AFTER WAR - Part 3 - Full Circle

Work in Loo'Wess had progressed so far three years after The Defeat that the task of clearing the underground complex of the Obsidian Order's buildings of debris was finally initiated. The area around this specific ruin was secured by a high fence topped by a force field, constantly patrolled by armed guards, the only entrance a gate with an adjoining security area where arrivals were submitted to exacting checks to prevent unauthorized entry. No one asked any questions about this specific area as it was officially declared under quarantine.

Those permitted on-site were members of the Order, civilian or military agents and liaisons exclusively, but this was a carefully-guarded secret. Nothing hinted at what these people really were as they looked and behaved like civilians …

"Should be stable now," some men had phasered part of a wall which was sagging inward to fuse the rock and keep the mass from collapsing on them all.

"Tekro and Goran, check the debris in that corner. We'll take over the pile here." suggested Terrek and waved his colleague Kalnor over, "We'll be done in some hours."

Pulling over a wheeled container, they began removing the debris piece by piece, placing whatever they found into three smaller containers according to undamaged – reparable – disposal. Finds would be received by a group stationed above ground and, at intervals, beamed to an undisclosed, heavily guarded location roughly a kilometre away which was manned by specialists.

"One room cleared… twenty more to go before attacking the next floor," was Tekro's comment.

"We'll be joined by more personnel in some hours, five to each room, as soon we have access." Goran said, leaning against a girder, "Not much in the pile we just examined," he commented before suddenly straightening and moving off, "That girder shifted! Fuse this section before the entire wall comes down on us!" He struck his commband, "Ressok, we have a problem."

The technician entered within minutes and looked around before giving his evaluation. "Dampening field down, detonations sheared off parts of the reinforcements so that they are useless. Only possibility: fuse the lot to stabilize the walls and ceilings temporarily. This building has to be deconstructed and fully rebuilt even to the underground area."

The men exchanged glances, thinking, The Dominion knew about the importance of this complex. The Order had a vast repository of cultural artefacts and other material that would be invaluable in future; by destroying this building and as much of the underground complex as possible, it wanted to destroy all information about our culture and history, leaving nothing to show what we had achieved

Ressok informed them, "We have decided to effect the work of stabilizing the walls and ceilings of each room before you advance; damage is so severe your work is too hazardous otherwise. After this room has been cleared, a larger team will be sent down to relieve you."

He then relaxed and inquired, "Material recuperated?"

"Not much. Most of what we have found is damaged to a greater or lesser degree," Goran reported. "An undetermined number of artefacts and data carriers are irreparably damaged, crushed or shattered. All finds have already been beamed over."

"It could be that more has been preserved on the lower levels which were not reached by the fires. The force of the detonations was attenuated as well, so we can only hope," was Terrek's hopeful comment.

"We always had two copies of originals, the most important material was stored on the lower floors. And there could well be caches in the passages connecting Central Command and the Order's complexes." Ressok fell silent. All of the agents knew of their institution's highly refined system which protected the most irreplaceable artefacts and records. Were all of these precautions enough in face of Dominion retaliation?

The group looked over to the door when a troop came in, "Twelve-hour shifts as of now. Your relief will come in half an hour."

In the hope of reaching the last floor of the subterranean area within a five-week period, the organizers had decided on larger teams, even though it was difficult to free agents from other projects where they were needed just as urgently.

As yet, they had reached but the second level, with eight more to go; although the finds were encouraging anyone could recognize how much was lost.

At Madred's express demand, Melset had arrived to assist in registering the finds, was a member of a group of specialists registering the finds and re-examining those that had been damaged. The building in which they worked was windowless, with thick walls, and ventilated by means of air compressors so that the air that came in was free of particulates; she suspected that it was underground to ensure secrecy. Not that the team consciously registered conditions; their task demanded unflagging attention to detail.

"Group 2 – shift over. Transfer duties to Group 3."

Finally! It was the thought they all had. Six hours of downtime… they went up the stairs in single file. For security reasons the stairwell was but 60 centimetres wide.

At reaching the surface, they were transported to a group of containers near the site where the Order building was being cleared. Melset saw a fellow Gul, accompanied by a contingent of alleged troops and specialists waiting to take over.

Melset looked at the officer more closely, Is this really Gul Ocett? The woman was haggard, her manner far more distant than before. No, it was the officer with whom she had often cooperated in past missions. "Gul Ocett? I did not expect to see you here!"

"Nor I you. Apparently both of us are liaisons…. We returned from Lavol yesterday after surveying the planet for damage. Condition as expected, but resettlement possible in a little over a year. Some months ago we were given a list of officers who had survived, heard of your returning from Earth; we are seeing to projects all over the planet and our systems."

"No true Cardassian would remain offworld at a time when we have to stand together to serve our Union. Duty to Cardassia supersedes all," was Melset's reply, "I wish Damar were alive; he had inside information that could helped help us further Cardassia's recovery."

The other inclined her head in agreement, "I was on base to pick up troops when Locarian City was destroyed and notified one of the glinns who, via closed channel, had direct contact to the guls fighting alongside the Dominion fleet. That city, all our cities, were attacked as if their population was of no relevance. The Breen and Jem'Hadar killed every Cardassian on sight, be it child or adult, civilian or military."

Noticing that Ocett avoided meeting her glance, she told her, "Gul Ocett, everyone knows what happened. The first reports broadcast for public viewing were transmitted to SFCCEI on Earth, where I was last posted."

"Guls Masok, Dal and I beamed down as soon as the Dominion Fleet was routed, took the remaining Jem'Hadar and Vorta prisoner; it was hard to resist eliminating the lot after what they had done.

Ocett's face was expressionless, her voice as though she was recounting facts not experiences; mentally reliving the scenes would have been unbearable. "We are taking over here. Perhaps we will be cooperating again?" She noticed that Melset, too, was marked by the events of the past four years. "I regret the loss of your brother and his family. We heard the news via Dominion channels."

Ocett's communicator activated, "Gul Masok here. You are authorized to enter the site - proceed to level three."

"Duty calls." Ocett saluted, shouted "Talsvar Kardassu!" nearly choking on the words that had always meant so much to her, and had now become a call of defiance in face of the destruction of all they had known and valued. Pensively, Melset watched her descend into the basement with her troops before joining her colleagues for some field rations, then go to the barracks to rest before the next shift.

Repatriation

Half a year before, Garak and Melset, together with Professor Lang and Gul Damar had notified Vedek Serad of Nevaris Village as well as Vedek Navri that the situation in Kelan-Lesana had improved enough for the first Cardassian war orphans to return. Now notification had arrived that a group of six was scheduled to arrive on Deep Space 9.

"Everything has been arranged; remember that we have agreed under the condition they live in Kelan-Lesana Province, among members of your ethnicity," said Vedek Serad.

"All is arranged; families have been found to host them until they have their own homes, they know what to expect and how to help them become part of our society." I wonder about his insistence on their living in that specific province… There must be some factor or another. No doubt I will be informed in good time.

Little later, she passed on the news, "Garak, your inquiry has been successful! Tomorrow Vedek Serad is scheduled to arrive on the station with six returnees. He said you mentioned those children you saw seven years ago; his contacts have found Cardassian orphans on Bajor who are willing to return. Again: those receiving them into their homes must consider they have been brought up as Bajorans; those under fifteen know only that language, and all of them worship the Prophets, know nothing about us except what they have been told by the Bajora with whom they associated."

"Done. I will contact you within the hour. As you are meeting Vedek Serad and the returnees on Terok Nor to accompany the young people to your home province you will be staying there for a short time. I am to go to Lesana for a few days before returning to Kelan Province. We can then discuss some things directly."

Now to wait. In spite of all the preparations, her concern was the inevitable mutual suspicion; at returning to SFHS, Melset informed her colleagues, then took up her work.

When the group was scheduled to arrive, Melset went to the docking ring and within moments of the locks rolling aside, heard a familiar voice call her name, saw Vedek Serad who was accompanied by six young Cardassians in Bajoran clothing.

"Vedek Serad, welcome to Deep Space 9."

"My child, I see you are well; the Prophets have been kind to you," he greeted her as though she were a fellow Bajoran.

"The situation is slowly improving; assistance and our habit of considering duty first have preserved us from even worse, even though the past three years have been extremely difficult." Curiously, she looked over at the six Cardassian adolescents who had arrived with him.

He now referred to his charges who were standing nearby in a tight group, looking around at the Promenade, at the many offworlders; for them it was an entirely new environment.

"These young people do things our way, know of no other. After over eleven years of living among us, they have become Bajorans in mind, customs and skills, only the older ones still have vague memories of what they had learned as children. You should be familiar with their form of Bajoran as they have grown up in the Relaketh Relocation Centre." He nodded at the adolescents who included a young couple that had made their commitment, "Come, children, there is nothing you need fear."

With some hesitation, they did so, eyeing the uniformed Cardassian female apprehensively.

"Their advantage is that, young as they are, they have a comprehensive academic education in addition to the information and abilities you need in the area of agriculture. They should have no problems being accepted and integrated: information in exchange for reintegration," was Serad's comment, delivered with a friendly smile.

In a very low voice, he explained, "They are uncertain about what they are now facing; none of them was pressured to come, all volunteered, but they are uneasy because they have grown up with accounts of the atrocities committed by Cardassian forces during the Occupation." He turned to them. "This is Melset Iníki; one of those who spoke for having you, the war orphans abandoned on Bajor after Withdrawal, return home to Cardassia, either for a brief time or permanently. She knows and respects our ways."

Wondering why his words evoked disquiet, Melset greeted them before turning to Serad, "They are so young! Will they have the resilience to cope with conditions? Mine is such a different world to the one which has given them a home. Yours has recovered from the Occupation, is peaceful, safe..., on Cardassia Prime, a little under three years after The Defeat, we are still working to eliminate the signs of destruction in most regions and initiate rebuilding. They will be living in Kelan-Lesana Province where some small settlements have already been built and the inhabitants are Kelani Cardassians for the most part. But their heritage has become alien to them; the attitude of some of my compatriots has not changed all that much in spite of our situation; our distrust has become even more pronounced. Even I was challenged; in former times, militaries were automatically trusted to see to the interests of Cardassia."

"I have been informed by Garak and have spoken to them so that they know what to expect and react accordingly. I must not forget: There are a number of others who want to follow once they hear how these ones have been received. A few are younger, the youngest is twelve, but surely families would be willing to take them in for some time in exchange for their skills or because they are fellow Cardassians? In a few years, they will establish families of their own, become one with your people."

The next day they met at the Janitza Hills restaurant; in the course of the meal she told the returnees. "You are Cardassian in appearance, but Bajoran in speech, manner and culture; this might prove disquieting for the others, perhaps result in some distrust and suspicion, but Vedek Serad has already informed you about this problem. I will be accompanying you; my parents are on site and will take two of you in; two neighbours will host the others and help you learn what you need to know. In case of suspicion; react as you would want to be treated by someone you do not know, may even fear to a degree."

The next morning Vedek Serad left; on the way back from the docking ring, Melset unobtrusively watched the young Cardassians following her, looking around uncertainly, trying to conceal their fear now that Serad, their last link with their adopted world, was on his way home. "You have nothing to fear," she told them in Bajoran. "We will leave for my home province in two days."

A Bajoran woman standing at a viewport glanced over at them, her expression a mixture of curiosity and, at seeing the uniformed female, resentment. Melset went over to her, indicating the group of Cardassians. "They are returning home, to Cardassia; they have been raised by Bajorans and fear what may be awaiting them; I ask you to do them a kindness before they leave for my world: show them the Temple Gates when they open to admit the ship that is to depart and pray with them to give them the strength to face their new life."

The woman eyed her suspiciously, uncertain about how to take the request then, realizing it was meant seriously, replied, "I shall do so," and addressed the adolescents, "Come. You will have the privilege of seeing the Celestial Temple; the recollection will be of comfort to you in your future home. The Prophets will always guide you, wherever you are."

Melset remembered the stories about the Celestial Temple, the texts she had read with Vedek Serad and later Yarim and again wondered, How will they cope? They have been raised by Bajorans, are as deeply spiritual as their adoptive parents - and our people? Apprehensive, she joined them. No one can expect them to abandon their beliefs and become Cardassians in mind and reactions within days. Re-acculturation may take months or perhaps years. Even as an adult born and raised on Cardassia, I had slight difficulties after only six years on Earth with little or no contact with compatriots.

When they came back, Navri was already waiting for the returnees. "Melset, I suggest they stay with us until departure; a service, some relevant texts will help them. Afterwards Mesro," he indicated a monk whom Melset spoke to at times, "will show them around."

"That is a great kindness, Vedek Navri, it will give them courage."

They travelled on one of the Cardassian cruisers that now functioned as a supply ship. During the week they spent with the crew and travellers, the returnees learned some basics of their heritage and language; yet, in spite of the friendliness of the other Cardassians on board, they felt much as Bajoran captives had in the old days in spite of their wish to return. No doubt you have been told about the same horrors the Bajora described to me in Relaketh Province, the deportations, interrogations, massacres, the incredible brutality...

"Proceed to transporter room."

At beamdown, an older couple was waiting for them. "Gul Melset! There you are, finally. It has been so long! Garak told us you were coming, but as we knew of your duties, we did not dare hope."

Apparently all had been arranged to give them at least some moments of privacy. They abandoned the stern control expected of members of the Military and Order to briefly cling together in silence, each having expected the other to be lost. They had been notified I had been killed on Earth by a Bajoran terrorist until Garak told them the truth.

Seeing her parents look over at the group of returnees, she spoke to the adolescents in Bajoran, urged them to come over before explaining, "Gul Damar, Delhina Melset, these are the people who are returning to help re-establish an agricultural system effective even under less than ideal circumstances. There are others younger than Maroj Syrdar, Yilgan Nairu and their friends who are thinking of joining them, so we have to find families willing to give them a home for a few years; none of them is younger than eleven. The problem is that most do not even have a working knowledge of Cardassi, and all live according to Bajoran traditions."

"We are a group of fifty family units in the immediate area, six of them are of our own bloodline; all of those in this community belong to our ethnic group. Twenty kilometres away, communities of similar size have been established. As you can see, a beginning has been made, all have been informed about Garak's repatriation project. Taking them in will not be a problem."

Losir went over to Syrdar and Nairu, "You will live with us. We do not have much, but will gladly share what we have." And, in an attempt to put them at ease, "I see your union has been formalized."

There was a quick exchange between the two and Melset, then she translated, "Vedek Serad did so according to Bajoran ritual shortly before they decided to come. Since they had already agreed to marry, they made their commitment before leaving. Syrdar and Nairu wanted the ritual to take place in the presence of their friends at the relocation centre as they were the closest they had had to a family for over ten years."

She told the couple, "My parents have a spare room they are placing at your disposal. This will offer you privacy, but feel welcome to join us whenever you wish. When we invite someone to stay with us that person is considered trustworthy enough to be considered part of the family."

The couple made the Bajoran gesture of thanks, then, realizing their error, quickly exchanged frightened glances before expressing their gratitude in broken Cardassi.

"You need not be afraid of us," said Losir. "You are of our people; it was inexcusable to abandon you at Withdrawal. For that, I express my regrets, even though it was not to us to decide. We will help you become children of Cardassia again."

Another exchange with Losir and Delhina who turned to the others, "We have places for you as well. The families offering you hospitality are our relatives; they will accept you as you are and help you learn our ways."

Together, they walked towards the village - it was but that. Lesana 1 made the Bajoran village in which she had stayed just before the end of the Occupation seem luxurious in comparison. The debris had been cleared away in the meantime, only a large expanse of discoloured patches of ground marked where houses had once been. Ruins burnt away by disruptors, the reusable material recuperated to build the houses in the new settlements and as fill for streets. The buildings were relatively small, with only basic amenities, but they were a beginning, with solid walls and roofs offering much-needed shelter, easily expandable in future. Two family groups were waiting and left with the remaining returnees after a brief exchange of information.

Leaving their guests to settle in, Melset and her parents sat together, exchanging apparently insignificant news. When she was asked about the acceptance of offworld aid in the beginning, Melset explained, "Our normal distrust of aliens had become even stronger, especially after our experiences with the Dominion. Some had difficulties accepting offworld assistance, thinking it an attempt to demoralize us, make us receptive for Federation propaganda and undermine our ways. When I told Garak and some survivors that a group of Bajorans would be involved in transporting goods, I was nearly accused of being a traitor. Of course, my accuser was traumatized by the experiences of the first weeks after The Defeat and later cooperated willingly enough."

With difficulty, Losir gave a brief account of the morning following The Defeat, recalling the scenes confronting him and his companions when they had left their refuge in Kelan Province after the forces of the Dominion had departed, "Some of us had access to transmitters, could tap into Federation reports." He hesitated, then continued, "When we got to Perali and Aigela Cities we saw the Dominion had systematically gone about its work of destruction and genocide so thoroughly that the fires only died down when nothing was left to burn. And the bodies... the Jem'Hadar and Breen had killed those who had crowded together to escape the debris of collapsing houses: you could not even see the ground." He remembered how many of the survivors had stood frozen in shock, incapable of speech, some wailing like Bajoran captives he had once seen. This had been one of the most frightening elements: the unrestrained despair of the first days, the loss of emotional control established because of surveillance, the sorrow, the concern for missing family, the sheer helplessness...

Delhina had been with the Order, yet the past months had been barely supportable, even for Obsidian Order members systematically trained to support even the most horrific circumstances, control all emotional responses even more rigorously than militaries. "You may have seen the reports. Men, women, children, old people were killed, no one was spared. Thousands of dead in the streets in the cities, an incredible massacre; in this province, thousands of us escaped by fleeing into the system of caverns and tunnels that had always served us as refuges in the past. In the shelter we had a commlink to access reports on developments via Dominion frequencies, saw families driven together, their members executed one by one, the others forced to watch before being killed in turn."

Suppressing a shudder, Melset remembered fellow officers' accounts of massacres on Bajor; the troops she had transported four years before the Liberation had laughed about these actions, considered them of as much relevance as exterminating vermin; they had even spoken of Bajorans as just that, boasted of how many they had managed to kill. Why are these recollections surfacing now? I was not stationed on Terok Nor, had no part in these operations...

Her parents came to a decision. "This one element concerns our family alone: While in Dominion Headquarters, Damar had a female companion. Shortly before his call to resist, he sent her away, but told her about us as he knew what would happen. After the Defeat, she was one of the evacuees, and asked to come here as she was carrying his child. A DNA scan confirmed her claim, so we took her in. She bore that child here, lived with us, but rejected our ways. When she discovered members of her own family had survived and where they lived, she kept this information to herself. After weaning the child, she left without informing anyone. We adopted the child, renamed him Jivan. Should she decide to claim him, what she has done will become public knowledge," Losir said. "In the time before, she would not have escaped justice."

"At least our family line will continue," was the reaction.

"Indeed." Then Delhina added very quietly, "Our loss is partly compensated – he is so much like Åvron was at that age. And the fact you are alive … "

"I was originally scheduled to be redeployed, this fiction was to make it easy to send me on long-term, high-risk missions."

The subject was dropped – it had lost all relevance due to developments.

"We have to become independent of SFHS aid as quickly as possible and are making every possible effort, but the replicators Bajor gave us are invaluable," Losir said. "SFHS and a number of NGOs have done much. Garak's, Professor Lang's and your reports were very effective. Even now, periodic updates are being recorded, subsequently transmitted by Garak under various names, via Federation associates."

"Commander Chandler of SFCCEI transferred me to SFHS on Deep Space 9. Damage is severe throughout the Quadrant, so supply lines had to be shortened, but even now repartition of aid, unless it is earmarked for a specific area, is often a challenge."

"Some Federation specialists are here, experimenting with various crops. We should make more progress with these returnees. Have you been given numbers yet?" Delhina inquired.

"Vedek Serad thinks there could be over 70 Cardassians on Bajor, if not more, and an unknown number of mixed bloods. Some have been adopted and fully integrated, but when it comes to choosing mates, they will hardly be welcomed into any families. Mixed unions will be considered a danger to Bajor's integrity."

"I have to leave and notify the leaders of the Lesana population centres in the vicinity so that they can make arrangements to get here." When she returned an hour later, Delhina explained, "We will meet tomorrow evening and, in another week, the heads of the other thirty Kelan-Lesana communities will convene. All the returnees, even if there was double the number, can be housed until they become independent, respectively build homes of their own."

At her daughter's concerned glance, Delhina added, "I have mentioned the problems - they are surmountable. Do not forget, we cannot afford to reject anyone who offers help; these are our own people who are returning, like the exiles did."

The heads of the families met in an open space in the centre of the village to discuss the new development; Garak's and Serad's initiative found immediate approval; within minutes, family groups had offered to house the next returnees who were to arrive within a matter of a few weeks.

Melset then added, "There is one potentially divisive element we must consider. Some half-Cardassian children and adolescents have asked those organizing this initiative for permission to participate. They also have the knowledge we need, but hesitate to volunteer, in spite of hoping that we can look beyond their mixed heritage, permit them to come home to Cardassia, offer them acceptance in exchange for their help in reconstruction."

At mention of these specific children and adolescents, the conversation came to a sudden halt.

Dimos, one of their neighbours, said angrily, "Don't you even realize what you are asking of us, Gul Melset? These ones are a disgrace to Cardassia and have no place here. They should not even have been born! They will bastardise and weaken us by infusing the heritage of a contemptible, primitive populace only fit for exploitation."

Even now! After what they have done for us! We are proud and arrogant, and justly so, but this is suicide! Disguising the frustration his words evoked she replied, "Many were abandoned by their Bajoran mothers for fear of ostracism on Bajor, fear of being accused of having willingly consorted with the occupiers. To make it possible for these unfortunates, and I stress this term, to live in dignity, the personnel in the relocation centres have taught them everything needed for an independent life in whatever capacity they chose to fulfil. They want to share this knowledge with us. One, who was killed when Terok Nor was retaken by the Federation, was a highly talented artist - such will also be necessary to re-establish our culture which was second to none in the Quadrant!"

Icy silence was the response to her arguments.

It is no use. If I insist, the consequence may be rejection of the Cardassian returnees as well. "I will contact our sources who are going to the relocation centres and ask them to convince more of the true Cardassians to come." She added in a low yet clear voice, "How can I explain to them that the bastards are not welcome? Our rejecting them may well make those who have managed to surmount their resentment withhold their support once our reaction becomes known. It will be said that 'Their situation is not all that desperate if they can afford to choose those whose aid they consider acceptable.' " With that, she sat down, remained stubbornly silent for the rest of the meeting, remembering her own brother's attitude, finally his recognition of Bajoran strength and resilience.

The discussion continued for some more hours, then the visitors were offered hospitality by the others. Losir and Delhina invited the representatives of Lesana 2, the most vehement opponents to Melset's suggestion; unrelated people had rarely been invited before The Defeat because of the fear of taking in an agent. Now, it was a necessity appreciated by those who received as well as by those who could offer it - news from other areas was welcome, especially now that the few positive developments gave hope, encouragement.

Together, they set about preparing the little they had along with what the others had brought, ate in silence. Afterwards, they sat together, exchanging reports on developments. The rhythm and inflections of Cardasi were comfortingly familiar, only the subjects discussed now were vastly different to those of former years. Much as I remember from early childhood. Not as poor as this, not surrounded by near-total devastation, but familiar. Gradually, her tension dissipated, even though the concern remained.

In spite of the now-relaxed atmosphere, Melset felt discouraged although, three years after the Defeat, attitudes were still in constant flux because of conditions. When Ketmar and Veral had settled in, she left for her part of the house. Little later, her parents followed her. "Iníki, there is more to those half-blood children. We are your family, so you can speak openly."

"Gul Dukat had a daughter by a Bajoran mistress, sent her and her mother away before Withdrawal and found her five years later. Ziyal had been raised as a Bajoran. When he left to fight against the Klingons, she stayed on Deep Space 9 with Kira then spent a year on Bajor where she studied arts. She made friends with her and some others. When the Dominion was to remove the mine field blocking the Wormhole, she helped her friends escape to sabotage the weapons array. Dukat wanted her to come with him when DS9 was retaken by the Federation, but she refused, told her father what she had done. Damar overheard her, executed her on the spot for treason."

Her parents did not react.

"When you return to Terok'Nor in three weeks, we will accompany you and speak to Vedek Serad. We have much for which to thank him and his order. Garak informed us in detail, and has said contact is necessary." There was no answer.

"We will rest now; tomorrow duty will be waiting for us all." With that, the couple left. Melset still lay awake for hours, wondering whether Serad's and Garak's plan would work; all depended on the willingness of the others to accept and integrate the returnees, to see beyond the differences. Hopefully, Cardassian intolerance would not make this project fail.

The next day, the returnees were outside just before dawn; standing in the shadows of the doorway, Melset watched them pray to the Prophets at sunrise before going to inspect the fields, discussing the state of the soil, possible crops. So much like my time in Relaketh Province, in spite of the language. It was a full cycle of seasons, permitting me to see their customs and, later, even share in them...

With these familiar tasks waiting for them, the newcomers no longer seemed to feel out of place although the clothing, the bracelets and earrings they wore showed where they had been raised. Soon they were being watched by some Cardassians from Lesana 1; the observers stared at the six of them silently, suspiciously until one of the returnees saw them and waved, indicating they should come. After a time of mutual evaluation, an animated discussion set in, effected by gestures and passages in the lingua franca formerly used. Cardassian curiosity was a definite advantage.

"This may just work out," Melset said to herself, not quite daring to hope.

At her side, someone replied, "They went out well before sunrise to look around. From what I can gather, they have already decided on the crops for some of the fields."

She turned to see Joret Dimos together with her father. "You and Garak, even that shrinecrawler of yours, your plan seems promising." It seemed he regretted his outburst of the previous evening.

Slowly, more villagers hesitantly joined, uncertain at hearing the unfamiliar language and seeing the gestures of the returnees, but discovered the lingua franca formerly used in communicating with Bajorans and gestures made communication possible. Contact was made.

Some representatives of the families in Lesana 1 were planning an irrigation system as had been custom centuries ago, up to the collapse of the Old Empire and the Lissepian attack.

The group assembled in the village centre to discuss the results and proposals, then select individuals who would pool their talents and resources to assist in realizing the plans that were being developed. Without realizing it, her fellow Cardassians were using the same methods as did Bajoran villagers, with individuals who had a special area of competence unofficially taking the lead, then, in the next phase, ceding their places to people with abilities needed for the following phase of work.

The differences between our peoples are not all that marked, given the right circumstances. Flexibility in spite of specialization was something we had nearly lost... For once, Melset had the luxury of being an observer.

A neighbour, Moran Geleth, came over to speak to her, carrying a padd. "We need an isometric map of the area to take advantage of its structure when planning the channels. All maps have been lost, or else are on data carriers which cannot be accessed as yet. The military have duties more urgent than this."

"We can see to that immediately. The runabout has all the instruments we need, so if you show me the area you want scanned, it can be done now."

He went to his group and returned after a brief exchange, "All of us agree it is best to leave at once. Lesana 2 and 3 will cooperate with us to ensure effective use and simplify upkeep of the system."

That phase at least was not complicated; within three hours, a map of the area surrounding the allocated terrains had been scanned. Effecting the work proper would mean months, if not two or more years, of hard physical labour as parts of the system would have to be made without phasers or heavy equipment. Still, it was a start; the planning would help those who were suffering most from the loss of old patterns by offering new tasks. Similar scenes were taking place all over the planet, giving those involved in them a perspective.

Once the runabout had returned and Moran Geleth left to rejoin the others, two of the returnees, Satra Dauri and Vijim went over to Melset. They tried to use the little Cardassian they knew, but reverted to Bajoran at her assurance, "There is no problem with using your adopted language. I can translate for the others if need be; you are learning quickly."

"Gul Melset, we think we can develop some of these upland plots even without an irrigation system, but we need farming implements. Enough metal is stored in various areas. If we are given the proper tools we can begin at once." They quickly consulted with one another before explaining, "In the beginning, the dry-land farming method would work, as only strips of ground are planted. Even so, a field of two tessipates can yield enough crops to satisfy the needs of about fifteen individuals for about a year. To judge by the condition of the soil, wells of ten metres' depth would be enough to provide us with fresh water for drinking and simple irrigation before we have those canals. There is enough rock to line the shafts to avoid cave-ins or impurities. If we have hoes, shovels, picks, it would be enough."

"Nandis Geron says there often is heavy fog. Large fine-mesh screens of metal could capture the water that condenses, lead it to a cistern, giving us enough pure water to make one of the reclamators superfluous. This method would work as days and nights in this area have marked differences in temperature. Is there some way of contacting Terok Nor? Vedek Serad informed us that the offices there could possibly help us in case of difficulties."

She answered in Bajoran, "I do not have access to a commlink powerful enough to reach the station, but will notify Garak; you can speak to him and he will transmit your message." She gave them the communicator and went back to her own work.

Half an hour later they came over, "Garak has told us two of the factory farms are nearby. If equipment is left, we can improvise until he has arranged for what we will need."

"Perhaps that won't be necessary. Who is the Gul stationed in this area, provided there is a military installation?" Melset called out the question, knowing it was inevitable that someone would be listening in on the conversation.

One of those who had indeed been listening said, "There is a base just four or five kilometres to the southwest. The troops under Gul Torel should have phasers capable of cutting metals - there was enough scrap scattered around here which we collected in of the underground passages." He pointed at a door in the side of a limestone outcrop just beyond the village.

"I'll go to that base. Gul Torel was one of my adjutants. He will help or send some of his troops. I'll be back soon."

When she arrived, she looked at the base. The "outpost" didn't look all that bad, even though security was laughable at best. She struck a panel in the door, stepped back and waited. Within moments an officer came out, saluted her, "Glinn Myrett reporting," and waited.

Military discipline is still being maintained - it always did help us cope with adversity. "My name is Gul Melset of the Fourth Order. If Gul Torel is on the premises, I want to speak to him."

"The Gul is in his offices. Come." Preceding her, he went to his superior's area.

She looked around, comparing this base to those she had known before The Defeat. The corridors were virtually empty, no observation devices, few guards, none of the elements that she remembered. Not much personnel here ... no doubt sent to various locations.

When she entered, Gul Torel was already waiting and rose to greet her, "Welcome, Gul Melset. We thought you were sentenced to stay on Terok Nor until the branch of SFHS was closed." Torel pulled out a chair in front of his desk, "Please, sit down; I was not given any details about your own experiences."

"Does rumour state I have been interrogated, sentenced to death and executed?" She laughed, then explained, "No, I was deployed to SFCCEI. Commander Chandler had promised me that, if I needed help, it would be accorded. Even before The Defeat, he and his staff began planning for the time after, and at deciding to open a branch of SFHS on Terok Nor, selected me as one of the three organizers and chose a number of other staff whom I knew, filled the vacancies with volunteers. I've been working for Cardassia ever since."

"What do you require? We have managed to salvage a number of elements from the factories in the immediate area, both machinery and parts. At present, my personnel is establishing requirement lists which will be sent to SFHS. As you have seen from those already sent, survivors in many areas of this planet still do not have sufficient access to basic necessities such as energy and water. The supplies of food we are being given as well as that produced by the replicators of which Bajor has sent us all twelve in the meantime, demand logistics for distribution that are almost beyond our means with the few remaining cruisers, but," he commented, "at least survivors are no longer forced to scavenge for what they can find in the ruins. In the first weeks many died from tainted or even poisoned food, another Dominion atrocity."

"As yet duty precludes on-the-spot inspections." He gestured at the row of commlinks along the wall. "These are and will be my contacts to the outside world for quite some time yet. In case you are wondering what has happened to the rest of the crew, I have given a third of them leave to look for their families. Those who find relatives will settle here." He indicated a map displaying the sites of future homes.

Without hesitating she explained, "Garak contacted a Vedek on Bajor, one of my reliable contacts dating back to my mission there. You will remember that, at withdrawal ten years ago, Cardassian orphans were left behind. Some were taken into families, and all of them learned skills essential to us in the present situation. Two Vedeks are contacting members of their order throughout Bajor and have informed me others are willing to follow. Three families in Relaketh Province are inquiring within their own network."

"Any results yet?"

"Six have returned, live in Lesana 1, and are making plans for farming the land: small-scale, subsistence farming which should suffice as our resettlement programme has limited populations to groups of thirty families at most, to be expanded as the situation improves. Depending on how rapidly these first efforts progress, we may be able to make a few steps towards ensuring our subsistence. Moran Geleth and I have made a surface scan of the area as long-term plans include irrigation."

"You may remember the Bajora never did develop much industry in spite of our efforts as their religion demands respect for all they use; they told me that you lose feeling for the land once you no longer have direct contact with the soil and the crops." This was said without the contempt Cardassians normally showed when speaking of Bajoran customs and beliefs, much to the contrary; it was acceptance.

Gul Melset, you have changed in some indefinable way since I saw you at transferral. He looked at her, undecided, uncertain, briefly hesitated before indicating Glinn Myrett leave. He had never heard a fellow Cardassian speak about Bajorans without contempt; they were people they had considered fit for only the most subordinate work; the very idea of adopting even one element of their customs or methods inconceivable. I wonder whether she has been influenced to make her spread Bajoran propaganda to undermine Cardassian ways while we are weak, dependent, receptive to anything that could ensure survival. He compared her to the commander he had known, finally realized this was not the case. Melset was as he remembered and yet she had changed. Extremely fanatic then, with the greatest of contempt for all non-Cardassians, she had seen all offworlders as potential threats; now this fanaticism was reflected in her determination to help Cardassia live again by all means at her disposal.

Apparently, she guessed what he was thinking and said directly, "I know what you suspect, Gul Torel. It is true the Order re-educated me before my last posting to modify our normal reaction patterns to facilitate cooperation with humans. As to indoctrination by the Bajorans during my mission, that is not the case; I see our situation without any illusions: we must re-establish our lives and our society. If it takes young Cardassians raised by superstitious Bajorans to assist us in regaining independence from offworld aid, so be it. They possess skills we have long since forgotten, concepts abandoned after the collapse of the old Empire and later after the loss of Kelani independence. At present, our xenophobia, our arrogance, our feeling of superiority which we needed in our quest for resources would lead to our extinction. Those six returnees are highly competent, know exactly what to do without any refined forms of soil analysis, even have a method of obtaining clean water. Their methods can be adapted to conditions in other provinces, regardless of climate and soil composition."

"Gul Melset, there is something I wish to tell you in private." Suddenly his manner was no longer that of an officer, arrogantly self-assured, but uncomfortable, like a recruit guilty of a misdemeanour. "Our forces left behind mixed-race children. Ten years ago, I fathered one in Nevara Province and wonder what has become of her. If she is still alive and wishes to come, I would take her in, raise her with my other children. They and my wife have agreed to this, although the decision was a difficult one. There are two officers on my staff who, after discussing the matter with their own families, want to follow suit."

Melset's attitude was neutral as she replied, "You and your fellow officers may be the ones to make a difference, and for that, Gul Torel, I thank you."

She changed the subject, "Our requirements: we need cultivators, farming implements; if possible, 5 elements of roughly 6 times 18 metres of fine metal or polymer filaments, sturdy but flexible metal framing, heavy-duty phasers to cut or heat metals; we could produce our own equipment, thus freeing resources for those without these options. We also require storage units..."

An hour later, all had been arranged and Torel accompanied her back to the runabout. "Gul Melset, Garak and his contacts, even that traitor Natíma and her students who fled to a Federation world to escape justice, have organized everything perfectly. By immediately returning to help rebuild, they have proven themselves true Cardassians, have been granted amnesty. They are establishing local governments; with our patterns of hierarchy, but without the factions. Even our tendency to xenophobia is taking a beating."

Remembering his joy at being assigned his own command, he told Melset, "Your cruiser, the Orissà, came through the battle in one piece. She is in orbit under Gul Masok's command before departing for planets whose surviving populations are being evacuated; for now it is best to shorten the supply lines. Cardassia 4 is in good condition, and may become independent of aid within a year. The same holds true of Cardassia 6, and a number of other outlying systems such as Pentath and Quinor. The Dominion targeted the main population centres, knowing of our centralized installations and infrastructure." With a rough, brutal laugh, he added, "Much as we plundered and destroyed shrines and liberated Orbs to break the Bajorans' will, then did our best to level their cities and villages when we withdrew, placing bets on how many of the fleeing we could eliminate with one phaser blast. It was quite the contest that time." He pulled himself together, "You will receive the goods within four days." He sighed, "Only 4.5 billion, if that many, left on this world..."

Melset recalled the reports she had viewed in preparation for her first mission. And we are going to follow suit: regroup, reconstruct... Aloud, she said, "Gul Torel, we must be strong now to ensure our survival as a culture and a people." There was a moment of silence before she added, "It was the Bajorans with whom I worked on Earth who initiated this assistance programme. It was difficult for them, as the recollections of the atrocities committed during the occupation are still all too immediate." She pushed the realization of her own guilt aside and said, "But our numbers are going to increase: four children are due in Lesana 1 alone." She turned to Gul Torel, "In spite of all, we are fortunate. When I first arrived here three years ago, I thought recovery would be impossible."

At her return, she saw Garak had arrived and went over to him.

"Gul Melset, I was contacted by a Prylar Inyon who has taken leave to stay on Bajor for half a year. He says there are 29 more young Cardassians between the ages of 12 and 19 who have asked to 'return home' and five of mixed race in his home province. The reports sent to Bajor by the first group have made quite an impression on other potential returnees, even though they have been here for barely two days."

That many... How many were left behind anyway? "The true ones are no problem, but the others... However, three officers have requested I ask my Bajoran contacts to find their ones so that they can 'come home'; no doubt others will also come forward once these have set an example and experienced no difficulties."

"Since when have our forces become so compassionate? Tell me, my dear Gul Melset, just what kind of pressure did you exert on Gul Torel to obtain that concession? You have to give me details about the method you used..."

It seemed she had not heard him, "We have paid for everything, every single atrocity, every loss inflicted upon subjected and exploited peoples, especially the Bajorans. And now, we need their knowledge." Barely audibly, she stated, "Garak, you know I am no traitor. I collected information on the Bajoran Résistance, passed it on to the Order even after Withdrawal had been initiated. I did my duty to Cardassia, as I had sworn to do. Yet, on Earth, when I was confronted by the resentment and hatred humans had for us after inception of the Alliance, they were the ones who supported me. All I want to do is help rebuild Cardassia, yet am reminded of my treachery, even though those were different times..."

She turned to face him, worried about what seemed a dangerous development, "I am not the only one, and that disturbs me. This defeat has forced us to realize a few things. Our people have faced two catastrophes in three years - the Klingons, the Dominion... and have been granted assistance."

"Guilt about the past is futile." Garak replied, "What has happened is immutable, but your offworld contacts are invaluable. Major O'Connor mentioned your reaction at seeing the additional shelters his team had brought, wanted the relief effort expanded. 'There is such deep gratitude for assistance, unexpected as it is because of the past conflict.'" There is even footage of that specific conversation." Garak had to suppress amusement at seeing Melset's expression of anger and embarrassment. "That was excellent, so touching! Exactly what humans love. I heard some comments from civilians, especially when they saw the rescue Natíma and the others effected in that passage. 'We cannot leave them to die like that, no matter what they did in the past...'" He hesitated, then continued, "Even I could not avoid developing feelings for those aliens with whom I was obliged to associate: Humans, Bajorans, Trill, even Ferengi, as the only Cardassian around."

"You were always so detached, showed no reactions, as expected of a member of the Order. I envied you that..."

"Of necessity, or present a dangerous weakness. That is why Tain never acknowledged me, resented my existence even to his last breath; did I ever tell you he had arranged to have me eliminated shortly before the Order and the Tal Shiar attacked the Founders' home world? I was a liability for him, as was my mother, Mila. Family connections made members of the Order vulnerable to pressure either by associates or by enemies." He shook his head, "You certainly were not weak. Joran and I were impressed by your reactions during the interrogation," He smiled, remembering, "It seemed as if you were analysing us! Too bad those records were destroyed."

"So much has been destroyed - how can we ever hope to recreate even a fraction of what we have lost?"

Together, they walked back to his station, comparing information they had been given.

While watching her quickly organize, then transmit the data to SFHS and the other centres, he remembered his time with the Order and, later, working with Federation personnel on DS9 for the freedom of Cardassia. She has made nearly the same experiences I have, is direct, reliable, considers duty first and foremost. Garak's manner became subtly different when he went to stand next to her.

"This may not be the right time; there is so much to consider that personal wishes must be deferred. However, our cooperation has always been effective, especially now. I would be interested in expanding it."

This was so unexpected that Melset needed time to realize what he meant. Yes, it could work. We have had nearly the same careers, our cooperation is excellent, there is no distrust. He has expectations and customs nearly like our own... "Duty still has precedence. And consider this factor: An infertile relationship at a time when we need to rebuild our numbers? And we may become liabilities for each other. You are an Order operative, I a liaison officer."

"Those aspects are not decisive. Everything is more or less under control now in spite of the many difficulties that are still arising and will for a good many years to come. The militaries have done an excellent job, and our sense of order is seeing to the rest. We have administrative centres in all of the Provinces now, all of them functioning at peak efficiency. Your returnees and those due to join them will help, especially as we learn quickly. For the next years, I will have to travel extensively in our system, on this planet, you have your posting at SFHS, but remember the military - it was no different." With a derisive inflection he added, "I have even followed your ridiculous Kelani customs, spoken to your parents; unfortunately Tain and Mila are not here to give their agreement."

"Without asking me first? This may well turn out to be an error of judgement! You know very little about me, and whether my time offworld has not had more far-reaching effects than expected."

"I estimate that risk to be well within acceptable parameters," Garak grinned at her, "I thought you were waiting for this, seeing how much we share, even to our methods of interrogation. Or what about your and my talent for insinuating ourselves into others' trust? You never were offended by my comments, gave as good as you got: that is a sign of interest in a relationship, isn't it?"

Her reply was a derisive hiss. "Remember who instructed me when I became a liaison with the order; they were the very best: Entek, Korinas, Dejar, to name but a few." After a moment, Melset asked very quietly, "What actually happened to Mila? I thought she had survived Enabran Tain!"

"She had, but Damar, Kira and I had sought refuge in the cellar of her house after Damar's Résistance was betrayed by Gul Revok and its various cells eradicated; we were to be hunted down and eliminated by soldiers of the Dominion. When Damar issued the call for a general uprising of Cardassia's population, they searched one house after the other and, when she refused to let them enter, they shot her, hoping to flush us out of hiding. They were successful. Had it not been for the Cardassian troops who were with them, the Dominion would have remained and expanded its power."

She inclined her head very slightly, saying, "To execute her, Tymaris and Jivan … they were innocent, never were a part of the rebellion."

"Mila had given us sanctuary instead of reporting us, thus, in the eyes of the Dominion, she was guilty of aiding and abetting terrorists. Remember what our forces did to Bajorans for far less than a full-scale revolt. What we did to so many others who were Prefects justified everything by saying the Bajorans were committing acts of terror. When Kira made that comment to Damar, he recognized his recollections of the past were not all that glorious, except when seen through the eyes of the victor. It was a bad time to call his attention to the facts, but I assured Kira it was necessary. This rude awakening motivated him to continue the fight, sacrifice himself to free Cardassia from Dominion rule."

"When I went back to that village, Yokim told me it had been levelled, some villagers killed. During my mission, I gathered the information it was my duty to obtain, passed it on. They would have been executed for being in the résistance but for Withdrawal... I went against what I had taught my Vars and Glinns by developing feelings for them, respect."

"Ironic, isn't it, seeing how they tried to overcome the past, at least in part." was his quiet reply. "Duty to Cardassia supersedes all; in spite of the improvements. We now have a working community here, civilians, militaries, surviving agents of the Order; our determination is helping us make a relatively fast recovery. We are ensuring that individual sacrifices were not futile."

Together, they went over to the building where Garak was staying. There were a number of details to discuss, especially as her departure was in a week.

"Staff on Terok Nor is keeping up everything and not collecting piles of data rods for you. I was instructed by a reliable source: 'See to it she takes some downtime.'"

She laughed in spite of herself. "The human staff at SFCCEI was rather bewildered until I told them that all work is done upon its arrival, even though a deadline may be weeks in the future. The Commander sent mainly those to SFHS who had worked with me at SFCCEI and became friends."

They entered the small building in which he worked whenever he spent time in Lesana I; no one was in the rooms, and she looked around. "It serves well," Melset commented. "Later on, it can be expanded to include offices," she examined the commlinks, the computers. Lesana I should become the capital of the province, so it needs an administrative centre. Right here."

"Indeed." After a moment, Garak stated, "Some plans still have to be discussed; as it is relatively early, we may as well finish what is left."

It was well after dark when they had agreed on and input the details; when Melset went towards the door, Garak said, "You need not leave, Iníki. There is more than enough place for the two of us." His choice of words left her free to decide whether to accept the invitation or not without either of them feeling uncomfortable.

She turned to look up at him, met his eyes then wordlessly closed the door. There is time now, and the past is the past. Kovar died long ago, Renor is gone, Elim has a sense of justice, and, under all the Obsidian Order training he is kind; he was my interrogator, knows everything about me. Perhaps, ... she did not finish the thought.

"For both of us, it is time to help each other overcome the isolation which was so hard to bear. Duty alone, though important, is not enough."

"No, but it was the one element that helped us through these past weeks and months. Resignation would have destroyed us even more surely than the Dominion's retaliatory strike."

"Now the only duty we have, at least for a few hours, is to ourselves." Very gently, Garak passed his hands along the scales of her neck membranes; with a low, barely audible hiss, she moved closer to him, reciprocated, knowing that with Garak, there was no need to dissimulate, not now, and not in future.

Later that night, she woke up, looked at Garak as he slept, exhausted by work and constant travelling on Cardassia Prime. His features were relaxed, with no sign of the coldness that usually hid what he really felt. I agree to what you have suggested - we are not meant to be alone... Carefully, trying not to disturb him, Melset laid her arm across his waist, drifted off to sleep.

Troi

In the areas of the Alpha Quadrant hardest hit by the Dominion War, progress in eliminating damage was accelerating. Betazed was now officially off the list of recipients and even able to deliver a modest amount of goods to the main depot of SFHS for repartition. On her way back from Earth, Lwaxana Troi had dropped by on the station to look around, even though Odo was long since gone, but she had asked to see the branch of SFHS, was impressed by representatives of various peoples, even former enemies, working together, taking pride in every world that became independent of assistance.

For Melset as a Cardassian, Troi's brightly-coloured, elaborate clothing and decorative hairstyles along with her unrestrained liveliness and enthusiasm about every detail of reconstruction and general projections were disconcerting, until she recognized the kindness behind the façade.

This kindness became become very evident when she requested a private conversation with her, "Gul Melset, I have something to tell you which we had better discuss under four eyes."

"Ambassador Troi, we can use my office." She led the way in and the Ambassador looked around, recognized the hologramme on the wall, and commented, "It's a shame I never did get to see your capital city. It was impressive."

The answer was a mute nod. No one spoke of the old Cardassia, but all remembered how it used to be: its cities dark and unwelcoming for offworlders, as strangely alien and disquieting as its reptilian inhabitants, but home to her people and dearly loved. Now? All they had known was gone forever; culture and art, they would have to wait for better times.

"I think I have exactly what you need," with a smile of anticipation she gave her a padd. "Gul Melset, read this, I think you will like it!"

Troi watched her read the file, enjoying the Cardassian female's reaction of disbelief, especially as, so far, only the Vulcans had been willing to surmount the preconceptions of the past. The message was indeed a surprise: an offer of cooperative projects for five teams of 12 to 15 Cardassians each in the area of sciences, research and technology.

Melset could only stare at the tiny screen speechlessly until Troi said, "The choice of whom to send will be that of the Organizers; the projects are scheduled to take a minimum of six months. The conditions are stated in the contracts. Any infraction will see the team in question recalled at once, stationed on another world."

The answer was barely audible as Melset did not quite trust her voice. "I thank you for your kindness, Daughter of the Fifth House, and will pass on the information to Garak - he and his associates have established a list of the people best suited for offworld duties." Without realizing it, she was clutching the padd as though afraid someone could take it and the hope it meant from her.

Troi saw her astonishment and emotion as well as the gesture, but did not comment. "I preferred doing this in private as I know it would have been humiliating for you had you reacted too strongly to this news. After the upheavals of the past three years, even good news can come as a shock, with unforeseen reactions. I know that from my own experiences."

"I thank you for considering my dignity as a Cardassian." With a low sigh, she added, "Due to our reputation, very few consider that our people, too, have feelings that go beyond pride and arrogance." She met Troi's eyes, "I know for a fact you had to go to much trouble to obtain these offers."

"It took some persuasion, but I think it is worth the effort." Troi's was radiant as she said, "Remember Commander Chandler and O'Connor? I met them two months ago. We planned this together."

Remember, when you need help, provided your request is not against our regulations, you will get it. Commander, you are true to your word….

Before her departure, Troi declared that two other worlds she had visited had also maintained they were ready to follow suit. She had told the interested agencies in no uncertain terms how she expected the teams to be received, treated and remunerated, well-knowing there would otherwise have been agencies all too willing to exploit Cardassians, knowing how desperately they needed the income.

Contacts and Developments

After having transferred their duties to Joret Dimos for the week or two they would be spending on Terok Nor, Delhina and Gul Damar prepared for transit to the station. They had been there repeatedly during the occupation but its new aspect was totally unexpected. The lights were brighter, the temperatures no longer Cardassian norm; the division of the Promenade into Cardassian and Bajoran sections had long since disappeared as had the workers' quarters; there was far more activity and a relaxed atmosphere. The station actually seemed luxurious to the Cardassian couple after months of rebuilding and poverty. Melset showed her parents the station, her offices and staff; the greetings were friendly, only Selon and Myssiro looked to her first. The two Bajorans only became less distrustful and more communicative after learning of the family connection; they were trying to overcome the past, but it was difficult as their reactions were instinctive: any Cardassian evoked recollections of the Occupation.

As they walked towards their quarters, discussing the bureaus and procedures, Delhina commented, "You have indeed established a positive working relationship with that group of offworlders. Yet, from what we were told by Entek, it was difficult on Earth, at least in the beginning."

She replied, recalling the first year, "True, but a few individuals helped. For them surmounting the preconceptions formed because of propaganda was quite an effort, but they made it. Andrews, whom you have just met and his friend Delios were the ones whose interest was the most sincere; I would call them 'friends' without second thought. They had repeatedly been offworld themselves, so knew what to watch for and informed me on how to make contact with humans. They even invited me to visit them at home every now and then, accepted my invitations as well."

The quarters secured for her parents had already been prepared according to Cardassian norms. Shortly before returning to her own, she said, "Vedek Serad will arrive within two days; Rendon contacted me to say that he has found more volunteers. I'll come for you in an hour. Bertos, Roval and Daryn have invited you to Quark's."

When they arrived, the Cardassian staff of SFHS was already waiting. "Welcome. We have taken the liberty of ordering a selection of Cardassian and Bajoran dishes which we can all enjoy together, celebrate that so many improvements have been made in a relatively short time," was Daryn's invitation. To herself, she thought, you have been near starvation yourselves, as were all of us in the past years. And you were militaries… this was unexpected.

"Those first days and weeks were hard for all of us; such a catastrophic outcome was hardly foreseeable."

"Professor Lang put me into contact with Gul Melset, as to Bertos, I pointed him towards the professor. And Roval? He followed some weeks later."

"I spoke to Garak, who promptly sent me to you for consideration. I was a foreman on a construction crew – 'Your knowledge and skills are invaluable for our work,' is what he said."

They were interrupted when Quark brought everything along with his employee, Broik, Damar's expression became disapproving when Quark commented, leaning over so closely he nearly touched Melset, "Well, Melset, I should say you do look better." He commented to her parents, "When she turned up here, I was ready to have her taken to Bashir by force even though I knew she would have to report to him anyway." In a low whisper, he added, "I still have that holosuite programme waiting for you."

"Forget it, Quark," she laughed, meeting his eyes. "I assure you all is well. The situation at home is still difficult, as to be expected, but there are improvements," she said, acknowledging his concern. He nodded and left. While her parents had no love for Ferengi, they recognized that he was subtly different to those they knew. They had heard from one of the girls who worked at the bar that he had sworn to make his bar a last stronghold of unadulterated Ferengi tradition, but did not realize how much the years spent with Federation and Bajoran representatives had changed him. He was as avaricious as ever, but more involved, and it showed in the atmosphere of his establishment.

"Melset has managed to enlist the help of a number of her contacts, and this one," Bertos indicated the direction into which Quark had disappeared, "...has introduced some of his business contacts to get our commerce going. You have to watch him like we would a fighting vole, he'd sell his own brother without any qualms if he could, but he is useful."

"In fact, we have been wondering if some survivors may not be willing to go offworld to be employed in various areas," said Roval, "Most of us are highly educated, have much to offer, and could earn additional funds to purchase equipment for reconstruction."

"To quote the Grand Nagus when he institutes a new reform, 'Surprise!'" Melset explained at seeing her tablemate's questioning glances, "That project is already close to implementation. Do you remember Ambassador Troi? She, together with Commander Chandler and O'Connor had the very same idea, and the first teams will soon be sent off-world."

A question was addressed that interested them all when Daryn inquired, "How are the returnees doing? I briefly saw them and noticed they were apprehensive, even though they had volunteered to return home."

Delhina replied, "Very well, all considered. They had some difficulties adapting to the fact they were on Cardassia, which is no wonder after what they had been told about us, but they have been taken in by relatively open-minded family units, are relearning our language and customs. Some of the fields have already been planted, even upland ones; in addition, they have begun establishing an irrigation system; there is a river not too far away, and the aquifer is unpolluted. It is extremely slow work, and, for us, very unfamiliar, but we are learning to be people of the land. Unsentenced, free Cardassians digging trenches, laying pipes, cementing overflow basins and cisterns? That is something new."

The group reacted with amusement, visualizing the sight. Self-help, planning, actively working at realizing improvements, seeing dependence diminish even marginally was encouraging, gave them dignity and self-respect.

Damar continued, ""In the meantime, some machinery has been put at our disposal for the heavier parts of the work now that repairs are being effected by military technicians. This gives the hope of speeding up the process."

"As to family, we have had our time for grief and must look forward; Åvron, Tymaris, Jivan ... yet, some of our relatives have survived. Other families have been lost to the very last member. We have decided to take in one or two children in addition to Jivan: a family without children is empty of life and purpose, cut off from the past and the future. Shortly before we left, we contacted the Lesana relocation centre; the organizer told us that two children: Temur, a boy roughly four years old and his younger sister Myral, need a stable home to help them overcome seeing their entire family executed by Jem'Hadar soldiers. When they were found, they were so traumatized they were unable to speak. They have begun to recover and should not be separated as they are very attached to each other. They are young enough to integrate into our family; fortunately, the old precept of shunning orphans has been abandoned.

Delhina added, ""The notification came while you were at Gul Torel's base; we wanted to save the news for a less hectic time, and this is the closest to peace any of us has had in years. Cerenn said all formalities will be completed within 10 days from now."

Melset offered another detail, "Vedek Serad is arriving tomorrow with ten more volunteers, full Cardassians. As far as I remember, they are to go to Lesana 6."

"That area is just on the border to Kelan Province. As far as I remember, that area was relatively developed and the center of the Kelani minority," Bertos added.

Delhina agreed, "Yes, that is correct, but industry was predominant there: weapons, communications, micro-technology… that is why that province was targeted to such an extent. Industry was to be destroyed first, then the population, presumably to demonstrate the consequences of rebellion, a fitting last thought before oblivion. Not all buildings were ruined, so that, in some cases, the inhabitants were able to move back in after effecting basic repairs."

After some moments, Losir added, "Even the smallest improvement is important. That region will be developed to combine agricultural and industrial complexes. The provisional government has decided to avoid centralization, each province should be self-supporting if necessary."

"Work has already been initiated. As agreed, housing has already been arranged for the returnees as these volunteers are older. Regrettably, the situation there is worse than around Lesana 1; Gul Torel is has sent troops and equipment to that district in an effort to reclaim the area. Without the replicator, everyone would have given up and left within weeks. Many of the fields are in the worst imaginable condition, their soil so compacted and fused because of the heat of detonations when the Forces eradicated the townships, the top layer in some areas has to be removed to a depth of roughly thirty or forty centimetres. Tests have shown there are no toxins in the soil, nor were any spread in retaliation. The area is in a former floodplain, so the layers of alluvial soil under the surface should have retained their fertility."

Unexpected Information

A little over a day later, Melset was in her offices catching up with some developments, when Kira contacted her, "Gul Melset, Vedek Serad and the next group of returnees has just arrived, along with some, as the Vedek says, 'former associates dear to you'. You were to be notified at once."

"Thank you, Commander Kira. Melset out." She turned to Selon, "Please take over for me. You will be given time off in exchange whenever you want it."

Vedek Serad, accompanied by Yokim and Sanye, had arrived with the new group. Watching Melset greet the Bajorans with whom she had stayed years ago, Delhina and Losir recognized the trust they shared and exchanged worried glances. Before The Defeat, this would have been unthinkable, even treasonous. In spite of knowing that this contact was useful, if displeasing to them, the older couple felt ill at ease; the preconceptions and rules of the time before The Defeat were hard to overcome.

It may be better to hide the fact my friends can understand and use Cardassi. Melset translated for the two groups. The Bajorans, realizing she wanted to protect them, did not show their knowledge of the other language.

"Tell Vedek Serad that his people's help is valued as are his and his compatriots' efforts in finding the Cardassian adolescents to permit them to return home. It is far more help than we could ever have hoped to get."

Melset quickly transposed the words of thanks.

"Child, the time for hiding from each other is over." Vedek Serad touched her arm before addressing Delhina and Losir in Cardasi. "We do not ignore another's need or triumph about an enemy's downfall. We are all children of the Prophets and, as such, called upon to render assistance in difficult times. This solution is the one we considered best. Outwardly, these orphans are not strangers to you, will not be seen as representatives of a former enemy sent to gloat about the misery in which you are now forced to live. I believe our peoples will finally work together to realize what the Prophecies have foretold."

Losir and Delhina knew nothing about the Bajoran system, nor had it ever interested them, but understood what he meant. Losir replied, "It takes a great effort to see beyond the past, not many can do so. For us it is demeaning to be dependent on others, forced to accept outside help."

"It is our way to respond to another's need. There is no humiliation in accepting what we have to give." The Vedek explained, "According to your system of values, you are now in our debt. At some time, our help will be repaid. Your daughter protected us, too, or at least tried, in exchange for our assistance, even though she had the very worst to fear from her own people."

He shook his head slightly, remembering, "The extent to which she had been abused! She was unconscious for two days, remained very weak for another; due to the Occupation, we could not find help."

The unease evoked by the compassion of his words was so unexpectedly intense, Melset turned to him, eyes wide.

"I will return soon, my child," he reached out to grasp her ear. After concentrating briefly, Serad met her eyes, "You are troubled, very much so. Do you wish to talk? I could easily find the time."

She nodded mutely, and I will lose your trust.

Sanye looked over, then considered the schedule, "We have four hours before departure; Vedek Serad, that should give you the time you need." She went over to embrace Melset, "Remember where we are."

"I shall." Provided I am still welcome after this.

Damar and his wife dissimulated their discomfort, then thought, may as well get used to Bajorans and their ways... "We will accompany your friends while you speak with Vedek Serad. They know Cardasi." Together, the group walked off, trying to appear relaxed. A strange group: Cardassians, the majority of them in Bajoran attire, Bajorans; in normal times, the combination would have been mildly amusing.

"Come, my child." They went into the shrine where Serad selected an alcove and activated the privacy screen. Turning to her, he said formally, "Iníki, it is not my place to judge you. It is the Prophets' alone."

"Vedek Serad, since learning about what happened at Withdrawal, at receiving only kindness from Vedek Yarim and his staff on Earth, I cannot remember my mission without guilt."

"You were left to us. Your life and fate were in our hands, we chose to spare you as we are all children of the Prophets, no matter what our origins."

There is more behind his words. "Vedek Serad, I was to gather information on the Résistance to destroy it. Years before, I had suggested Bajor be integrated into our system of allies and barely escaped a death sentence. The news of that allegedly recent incident was used as my cover. After observing you for some months, I realized that the Résistance could not be eliminated: you were determined to drive us off Bajor at all costs. My suggestion would have been the best option. Yet, had I reiterated it," she made the gesture for 'execute'."

Serad listened carefully, patiently, gave her time.

"By the time of Loris' last visit, my view of Bajorans had changed; I recognized your strengths, began understanding your ways, even liked you, the other villagers. At recall I tried to keep you safe. That for once is the truth," she said before continuing, "On Earth, Vedek Yarim and his staff befriended me, making it easier to obtain details on the Federation. I fulfilled my duty to the best of my abilities."

The Vedek looked at her, silent.

Her voice was barely audible when she rose to leave, "I regret the treachery, even though I was only obeying orders."

"No, stay," he reached out to hold her back. "Iníki, I was waiting for this. We were not that naive. Vipers leaving a fellow viper for shrine-crawling vermin to crush? That was not the pattern, and your people stick to patterns. The cover was excellent; those who knew, I myself, Rendon, Alosa, Malja, decided to let you live. In spite of the danger presented by a Cardassian in our midst, we wanted to show you our lives, let you see the good we had managed to preserve throughout those decades, but especially the evil of what was being done. Sanye is like we were before the horrors of the Occupation. Rendon hated you, but we knew this would help you see what the Occupation had done to us. In seeking information to use it against us, you have been changed."

She looked away.

"Your pagh was always strong, but it has changed." He added, "There is something you must know. When Yarim contacted me, he said you had called on 'The Bringers of Light,' when the vision of the locusts was mentioned."

"Yes, I remember."

"Now listen carefully to what I tell you, child. Up to eight hundred years ago, there was contact between Bajor and Cardassia, small traders' colonies were established. But soon, a prylar, Orenas, was sent a vision warning him of terrible consequences if the will of the Prophets was ignored. It was the following: We were to end our travels to the stars, give up our colonies lest we become colonizers, arrogant occupiers, destroy or influence other cultures which had every right to develop in accordance with the Prophets' will, without outside influence. Some families, about 27 in Relijakani, and roughly 58 elsewhere disobeyed the Prophets, were absorbed into the populations of the provinces in which they remained. The memory of those colonies faded."

He indicated her braids. "Not jet black, but dark brown with coppery highlights, soft, like ours, slightly wavy. Look at yourself: greyish-green eyes, not as tall as Cardassian norm: you are highly adaptable… typical Kelani. Kelani Cardassian even has expressions that have changed with time, but have their roots in words and expressions which we once used. Signs of the past have been preserved in your ethnicity."

Melset's voice was a barely audible whisper. "When I was a recruit, we saw a Bajoran performance in the entertainment centre: music, songs and dances, some very familiar to me. In Rellaketh Province there is a fruit we have on Cardassia too. Later, I saw the village's festivities at harvest time. One of the dances and the song accompanying it were so familiar, I could have joined in both."

"Remember the presentation at SFCCEI. You see? Even the name of your home province: Relijakani was the original name which became Kelan Province. Now you know." Moments later, he added, "Rendon has promised to help find those half-Bajoran children for your fellow officers. It would seem others besides you have finally recognized the evil of the past."

Melset felt strangely exposed as he continued, "Iníki, all has happened as it was meant to, as the Prophets revealed, even to the downfall of your Union. The people of Cardassia have now experienced our sufferings in full. All has been repaid, to the very last element. I can show you the appropriate Verses of Prophecy when you visit us, my child. You yourself said two years ago: 'the Cardassia of vipers who brought only destruction is gone'. The returnees will exert a subtle influence on your people as will the other offworlders. Remember, you will be welcome when you come, especially after this meeting."

Who betrayed me? We had constructed a convincing cover. "I am thankful to you, Vedek Serad; I value your acceptance and that of the others."

He briefly hesitated, "You Cardassians always want information. I will answer your question as it no longer matters. A Cardassian agent betrayed you because she wanted you dead. Yokim and Malja were angered when they heard the truth, but I convinced them to let you live, learn from us; you learned more than expected."

The Bajorans had a network that was far more elaborate than we thought! No wonder they were able to stage such devastating attacks on our installations. She replied, "The one who betrayed me paid the price," before adding, "So that is why you let me share in your lives. For that I thank you, and for helping find those young Cardassians."

"We never could understand why you abandoned those children. It seemed cruel to us as it was not a given that they would be treated with compassion instead of being made to pay for their parents' deeds. The first six have already contacted us to say they have much to learn, but are being treated with kindness and forbearance." Serad rose and gave her the ritual embrace before preceding her out of the shrine.

"I must rejoin the others." He touched her cheeks in a fatherly gesture, said, "Walk with the Prophets, my child," and left her gazing after him, oblivious to the more or less covert stares of the people nearby who wondered at seeing a Cardassian and a Vedek take leave of one another as if they were of the same people.

After this conversation, she felt unable to face the others. I, we are of mixed heritage; Bajorans, in Kelani bloodlines... Numb with shock, she went into Quark's to sit at the bar, looking around as if seeing everything for the first time. Melset did not notice Quark come over, only started slightly when he asked, "Something I can get for you?" His grin faded when he saw her expression, "You look badly shaken; how about a game or that holosuite programme? Both are the best distractions anyone could wish for!"

"Indeed not!" Melset retorted, recognizing both the kindness behind his words and the hope of making profit. "I have to come to terms with some information." She placed a coin on the bar, "A glass of Number 27; it should help me clear my thoughts."

He had it in seconds. "Here it is. Enjoy. I'll see to it you are not bothered. Seems whatever that one had to say," he nodded in the direction Vedek Serad had gone, "was hard to swallow. This will help wash it down."

"No one will think of looking for me here."

With a nod, Quark left. Unlike your brother, who spent his off-duty time here drinking, good for profit but bad for those who had dealings with him, exactly where you are sitting now, scowling at Bajorans and everyone else. He had had no love for Damar; arrogant, aggressive, boastful, convinced of his importance, considering all offworlders his inferiors, too ready to confide in whoever flattered him enough.

A little later, Quark refilled her glass, knowing he would get a supplement for excellent service. His associates had repeatedly contacted this Cardassian on Earth to deliver equipment she required and had only made good experiences with her.

When he offered her another refill, she looked up at him, "Quark, I have to find out if what was told me is true."

"Dr. Bashir, I have a private matter that must be addressed," Melset looked over at his Bajoran assistant. "No offense meant."

"None taken, Gul Melset," she said, going into another area.

"What is the problem?" he asked, recognizing her anxiety.

"I request a DNA scan. Heritage…" Anxiety was now apprehension.

He did not ask further, only took a sample, prepared it for analysis. Together, they watched the process unfold on the viewscreen until a beep signalled that the analysis was completed.

Bashir's slight reaction did not escape her. He hesitated before saying, Results: "Flawless genome. Bajoran admixture in the distant past."

"Thank you, Doctor." For a few seconds, Melset seemed close to tears before re-establishing strict control. "Healthy genome…," she sighed, trying to throw him off-track. "I was told the truth." With an unsuccessful attempt at a smile, she turned to leave. "Don't worry, doctor, I'm fine, only have to return to SFHS. Duty calls."

I think I'll trace in which Bajoran population that factor is present; it might be interesting… In a few days she'll be back, hoping to get that information, Bashir thought as he watched her leave as though nothing unusual had been discovered.

Avoiding eye contact even with acquaintances, she walked along the Promenade, then entered Quark's bar. "Only what you offered, then my shift starts." He felt Melset put something into his hand. "For the kanaar and your concern."

At SFHS Lieutenant Andrews was waiting for her, "A message from Bajor, from Rendon Tevren. You can inform Gul Torel that his daughter has been found, has agreed to join him and will arrive on the station within a few days."

Rendon, this cannot be repaid. "Any others?" was the hopeful question. "This is very important for two officers in his crew."

"No, but he said he and his contacts are still searching." He waited uncertainly before adding, "Your parents and the Bajorans who came to see you were here; they are quite impressed with the network of information and material on the situation, how it is run as well as the diversity of our team."

Andrews then said, "This will please you: Commander Chandler and his superior officer have reviewed your reports, personnel rosters and repartition of aid; state the whole operation is run very efficiently. Additional funds for your personal use and to employ further staff will be allocated as of next month."

Still shaken by what she had learned, she reacted with uncharacteristic vehemence. "Why was I not informed about this immediately? You knew how to reach me both on Cardassia and here!" Melset's attitude became threatening, complete with spread neck membranes and a sibilant undertone to her voice, "I demanded in the very beginning to be notified at once on all matters concerning this branch of SFHS, and be it during downtime!"

Wouldn't have wanted to meet her when she was active duty personnel and only saw non-Cardassians as threats to the Empire! I daresay this one stopped at nothing, to judge by her attitude, was Andrews' thought. Her violent anger was new to him. Never show you are apprehensive, that will lead to contempt as we will consider you inferior. We are like Klingons in this respect, only accept those who face us down as equals. "Gul Melset, the message came in two hours ago, and as I am your co-organizer, I viewed it to see whether there was urgent business for us to attend to. That was not the case, except for one element to be completed within the next 78 hours: requirement lists."

Her reaction of disgust was such a perfect reflection of his own that he disguised amusement, especially when she commented, "I know - more requirement lists of which I have already transmitted enough to fill a storage hold to capacity with data rods, but whose consideration I have to cadge from SFHS - Earth. You wondered about our networks - we trade information, help, you can always call in a favour. But see to it there is always someone in your debt."

"There is something that came in for you only half an hour ago. Selon and I took the liberty of distributing information on Troi's proposal as soon as we had read it; the first responses are already on file. You can check them later. Vulcan is the best so far - should be ideal as they are very tolerant of other species. Your people has the advantage of being very controlled and disciplined, excellent in sciences and technology; there is even an inquiry from Earth. Each group will be made up of twelve individuals."

This time there was no irritated response. "Remember, Mr. Andrews? The Bajora say, 'One viper is not too dangerous if watched, but a whole nest of them is a deadly risk." she grinned, "Too venomous, those vipers..." Then, seriously, "It would be a beginning. Right now, the word 'Cardassian' is connected with atrocities, these groups would show different aspects of our people: reliability, competence, exacting work, determination…. Admittedly, going offworld is like exile, but as they are in a group it will be easier for them."

And you were the only Cardi at SFCCEI… Andrews thought. "The Federation has a vested interest in creating a basis for integration of what is left of the Cardassian Empire. If we did not help, sheer despair would mean too many willing associates for those who want to recreate a militant society. We have examples of such outcomes in our own history."

"Resentment and a desire for revenge still presentsa very real danger. We never forget an offence or an insult, neither as individuals nor as a group. Having to accept aid is demeaning for us; remember Cardassian pride. We want to become independent as soon as possible, repay the help we have already been given and will yet receive. In Kelan-Lesana Province, we hope to return the industrial replicator after the harvest season, send crops to neighbouring areas within two years at most. In the population centres, we plan to reopen universities, educational centres, factories, have all aspects of our culture live again, even a variant of the Order. Its members belonged to the intellectual elite, were highly educated in all areas. Its function in security enforcement was invaluable. Who wants a society destabilized by dissidents who do not consider the potential outcome of their demands?"

She met his eyes, "I was told some hours ago by a friend, "The Cardassia of vipers is gone..." Leaving the offices with Andrews, she said, recognizing the irony, "Remember Bajor nine years ago, Mr Andrews? The destruction, the ever-present threat of reoccupation? Now it is our turn to rebuild and recreate - and regain independence."

Only five months previously, some Bajorans had arrived on Cardassia to negotiate for deliveries of crops in exchange for an Orb discovered in the ruins of a partly destroyed laboratory on Unefra Prime. After some deliberation the provisional government had rejected the suggestion of a trade, instead deciding to present the Orb to Bajor in a gesture of gratitude: a favour for a favour. An Orb in exchange for the Bajoran effort to surmount the past... The Vedek Assembly openly rejoiced in this gesture, interpreting it as a first sign of reconciliation with the former oppressors, the "vipers," as predicted in the Book of Prophecy. They had insisted on inviting the Cardassian delegation to participate in the ceremony on Bajor.

The Cardassians had accepted and seemingly had made some first steps towards reconciliation in the course of the transferral. To the surprise of the Vedeks who received the Orb, they had attended the ceremony in the shrine, afterwards even hosted a reception during which they shared the little they had combined with supplements offered by the Bajorans, an event that 'spread like wildfire', as Andrews described it. There was a parallel ceremony of Deep Space 9 which saw nearly all of the inhabitants of the station attending.*

The New Order

Garak had come to Deep Space 9 with some information he did not want to transmit, lest it fall into the wrong hands. Melset already knew some details, as this project had been initiated one year after The Defeat.

"I have already spoken to Madred and Dejar who have informed me about their own proposals, yet must admit to some surprise. Nowhere is the elaborate surveillance we once had mentioned addressed….." Melset scanned the text scrolling down the screen. "No surveillance devices in houses, no screens on the streets … only security forces, and, of course safeguards for our remaining cultural goods."

"The majority of surviving Order members agreed to this; they also realized the truth about the institution which they had served."

"I want to see the changes that have been effected."

"You can read them at once. But remember: this is important for our present and for our future. I assure you the decision to make those changes was preceded by the longest discussions I can remember," He placed a new data rod into the computer then selected the introduction to the Charter of the Obsidian Order.

Fascinated, Melset stared at the screen. The introduction was an unequivocal admission of guilt: suppression of concepts and views not in accordance with general doctrine, the support of the status quo no matter what the cost, elimination of dissidents, pressuring innocent people into signing confessions …. The list was comprehensive. Some elements found Melset reliving painful recollections of her own.

The new Obsidian Order shall be respecting of the natural diversity of values and concepts in a constantly evolving society, will work to integrate those that are salutary to the whole, and eliminate those that would destabilize society by engendering conflict and revolution. The Order shall be supervised by a joint commission made up of Detapa, Central Command and Order representatives. These three institutions will not be permitted to act independently, but shall find their activities controlled by checks and balances to prevent any one of them from accumulating undue power. Three as yet to be selected individuals will lead the Order together, supervise each other and periodically submit reports to the supervisory commission which will preside over each institution.

The remaining pages concerned the organization of the three 'pillars of Cardassian society.' In essence, the old structures would remain intact. To dismantle them would destabilise Cardassia's society, used as the population was to stringent laws, but freedom would be guaranteed from random arrests, constant surveillance even in people's homes and unwarranted interrogations as had become the rule before the ill-fated incursion of Tal Shiar and Order into the Gamma Quadrant.

Melset took out the rod after reading the last sentence. "How can safety be assured if all military and Order operations are to be reported? That very detail was the advantage of the Obsidian Order: its operations were clandestine. How do we know that dissidents will not overthrow this government as they did the last one after the Order was weakened? How can Central Command protect our borders if all actions have to be submitted and authorized first? Possible dissidents can make their plans in safety, tell me: how will they be traced and arrested?"

"You have misunderstood: as before, clandestine operations will be classified, but under normal circumstances, new laws, new security measures will be presented to Detapa, whose members will evaluate and discuss them with representatives of the Order and of Central Command."

"Checks and balances…. That could mean paralysis, with endless deliberations, and power plays."

"By no means. Remember what you were told about Central Command and the Obsidian Order, what they had become. People as different as those factory workers or Bertos and Daryn said the same things I did. A repeat of this development must be precluded in future. Entek said that 'The Obsidian Order is Cardassia'. Its upper echelons only sought power, used fear to keep the population under control. Innocent people were arrested, accused of crimes they had not committed, forced into the role of alleged criminals brought to justice. The Cardassian people was not happy – it was being terrorised. A recurrence of such conditions must be avoided at all costs."

"And Central Command….," She did not complete the sentence, only went to a drawer, opened it and took out a box wrapped in satiny blue material which obviously held something she treasured.

"What had Central Command become?" She unwrapped a flat container. "Look, Garak." she said, her expression bitterly sarcastic. "Aren't those nice, ornate medals? I was accorded these attractive, intricately fashioned ornaments for systems we secured, and this one, for my final sacrifice … Very beautiful medals; they look impressive on a uniform, contrasting as they do with black. They meant so much to me. Meant nothing to my superiors in Central Command. 'Give her a very ornate, shiny medal to wear and make a speech extolling her virtues as a true Cardassian. She will be proud of being described thusly, will be even more motivated to serve with pride, and not think any further.' A speech transmitted on all screens and a medal are cheap. Commendations, medals, to make us serve with even more dedication ….." She stood at the viewport as though lost.

"They mean something to you; you served with true dedication as did so many others, did not think of yourself, only of Cardassia. You have been working incessantly for Cardassia since your time as a recruit, not once shied away from making even painful sacrifices for Cardassia, you earned those medals as did the others who were also rewarded. That a number of upper-level militaries only sought status and wealth does not take away from what you and your peers accomplished."

Garak went over to her. "There is one last truth. You once said that all peoples were equal in their commitment to Cardassia. Were you ever told what happened to your own ethnicity?"

He got no answer.

"No? Has propaganda purged that from your minds as well in spite of your people's well-developed oral tradition? The Kelani were a very spiritual people, rejected military rule, preserved their old beliefs and values, but were coerced into supporting Central Command in the form of produce. Central Command needed personnel, so decided this situation had to be changed at all costs. An alleged attack by Lissepians was planned by the Obsidian Order and Central Command to draw them into the war effort. Their spiritual leaders? Eliminated. Their independent government? Liquidated. Samagaltayi? Its archives plundered, the old area of the city destroyed. Many Kelani took shelter in those same caves that protected them at the end of this last conflict. A Cardassian cruiser destroyed the Lissepian ship which was manned by Lissepian P.O.W.s equipped with the equivalent of the implant you received before I interrogated you. The Cardassians on board to guard them had been sentenced to death, but were told their participation in this action would see them exonerated." Garak added, "And they were, after a fashion."

"I was told that we were among the first to join."

"No. Kelan-Lesana was occupied by the military, thousands "evacuated", families torn apart, the children enrolled in schools all over the planet to make them part of the mainstream; those couples who remained together were re-educated, under constant observation. These were allowed to keep their language, some of their customs, but were cleverly brainwashed until they accepted the official version of their history. Within two generations, we had wonderfully integrated Kelani who were every bit as fanatic as the rest of us. If we find that data rod in the ruins of Order Headquarters, you can view it. Then take a good look at the appearance of the village that is shown, of the old Center. Those privileges were shared by all, my dear."

"I learned that we all joined willingly, had but one goal, to create an Empire the likes of which had never existed before in the Quadrant! Everything lies, propaganda?"

"Of necessity, Iníki. Your people did end up sharing our common goal as a result."

"We are all Cardassians, no matter what our heritage and ethnicity."

"I don't know if your Vedek told you but some few Kelani still show very slight signs of a forgotten heritage, like a natural variant, but it is there, together with the stories of strangers from another star. Now the strangers are Cardassians, full-blooded and mixed, returning from a potential colony to offer their skills to a ruined Empire."

"I know. Vedek Serad informed me about this when he came with the second group and, the same day, I had Dr Bashir effect a genetic scan which validated it."

"So you know the truth. What we are doing now, every day, every hour of our waking time, is true service to Cardassia, hard work, rebuilding, recreating, cooperating beyond the pales of military, Order and civilian. Oh, there is some plotting and manoeuvring even now: among the hard-liners, the members of the True Way who have survived, but they are known to us, are being watched very carefully. Gul Madred and Dejar together with other surviving operatives, have traced their leaders, only eleven have survived and they will not survive much longer. They will meet with unfortunate accidents within the next few weeks, a quite surprising coincidence, don't you agree? Can we count on you to help us in this regardless of whom you might face? Their hangers-on will, for the most part, disperse once their leaders are gone, but will be observed and eliminated should they show unexpected initiative."

Her answer was unhesitating, "Yes. This I shall do as a member of Central Command and of the Order."

"The answer I expected, but it had to be pronounced and recorded; that has not changed."

Garak noticed she was looking at the hologramme of Loo'Wess, but did not comment until she turned back to him. "I know what you are thinking – it is all that is left to those of us who have survived." He shrugged, "We have seen everything we knew and loved collapse around us. Cardassia will live again, but be vastly different to the old one, no surveillance even into the population's homes, no fear of speaking openly; as you will see when you read the rest of the information on that rod, we will retain our strict laws as we know nothing else and need carefully defined limits in order to feel safe. Yet in spite of all the changes, Cardassia will live again."

"Our generation will not live to see it, but those who follow us will. How much has been destroyed, how many of our best people lost. I doubt if the entire population recalls enough to recreate more than a fraction of all our accomplishments in the area of culture and society." But what we can recreate depends on what we will uncover in the underground area of the Obsidian Order's complex. There are still subsidiary sections in the passages between the Order's and Central Command's buildings we have not yet reached."

Anmerkung

Ref. Aus der Asche by Martina Strobelt and Gabi Stiene

Gabi Stiene had the idea about the Orb, and wrote about it in the above-mentioned zine.

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