedures. There will be unexpected details as well. All considered, it will be interesting. If you wish, you can be part of this team. Your remuneration will be in UFP funds according to pre-War Federation standards. Moreover, the commander of the station, Commander Kira, has arranged for SFHS personnel to be accorded quarters free of cost, her own government's form of supplementary humanitarian aid. She has offered to assist you should you encounter unforeseen problems or be treated prejudicially."

Daryn's eyes widened slightly as the facts sank in, "Leave Cardassia?" It was all too clear that the thought bothered her. "You have Bajoran staff, Gul Melset?" This obviously bothered her even more. "I have heard it is nearly impossible to work with them as they are extremely violent, superstitious and primitive, want to eliminate all Cardassians."

Only eight years ago, this was my own view of Bajorans… Melset raised her hands slightly, palms down in a gesture of reassurance, "You have the option of staying with us for half a year before resigning or, conversely, extending your contract. It is and will be your decision alone to make. Should you need time to think it over, I shall be here for three more weeks so you can contact me before my departure. Under circumstances, we may be travelling together which would simplify matters. As to the Bajorans on staff, I have cooperated with them for the past eight years, six years on Earth and nearly two on Terok Nor; and would not hesitate to call them friends. They will help you integrate, and be it for my sake alone. In general, those living on the station are good people for whom I vouch without reservations. I promise to introduce you to them."

A nod was the answer.

Natíma inclined her head and Daryn left.

"What impression do you have?"

"It will work out. I could see she is still under shock, but who isn't at this time? Duty to Cardassia will help her more than any therapy. For my part, I could use fellow Cardassians on my team and on station. Daryn would finally give me one of my own people with whom to cooperate."

"So that is settled." Natíma leaned back in her chair before saying, "I think we should call a meeting to take all factors into consideration as regards resettlement plans. Some teams are already on site to effect preliminaries. As far as I know, Lesana Province has one settlement close to the border with Kelan Province with five more planned on both sides of the border within the next two months. Joret Dimos and Garak have volunteered to settle there as have your parents and relatives. The main problem is finding personnel, but that can be solved as the people in the camps want to leave them as soon as possible. All factors have been input, so it is only a matter of seeing how that Federation programme sets up the matches."

Melset nodded, then explained, "I have given it a trial run together with Gul Madred; both of us are satisfied that any problems that arise can be solved with minor adjustments. As to implementation, I will take over the first matches and thus demonstrate its effectiveness."

"I shall notify you of the time and place of our meeting then."

Coincidences and The Truth

Two weeks later, the organizers finally had a list of prospective settlements that could be founded in a few provinces within the next four to ten months; as had been agreed, offices equipped with annexes had been set up in domes and containers in all camps on-world to screen potential volunteers. Usually, the head of a family came in, at times entire family groups. Seeing that everyone was determined to do his part in rebuilding was encouraging; passivity definitely was not a Cardassian trait. As yet, for every family chosen for one of the settlements, a new one or groups of individuals arrived at the camps' registration centre.

That morning, she had just activated her annex when there was a knock on her door; at her call of "Enter!" an elderly couple accompanied by two males of roughly her own age came in.

"Can I help you?"

After looking at her with an indefinable expression, the older male spoke for the others. "I am Denil Rossaw and this is Masrani Kovar, our sons Saynor and Goran. We want to inquire whether there are openings in one of the provinces, no matter which one, for an agronomist, a doctor, as well as two biochemists. My wife is Order educated, a specialist in security systems."

Taken off-guard by the names and the professions, it was Melset's turn to stare at them for a moment. The coincidence is remarkable…. "There should be a number of openings for people with your skills. Of course, work in the provinces is extremely difficult, in spite of donations we have only little machinery at our disposal." She added, "Another element that may prove difficult for many in the beginning is that representatives of various Federation or Bajoran private and governmental agencies are on-world to give technological and material assistance."

Goran answered, "We are aware of what and whom we will face. Whatever the circumstances, we want to work, not sit around in a camp." His voice reflected the determination that Melset saw in the eyes of the others accompanying him. "My wife can organize and offer schooling to children in the settlement as our own are independent, have children of their own."

Saynor added, "Ilaris will follow suit. She is a specialist in electronics systems, can repair generators and machinery, even quite hopeless cases."

"A prolonged stay in that camp will not be necessary. Just a moment." Turning away, Melset started a match scan after opening the family's files. Within seconds, the matches had been made. "We have Varon, Lesana, Baryn, Kelan and Saranji Provinces as well as Rodinia Province where areas are currently being resettled or will soon be opened to resettlement. Your skills are in great demand in all, but Kelan Province is your best option as housing will be available in roughly five more weeks, a start made as most of the population rejected evacuation; of course, agriculture is only in the planning stages, but the land is free of toxins. The population in that region? A Kelani majority, some Gerschechi and a few others, in case there are considerations to be made on the basis of ethnicity."

Denil Rossaw briefly laughed, "Certainly not! After ten years on Bajor, in Dahkur Province, barely escaping an attack by the Shakaar terrorist cell, later helping establish a settlement on Rondac, we are grateful to work for and on Cardassia again, whatever the conditions."

In spite of the recollections those words aroused, the realization that this had to be more than only coincidence, Melset said, "All of us are, in whatever capacity. We will make our Empire live again." She gave Denil Rossaw an information chip authorizing him and his family to move to the province in question as soon as the necessary preparations were effected and claim housing.

Now that everything was completed, they relaxed. "Indeed. That is all we can do. Everyone can make a difference," commented Saynor. The family turned to leave.

Just then, the intercom activated. "Gul Melset, Dejar will contact you within the hour."

"Understood. I will be in my office. Some matches still have to be effected."

When she turned back to the family, they were looking at her, stunned. Masrani asked hesitantly. "Gul Melset, are you the commander of the Orissà?"

With a feeling of reliving an old nightmare, Melset replied, "Yes. I was given a medical discharge. After disabling a Federation ship, my shuttle exploded and I too severely injured to retake command after recuperation. My adjutant, Glinn Torel was subsequently promoted to Gul and took command of the Orissà."

The couple exchanged glances, whereas the two younger males remained silent, suspicious. Two of their brothers had died, one, Glinn Kovar, had committed suicide, the other had been killed during the Klingon invasion, their sister and her family remained unaccounted for.

Masrani Kovar said softly, "You looked familiar, but we thought it a chance resemblance. We were told you had died in battle a few years after our son, Glinn Kovar …" She hesitated before continuing, "You sent us official testimony to him as an officer and as a person that was comforting in our loss." Masrani added, "What Kovar told us about you had us agree at once to your joining, speak to your parents then register the application on Kovar's behalf as did your parents in yours. The Order found nothing that could have resulted in a negative advisory. At hearing of your death we wept as though we had lost a daughter, repeatedly tried to reach your parents, but were unsuccessful. And now? We find you alive. After so many years."

Melset was speechless. How can this be? The Kovar–Rossaw family, Glinn Kovar's parents – alive. But I received the message from Legate Geldar himself! In spite of the shock, Melset's expression did not change. "Circumstances have marked us all." She suddenly despised the standard phrases, continued in her own words, fighting the emotions this meeting evoked. "I have no explanation for what happened. Glinn Kovar was a fine officer and we …."

Melset decided to ask after all. "I was notified of the attack on the enclave by Legate Geldar, given the names of the officers who had lost family. Did you not receive the messages I sent your relatives? Surely they would have passed them on to you at realizing the error. Kelani have the custom of sending friends or relatives a short message about two months after a loss, then in subsequent years until three years have passed." For a moment she remembered how she had felt, whispered, "No one ever answered me and I could not understand why." Her next words were nearly inaudible, "I loved Devrin with all my being."

Denil exchanged glances with his wife. "No, not one of your transmissions was ever registered on our relatives' terminal, nor rerouted to ours. We could not even contact your family when the news of your sacrifice reached us." Rossaw fell silent. This was not the time to stir up old trouble. "Have your parents survived?"

"Yes, together with a number of relatives. They are now in Kelan-Lesana Province, in the Kelan area." Melset said, trying to absorb the implications of what she had just heard, "Lesana I is not far from the border to Kelan Province. I am presently stationed on SFHS - Terok Nor."

Denil nodded his approval, "Doing your part for the reconstruction of Cardassia, as will we." With a gesture of greeting, they left her office. Old habits had both parties avoid speaking further of the matter, even though the realization of what had been done was disturbing.

As soon as the door slid shut behind them, Melset struck the table with her fists, then gazed at the monitor for some moments, regaining control of her emotions. Tain's methods had been infamous. It was well-known that the head of the Obsidian Order had attained his goals with all means at his disposal, but this evidence of his methods that respected no one and nothing hit her much harder than she would have admitted. She had even been grateful to him for giving her new duties after the loss of her command and her fiancé Gul Renor. But the past was the past; duty to Cardassia demanded everyone's strength and unremitting attention, nor was it possible to confront the guilty party… although, she smiled in spite of herself, she would never have dared confront Tain, much as she had liked and respected him. It had been rather unhealthy to be at odds with the head of the Obsidian Order.

Ertinas Dejar entered Melset's office. "A transmission has just come in. Two areas adjacent to and just north of Locarian City have been cleared of ordnance, can be settled after establishment of basic infrastructure. Federation personnel have scanned an area of about 100 square kilometres and detonated whatever ordnance they found after ascertaining it contained no pathogens or toxins that could endanger potential settlers. The information transmitted by Commander Kharek is invaluable, has advanced procedures by weeks." Dejar glanced at Melset. Something is wrong. "What do you suggest?"

She turned to the main terminal, activated the file to read the details; Dejar joined her and together they considered the possibilities. Ertinas' and her own analysis had the same results. "Two villages of about 250 families each should be sustainable until the situation has stabilized. That will marginally reduce pressure on the largest camp. Up to 200,000 individuals! Even those Bajoran refugee camps were not that large." For a moment Dejar's control slipped. "Nor that poor, in spite of the conditions…"

In a low voice, Melset continued for her, "Every individual makes a difference with goods as scarce as they are. I see you have entered a list of required skills. I will match them with those of applicants; selecting those 500 families should be a matter of an hour."

"Best include weapons specialists. They could, if provided with the proper equipment, scan the adjacent area and gradually expand it," was Dejar's suggestion.

While waiting for the results, Melset looked out of the window. "Indeed. Requesting the Federation do this as well would make us seem too demoralized to effect any procedure on our own anymore. We can do without that humiliation."

"The area of Locarian City proper can be opened for resettlement within roughly a year, possibly less. The rubble is being systematically vaporized." Dejar sighed. "The Dominion's destruction of that city was so thorough that nothing remains of its population, no samples for DNA scans, no elements of ruins for use in reconstruction. Nothing, only charred and fused ruins." She looked away, "I have seen it myself. It makes the destruction in Loo'Wess and the other cities seem a trial run. A Federation officer was so stunned, he could only say, "The ultimate Ground Zero. I have never seen such devastation in my entire life. What a loss ..."

Melset did not respond. For both women, the pain was too great.

A little later, Dejar inquired, "What did you find for the family who just left? They appeared quite pleased."

"Of the various options, they took Kelan Province. Each of its members possesses skills needed there." Suddenly, Melset looked at her, "The Kovar-Rossaw family. Do you remember the name, Ertinas?"

"No. Do you know them?" Melset's use of her given name showed there was a matter for which she wanted an explanation. Gul Melset, I hope you have not made the obvious connection … "You knew the Order's methods. You knew Tain."

"I did." Melset decided to say nothing more for the time being. "We have been given domes of Federation provenance as well as containers for housing, not ideal, but far better than those hovels made of debris that are still the rule in many areas of the capital and other major cities."

"We have been promised five more industrial replicators by the Bajoran Prime Minister who says that, as Bajor is now importing goods, those given by Gul Dukat are no longer required." It seemed Dejar came to a decision. After all, she and Melset had been colleagues, even friends. If she knew the truth or not no longer mattered. "You mentioned the Kovar-Rossaw family. I recall hearing Tain, Entek and Garak mention the name and then a number. And just now, hey were directed to your office by a colleague."

At finding her suspicion validated, Melset froze in mid-gesture.

"Is something wrong? I think downtime may well be in order. You have been working for over 26 hours, apart from two short breaks. Even we have our limits." And you have just reached yours. This discovery may have stretchedthemjust alittlemore. You will need time to come to terms with this information.

"No, Dejar, I cannot, not quite yet." Melset said in a low voice, "The past is the past. Only memories. And yet …. Dejar, you have my gratitude for giving me names." And you sent the family to my office. Apparently I will finally get some answers.

Gently, she replied, "It is past but, Iníki, some things can neither be forgotten nor accepted. We all have our recollections, of choices willingly made, choices forced upon us, choices we felt were our duty to make." A moment of silence passed before Dejar added, "Garak's situation was no different. His choice would have been quite another, had he been free to decide." She turned to leave, "I think you should know he was anticipating your arrival, and not only for the sake of cooperation. And now, Iníki, we must be strong, more than ever before."

There was no reply.

Quickly, Melset assembled the lists of candidates for the new settlements before transmitting them to the administrator of the Department of Relocation. Asif Tazan would notify those selected then arrange for transport and housing. Initially, he had been uneasy about cooperating with those he suspected were former Order members but soon realized that they now shared a common goal.

Perhaps Dejar is right, Melset thought reluctantly, suppressing a yawn. I did not realize just how much time has passed; so much to do, to consider that sleep seems a waste of valuable time… Fortunately, Dr Bashir is on Terok Nor, cannot have my communications blocked… She alerted the team member who was to take over for her. Within minutes, Belnor Kaddas entered. "Var Kaddas reporting for duty, Gul Melset."

"The Locaris Province project has been completed as to population transferral. The next phase is allocation of goods, housing, equipment. Transmission of info to Tazan to be effected at completion." She spread her arms in a show of resignation, "Nothing exciting, I fear, Var Kaddas, nor did you miss anything that might have proven thus."

"No disrespect meant when I say that I had enough excitement when the escape pod I shared with my superior officers and two other Vars was nearly destroyed. A Federation cruiser risked beaming us up in spite of the combat situation." He laughed, "Never thought I would be overjoyed to see Federation officers!"

"We all have seen interesting times and found assistance from unexpected quarters."

With that she left and went to the canteen where she picked up her rations. Whoever had the means to do so paid a nominal fee and, if possible, donated some extra; those who had nothing were given them all the same. The funds went towards purchasing new supplies. Surplus, little though it was, went into the Reconstruction Fund. After securing her rations, she sat down to eat, thinking about what she had just heard. It had shaken her, but not quite as much as expected: too much time had passed. Kovar, then Renor ... Melset knew there were far more important matters to be considered, yet meeting Glinn Kovar's parents had reopened an old wound. She had loved Kovar. Military life was and is hazardous at best, especially with Tain involved in the bargain.

After finishing, she left; in the corridor, an older Cardassian who seemed vaguely familiar addressed her. "Gul Melset, or should I say Colonel Melset? I was one of Tain's immediate subordinates. You may still remember me as Kalem Orid, in charge of recruitment and deployment. When you took command you immediately requested Major Tepek be assigned to the Orissà as permanent Order liaison."

"Of course I remember! You gave lectures on security systems and codes. They came in useful during my missions on Bajor and Earth." Melset's mood lightened at recalling former times and at seeing he had survived the Defeat; Orid had been a reliable contact during her time as a liaison.

His response to her pleasure was a friendly nod. "Dejar asked I speak to you. It may be a difficult topic, as everyone's nerves are frayed due to the circumstances in which we now find ourselves, in spite of our education to Order and Military discipline." He added, "Is privacy an issue?"

Melset shook her head and went into an empty office. "No, Orid, this room is as good as any. When that family came this morning I realized their being sent to my office was no coincidence." She felt her throat constrict but added, "It was all done for Cardassia, thus superseded personal considerations."

Orid nodded his approval and sat down, pulled over a chair and indicated Melset sit next to him. He gave his account in a barely audible voice, a habit no operative could fully break. "Tain was determined to recruit you as an operative who could cooperate with representatives of other peoples, easily gain their trust, gathering information discreetly with the unwitting support of those very representatives. Your rapid advances through the ranks? You were excellent, but Gul at a little over 26 C-standard years? Tain." He hesitated. "To get back to the Kovar-Rossaw family: they did spend ten years on Bajor, but were off-world at the time of the attack. Legate Geldar sent you the message; as all messages were relayed through our offices, Tain saw to omitting the minor detail of their absence. Glinn Kovar's error, committed under the shock of the news, would have seen him recalled, put on trial and discharged from the service, sent to an isolated colony in disgrace for dereliction of duty, perhaps even executed. Either way you would have disassociated yourself from him according to custom."

"But we agreed to let his error pass due to circumstances as the mission was not compromised. This was my, our prerogative!" Melset was outraged. "Even the Gul First Order, Gul Shengir, approved the decision! Nor was it favouritism; I would have done the same for any crewmember in his situation!"

Orid shook his head. "Listen. Normally the matter would have ended there, but Tain wanted you as an operative for off-world missions. Just imagine, Iníki: A marriage, a family … You wanted four or five children …. Now that would have curtailed mission readiness, wouldn't it? The messages you sent the Kovar-Rossaw family's relatives and those meant for you were intercepted so that neither you nor they learned the truth. In your last battle, you allegedly died. Ah, there is more to be said about that: beamover was delayed by a fraction of a second so that you would suffer severest injuries. You may have found out by now that you have no genetic defect. That fiction forced Gul Renor to dissolve your commitment. Thus, after your recovery from the shock of losing both your command and your fiancé, you could begin your training at once. There is a background story to your collapse as well: after the interrogation you had a meal in the Order's canteen. It contained a drug which took effect well after your handing over command, triggered a severe breakdown which took you about two weeks to overcome. These 'incidents' were meant to soften the target, you, so that Tain could realize his plan." He met her eyes, "Only Tain knew the names of prospective agents: for other personnel, they were but numbers on a list. Similar things happened to everyone considered of potential value to the Order. Candidates were chosen after observation, subsequently recruited by all means at the Order's disposal. You, however, were quite determined to stay exactly where you were: in Central Command, on the Orissà, so Tain had to find an effective way of removing you from your beloved cruiser." He became thoughtful, then said, "And you were allegedly killed on Earth by a Bajoran terrorist; that is why you could not contact your family for information after the Klingon invasion."

After hearing his report, Melset rose, desperate to be alone to fully absorb what had been done to her to realize Tain's goals. "I am grateful to you for informing me about what really happened. It may be best to go to quarters as I resume duty in eight hours."

You have to come to terms with this information. The former operative suppressed compassion, "I know. You have worked more than a full day. Melset, you have to manage your strength to ensure victory in this new battle, as do we all." At seeing her expression, a mixture of amusement and irritation at being observed even now, he added, "I shall accompany you to quarters, then leave. I know Kelani ways." He briefly touched her arm in a sign of support. "Should what I have told you prove too much to bear with equanimity, you know to whom to turn."

After a few more words at her door, Orid went to his own station. She took a quick shower, then fell onto her bunk and was asleep within seconds, too exhausted to be kept awake by what she had been told.

The next morning, she was about to leave for work when someone knocked at the door. "Enter."

Melset stared at Garak, then rallied. Why be surprised? You knew he wanted to meet you. "Ah, Organizer Garak. I see you could make it after all."

"I was to arrive here far sooner, but there are always unexpected occurrences. This time we had to defuse conflicts between Cardassian evacuees and a team from an aid group. It was due to cultural differences and a shortage of habitats; the agency had made an error in planning, a problem solved with some doing. Normally the people involved would have readily accepted temporary crowding, but had been promised an adequate number of shelters and thus suspected theft of goods. There have, in fact, been rumours we are trying to follow up, yet in the current situation? You know how difficult it is to secure evidence." He inquired, "How is your own work progressing?"

"Well enough, all considered. Three weeks ago, Commander Kharek had the data Starfleet had gathered transmitted to all our terminals, including mine on Terok Nor. Selon notified me of the file's arrival the next day. The new programmes have been distributed to outlying centres, and resettlement is proceeding satisfactorily." She looked up at him, met his eyes. And I have finally learned the truth about Glinn Kovar. You, Tain and Entek sacrificed him for the sake of a new operative. Yet, you are not to blame. I was only a number on a list…

"You seem slightly perturbed; I take it there are problems here, too. Gul Madred informed me about your tour of the science base in Loo'Wess. I paid the installation a visit of my own to double-check facts. You may be pleased to hear every element has been transmitted, nothing held back." Garak's face was expressionless, concealing his true feelings. "For your information, that Vorta's access was indeed restricted to files that have nothing to do with our worlds." Amused, he grinned at her, "It would appear you and Madred made a quite effective team. I doubt we would have received the data so quickly otherwise." He then pretended exasperation. "I must not forget: Vorta Karnell requested I give you his regards: he has found nothing about The Hundred, but has promised to keep you posted on the outcome of his research. You are still busy establishing networks, aren't you?"

Melset considered his attitude in sheer disbelief. "Tell me, Organizer Garak, are you so indifferent to the fact that everything has been revealed to the Federation that you can only smile at the way Madred and I got them to share the data with us? Do you even realize that all of the details concealed for generations are now registered in Federation data banks? Everything is known to the Federation thus to Starfleet!" Her voice rose. "And you are amused about the Vorta?!"

"By no means, Gul Melset. The facts distress me as much as they do you. When the proposal was made to establish a temporary base here, in Loo'Wess, there was massive opposition. Yet we urgently needed what we were being offered in exchange. Toddman said we would receive the latest computer technology to replace what was lost, all data accessed was to be given us, we were offered both advisory and logistic support in organizing aid, four clinics complete with staff, Starfleet personnel was to assist us in finding and removing unexploded ordnance, scan the areas opened to resettlement for pathogens. Those elements agreed on during negotiations are being realized. The Federation is keeping its part of the contract, obliging us to reciprocate."

"And for how long will that be? While I readily concede we desperately need the assistance, what we do not need is a permanent Starfleet presence on Cardassia Prime or anywhere else within the Empire! It is a fact that once they move in, they move in to stay!" Melset's attitude became aggressive. "What traitor decided this?"

"Of the twelve provincial organisers, five rejected the proposal. The majority won. This is the new system, my dear Gul Melset. The higher echelons no longer dictate what shall be done and what not." Garak added with feigned indifference, "The base will remain until we have fully operational local governments and a planetary one and no longer require assistance. I estimate that will take at most four years."

He heard a quick intake of breath before Melset answered, her voice rising, "Four years! Tell me, Garak, how is classified information to be kept from Starfleet? How do we know their agents will not come swarming in like a fleet of Ferengi scrap traders the moment we begin excavating the ruins of the Obsidian Order's buildings?" When there was no immediate reply, she repeated, moving just a little closer to Garak. "How will you see to safeguarding all of this?" Each word was stressed.

The reply was calm, unperturbed, "Oh, but we shall. I promise you that. A select team of Guls is currently recruiting security forces from among military members as they have the requisite training. The surviving Guls and Legates on-world are scheduling training for civil defence and ensuring the support of these people's families until they are employed. Commander Kharek has agreed to hire Cardassian guards once they have completed training and been initiated into the complexities of Federation security protocols. 'It should be a joint operation,' he stated."

"That is beside the point! I am speaking of our security, Garak! The preservation of the little we have left! To me the situation as is appears more like a benign form of occupation than a relief effort!" She was standing so close they were nearly touching. "The concessions they make are pathetic, as though they were humouring us! They accord us a minimum of aid by Federation standards! I know what other non-aligned worlds are receiving! In exchange they expect us to literally hand over all information on our worlds and thank them for being allowed to do so!"

"No, Gul Melset. Only former Order members have approached these specific ruins and no one else will. We have set up sensors and posted guards as an additional precaution. The classified files we possess are protected by the most refined protocols. They are safe." He carefully disguised the fact he was enjoying the argument.

"I will hold you to that, you and those who agreed to that base on Cardassia! Gul Madred and I saw that Vorta there. He allegedly had only one goal in mind, seemed sincere, willingly showed us the results of his research, but I demand they give us all the information in their files. These are our worlds!" Her breathing was accelerated and, Garak noticed, her neck membranes tensed.

He looked at her calmly, wondered whether he should continue. Overwrought by what you have seen and experienced, as are all of us, in a situation exacerbated by the loss of old structures, forced to work under less than ideal conditions … I recall all too well how that felt. Bajorans and other non-Cardassians as colleagues. You accept it, hoping to get more help for our worlds …. yet, there seems to be a further element.

"I think your shift begins in another hour. Let's go to the canteen and have some field rations." Garak looked at her, his eyes glinting with amusement. "I trust they are as pleasing now as they were when you were still in command of the Orissà."

He saw her flinch, but Melset neither responded to his words, nor let herself be distracted from the problem at hand. "I agree. We can discuss further details then," she was now calm. "Those are Starfleet field rations, if that makes any difference."

As they went to the canteen in silence, Garak watched Melset carefully. I observed her until my exile, as was my duty as her interrogator. When I was notified about her assignment at SFHS – Terok Nor, I wondered whether cooperation was possible, considering the past. He added mentally, Still bound to her duty to Cardassia, as am I. Being with SFHS, she should be able to effect more for us than many others as she has contacts in that organization, valuable sources, from what I have seen.

Once they had settled at a table, Garak stated between bites, "Perhaps Gul Madred has already mentioned the following: it could be some members of The True Way have survived and may be using the present situation to their advantage, recruiting members, searching for and contacting former associates. We are vulnerable to such elements now, many of us desperate, discouraged thus willing to believe anyone or any organization that offers the slightest hope for a better future." He met her eyes, "A future without off-worlders. A Cardassia for Cardassians alone is their demand, regardless of the consequences. You no doubt know the standard phrases. It is a feeling you yourself, most of us, for that matter, have expressed more than once, but these individuals are dangerous."

"Then it is as I have feared. Joret Dimos of Lesana 1 and I have already discussed this; he will observe the situation there; at his return he will speak to my parents who have their own network in Lesana, Kelan and Varon Provinces. Gul Masok is also reliable. He despises that group; his officers' integrity is beyond doubt. It should be possible to form a network of surveillance in Lesana Province within weeks. Baryn Province is the problem because my contacts in that region are all dead."

"That is no problem," Garak explained. "Masok will contact Berak who is establishing a temporary military outpost in Varon Province. Look him up; you fought side by side when you were Vars, even shared the experience of captivity. As to the other areas, we can place our full confidence in the ability of our fellow organizers to establish similar networks. The matter will be discussed at the next meeting, off the record, certainly not mentioned in the official list of topics. I know all of them well enough to know that none of them are members of The True Way." Garak added, "I shall keep you up to date on all developments. I could well be your participation in liquidating them will be required."

A quick nod of agreement was the answer, "That development disturbs me as much as does the science base. Admittedly, the Starfleet staff I have met in the course of various subspace negotiations is quite open for the most part and tries to understand our mentality, but they cannot understand what their presence means to us in spite of our need. I nearly forgot! O'Connor is to assist in establishing a depot for Relocation Centre 6."

Garak picked up on O'Connor. "I have met him, a very enthusiastic person who even infects the Cardassians with whom he cooperates, he gets things done quickly and does not tolerate bias from his staff."

"A rare thing, don't you agree? He was able to find Gul Madred's wife and child. Next week I have to return to Terok Nor immediately after completing one more project."

"And what would that be?"

"What else but requirement lists?" Melset answered disgustedly. "My schedule seems to consist of contacting SFHS Central, agencies, initiatives …yet the outcome of negotiations usually turns out to be less than satisfactory."

Garak nodded, "I have made the same experience, but remember that this is only the beginning. Now that those who could be saved have been saved, priorities have shifted to reconstruction. It may take a decade, if not longer. The best minds lost, so many of our treasured cultural goods are ashes …. Once basic subsistence is assured, the ruins cleared, the camps dissolved, the challenge will begin." In a low voice, he said, "The New Cardassia."

"It will never be the Cardassia I loved and served, but we have to recreate as much as possible." He barely heard her whisper, "We need a new Obsidian Order under all circumstances to keep dissidents and factions from using dissatisfaction or fear to influence the population. It will be in the first years of rebuilding that they will make their move."

Garak answered with a clandestine gesture of agreement but thought. Are you serious about this? Don't you realize what the Order and Central Command had become? Yet, if you mean the three Pillars of Cardassia in their original form, I agree.

The two rose; Garak saw Melset's evaluating glance as he said, "We may well be cooperating in future."

The reply was not unfriendly. "Certainly. You can access more information on-world while I will see to activating additional sources. Success, Organizer Garak. And – I am grateful to you for having notified me of my parents' and some relatives' survival some months ago. It has made things easier to bear. Now you have my gratitude." With that, she quickly went into her office.

He remained where he was for a moment, then turned to leave. No unease in my presence even though I interrogated her; she argued with me about that base, even though everything had already been said…. Tain repeatedly mentioned her unusually strong confidence in the objectives of the Order. I wonder whether she knows by which means she was recruited … Quickly, Garak went to the communications area to contact Guls Masok and Berak. Melset was not the only one who was worried about the members of The True Way, and this showed him that there was a threat that had to be taken very seriously.

Shortly before her return to Deep Space 9, Melset heard a tentative knock on the door of the office where she was beginning to transfer duties to Kaddas and Asari who would be taking over for her after her return to Terok Nor. The three of them were presently establishing the lists for Kelan and Ubari Provinces.

"Yes? Enter." Melset called.

"I hope I am not disturbing you," was the query when Daryn entered and saw the three people at the computers. "If so, tell me when I should report to you again."

"No need to leave, Daryn. Come." She turned to Kaddas and Asari, "Continue the profiles and skill matches. I will not be long."

Together, the women went into an empty office.

"Gul Melset, I have discussed your offer with Natíma Lang and accept the posting. It will be hard to leave Cardassia, but it is even harder to only do what all too often seems make-work. I have little to pack, thus would be ready within an hour."

"My departure is in four days. We will be travelling by Starship. That is quite an experience, Daryn. Quarters? The ultimate in luxury." She admitted, "It will be good to have a fellow Cardassian at SFHS."

"Natíma Lang asked me to tell you that there is a second candidate whom she has already screened and accepted on your behalf. His name is Bertos, a civilian of 36 who has family: a wife and three children." Daryn admitted, "I heard him speaking to a Starfleet officer about employment on the science base. The officer tried to help him, but there were no openings. I spoke to him when he went back to the camp. He was interested, so we went to the relocation centre to check his background and areas of competence. Bertos has the required skills as he was a civilian administrator for Central Command."

"Your initiative is commendable. Apparently Organizer Lang wanted you to give me the news. You have chosen well."

The return to the station went smoothly, even pleasantly. During the two days of transit, the three Cardassians had their meals in the canteen, afterwards usually spent time in the lounge, discussing the projects that had been initiated in the course of the past four weeks. At times, Starfleet personnel stopped by to ask about progress on Cardassia, or resettlement programmes, and implementation of long-term projects. For Daryn and Bertos, this was a new experience: no suspicion, no disparaging comments, humans and other aliens interacting with them as equals. This reduced the apprehensions they had about living on Deep Space 9.

Some hours before arrival, an audio message came in, "Gul Melset, this is Commander Kira. Welcome back to Deep Space 9. The three personnel that were to arrive have taken up their duties and quarters for the two accompanying you have been reserved. They are in the same corridor as yours and the other's. I take it you approve."

"Commander Kira, please switch to visual." The screen cleared to show Kira, and she in turn saw Melset and the other two Cardassians who would be employed at SFHS. "I thank you for seeing to these details," was Melset's reply. "You have anticipated my request."

With a slight smile, Kira replied, "I'll be waiting at the airlock when you arrive and show you to your quarters. Chief Remosi has already taken measures to preclude incidents."

This gesture from the Commander who was still extremely suspicious of her and of Cardassians as a whole was unexpected. "Commander Kira, this is most kind of you. Your gesture will help ease Bertos and Daryn into station life. Until then. Gul Melset out."

When she turned away from the screen, she saw the others' astonishment. "Is that Bajoran woman the Commander Kira who fought with Legate Damar against the Dominion occupation of Cardassia?" was Bertos' question.

"Yes. She overcame her hatred for our people and Legate Damar to help us regain our freedom. She fought for that goal with the same determination with which she once fought for the freedom of her own people. She still distrusts Cardassians, but makes a difference between those who perpetrated atrocities and those who didn't." Melset added, "I respect her for that, and ask you to do the same."

Later that day, they arrived and settled into their quarters. After a few hours, Melset called Daryn and Bertos to go to the offices of SFHS where she introduced them to the other staff before giving a concise report on the current situation, mentioning the difficulties, the plans for new settlements, the problems in reaching all of those in need, assisting the demolition squads and storing the DNA of the victims still being found beneath the ruins. Andrews and Selon recognized the Cardassian's anguish, even though her expression was neutral.

At concluding her report, she added, "As you may have seen while viewing the data transmitted from the Federation science base on Cardassia Prime, Loo'Wess area, all of the planets in the Cardassian Empire have been scanned. We now have precise information on where renewed or future exploitation of resources is possible. Pockets of abandoned or unexploded ordnance are being systematically eliminated; there is data on which areas are suitable for agriculture and re-establishment of an industrial basis for our economy, renewal of our infrastructure. This data is classified, so we need not fear unauthorized entry. But in spite of the positive aspects of the scans, it is disquieting that every detail about our worlds is known."

Melset looked at the members of the SFHS personnel in the room before repeating, her voice low, "There are no more secrets. We are now exposed, vulnerable to potential attackers although I was assured of the contrary, and Commander Kharek seems sincere."

"Selon, please show Bertos the options for the resettlement program and, Andrews, could you take Daryn in hand? She is specialized in administration. She addressed the newcomers, "You will move from station to station before selecting tasks within the pool of options. This work benefits both non-Cardassian worlds and our own, will further the Quadrant's renewal."

With that, she left for her own office, trying to come to terms with what she had seen on Cardassia. Soon, she was absorbed in her duties, yet, after a few moments, pushed her chair back from her annex to stare unseeingly at the data before turning away.

She felt the vibration of someone walking to her door, then briefly stop. When it slid open, Melset saw Commander Kira.

"Commander Kira, can I assist you?"

"No, I need no information." The Bajoran explained. "I came because I see how hard it is for you and your fellow Cardassians to accept the situation. We had the same concerns when our provisional government called in the Federation after the end of the Occupation. I vehemently opposed that plan. The presence of the Federation was to help us and, after the discovery of the Celestial Temple, to prevent renewed Cardassian occupation. We needed the protection, yet feared our culture, our beliefs would be undermined, that we would be influenced, finally lose everything we had fought to preserve throughout five decades; others thought it a change in shifts among occupiers." She saw the Cardassian was listening closely. "No one will try to re-educate your people. Plans are for assistance as long as needed, only those organizations to be admitted who respect your culture, make no attempts to pressure your people to change their ways." It may be a sensitive subject, but it is valid. "The Cardassia for which your brother, Legate Damar, sacrificed his life will live, differently, that is true, but not disappear."

"Your kindness is valued, Commander Kira, as is your trying to make this time easier, even though your people and mine have been enemies for so long. Why are you doing this? You will have read reconstructed station files: the abducted fighter, the guls temporarily assigned to Terok Nor."

"Yes, and I will always resent what happened during the Occupation," She met the Cardassian's eyes, "I have learned to see your people as individuals; it takes a conscious effort, yet I am willing to work for reconciliation. You were not involved in the suppression of my people."

"Commander Kira. I shall keep your words in mind." With a slight smile, she gestured at the Bajoran. "I have some details I would like you to see. …."

In The Name of Cardassia

When Bertos and Daryn had settled into station life and felt more at ease, Melset decided to address a matter that had been bothering her ever since the evacuations nearly a year before. Garak had hinted at a few details, but her new employees were neither military nor Order.

At the end of the shift, she turned to Daryn and Bertos. "You may have some information for me." She hesitated, "During evacuations in the area of greater Loo'Wess we at times encountered resentment."

Bertos quickly glanced at Daryn, then stated, "No problem with that."

"Let's go go to my quarters for privacy as it is an entirely Cardassian matter."

Once in her quarters, Melset went to the replicator, then returned with redleaf, placed the cups on the table, deactivated all listening devices, then sat down and looked at her two employees who were standing in the middle of the room.

"This is not a Galor Class cruiser, but a Bajoran installation supervised by Starfleet." Melset gestured at Daryn and Bertos to join her. "You are not Glinns or Vars reporting to me."

They did so and waited, covertly looking around. Melset realized that they had not expected her quarters to be like their own.

"When we were searching for survivors, we often encountered distrust and hatred, were accused of planning to exploit the civilian population, that this was the reason why we were evacuating them."

"You will not like the truth," said Bertos.

"I have to know the civilian view. After reaching the rank of Var I hardly left military circles and fear that some facts were hidden from us."

"I know you took pride in serving in the military, Gul Melset, but the effects of constant war were ours to experience." He looked over at Daryn, who nodded at him.

"Give me the information, I need it."

The words came in a rush. "Gul Melset, did you know how the expansion of the fleet was funded? 24 years ago, Central Command announced that over 500 cruisers were to be built within two years, officers promoted, new personnel recruited. The announcement was introduced by the Talsvar Kardássu; the heads of the Order, Central Command and Detapa gave a joint statement. The civilian population worked overtime to secure the 'home front', was expected to give donations to support the war effort on the borders, to help veterans who were nearly destitute unless they were Glinns or Guls; taxes were raised. We were five children; our parents struggled to provide for us. And we were middle class."

Daryn nodded, "I remember it was the same for us."

Bertos continued, "Our life? Constant hard work. Adult life was no better; in spite of having good professions, we barely got by unless we either had a high position or reliable sources."

"After annexing resource-rich worlds, mining began at once; each system became productive within two or three years at most. Central Command stated the revenue was to go towards effecting improvements," was Melset's response.

"With all due respect, Gul Melset. How often were you on Cardassia Prime after your promotion to Glinn? Did you ever see the population centres outside the officers' enclaves? On the outskirts families lived in hovels worse than those of Bajoran refugees. Or did you stay in Central Command, enjoying an impressive view of the most glorious city in the Empire?"

The vehemence of Bertos' words showed resentment of the institution she had served with dedication, believing it was ensuring the well-being of all Cardassians. His anger was not directed at her, but at these institutions. Daryn kept her eyes averted.

"In 13 years of service as a Gul, I had six furloughs of at most two weeks. Finally, all leave was cancelled as we had to protect the borders, defend our systems and regain those the Federation annexed. Usually I stayed on site to attend meetings at Central Command. Only once did I go to Kelan Province, to Perali City."

"You never went through the city anymore?" Daryn asked disbelievingly.

"No. We kept to our own areas. Official statements reported conditions on Cardassia Prime were improving rapidly, that Cardassia was becoming prosperous, and poverty would soon be overcome. Order operatives searched the outer city for dissenters; no military was sent into the poor districts."

"Did you really not know? Didn't anyone tell you about conditions?" asked Daryn.

"Yes, one of my comrades was an orphan, was ashamed of his past, did not mention his childhood. I admired him for the tenacity he had shown in rising to the level he had attained." She suddenly recalled walking along a street with her father, Gul Damar, when she was about four years old.

At times she had seen bands of children seeking refuge in the entrances of residences until they were chased away, or trying to find some corner that offered a little shelter. When times were very bad, they predated on each other to survive. At times, a small body would be found huddled on a grate and quickly removed before questions were asked. There were also destitute families; if they were lucky, people who had something left gave it to them, but charity was not a tenet of Cardassian society, poverty too great for the help of a few to make a difference.

Her father's reply to her questions on whether Central Command and the Order could help was that they would do so. "Iniki, the Obsidian Order, Central Command and Detapa will give them work and dignity, and Cardassia power and prosperity. It will take time, but we are a patient people; they will be given their chance."

Some months later, they took the same street again; the poor were gone. She looked into the corners where they had been and asked, "Attami Damar, where have they gone? Have they moved into the great houses?"

"No, Iniki, their situation is far better than that! Just imagine, my child!" Her father had smiled down at her, "They have gone to colony planets, will settle them for Cardassia. They will have good lives there."

Melset recalled her happiness that these people would have homes of their own and serve the Empire. She had sung Talsvar Kardassu! for joy: her father took pride in his daughter's reaction; some passers-by had smiled. Perhaps they dared have no reaction but the smiles? Disquieted, she thought of one of her comrades at the Academy, Ceklan….

Wordlessly, she got up to contact Selon. "Selon, take any notifications that may arrive for me. Bertos, Daryn and I have a matter of some importance to discuss."

The Bajoran who appeared on the screen recognized that something was wrong. Another crisis on Cardassia? "I shall see to it, Gul Melset."

She shut off the comm system so that she and her two employees could speak undisturbed. "What happened to those families and children? My father told me they had left for the new colonies."

This time Daryn said what she knew. "Every new colony planet offered the possibility to get these people off the streets, to hide the poverty caused by spending so much on military and Order expansion rather than on helping the population. These people were expendable. Either they agreed to go off-world or were arrested for refusing to serve the Empire. In that case, they were accused of treason and sent there just the same; but as criminals their chances of survival were practically non-existent. So, they had no other choice but to obey."

Bertos took up the account. "They were told 'you will lead the life of true Cardassians and secure new resources in the name of the Empire.' They were the ones who did the most dangerous and heavy work, prepared these worlds for colonization, created basic infrastructure. Many of them did not survive conditions. Those who came later did do well; those who had survived against all odds had a good life, but were a fraction of those who had first set foot on these worlds. Up to sixty percent never lived to see the colonies they had helped create thrive."

Daryn added, holding her cup between her hands, as much for the warmth as for comfort, "Perhaps, Gul Melset, you should ask Garak for more information. He knows more than we. The Order organized resettlement programmes to get those people off the streets. No one was to see such conditions on Cardassia Prime, especially not in our Empire's capital Loo'Wess which was to reflect the power and glory of the Empire. All was done for the greater glory of Cardassia." Daryn became sarcastic, "Their methods? Like those of the Dominion."

So that is the truth you wanted me to recognize, Garak. Melset felt chilled.

Bertos added, "Gul Melset, you did not make policies, but were a part of them. I was told you served with true dedication; had you been one of those self-serving militaries, I would not have come here in spite of my family's need. I, too, have my sources of information."

"I was told they had volunteered. Nor could I have done anything. The one time I suggested making a change in policies, it nearly cost me my life." She then asked. "And the orphans?"

"The brightest were educated by the military or the Order, all depending on their results after a year of accelerated schooling, some were even adopted, the couples who took them in accorded privileges; I knew two of those families. The children did have good homes, for the most part."

The intercom activated. "Melset here?"

It was Selon. "Incoming message on deliveries to Lissepia. I only wanted to notify you. Everything has been done."

"That is most kind. Thank you, Selon." She turned to Bertos and Daryn. "Thank you for giving me details. I had to know the truth."

With that she rose and the three of them left together.

Why did I not know? Was I so blinded by propaganda, by unthinking patriotism? Always the next victory, the next annexation, the next battle. I believed in serving Cardassia, but all our sacrifices apparently only made those in power even more powerful … Melset entered the Promenade, was fascinated by the crowds, the activity, all the shops. But her unease remained.

She walked along the Promenade, trying to come to terms with what she had learned, then entered a Bajoran restaurant and sat down, oblivious to the glances she got from the other guests and from Commander Kira who was at a table at some distance.

She was still waiting when she heard a heated but barely audible discussion that only ended when a chair was pushed back vehemently and Kira came over, joined her. "Do you mind, Gul Melset? There is some reluctance to serve a Cardassian here. So to avoid an incident, I have decided I am with you."

She could see the Commander was not all that happy about her tablemate, and with an apologetic glance Melset rose to leave. "I did not think, I can go elsewhere."

"No. Stay. As hard as it may be for many of us, we have to become used to having Cardassians on the station, in our restaurants, in our shops. You, Bertos and Daryn are with SFHS." Kira was trying to be friendly. "And for some reason, Vedeks Serad and Yarim accept you."

After they had chosen, the two women waited in silence; but then Melset's attention was drawn to a painting on one wall; its style seemed very familiar to her.

"May I ask you something, Commander?"

"Yes."

"That painting's style resembles that of one of our old schools, yet has distinctly Bajoran traits. Who is the artist?" She added wistfully, "It is exquisite; most of our art is now ashes; at least some elements have been preserved, though in hybrid form."

"Tora Ziyal, Gul Dukat's daughter, painted it while she was here on the station; I watched her at times." Kira could not quite hide the sorrow she felt at remembering the young woman.

"She is so talented!" Melset exclaimed in admiration.

"She was." Kira's eyes grew hard. "She was killed by Damar for helping free Rom, Leeta and myself so we could sabotage the weapons array to keep the mine field intact, block the Celestial Temple." Her voice was low, but her words very clear. "He murdered an innocent girl raised as a Bajoran, who neither knew nor accepted Cardassian norms, who wanted but to save her friends."

"Not Damar!" The reaction was a cry of disbelief. "It can't be!"

"Yes, Damar." Kira, surprised by her reaction, asked, "Did you know him?"

They were interrupted when the waiter served their orders then left with a glance at the Cardassian whom the station commander was protecting, albeit reluctantly.

Melset began her meal but after a few bites said, averting her eyes, "I did. Very well. He was my brother."

So that is why you seemed familiar: family resemblance. There was no further conversation while the two finished.

Before leaving, Melset told Kira, "Commander, it was very kind of you to see I was served in a Bajoran facility."

At returning to her own quarters, Kira took out a box and looked at it, lost in thought. These objects can now be passed on, as they are meant for Damar's family or for someone else who was close to him.

Kira went to SFHS. "Selon, could I speak to Gul Melset?"

"Yes. Go on in, Commander. She will make the time."

At seeing her, the gul indicated she take a seat while she closed the file she had just completed. "Commander Kira, can I help you?"

"I have something you may want."

"My staff can cover for me for some minutes."

Without another word they quickly went to Kira's quarters.

"Take a seat, I will be back in a minute."

She came out holding a small box and explained, "I have been waiting for one of Damar's relatives or for Garak. Hopefully this will not be too painful for you, but I spoke to Vedek Navri who said you should have this." She gave Melset the small box which had Bajoran carvings on the outside.

Suddenly hesitant, she held it carefully, noticed a subtle scent, then opened it. "A prayer scroll!" Her pleasure was genuine when she took it out to read the verses.

"You can read the script?" The Bajoran was incredulous.

"I was taught it by Vedek Serad while on Bajor." Melset replied, then carefully laid the scroll aside and removed the satiny material to find a Legate's insignia, a commband and a set of medals. She stared at the objects before closing the box. "No, this is the right moment. This is part of what my brother was. Thank you, Commander Kira."

"In the end, he was a true Cardassian as your people understand the term. He took the lead in the attack, was hit by six rounds of plasma fire from the Breens' weapons before collapsing, urged us to keep on fighting. It was he who made it possible for us to reach the war room of Dominion Headquarters. Gul Melset, in spite of everything I can try to understand your love for and pride in your brother, Legate Damar."

The reply was barely audible, "Commander, this is high praise indeed."

Melset's commbadge activated. "Melset here."

"Sorry to disturb you, but there is an urgent message from Cardassia Prime."

Melset rose and, accompanied by Kira, went to the door. Before leaving, she quickly said, "What you have done means more to me than you can imagine, Commander. For now, duty to Cardassia…."

Complications

Five weeks later the Security Chief of Deep Space 9 received a notification from Ops. "Kira here. Incoming message from Cardassia Prime. Chief Remosi, can you take it? It is Gul Masok, one of Melset's former officers. He seems annoyed, to put it mildly."

"Put it through. Do you know about what it is?" Transmissions from Cardassia were still a source of concern for him.

"No, but record the transmission in any case. You never know. He seems very concerned, and wanted to contact us first before referring the matter on to Starfleet." Kira added, "To judge by what Melset has told me, they suspect that Cardassians' protests are not treated with the same interest as those of other populations involved in reconstruction."

Within moments, the connection was established. "Gul Masok here. I am speaking to Chief Remosi on Terok Nor?" The Cardassian officer stared at the Bajoran whom he saw on his screen.

Someone should inform them that this name is offensive to us. "Yes." The Bajoran waited, wondering why the message was so critical. Apparently it was a serious matter, as Masok did not show the usual distrust Cardassians displayed when obliged to give a Bajoran information that regarded their own people.

"We have suspected all the while that deliveries to our worlds are being stolen and clandestinely sold," Masok reported. "Evidence has now been found. One of the perpetrators was disturbed, could escape, but left behind a partially removed SFHS emblem and a scanner used to forge cargo manifests. In other cases, goods have been removed from containers and replaced by filler. This is not some Cardassian lie as one of the officials involved in repartition hinted, but a proven fact. I am transmitting the details to your terminal and request they be sent to SFHS prior to being relayed to Starfleet."

I only hope no Bajorans are involved, Remosi thought. He had no love for Cardassians, but such actions violated his people's rules as laid down by the Prophets; however, there always were misguided individuals who ignored them whenever it suited their purposes.

"Gul Masok, transmit the information to the branch of SFHS on Deep Space 9, it will be rephrased as a Bajoran protest. I have worked with representatives of your committee long enough to know you are not lying."

"We have already presented it. Your alert will prove that the problem is serious, especially as you, a Bajoran, are seconding our protest." After a moment, he added, "I hope the matter can be resolved before unfounded suspicion destroys what is being established."

Remembering how the same occurrence had made waves in the case of aid to Bajor, Remosi nodded. Who the victim is should make no difference. He looked up at seeing two Cardassians enter his office and stand just inside the door, waiting silently. "I assure you the protest will be expedited immediately. Remosi out."

"Chief Remosi, do you have time? It is a matter of some sensitivity." Bertos tried to modify the arrogance of his tone of voice and bearing. "Our suspicions concerning deliveries are now supported by evidence. We have been contacted by Gul Ertan."

"And Gul Masok has just notified me about this same matter," the security chief said. "He reported it just before you came." He said disgustedly, "Theft of humanitarian deliveries destined for the Cardassian Union."

The Cardassians quickly exchanged glances, "Then it is true: Deliveries diverted to line some individuals' pockets. Gul Madred noticed it some weeks ago: cargo manifests had been manipulated, but there was no way of proving it. We have been receiving only a fraction of what we were accorded, which is but little anyway." The officer waited briefly, "From what Gul Melset and others have told me, some resent we are getting even that."

"Gul Masok's words exactly. I shall notify my superiors and request security at the depots be increased." He handed the padd with the list to Bertos. "Transmit the lists of what you receive to this terminal. It will be rerouted to a file inaccessible to anyone not involved. I will see to their immediate transmission."

Bertos held out a padd, "Chief Remosi, we can already give you this: the data from the third month after the Defeat up to and including last week. The Bajoran association onworld have checked their manifests, sent them to us. The leak is not on Bajor as a few expected, considering our history; Shakaar's office gave us this information, a reliable source, according to Gul Melset."

The Bajoran officer called out, "The Prophets be thanked!" I am glad I do not have to tell her that Bajorans are involved! With a sigh, he got up, "Now to tell Melset, Andrews and Myssiro."

Bertos could see he was dreading the prospect in spite of frequently cooperating with the staff of SFHS. Certainly, Melset respected and willingly associated with his people, but his instinctive reaction at seeing Cardassians remained.

Bertos hesitated, then offered, "Chief Remosi, I can do so, as I too have information for her; we know you are uncomfortable around us."

The Bajoran looked at him, surprised about the offer, "It is kind of you, but I did volunteer to cooperate and have to get used to working with Cardassians. You are trying to surmount your own distrust and resentment of us." Not that yours is in any way justified. He pushed back his chair, joined Bertos and Roval. "We may as well do this together."

In the meantime, Melset saw Selon come into her office. "You are back! But," she checked the personnel roster, "You had four more weeks left before taking up duty here. Has something happened?" she asked, concerned.

"No, everything is all right. My wife and children are staying with friends until I return, but I wanted to inform you in person." She could see he was uncertain of how to give her the news.

Melset closed the door to her office which normally was always open in accordance with her people's custom of observing everything that was going on. "To judge by your expression it must be very serious indeed."

"We made a side-trip to a colony world just outside the former demilitarised zone to visit my nephew who lives there. We went into some shops to look around, only to see that goods from which the SFHS symbol had been removed were being offered for sale. As I am Bajoran and Bajorans hate Cardassians, there was no attempt to deny the provenance of the merchandise, only the words, 'what do they need this for?' Jerod Nerbor found out that these goods were delivered via a Trill merchant who had acquired them from yet another source. Gul Melset, I know you stick to hierarchies, but thought a Bajoran's protest would carry more weight, thus bypassed you. Remember Gart? His former partner, Kelgan, was just concluding a sale but overheard the comment. He insisted on co-signing the note of protest to SFHS - Earth." He shook his head, amused in spite of himself. "I quote: 'They say how moral they are, are contemptuous of our Rules, and yet imitate us!'"

At remembering Gart's and Kelgan's visits on Earth, Melset suppressed amusement. At times, they had more than slightly unnerved the human staff with their persistence in trying to establish business contacts; their show of disappointment at not succeeding had always been worth seeing.

"Selon, you know you have the authority; I may be Cardassian, respect the chain of command; however, this is not a military organisation. As individuals working for a common goal, we can accomplish much more. You should know I trust you implicitly." Selon went to open the door, then he and Melset discussed the interviews that had been effected with four potential employees.

Both of them looked up at seeing the group enter the main room, watch the activity around them. In spite of the wide range of projects, everything was running smoothly, repartition of goods was determined according to need and the agency's projections, regardless of the worlds' affiliations or staff members' personal preferences. "Seems there's trouble," was Melset's comment.

Remosi, Bertos and Roval knew everyone was working on a tight schedule, so waited patiently. There was always unceasing activity at SFHS. Glancing over into the office, they saw Melset quickly talk to Selon who went out to meet them, saying, "We've finished; sorry to have kept you waiting."

It was Chief Remosi who stated the request. "Yes. We have to speak either with Gul Melset, Andrews or you. The matter is of some sensitivity." He looked over into the office and saw her speak into the commlink before turning to a computer array, input details, respectively open contact between the speaker and another office.

"She should have the time. If you wait a moment?" He went back in and they heard a rapid exchange in Bajoran. Selon returned. "She'll be with you at once. Excuse me, but I have to take care of a delivery." Selon went into one of the other offices and sat down at a terminal.

"Mr Remosi, Bertos and Roval, can I help you?"

"Yes. Do you have a minute, Gul Melset? We have information for you."

"Of course. Come in. I can make the time." Without another word, Melset went into the ready room and sat down, waiting. Bertos first gave her his information - good news, seemingly, as she smiled very slightly. Moments later she addressed the Security Chief. "Mr Remosi, I fear I already know what you, Bertos and Roval want to report. The Organizers of Loo'Wess City and Province notified me some days ago. I trust you have begun inquiries?"

"Yes, and have found out no Bajorans are involved. Guls Madred, Masok and Torel have established the disparities; I will expedite a copy of their and our findings to SFHS - Earth for the agency to double-check prior to tracing the deliveries. The findings have already been registered on the main computer. Security will be stepped up."

As if to herself, she said, "I should not be surprised after having heard some comments. If this had not occurred, it would have been quite unusual."

His reply was a questioning glance, especially when he saw Bertos' and his colleague's renewed tension.

Melset was incredulous. "You haven't heard what is being said? Then you have met very kind people indeed! 'Why help the Cardis? Brutes, with no sense of decency, who have committed the most inconceivable atrocities imaginable, they should be left to cope on their own, especially after having joioned the Dominion in a destructive war for control of the Quadrant.' And that is one of the kind statements. For many, each delivery to Cardassia is one delivery too many."

Recognizing that Melset was disguising her distress about the extent of the diversions, the Security Chief waited for a few moments before stating, "The scope of assistance was established by a commission, so there can be no excuse for these actions. Bertos and I have received respectively found enough details to make it possible to trace the instigators, bring them to justice and determine the stations and freighters where the illicit beamouts took place."

"Reminds me of what happened after the Klingon invasion, the theft of those replicators by the Maquis. Eddington even justified it: 'the Federation is hoping the Cardassians will ask for admission to the Federation if they are given assistance'. He despised the 'insidious policies of the Federation, this organisation's kindness, helpfulness, readiness to forgive and forget'. For him it was a ploy to win new members." Melset looked at him directly. "Mr Remosi, this is a private comment: I respect you for trying to overcome your justified resentment of my people. For that I am deeply thankful, as well as for you acceding to my request for a member of your personnel some weeks ago. My Bajoran contacts informed me about your home province's experiences with our forces."

He could only stare at her before saying, "What happened was evil, but we have to learn to see beyond the propaganda, the Occupation. See the people, not the enemies." How to do that... After six decades of occupation, the most horrendous kind of suppression and terror imaginable...

It seemed she guessed what he was thinking. "It is difficult. I spent a year on Bajor after proposing your people become allies; I thought that so determined a resistance could only be offered by a strong people. That proposal was deemed treasonous... After interrogation I was left near a village that harboured résistance fighters to be killed by them... They let me live, although some questioned the wisdom of showing compassion for an enemy. What I saw and experienced while there showed me the truth about your people. We, too, have to reconsider our own perceptions of those who have come to help us, and overcome differences," she replied. "Now, I have already discussed the matter with Federation representatives on Terok Nor and Commander Kira, contacted Deep Space 27 and 26, the depot on Celtris 1. They are putting tracers on deliveries to our worlds, which, to simplify matters, will be sent to one central depot before repartition. Within four weeks we should have the first results. Private initiatives have contracted with our own agencies to cut down on the number of stations between the supplies' origin and their destination. Fortunately, deliveries to other recipient worlds have not been touched."

"Should we have the results of the research transmitted directly to your offices?"

"It may be a lengthy process, so updates every week suffice. I can only hope the problem will be resolved soon. And, see to it that this matter is considered classified; no mention made either on the station, or on Cardassia Prime, or to any of the branches of the repartition centres, lest those involved be warned and cease operations for the duration, only to resume their activities once supervision is reduced."

"The only ones who know at present is SFHS, the main depots, this branch and your contacts onworld. They have made the same request," was Remosi's reply. "I expect it is a mixed group, especially as I have heard quite a few comments on the wisdom of helping your people; they did not come from representatives of one population alone."

Calm acceptance should be best - anger or outrage will immediately evoke the image of the Arrogant Cardassian. "As hard as it is to admit to the facts, Chief Remosi, remember how many peoples suffered from our incursions. Whoever says all the atrocities and destruction committed during the Dominion War or older events should be forgiven and forgotten is naive. This person lacks understanding for the victims' view, has never suffered from any form of suppression or terror. That makes it all too easy to tell the victims to 'give up their hatred and resentment.' We were the aggressors."

Bertos recognized her tactic and added, "Indeed. Chief Remosi, how do you think we consider the Klingons? When we heard about Melset's friends in the Empire who were offering to transport goods in the beginning, we nearly questioned her patriotism."

Chief Remosi nodded in agreement. "We'll just have to wait for more information."

Another message came in and, their purpose fulfilled, the three went back out to their respective stations. All that could be done now was to wait and observe, respectively to follow any leads that could help find those responsible.

Some hours later, Melset contacted Garak. "Melset here. There is a matter to discuss." She made a barely noticeable gesture to show the message was for him alone.

Garak effected the necessary modifications. "Let me guess. You have just been informed that goods are being liberated. My fellow organizers and I have been active for some time already, Gul Masok has obtained the first leads. We agreed to wait until we were sure." He added, "We have to phrase our protest very carefully and present as much evidence as possible. Do you have details for us?"

She nodded. "Selon, Remosi and Bertos have just given me facts. Transmitting." Melset waited until Garak notified her that the data had arrived, then informed him. "Selon and one Ferengi, Kelgan, have already sent a message of protest to SFHS."

"And those people should be the only individuals who are informed. Under no circumstances should the matter become public knowledge, for obvious reasons. Garak out."

Roughly a month later, Gul Madred contacted Melset to report. "You will be pleased to hear that the leak has been traced, the criminals caught in the act, and arrested together with their co-perpetrators. They already are on Starbase 25 where the trial will take place. No interrogation was necessary as the confessions recorded in the course of pre-trial investigations suffice for accusation. Our demand to have the trial on Cardassia Prime has been rejected, although we are the injured party but the chief organizers, the twelve of us, have been requested to attend. I already have a team to take over our respective duties for the necessary time."

Finally! I never did expect the Federation to manage so rapidly! "Who was involved?"

"Quite an assorted group. Four Vulcans, about fifteen humans, three Betazoids, even two or three unjoined Trill who, in various depots, misdirected the goods to interested traders. Hoping for lighter sentences, these too confessed at once; denounced the others," Madred stated contemptuously. "Even if not, there would have been no real interrogation, only the hope they 'would see the error of their deeds and regret them.'"

"The Starbase is too far off for you to attend the trial," Melset commented. "It would seem they are trying to conceal some facts."

The Order member commented smugly, "Not at all. When I mentioned this suspicion, there was shocked denial followed by a frantic search for alternatives. Gul Torel has cleared the question of transport with Starfleet Headquarters. We will travel on his cruiser." Madred pressed a button to make it impossible to record either what he was going to say next or Melset's comments; both pretended annoyance at having the transmission disrupted by interference. "Garak has advised us not to accept the quarters offered us on the Starbase, only observe the trial, and have meals in the Starbase's lounge. We will leave in ten days. Suggestions?"

"Yes. The militaries attending the trial should not wear uniform, but their oldest civilian clothing. Show neither resentment nor anger, only disappointment that the Federation has people capable of stealing from those in need. I have an idea as to the sentence. Federation law permits the injured party to make a suggestion, provided it is not a Cardassian-style sentence."

"Finally. The malfunction is over! You were saying?"

She exclaimed, "This is most kind of the Federation to let us send observers, come with our own transport. They are true to their word."

"Indeed. We may have misjudged the UFP. It is far more benevolent than we ever thought. Madred out."

The door to her office slid open soundlessly to admit Myssiro. "I have heard there is news on the problem?"

"Yes. The perpetrators have been apprehended, evidence secured, they confessed at once. The Chief Organizers have been invited to attend the trial."

Myssiro said, "By the time the others come back, Retto will have returned. He contacted me yesterday, saying that the Vorta is on her way back to the Gamma Quadrant. No attempts were made to subvert the agreement you, Captain Patricks and the commander of Starbase 27 had."

"Positive news then."

"You aren't going to Starbase 25 to attend the trial?"

"No, Garak has the evidence, and I am a member of SFHS, not an organizer. The organizers onworld, Kelgan, Selon and others are witnesses. Perhaps Garak can spend a day or two on Deep Space 9 and give us a report on what happened."

The Orissà docked at Deep Space 9 a week after the trial had ended, and, curious, Melset, Bertos and Yung waited to see whether Garak would really put in an appearance. He came out last, looked around before entering the area of the Promenade.

"It appears I am facing a welcoming committee," was his comment.

"I considered it appropriate, considering your status as one of the three organizers in Loo'Wess City and Province," Melset replied. At his looking over at Bertos, she explained, "Bertos is employed at SFHS, as is Daryn, who is organizing delivery of goods for Betazed. Yung is assigned to the section seeing to aid for non-aligned worlds."

"Bertos, accompany Organizer Garak to SFHS while I arrange for guest quarters," with that, she left, but not before noticing that Bertos looked at her then at Garak as if he had realized something. Perhaps I should inform Dr. Bashir – he is Garak's friend…

The welcome Garak got was friendly, more so than any he had been given before. After exchanging greetings, when Melset had rejoined the staff with Dr. Bashir and Dax in tow, everyone wanted to know about the trial.

Yung asked at once, "Organizer Garak, how was it? We haven't heard anything yet. I hope those bastards pay for what they did."

Gardner suggested, "I'll set the communit on automatic. Let's take some downtime now and go to Quark's; we can catch up later. He told Garak, "He has an area that is always ready for us whenever we want to meet for a working lunch or whatever."

"I can imagine, with him listening in on the sly, looking to discover a potential deal."

Garak began his account, pretending not to see Quark who was rather busy not far from their group. "Each of the accused had a lawyer; even though they had confessed at once. In spite of that, the trial took nine days in all. During most of that time their lawyers tried to play down the crimes by taking alleged mental problems and psychosis due to wartime experiences into account. Or even emotional stress." Garak said incredulously. "How can someone not be held accountable for his crimes? The evidence we had was duly presented, yet again, its veracity was questioned, we asked whether we had not made errors. Natíma ruined that ploy: she had the records from day 1 up to the day of the trial. The lawyers for the defendants did everything they could to prove their clients innocent." The Cardassian staff was astonished about these strange ways, commented on them disbelievingly. Accusation – pronunciation of sentence – interrogation - short trial – delivery of sentence was the Cardassian way.

"It was a kangaroo court, to borrow one of your expressions, Mrs Yung. I assure you, an entirely different incident was embarrassing enough to make a difference." His expression became frighteningly vicious when he added, "One of the defendants was recognized as the man who had tried to buy the favours of a Cardassian woman in exchange for some extras, as he put it. The extras were also stolen from deliveries. Luckily, there were witnesses of the incident; they gave him a workover, then reported to a security base with him." Garak was very smug when he said, "She was invited along by Lako, who knew her testimony would be most useful."

To make a long story short, they were all found guilty with the sentence to be pronounced the next day." He looked over at Melset, "You will be pleased to hear that Lako made quite an impression when she presented your suggestion to the audience and the court; like you, she didn't need a translator." An amused smile, and he continued, "She stressed the fact that a veteran of the Border Wars had made it."

I quote: "Instead of doing time in a penal colony, our co-organizer suggested the perpetrators be given the option to make practical restitution by working with us, sharing the hardships we face on a daily basis, and thus get to know us as we really are. Monetary restitution? The value of the goods plus a fourth of the sum as compensation. This is not excessive and corresponds to the sentences we hand down to those guilty of infractions that do not harm all-Cardassia."

"How many were given the alternate sentence?" Landon inquired.

"Only eleven and the sentence was slightly changed: Those involved in active compensation, eight humans, a Vulcan and two of the Trill, remain under Federation jurisdiction, do their shifts, then are returned to the Federation base. Gul Madred, in his role of spokesman, accepted both the reasons and procedure."

"I think you will appreciate this: Torel notified us that the station commander asked him whether his cruiser could take on a load of goods: the first instalment of compensation for the stolen deliveries. He called it a gesture of good faith. Funds have been transferred to the Centre on Terok Nor to acquire basics such as rations, clothing, machinery and materials for reconstruction, additional water purification equipment. That Federation citizens liberated aid shook the authorities, who now fear for the Federation's image, especially as it was non-Cardassians who protested." He added, "And the offended woman was accorded compensation for – listen to this: mental cruelty and verbal injury." So, this is what happened." Without turning around, Garak said, "Now, Quark, are you satisfied with my account?" He had noticed the Ferengi hovering nearby, listening for useful details.

"Organizer Garak, Kelgan was involved in revealing the thefts and in the protest. And for us, it is good for business." Quark rubbed his hands and grinned, "No Ferengi were involved, so we won't be barred from trade with Cardassia once it resumes."

The others at SFHS got up and suggested, "Melset, you most likely have some details to discuss with your colleague. We'll take over for you; Garak said he has to return this evening. See you tomorrow. We have sent the latest reports to your annex. The compensation has already arrived, so you and Garak can see what is needed."

They went into to the living area of her quarters and Garak followed Melset's glance. "Loo'Wess was impressive, wasn't it?"

Melset nodded mutely.

"Now? Heaps of ruins, some new buildings as planned, six resettlement camps... Normalcy is a long way off. By entering that Alliance, Dukat signed the old Cardassia's death warrant..." Again some moments of silence. "Only weeks before Bajor's application for admission to the United Federation of Planets, the ancient city of B'ahalla was discovered, Captain Sisko saw it in a vision. Primitive superstition certainly was not but superstition in this case."

"A Bajoran contact told me that the Emissary had mentioned a cloud of locusts hovering over the city, then flying to Cardassia. Realizing what the vision meant, he advised against signing the application, as otherwise Bajor would be destroyed."

"And if one of the witnesses had warned us, we would not have taken it seriously; Gul Dukat, Detapa, Central Command, the civilian population, all would have called it primitive superstition, the one bringing the warning declared insane and handed over to the Order for treatment. He would not have survived," was Garak's comment.

"Only ten years ago, I would not have reacted any differently. We derided Bajoran culture and religion; any such warning would have been seen as an effort to weaken us, bring us down to their level. The Bajorans in SFCCEI invited me to view the reports about the rediscovered city, the Emissary's vision, the locusts…" She fell silent, uneasy, remembering her reaction to the report.

"I know, our pride, our feeling of superiority... We had the greatest culture in the Quadrant, but to attain this, we exploited other worlds, entered unions yet distrusted our allies, had contempt for 'lesser' peoples. In essence, your suggestion made sense."

"Now let's see what has arrived on the account, shall we?" was her suggestion.

After arguing about priorities and discussing with whom to effect deliveries, the suggestions were sent to Natíma Lang's office and stored in SFHS' annex. It would be to the organizers onworld to effect the next steps.

"Kept to the time I had allotted to this." Melset looked over at Garak, "You have an appointment at the replimat."

"Ah, do I?"

"Indeed. His shift has just ended. Now, for an hour or two, I will be under his radar for once. He had my annex blocked for 26 hours at the beginning of my duties here."

Early next morning, station time, Melset accompanied Garak to the docking ring.

"Gul Torel did not remove a single one of your surveillance devices," Garak stated amusedly. "The few Starfleet personnel allowed on board to effect repairs got a rude surprise when they were warned away from some restricted areas and saw no Cardassians nearby." Garak smiled, "Two recruits got quite a bit of entertainment from their reactions.

"I also have a message from Jonar Vedray; his cousin Gadrin Nadroy and Gul Berak are alive. Vedray managed to find him in Varon Province where he and Berak are working to establish a government in Tarim Province, push resettlement efforts in both regions. Gadrin left the military to support his family when his father was killed in battle, worked in weapons research, had quite a reputation for inventiveness." As to security, we have managed to find some few operatives in the meantime. It is best for us to keep a low profile so that certain elements feel safe."

"How much has happened since we fought side by side…. for Cardassia." Her shoulders appeared to sag very slightly when she added, "What you told me about Central Command and the Order was corroborated by reliable sources. I have also been given details about my recruitment." A low sigh, "We are Cardassians, accept everything."

"Haven't we all made our experiences and been forced to give up cherished beliefs, my dear Inìki Melset?"

She felt him touch her hand very quickly, looked up at him. They walked on in silence.

At the docking ring Garak had some last information. "Melset, I'll contact you as soon as I have arrived on Cardassia Prime. The teams have begun removing the rubble from what remains of Obsidian Order Headquarters. That building was exceedingly well protected, so more may have been preserved than we dare hope. As only very few high-level agents are left, excavation will advance very slowly. I will notify you; as a member of the Order, you should observe procedure and help register the finds."

"It's regrettable most agents were killed in the Gamma Quadrant; the destruction of the Obsidian Order was the beginning of the end."

Garak inclined his head in agreement. "And I was kept from annihilating the Founders' sanctuary when we took Odo back to be cured. Worf refused to listen to my warnings, thought Sisko's and Bashir's lives more important than the safety of the Alpha Quadrant... But what has been done, has been done. Be brave, Melset."

With that, he left the station and Melset went to the offices of SFHS. Selon was in her office and showed her various forms to be countersigned that had arrived the evening before. "As none of these have a deadline, Andrews and I left them for you."

At seeing her turn to the array of padds, Selon explained, "For the most part, these are resettlement projects, including housing and infrastructure, lists of individuals with much-needed areas of competence who have volunteered to go wherever they are needed. And, guess what? We have been given DNA scanners which will make it easier to reunite families and process those tissue samples to finally identify casualties." He had still more news, "Yung and Johnson want you to know that Lissepia and Betazed no longer need assistance, have been taken out of the database."

"In roughly another two years, this will have been the case with nearly all Federation worlds and systems," was her reaction, "And we are doing all we can do to become independent of assistance little after."

When Gul Madred contacted SFHS, he reached Myssiro and gave his report, "Our technicians have managed to repair, respectively rebuild generators in a number of provinces. Other utilities are being examined, repaired if possible and, ideally, reactivated on an experimental basis; it indeed seems less has been destroyed than feared as the debris shielded these installations which were underground anyway. The main problem remains housing, infrastructure and recreating our industrial base and economy. Transmitting files." The officer rapidly pressed some keys on his commlink.

A moment later, Myssiro called over from his station, "Message received and registered," then said, "Every report with positive news gives more incentive to continue."

"Indeed."

"Your information will be processed immediately. Myssiro out." Opening Madred's file, he quickly read the main details.

The information Gul Madred and Garak had jointly transmitted showed reconstruction would possibly advance more quickly than hoped. The piles of rubble? Still massive, but each transmission showed progress.

Myssiro, Andrews and Melset, together with other staff involved in the projects, considered the screen showing resettlement programmes, taking notes, copying requirement lists. Roughly fifteen months after The Defeat, areas such as Kelan, Lesana, Varon, Baryn and Saranji Provinces, were making rapid progress thanks to one of the replicators the Bajorans had given Cardassia.

In the current, beginning phase of reconstruction, Cardassian tenacity and determination saw advances on all fronts. However, improving the situation in the Union as a whole would remain an uphill battle for years to come.

Talik commented, "New encampment in Varon Province: Evacuees from Rodinian City plan to build a settlement there to be followed by five others within a little under a year. The list addresses the usual considerations: food, water, shelter, energy, infrastructure; for now they are dependent on field rations, some living in domes given by the Federation, a few in makeshift shelters..." He fell silent, quickly reading the information as it scrolled down the screen.

"The depot is still waiting for some deliveries to arrive. Those delays! With the loss of starships, even freighters, progress is so very slow, and that throughout the Alpha Quadrant," was Andrews' comment.

The group went over to the other screen where Talik and Gardner were working; it displayed a list of available goods in the four main depots. "I am to give this to you. For some reason it was sent to OPS." Ismit Daryn entered to give Selon a padd which he passed on to Andrews after giving it a cursory glance, "Look at this! The Vulcan centre has sent enough shelters to house the volunteers in Varon Province." Andrews commented to Selon in a low whisper, "Why they are sending them? It is illogical to retain elements which we no longer require. They are on loan, from the Federation, to be returned once your situation has normalised.' They appear to know about Cardassian thought patterns."

Melset looked over curiously at noticing Andrews, Selon and Myssiro were smiling about something. "What is that? Let me see..."

Anfrews held out the padd. "Read this, Melset. You will appreciate the details, I think."

She took it and laughed with pleasure, "261 domes! As far as I know 69 of the volunteers are family units, the others can share them in groups of six to preclude overcrowding, housing up to 1400 individuals, as they already have 56. Eliminate the makeshift homes. How are developments in Varon Province anyway?"

Further planning took hours, with nearly all of the personnel of the Terok'Nor branch of SFHS modifying the plans already in effect. Commander Kira came by and, at the staff's invitation, joined in the discussion of options suggested. Nearly a decade ago, her own people had been in nearly the same situation. After cooperating with Damar, at seeing how determinedly the Cardassians had fought for their freedom, she now interacted with individuals, although the distrust remained.

The team had soon outlined procedure, apart from some revisions to be followed by the usual requirement lists before implementation, so they put the work on hold and left for quarters, as most of them had put in yet another triple shift. While waiting at the Replimat, Melset was joined by a Bajoran couple; they took a table together to discuss developments.

"On Bajor, even with destruction not as great as on Cardassia, it took nearly eight years to recover from the Occupation. Even now, there are difficult periods, but no starvation like after Liberation," said Lytos Daniro. "The Defeat was a little over a year ago, hit your entire Union. If you consider everything, progress is relatively fast."

"Your people's situation after withdrawal was bad enough," was Melset's reaction, then she added, "According to the coordinators, the most serious problems..." Overtired, she lost track, hesitated, then continued, "Most still have only a minimum of food and clothing, provisional housing, yet, we always had to improvise. Without aid, our death toll would continue to mount. The Vedeks of Yarim's and Serad's order immediately contacted Federation agencies after convincing the opposition that assistance was a sacred duty."

Lytos Amina nodded, "The Texts say that when an enemy is in need, you must not abandon him. That is an integral part of our beliefs." Amina exchanged glances with her husband. "We have information for you: One of Daniro's relatives has volunteered together with two friends. As far as I know, they'll arrive here in about two or three days. Before transfer, he wants to contact you either here or on Cardassia. He was in the Résistance, has skills you can possibly use. After withdrawal, its members were invaluable."

"That reminds me… Are deliveries still being sabotaged? I remember that supply ships were delayed or blocked for inconsequential reasons," was Daniro's query.

"No, that problem has been solved, fortunately. It did take some rather energetic protests on the part of SFHS; Commander Kira as well as Shakaar had a few words to say. Their voices carry remarkable weight." Melset added, "In spite of her experiences, the Commander tries to understand how hard it is for us to request and accept help. She has my respect."

Together, they rose and went to the habitat ring, still talking about the situation on Bajor, and about the most positive news of all: in roughly a year, Bajor would reactivate its application for Federation membership.

Melset spent another hour outlining possibilities suggested by the conversation with Lytos Amina and Daniro, then turned in. Hours later, the hum of the communicator roused her. "Melset here."

"This is Natíma Lang. Your presence will be required in roughly a week to inspect the new settlement in Varon Province first hand before submitting a detailed report to SFHS. Garak is in Locaris Province, Madred on his way to Lesana, the others scattered all over Cardassia Prime. No one else is available at the moment." Natíma transmitted some elements of data before continuing, "We need far more staff as everyone is seeing to multiple procedures. Most of the population is still involved in cleanup operations, which makes it difficult to find additional organizers. Everyone recognizes the importance of our work, but wants to prepare for reconstruction."

"Understood. Notify Garak to expect a delivery of 150 domes to the settlement he is supervising within the next two weeks. They are from Vulcan. We are transferring the other 119 to Varon Province to supplement those the Federation has donated and eliminate those homes made of debris."

She heard the beep of a commlink, followed by, "Lang, message from Quinor."

"Coming. I await your report, Gul Melset. Lang out."

The next morning, she showed the recording to Andrews who handed her a rod. "Melset, you have been assigned a SFHS runabout - quicker than the freighter you were to take. Allocation was cleared with SFHS Central after stressing that our staff is stretched to the limits."

"Thank you. Do you have the time to accompany me?"

"Unfortunately, I cannot be spared at the moment," He showed her the work waiting for him, then added, "I've arranged for the Bajoran volunteers to travel with you so that you can change shifts. Lytos Daniro has contacted me."

"So that's solved." Melset preferred to be seen with offworlders, especially Bajorans as it surprised Federation staff into greater willingness to grant requests or treat her and her fellow coordinators with slightly less distrust.

Unexpected Cooperation

With that they took up the next phase of organization, this time the entire staff was planning deliveries of assistance for a number of Federation worlds, but the procedures were interrupted when a message from the Starship that was on its way to Deep Space 9 came in. "Captain Patricks here. Our ETA is 28 hours. We will beam up supplies for Cardassia and Khobeeria, then carry on to Betazed. I have been informed that one SFHS personnel accompanied by three volunteers has the same destination. We can take them and their runabout on board to save time."

Within half a day, it had arrived; supplies were transferred to the vessel's cargo holds; little later, Melset and the Bajorans were notified to report to the transporter bay for beam-up.

When they materialized on board, the commander who had come to welcome them did a double take then said, "Welcome aboard. Transit will take roughly fifty-two hours, so quarters are reserved for you."

Lytos exchanged a furtive glance with Melset, then introduced his companions. "My name is Lytos Andran, and these are my fellow volunteers Shiron Yisach and Edras. You may already know Melset Iníki. We thank you for your help."

The intercomm activated. After a quick exchange, Captain Patricks returned, saying, "My second-in-command has placed one of the computer annexes at your disposal in case you have details to discuss."

"We thank you for your assistance, Captain Patricks. Every minute counts." Shiron again exchanged glances with Melset, who explained, "We do have experience with the difficulties involved in large-scale reconstruction, but in this case cultural differences have to be taken into account."

"Of course. Ensign Thompson, accompany them and give them the access code for the replicator." He looked at Melset, evaluating her. That Cardassian is treating those Bajorans like equals. "We don't have Cardassian options, but the others are 'neutral'."

As they walked through the corridors, Melset said nothing, hiding irritation. Help the poor starving Cardassian, that's so gratifying for you, isn't it... The human's surprise at her letting Lytos speak for the group had annoyed her.

One of her companions touched her arm, explaining in Bajoran, "The situation on your world is known. The Captain is surprised at our cooperation, due to our peoples' relations in the past."

She shrugged, "In my experience, many members of the Federation react to us either with resentment or exaggerated kindness now that the war is over. Your people never hid what you thought of us. That is best if relations are to normalize; disguising resentment and pretending all is perfect doesn't help overcome enmity."

"Be assured we have seen the same," was the comment. Shiron Edras looked around curiously, "Impressive. I hope we have some time to look at this ship. I only piloted one of those small suborbital flyers we used in the course of our activities..."

"They were highly effective, though, as flexible as those manning them. While on Bajor, I had occasion to see Bajoran piloting - it was astonishing. With only basic instrumentation, you followed the configuration of the land, literally hugging the ground to avoid detection," was Melset's comment. "Perhaps you can ask the Commander to assign you a crewmember for a guided tour."

"Here you are." Ensign Thompson gave them identification chips, "In case you want to rest, you need only insert them here for a diagram of the ship. You have adjacent quarters on the same deck. I'll notify you upon entering orbit around Cardassia Prime." He was fascinated by this group of three Bajorans and one Cardassian, cooperating without problems.

This time, Melset addressed him, "Thank you for this."

"You are welcome." He left, looking back just before leaving the lounge.

They took a table in a corner to discuss the Bajorans' areas of competence. The list was comprehensive indeed. Shiron Yisach stated with a grin, "Carpentry, building basic irrigation systems, farming, weaving, simple tailoring and constructing explosive devices. My brother, Edras, has nearly the same ones, except that he can, with assistance of course, build houses, simple, but solid. All of us are good at improvising."

Melset gave a nod of approval, "That expertise as to explosives may come in useful. Most of the ruins are masses of twisted girders which are extremely hard to remove. Your method would leave reusable scrap. The replicators can only process separated materials to produce elements for reconstruction. Of course, you will understand that it is best not to mention that one specific skill to the Legate. If the situation demands you produce such a device, all the better."

Shiron Edras and Lytos Andran laughed at her even reaction. They knew they were being watched. For them, covertly observing the reactions of the crew who were covertly observing them was entertaining.

In a low voice, Melset explained, "There is something else you must know. You will be in Legate Ertan's staff. I have already discussed the risk of attacks by misguided individuals whose suspicions about outside help and off-worlders, especially Bajorans may have increased. Even I was accused of being a traitor after telling survivors in Loo'Wess that off-world aid was underway. Only the fact Damar was my brother and Garak spoke for me made them willing to accept what my contacts were offering. Rations, medical assistance, shelters, everything was considered with distrust."

Yisach replied, "Our reactions when the Federation came in after Withdrawal were no different. Many of us, including Kira and Shakaar, were concerned the Federation's presence would mean renewed occupation; not as devastating as the preceding one, but one that would make us lose our identity as Bajorans. We'll think of our own reactions when dealing with the settlers in Varon Province."

Edras waited for a moment, then added, "Our help has two effects: the help proper, but also a form of benign revenge."

"Ah? Please explain," Melset was intrigued.

"Help an enemy, and he will be shamed by the help given and suffer the indignity of being indebted to the person he harmed or planned to harm." The Bajorans waited for her reaction.

"Most clever. You have indeed exacted revenge as none of us can deny that your willingness to assist us had others follow suit, listen to moderate voices rather than to those who would have preferred withholding any form of aid." She made a gesture that implied thankfulness. "And we never forget who has helped us, both as individuals and as a people."

Lytos replied, "Perhaps, only perhaps, the Quadrant will find lasting peace. If no assistance was given, abject poverty and despair would be the rootstock for future conflicts."

She did not answer, only thought about the developments that had been set into motion.

Shortly after, Edras suggested, "I think we should take up the Captain's offer. You enjoy Bajoran foods?" Moments later, he returned with a selection they shared while discussing procedure so that work could begin immediately after beamdown. Examining the data on their padds, exchanging details, adding specifics was their routine during transit; contact with crewmembers was minimal, except when transmitting work projections to Cardassia Prime and the offices on Deep Space 9.

Slightly over two days later, the intercomm activated. "In orbit around Cardassia Prime. Gul Melset, stand by for communication from Varon I, Gul Ertan wishes to speak with you."

"Thank you. You can record the conversation for security reasons."

He stared at her in incomprehension, then remembered what he knew about her society, "No, we do not record communications unless absolutely necessary, for example in the course of negotiations." He quickly input a code, "Contact effected, Gul Melset." With that he left.

"Melset here."

Within moments Legate Ertan appeared on the screen. "Legate Ertan, the Bajoran volunteers are ready to beam down." She gave him a list of their skills, neglecting to mention the small explosives. "I repeat: provide adequate security for these men. Misunderstandings or conflicts must be avoided at all costs; they are trustworthy and their skills invaluable."

Legate Ertan nodded. "I assure you that their safety is guaranteed. My staff has been informed, is prepared to cooperate; each man will be discreetly accompanied by a guard at all times. Legate Ertan out."

Melset turned to the Bajorans. "There, done. In roughly a week I will spend a few hours in Varon Province; perhaps we can meet then. Success."

"Success to you and to your people." In silence, they went to the transporter room. As soon as the Bajorans had left, Melset went to the docking bay where an ensign, a technician, was waiting for her.

"Everything is in perfect working order. The Captain told us to give the runabout a basic check." He accompanied her to the small vessel, unobtrusively ensuring she would not be able to get a closer look at the machinery and instruments in the bay.

Ignoring this fact, the Cardassian smiled in thanks, quickly glanced at the name tag on his uniform. "A wise precaution, Ensign Kendor. I will have extensive travelling to do." After a moment, she added, "Thank you for your assistance." She quickly gave Kendor a slip of latinum, whispering, "I know your customs." With that, she got in, contacted the bridge. "Captain Patricks, this is Gul Melset. Ready to debark."

"We have already beamed down personnel to relieve those who have been on-world, and shall remain in orbit for two days before continuing to the next world, then return in approximately a week. You will be notified in case you plan to return with us. Opening docking bay, prepare for departure." Once clear of the ship, she briefly kept the runabout's speed below impulse, wanting to see her world from standard orbit. From up here, Cardassia is as beautiful as I remember it... She activated the autopilot. In some years, circumstances will have greatly improved... After reporting in, she was soon involved in current projects.

The Cardassian military who was guarding the commlink in the dome went to her office and told her: "Transmission from Headquarters, Gul Melset. Legate Ertan wishes to notify you about the situation in Varon Province."

"Coming." Each communication meant more duties, more planning, reports that were difficult to read although she and her fellow coordinators had become inured to reports of explosions of abandoned ordnance which claimed further lives, or the discovery of people for whom help had come too late. At times, however, there were details that offered some hope.

"Thank you, Kemir." When the soldier turned to leave to ensure privacy, she shook her head, "No, stay. There is nothing classified in these communications; under circumstances, there may be factors which you, as a fellow Kelani, can help outline as our ethnicity has slightly different ways of resolving problems."

Kemir nodded. She knew the young troop was still hoping some members of his family who had lived in Baryn Province, were alive. He himself had been assigned to Gul Renor's ship and was one of the very few troops and officers who had managed to reach escape pods before the cruiser disintegrated under fire. A Federation battlecruiser's captain had them on board in spite of the danger lowering shields meant in the fray, and for once, Cardassians were welcomed like Federation personnel, not enemies.

The screen cleared. Legate Ertan was an older military she did not remember from her time of active duty. With the devastating loss of personnel, even retired officers had been recalled to work in whatever capacity they could fill. His exhaustion was obvious in spite of his attempt to conceal it when he reported. "Gul Melset, we have received information as to the population of Baryn Province: 1.100.000 survivors at last count. They are being relocated to the areas closest to the regional military bases in that province to facilitate distribution of assistance. The first contingents of people, about 600 each, families and individuals who have volunteered, are working with troops stationed there to erect the shelters we have been sent from Vulcan. We shall transmit the lists of survivors to the other centres as soon as registration is concluded."

"Have you been successful at repairing and reactivating equipment for energy production or water purification?" Epidemics that would spread all too quickly due to the eradication of all health systems and the weakened state of survivors were one of the main concerns.

"Every installation has been eliminated. The central power plant? It has been replaced by a crater the size of at least five cruisers. To quote your Bajorans, it looks like a potential centre for aquaculture." He gave her a wry grin, "Their procedures are far different to ours, but it has already become obvious these men are very flexible and excellent at improvising. One of them, Yisach Edrin, possesses medical knowledge which has already come in useful and earned him the gratitude of two families. I watched him: he knows how to approach those who need help."

Legate Ertan responded to a query in the background before continuing, "There is mutual suspicion and distrust, but they have defused it slightly since their arrival a week ago by complying with our methods, ceding when our operators want to do things our way, watch them closely, say they want to learn our methods. This and their competence are a basis for cooperation. Once there is more information I shall contact either you or Garak. Ertan out."

Once alone, Melset felt despair in spite of the positive news and the fact there were no conflicts between the volunteers and Ertan's group. There was progress, but it was an uphill battle. After seeing places she had known before such as cities in Kelan and Lesana Provinces, Loo'Wess and Locarian City reduced to rubble, sensing the organizers' unspoken fear that all efforts could be in vain she nearly lost hope. Over a year after Defeat the number of dead was still rising. Each encampment had a relocation centre for individuals and displaced families, for orphaned children. However families were being reunited. The Organizers exchanged lists of evacuees to help trace the missing. But many remained unaccounted for.

She started at hearing someone enter and turned to see one of the human volunteers.

"My name is Arnold Stimson. I'm sorry for coming in unannounced, but staff asked me to give this to you." He showed identification before handing her a padd from SFHS, which displayed diagrams of potential installations and connections, roads that could be repaired, emplacements for new settlements.

"How are you coping with all of this? We will be leaving soon, but you, you are confronting hardship on a permanent basis."

"We have to cope, Mr. Stimson. When conditions become too overwhelming, we leave for some moments, then return to duty. You have your counsellors. Our counsellor is duty alone. I know what image we have, but we have the same feelings as you. The difference is that we do not show them in public." She met his eyes. "Our precept is, 'Knowledge is power, joy is vulnerability'. Believe me, we could use some joy now... Our old way of life is gone; we have to recreate everything. But for now, survival has priority. The organizers are constantly exchanging data, negotiating for deliveries, exchanging goods." She fell silent, thinking: and searching for the traitor who denounced the resistance movement Damar had created with Kira's and Garak's support.

He realized that underneath their reptilian exterior her people were not so very different, remembered the report he had read about Picard's encounter with the projection of the Seeder. And yet, some races had such alien concepts, such a different mentality that it was all too easy to consider them evil, contemptible. "The determination and cooperation I have seen here are impressive; I have had to reconsider my own view of your people in the course of the past week. Before, I had only encountered Cardassians in the Border Wars; my uncle was killed in the Setlik III massacre. Reports on your aggressive expansionist wars, and exploitative treatment of subjected peoples were our source of information."

"And this last war made the preconceptions more pronounced. We always felt threatened by the Federation which seems and seemed so wealthy; we could not understand why we had to fight to keep our systems on the border. Loss of autonomy is what we now fear most. According to our ethics, you have to return a favour or remain dependent on the giver." She looked away briefly, saying, "The Federation has scanned our worlds and now knows what we always tried to conceal from outsiders, why we had to expand our territory."

"Indeed, we could have helped reactivate mines; those scanned are played out for the most part. All these years, we only knew about your xenophobia and brutality towards prisoners, your arrogance. When we first heard about the Cardassian Union, we expected negotiations, trade agreements, a possible alliance, never attacks. It was years before we ever did see you face to face, and then it was in battle."

"Not the best time to establish amicable relations, is it..." Melset checked a readout on the communit, "It is time to meet the delegation from Varon 3, 5 and 7." She left the dome together with Stimson, "In our experience negotiations never produced enough results to make them worthwhile. Our pattern was 'attack to take what you want, enter alliances with those who are equals in combat or recognize our superiority.' Now we are reduced to negotiating for our very survival. We are thankful for the Federation's willingness to assist us, even though this is not mentioned openly. Rebuilding on our own as some would prefer? It would take generations and cost too many lives. Even though you cannot give us much because many of your own worlds have suffered heavy damage and casualties, our determination will make the least donation count." As an afterthought, she added, "Our cities were so beautiful, especially the capital Loo'Wess; now parts of its oldest and most impressive residential quarters have been destroyed, become swamps."

He looked at Melset as they went out to meet the others. Not as xenophobic as her compatriots, but very hard to read although she seems slightly more open than most of the others. Gupta had told him she had been stationed on Earth for nearly six years, returning immediately after the Defeat. The Commander of SF-SFCCEI had seen to her transferral to SFHS on Deep Space 9. How did my world and its people seem to you? Perhaps I can find out sometime.

A Cardassian shuttle landed near the camp and three people got out.

"Ah, here they are. Please wait here just a moment, Mr. Stimson." Melset went over to address the arrivals, "Lako, Berin, Endras, welcome to Varon 1." She indicated the human. "This is Mr Stimson, a Federation observer. He is to write a report for SFHS Central and various private initiatives."

The two men and the woman considered Melset and Stimson expressionlessly, then Lako inclined her head, "Come." Stimson noticed that, even though they treated each other like equals, the military had higher status. Yet, to judge by her attitude, Melset recognized the civilians as leaders in their own area of competence.

At seeing his curiosity, Lako explained, "Military and Order members ensured Cardassia's safety and stability, as did the Detapa Council and regional governments. These institutions cooperated to keep all-Cardassia safe." Lako was trying to alleviate distrust by means of information.

Together they went over to Berin and Endras, the group spokespeople who, in accordance with Gul Sherkan's advice, had outlined plans and assigned teams to clear the selected areas. After Stimson had been given a tour of the terrain whose conditions resembled those of the three proposed settlements, Berin showed him a map of the region before presenting an outline of future projects.

The next day, he departed; before signalling that he was ready to beam back up to the cruiser, he stood together with the Guls, discussing the situation, then offered, "I have a number of contacts, perhaps we can obtain more basics for you. The details I have been given combined with the holographs I have taken, should be useful. Much as Professor Lang's were over a year ago."

"You have our gratitude."

With that, he beamed up to the cruiser whereas the group went to the domes to transfer a report to the provisional government, complete with their evaluations of the situation.

In another year, we should be able to repatriate the Cardassian orphans who were left behind. Another step with its own risks but with its own greater potential for reconciliation.

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