DUTY TO CARDASSIA SUPERSEDES ALL – PART 4 - NEGOTIATIONS

Her shift having ended some hours ago Melset spent some time with her colleagues; the very idea of enjoying their company instead of discussing new projects or the situation on some planet or another would have been luxury only a year ago. At times, there were even amusing incidents that their team shared.

"You will like this one, Gul Melset," said Yung. "Too bad you weren't there."

"Jake Sisko interviewed some of us a few days ago, stressing the fact we represent peoples that were at war only a short time ago and now present an example of peaceful cooperation for the good of all."

He asked Daryn: 'Isn't working with former enemies difficult for you, a Cardassian?'

Daryn reacted with irritation and said, 'If my superior can do so, why should I be any different? I may be Cardassian, but do not prejudge us, do not prejudge me! Our cooperation is essential for all areas of the Quadrant. In other words: I wish to remind you that SFHS is working both for the benefit of Cardassia and for that of other worlds."

Andrews took over, nodded at Daryn. "She wanted to have some fun with him and casually added: 'We, the Cardassians on staff, were anything but pleased at hearing our people's work onworld compared to that of Terran ants. Perhaps you should give specifics as ant societies are superorganisms. Like the Dominion.'"

Johnson laughed, "He sat there with the most embarrassed look on his face you can imagine, then rallied: "I … meant the purposeful, single-minded way they work. One group found … victims under the rubble, the foreman took samples, stored them, vaporized the remains, then his team continued as though they had found nothing unusual."

"Ah, so we have all the emotional reactions of … ants? Now I understand why we are such effective combatants!" was Bertos' contribution.

Daryn finally took pity on him. 'I understand: you mean to imply that the recovery of Cardassia is our goal, and all of us are working like … ants … to realize it."' I never knew she had such a sense of humor; she asked, 'But tell me, Mr Sisko: what are the various castes of ants in our hill?'

He was so astonished at the question that he didn't realize she was joking and apologized, realizing that his comparison had thoroughly backfired. Remind me to show you the interview." He added, "The risks of transferring imagery from one language and culture to a different one are great…."

There was a burst of laughter from the group which had the other guests and Quark look over at the team of SFHS in surprise. Apparently they all had the same thought: Up to now, they were always working on projects; especially the Cardassians were driven, never seemed to go off-duty and now, for the very first time, they are relaxed, just sitting there, talking together. Staff seem to have shared something amusing for all of them, across species borders. A first sign of hope for everyone.

When the team dispersed after having made tentative plans for a short stay on Bajor, Melset decided to catch up on news from home before reading the messages that had arrived from various organizers.

The reports that came in were showing accelerating progress, plans were finally going ahead as expected. The masses of rubble removed in the course of clearing for reconstruction were rapidly disappearing as the material was being used to repair the main roads, as filler for the basis of new ones, or for foundations for new buildings, whereas metals were recycled for equipment as well as reinforcement for houses and bridges. Some few of the covered passageways were also being rebuilt. The fact groundwork had to proceed with the greatest of caution was the only element that led to delays. Discoveries of unexploded ordnance were a routine occurrence, and would be for years to come in spite of Federation and Cardassian specialists' efforts.

At hearing the communit activate, she went into her room to access her personal annex. Much to her regret, station security no longer monitored transmissions from and to Cardassia so strictly; the challenge of sending messages without their being intercepted had been entertaining for her, and, she suspected, for Security Chief Remosi as well, considering the glances he gave her when he or she was the winner in their game.

Her father, Gul Losir Damar, appeared on the screen, smiled at her in greeting, "Circumstances are slowly normalizing, Iníki. Most of us have access to necessities, even adequate living conditions, employment is increasing as industry is being re-established; in general, our situation has improved far more rapidly than any of us would have dared hope after The Defeat."

"Gul Damar, it would appear the Federation has indeed kept its promise to us in every way; yet I still do not quite trust either Starfleet or the Federation in spite of their assistance, which admittedly is invaluable." How long will that base remain on Cardassia Prime? Is the Federation assisting us to such an extent in an effort to make us grateful enough to tolerate the permanent presence of their base? She decided to let the matter drop. At the moment, everyone had different concerns. "What advances are being made in Lesana-Kelan Province?"

"We are presently expanding small towns in the areas cleared for resettlement; plans have already been drawn even to streets and emplacement of housing. We are striking a balance between predominantly agriculturally, respectively technologically oriented areas. These will be established in less-fertile regions to restrict loss of arable soils." After a moment, Gul Damar inquired, "When can you come again? It has been over a year since your last stay; much has changed in the meantime. We think you should see developments for yourself, especially as all of them are positive."

"I am up for furlough in less than six months, all depending on further developments. Our workload has become far less heavy than formerly; to judge by weekly reports, progress is accelerating throughout the Quadrant; nearly every month, one or two planets become independent of the assistance programme, meaning personnel can be downsized in this branch within another year or two."

"Fortunately. The past years were difficult enough in the union, at first with the consequences of the Klingon invasion and then The Defeat; the Federation teams who came to assist us told us about numerous Federation and non-aligned systems that were no better off than we were." There was a brief discussion in the background that Melset could not understand, then he turned back to the screen. "I must leave. In an hour, the representatives of the Lesana-Kelan Province settlements are to meet for a progress report followed by a planning session. Delhina is already on her way." Damar continued, "You will be sent the minutes of both at the end of the meeting. Be strong, Iníki. Damar out."

With that, the unit deactivated. Melset got up, slowly went to the viewport, recalling a childhood lesson, 'Always remember: A Cardassian, be it man, woman or child, considers duty first before thinking of him- or herself.' The first 18 months may have been difficult to bear, seeing what had happened on our worlds, but at least I could often return to Cardassia. Now? I have to rely on reports.

Before she left, another message from Lesana-Kelan Province arrived: a report on the second harvest, on advances made with the new irrigation system, on the planting and about the latest group of repatriates. Lesana-Kelan Province was now producing crops on slightly above subsistence level, with the surplus being bartered for goods from other areas.

The 29 returnees who had arrived on Cardassia after her departure had opted for Kelan, Locaris and Baryn Provinces where they were planning to settle permanently. According to the repatriates' accounts, there were no problems with the other population who had welcomed them, having heard of the success of the preceding groups and were helping them integrate.

May as well go to Quark's. The distraction will help me get over my impatience to finally return home – I wonder what financial drama he'll tell me about this time.

Quark always enjoyed speaking to her about business deals; he was pleased at her interest in his accounts of financial adventures, successes and failures and especially that she had none of the contempt for him others of her kind and many humans had shown and still did. Shortly after her arrival on Deep Space 9, he had found a holosuite program of Loo'Wess at the back of a drawer and given it to her. "I found this; perhaps it might be useful when reconstruction starts?"

He had been surprised at her having recognized the subtext of his query and by her reaction at taking the rod, "And they say Ferengi have strips of latinum in here. Not all, it would seem." She indicated his chest. "I have always found your people to be reliable, both on Earth and here, with an eye out for profit." And I am planning to keep an eye on you, reliable or not; this present is your first attempt to make me let down my guard, my dear Quark… Give an object of no use to you to someone for whom it means much. A lesson even mentioned as an overture in the Order's basic course.

Rules

To her astonishment, Quark and his associates had not yet tried to go beyond the terms of the contracts Garak had secured for him, but she was not so naïve as to think he would continue thus. No doubt he had already seen to some spin-off deals in connection with the first, larger, one, thus his kindness, as he was hoping for more. While she enjoyed him and his ways, Melset had no illusions as to his motivations and lack of scruples, so, after discussing the matter with Chief Remosi, she got into Quark's clandestine system to read his communications on a regular basis, determined to demand restitution in case of shady deals and gave Remosi information about security breaches in exchange for his permission to enter the communications system.

One evening, towards the end of his business day, she came in with a data padd, looked around for him, then stalked over to the bar and demonstratively switched on the padd while waiting.

When Broik looked over at her and made to come, she made a nearly imperceptible gesture, indicating Quark. A short discussion and he came over with a padd of his own.

"A glass of kanaar? Number 27?"

Ingratiating manner, is glancing at my padd too often – clearly a sign of guilt was the result of her observation.

"My dear Quark, I think we need to talk," She indicated the seat next to her own. "Explain this." She held out her padd but did not let Quark take it.

He gave the screen a quick glance and did his best to seem innocent. "Ah, a business deal, not such a very profitable one, but a small chance of…"

"Not profitable?" She interrupted him. "You have a spin-off there, and are making very good money out of it, too. We had agreed that the contract to deliver these basic goods be one without spin-offs, especially as they take away from our own, and that is something that will not be tolerated."

"A perfectly legitimate deal which was proposed by a business partner," was his explanation

"Certainly, Khotek Dar. I well know that name and the individual behind it. We have already had dealings with him, subsequently placed him on the index of individuals barred from negotiating contracts with us after his attempt to sell us substandard equipment. We took punitive action according to our ways." Her expression became predatory. "Don't worry, your friend is still very much alive, but has some interesting recollections of his stay with us." In an aside, she added, "I wonder whether he'll be back…"

The Ferengi could well imagine the punitive action, suppressed a shudder.

With a smile that was definitely not friendly, she said, "Back to business. Compare the overhead. Here is the list." She thrust the padd at him. "The costs of delivery are nearly triple the estimates listed in the original contract, and … what about these taxes? Orhan's lawyers and I have submitted each item to exact scrutiny: these taxes, my dear Quark, they do not even exist! We have checked all of your transactions in connection with this contract: you've been padding your income on our costs!"

"Delays, costs of storage, necessary intermediaries because we lost freighters during the war…You do know these are difficult times for everyone…"

"Ah, is that so? You operate with your own freighters, have long since replaced the three or four you lost by buying and repairing damaged vessels; refer to Section 58-C, subsection §24. Remarkable, isn't it? And what about this item? I can find neither delays in the copy of the ship's log I acquired nor an increase in the cost of deliveries, nor storage costs. The only intermediary listed is your own brother! Tell me, since when is he, the Grand Nagus himself, involved in your deals?" She was jabbing at the contested items with her finger while staring at him, her voice now sibilant.

He was taken by surprise. "How…?" and fell silent, made a slight waving gesture.

"I keep an eye on your dealings, Quark. You are a Ferengi. Deals are your business. I'm a Cardassian. Information is my business. I have all of the records on your and your associates' contracts with us, and have been following this specific one down to the least detail with the greatest of interest, have copies of all of your transmissions and incoming communications concerning this one and the others."

She reached out to grip his lapels. "Besides your own, legitimate proceeds, you have been skimming off the profits that we agreed would be ours alone. We have generously given you the privilege of contracting for projects of your own in connection with certain of our start-ups so that you have equitable proceeds in accordance with your customs. The start-ups are doing well, will generate profit in a matter of a year or so. I also know of the Rule Enough Is Never Enough, but …. how about losing this specific deal to a rival?" She let go of him, sat back, observing his every move.

"Wait a minute. I know a team of Khobeerian merchants who may be interested." She looked at her padd, considering this option. "In fact, I do owe one of them a favour… We cooperated on Earth."

"You can't dissolve the contract!" Quark's expression was now apprehensive.

"Forgotten your own Rules, have you, my friend?" A Deal is a Deal Unless a Better One Comes Along."

"Only holds true of a deal between Ferengi." He smirked.

She smirked right back at him, "And ours with you only holds true with fellow Cardassians. Orhan has given me the authorization to terminate it the very moment I notice any infractions and this…" Again the jabbing motion at the padd, but now her fingernail struck it with a regular clicking sound that, to Quark, sounded like a time-bomb ticking its way to explosion, "has clearly overstepped all of the agreements made." She began inputting a code, muttering to herself, "Cardassian Bureau of Commerce, section F - Contract number…"

"Stop it!"

"Deret Orhan, Loo'Wess 1 Organizer..."

"Gul Melset, let's discuss the problem. Let me see your information… It could be that a mistake was made someplace; you know what a simple error in input can do…."

She continued inputting details of her findings as if she heard nothing, whispering them to herself loudly enough for him to hear each single one. "There. Ready." Her thumb in position to give her imprint, she fixed him with a cold, reptilian stare, "Unless…"

He was nearly pleading when he said, "Let's review this in the back room, in private." Quark had noticed that a few of his patrons were watching, trying to listen in, most of them amused, even sniggering about the Ferengi-Cardassian confrontation, no doubt placing bets on who would be the winner; he also realized that Melset noticed them too. "There's no misunderstanding that cannot be resolved with some good will."

My own phrasing, she thought with satisfaction. I've got him at my mercy now. "It had better be. And some good advice: Keep your hands to yourself or you'll regret it, I promise you," she snarled at him like a Klingon, "Latinum lasts longer than lust, and so does the discomfort from Cardassian measures taken in self-defense."

He quickly pulled back his hand.

An hour later, the negotiations done, he still had his deal, but the Cardassian Fund for Reconstruction was to get 40% of his profits, and he a document attesting to the same amount in charitable donations which meant a tax deductible at the end of the accounting year. As Melset put it, these donations would certainly please his brother and mean a tax return for him.

"And now, my kanaar." When he brought it she smiled in thanks, paid for it then said in a low voice so that only he could hear, "Remember, I'm watching you. Very closely. Remember your old friend? The Korrigan*?" She looked at him innocently.

His expression was well worth the entire incident.

The next day, much to his relief, the entire staff of SFHS came by for a business lunch. At noticing his reaction, she whispered to him when he took her order, "You cannot free a fish from water. That applies to both of us."

Korrigan is used for 'Changeling' in the French version of Deep Space 9; in the Bretagne region of France shapeshifting beings play a role in local stories and legends. Then, too, I think it sounds friendlier.

Developments

"How long will SFHS maintain offices on this station?"

"Both Commander Chandler and the provisional government have informed me that this branch of SFHS may become a permanent fixture on this station. However, personnel is to be downsized, respectively replaced after another two or three years. The provisional government has already stated that I will have a choice of postings when I return to Cardassia, as will you," she said to Daryn, Bertos and Roval who had gone to the Replimat with her.

"In a year, reconstruction will begin on Olmerak Prime, I have already inquired about work there," said Roval. "I submitted my personnel files evaluating my work both on Cardassia Prime and here as soon as I received this information from a friend; the project manager has already offered me employment as a foreman and, parallel to that, training as a project overseer. Next year, at this time…"

"That is positive news! Once you know more and have signed the contract, we will have some formalities to complete for SFHS: you are due assistance in resettling as a bonus for your work here, one of the benefits accorded Federation employees, and there is the overtime you have put in."

"And your plans, Melset?" was Daryn's query.

"I do not know yet; possibly three more years, possibly less, all depending on developments. I admit work at SFHS is interesting, and has shown me various aspects of the Federation." She thought of Stimson, O'Connor or Allen, Gupta and many others who had shown her truly positive aspects of human and Federation principles. "The people with whom we cooperate are open-minded, most of those I met on Cardassia in the course of negotiating humanitarian assistance did try to understand us." She looked at her companions, "But I finally want to return. Cardassia is my home, no matter what the conditions. Here? I feel as though I was in exile in spite of your presence."

After some moments of silence, Roval said, "We haven't made any negative experiences here, either." He looked out to the Promenade, "Perhaps a startled glance, at most resentment, but not the attacks we expected. But we feel the same way as you, even though, as you say, there are the four of us, and this station was Cardassian."

Projects

"Chief Remosi here. Gul Melset, report to docking ring."

She exchanged glances with Andrews and Selon, then left. To her surprise, Garak was waiting for her.

A neutral greeting before he told her, "There is a new development that may be of interest for you."

Melset contacted her colleagues, "I won't be long. Organizer Garak has just arrived with confidential information. Record who is taking over for me. The equivalent of time off or funds will be arranged."

She went to quarters with him where they settled in the living area to exchange the latest information.

"The situation in Lesana-Kelan Province is very good indeed; the province has become nearly independent of assistance and is presently exchanging goods with Baryn and Varon provinces, negotiating with Saranji Province as well; as yet, trade is at the most basic level, food, first industrial products, but sufficient to offer employment; its rate of increase is encouraging. The offworld contract that was negotiated is also doing very well, permitting the parts factory to expand staff. The main requirements are homes for additional settlements in the provinces, expansion of infrastructure and reactivation of more farmland, creating further centres of production and distribution. Cardassia now has only four industrial replicators; some factories and hospitals still have to be reconstructed, schools, homes, administrative complexes built. Our provisional government has returned the others. The camps are finally a thing of the past."

"There was an epidemic some five hundred kilometers to the south of Loo'Wess; to our relief, it was not caused by a Dominion-planted pathogen. Synthesizing sera to combat it initially presented some difficulties, but our scientists managed on their own, marking a very small step towards independence. Dr. Bashir has informed me that the risk of epidemics has been virtually eliminated, at least in our central systems as some medical officers decided to initiate a comprehensive inoculation program within weeks of The Defeat."

"Reconstruction is scheduled to start on some outlying planets within months as well, according to what Roval and Gul Masok have told me," Melset added, "Finally, the hope of returning to a semblance of normalcy. What are the odds of finding enough volunteers for these off-world resettlement projects?"

With a broad grin, Garak explained, "There are volunteers, my dear Iníki. First of all, those who were evacuated want to return to rebuild their colonies, establish a permanent Cardassian presence on those worlds. All of us remember the Border Wars. Apart from these good Cardassian citizens, those on your list, which was supplemented by your contacts, should be useful. We have also traced a number of the troops and officers as well as civilians who actively supported the Dominion to the end and denounced so-called traitors. They volunteered quite willingly, especially at being given the generous option of either interrogation, followed by trial and execution or helping rebuild settlements on those planets. They will be kept under strict supervision at all times and be given the most hazardous work."

Melset laughed softly, then, once again serious, inquired, "Very effective! But won't we be planting potentially seditious populations on those systems we won with so much sacrifice? They possess resources that are invaluable for our survival."

"There is a modicum of surveillance. You have civilian settlers; add some lower-ranking Order operatives who have survived, as have thousands of loyal troops and their commanding officers. In exchange for better conditions, some have already volunteered to take over this duty, and I assure you, potential traitors will be found and eliminated at once. To use your own words, justice will be swift and final. Most of the known traitors are grateful for this option, hoping that their efforts in service to Cardassia will redeem them." With contempt, Garak added, "They will denounce each other readily enough; those who denounce innocent people, however ….." He met her eyes, his own coldly vindictive.

"My hope is that Gul Revok can be found. He knew he was collaborating with a force that offered power yet would have destroyed Cardassia as we know it. No doubt he was hoping to become the new Legate after Broka. ... Damar recognized what would finally happen and acted. ... Gul Revok? Willing to accept even the disappearance of Cardassia as a discrete union in his desire for power. His treachery caused the deaths of so many Cardassian patriots who fought for our freedom. If he escapes …"

"If Revok has survived, he will be found. The living owe this debt to those who sacrificed their lives for Cardassia's freedom." Garak's expression showed that, if he had any say at all in the matter, he would be merciless, if necessary see to retribution himself if no one else would, and knew Melset was prepared to take appropriate action as well even though it could mean arrest and in a worst-case scenario, a Federation trial followed by a prolonged stay in a Federation penal colony.

"Torel has taken over in Lesana Province during my absence and has asked me to inform you that his daughter has been fully integrated into his family unit. She has overcome her initial apprehension, is learning our language rapidly and is not being shunned by the others. The same is the case with the children of those other two officers. Their repatriation has been a success. We thought you would like to know." Garak stretched, then said, "And that was the news…."

The Discovery

Later in the evening, Garak informed her, "There is a matter that concerns you, Iníki. You will remember that we began clearing the rubble from rooms on the subterranean levels of the Obsidian Order building a few months ago? Progress has been slow but we have finally reached the 8th level, hope to finish this phase in a few more weeks."

"Then reconstruction can be effected within some months."

"Indeed. But there is more: On the 6th and 7th floors, we discovered Cardassian cultural artefacts, even some from the Hebitian Empire have survived intact. … In a complex of rooms on the 8th level, however, we made a quite unexpected discovery: Objects taken from Bajor, that is, artefacts liberated from shrines and monasteries as well from other institutions. Most of them are undamaged, this also holds true of the other cultural goods I have mentioned."

"The organizers and I have discussed procedure in detail before initiating a round of talks with the representatives of the military as well as of Detapa and have decided to wait until the 10th level has been cleared. Only then will we know exactly what we have and negotiate for a return of these objects which should be of greatest value to the Bajorans." He observed Melset, evaluating her reaction to the news.

"I enter this into the discussion: after The Defeat, they surmounted five decades of suppression and terror with all the resultant resentment and hatred to give us the help they could to rebuild and, initially, for many to survive the outcome of the Dominion War."

She got up, looked out the viewport, "I was told many politicians and parts of the general population first spoke out against it, but some vedeks stated this help was in accordance with the will of the Prophets who had foretold an era of peace between our peoples."

Turning to Garak, she added, "I strongly advise against demanding any financial or material compensation for returning those objects, but rather to send them back to the Bajoran people in a gesture of gratitude for their help and restitution for what was done. This may help heal old wounds more than anything else. Recall the reactions to our returning the Orb discovered on Unefra Prime? The Bajorans held a special service both on this station and on Bajor to celebrate the event, insisted on inviting the entire non-Bajoran staff of SFHS to attend the service with them, regardless of beliefs. Vedek Navri and his assistants were speechless at the response. So many inhabitants of the station wanted to attend that the service had to be transmitted to the Promenade."

"That is exactly the suggestion that won the most favour in the course of discussions." His expression shifted from pensive to challenging, "We agreed on one element without any discussion at all, my dear Iníki: As you were sent on a one-year mission to Bajor and survived, are in contact with many Bajorans even now, your latest mission is to open negotiations for the return of these objects. Natíma Lang will then take over from you and conclude the process when work has been completed."

"Am I acceptable? I was stationed at SFCCEI, am now employed by SFHS, both of them Starfleet, not Cardassian institutions; this could arouse suspicion and accusations of my having been manipulated into representing offworld rather than Cardassian interests." After some moments, she added, "Our attitudes towards Bajorans have not changed all that much; some who think we are losing the chance of making the Bajoran people pay could accuse me of treason."

"No such suspicions were mentioned and if, could easily be disproved. The fact you are with SFHS works in your favour as your impartiality and that of the other staff have become evident, together with your absolute loyalty in fulfilling your duty to Cardassia." He met her eyes, "And, as you may remember, there is a factor that makes you the best choice. Apart from that, you know how to react to certain elements of Bajoran culture due to your experiences."

"That mission is a challenge I willingly accept as my duty to Cardassia. If you transfer the data to my terminal, I shall contact the appropriate individuals. There may be difficulties, but they should not be too hard to overcome. Do the Organizers have any preferences as to the Bajoran's intermediary?"

"No. Whom the Bajorans select is no concern of ours, be it civilian, militia or purveyor of superstition." He went over to his duffel, took out a padd, exclaiming in faked surprise. "What a coincidence! Here is the data, all ready for you. I expected you to agree, as is your duty."

Later on that night, Garak looked over at her for some moments as she slept. They knew a Cardassian would work even triple shifts for the Union's sake, to secure additional assistance or some minor benefits. He went out to the communit. An hour later he returned, his expression smug as he settled down again. Lieutenant Dax may be just the person we need in case there are problems with SFHS - Earth.

Following their encounter shortly after her arrival on the station, he knew exactly how to manipulate the Trill. He had all confidence in her abilities now that Dax had become self-confident, secure, no longer was the confused young woman who, at Captain Sisko's orders, had presumed to counsel him. She would know what to do, which phrasings to use...

Garak remembered that the Bajoran residents had been disquieted about his presence on the station, were relieved when he had stayed behind on his devastated world. During his nine years on Terok Nor, he had hidden his feelings behind a cynical smile, reacted to insults and even physical violence with unshakeable composure, responded to inquiries with verbose explanations and subterfuge. Now his relationship with Melset was the latest element under discussion. This station is like a village…

The next morning they went to the docking ring.

"My colleagues at SFHS are relatively free of preconceptions. On station? I am accepted, or at least tolerated. Leave is generous by our standards, six weeks in all, and I can go to Cardassia then, but I want to return permanently. Eleven years off-world! …" She looked away, "I am working for our Union here, and yet…"

A life away from Cardassia is no life at all. "I can understand you all too well; the worst is over, Loo'Wess slowly taking shape again; the buildings where we stay during our meetings are now part of a small town, those nine areas which were laid out as the nuclei of the new Loo'Wess are slowly being repopulated, are expanding. When you come again, you'll see how everything has advanced."

"As far as I have heard, the reports are encouraging now, on all the worlds that are being administrated from this station." Melset said, "We passed the latest review and were commended for our work and highly effective cooperation with all institutions."

Garak quickly clasped her hand, "I have heard only positive reactions as well."

She remembered Elim as a young operative cold, distant, unapproachable, always evading questions, making a game of secrecy and deception. He had interrogated her efficiently, with clinical detachment; his kind gestures and words afterwards only meaning that he had found her innocent of treason. He was reticent, as she was, but Melset knew he had changed very subtly, with no Obsidian Order to serve, no heritage to conceal. She reached up to touch his shoulder and, for a moment, he held her hand to his chest.

You have become much more open …

Garak saw her pensive expression and said, "Only three more years at most … Be strong, Iníki." With that he left to board the shuttle.

When the doors had rolled shut, Melset immediately resumed work at SFHS. Cardassian life was sternly regimented. Private considerations were exactly that, did not influence fulfilment of duty.

Damar's son, Jivan, was now finishing his first year of education, was proud of the duties he was given. Each age faced certain responsibilities and expectations; Cardassian children took pride in them, saw each new duty as a step towards serving Cardassia. That devotion to duty, responsibility and status ensured stability for all. Jivan, who was growing up on Cardassia, would not have the problems with which the repatriated war orphans were coping.

Melset recalled her own childhood: pride in each success, the rivalries, forming networks of reliable sources of information, calling out the Civilian Pledge to Cardassia before beginning instruction in the morning. Those times were over, would never come back. The efforts and the devotion of so many generations, one man had destroyed all they had accomplished...

This is the past, not relevant to what is now expected of me… I have to contact Vedek Serad in a few hours, notify him…

Negotiations

Late in the evening about three days after, she was sitting at a table in the Replimat, having the last meal of the day. Melset always enjoyed watching the activity on the Promenade; to her bemusement she realized the station had become a home in the sense of offering her subsistence, quarters and company whenever she wanted to discuss events or just socialize. Together with Daryn, Bertos and Roval, being far from Cardassia did not feel quite that bad. Her non-Cardassian colleagues? The group at SFHS was mutually supportive, dedicated, and enthusiastic about what they did.

"May I join you?" She looked up and saw Commander Kira holding a tray with her own dinner. The Bajoran's dark eyes were friendly as was her slight smile. Melset well knew Kira still distrusted her to a great degree in spite of their sporadic cooperation and always would; the Bajoran was making an effort after recognizing the Cardassian's attitude towards her people.

"Of course," she gestured at the chair opposite and inquired, "What is new, Commander? The past few days have kept me from attending most non-SFHS meetings."

"There is some news for you. I have been asked to present a report at the First Minister's Session in three days," was the reply. "Remosi told me some time ago that you have frequently inquired about our own rebuilding programme of the past years. It has been concluded, so full details can be put at your disposal if you are still interested." The Bajoran briefly hesitated, then offered, "If you want to and can make the time, you could accompany me. You have, after all, been in repeated contact with a number of ministers because of the assistance your people was accorded. First Minister Shakaar has requested I invite you to attend as Vedek Serad has informed him about an undisclosed affair that is to be resolved as soon as possible."

The reaction was a gesture of thanks. "That is most kind of him. Garak and the other organizers have entrusted me with this specific matter. All I am permitted to say is that it is of great importance for your people."

Kira's eyes reflected the curiosity she did not permit herself to verbalize. "So, everything is settled, Gul Melset, I'll give you further details in a day or two so that you can plan accordingly. We will have a tight schedule."

"Our team at SFHS is so well-organized that anyone can take the other's place at short notice." Melset suggested, "Daryn can replace me. Everyone knows Cardassians all look the same."

"You do have to look very closely indeed to notice any differences between vipers," was the retort. "Anyone contacting SFHS will be satisfied at seeing grey skin, scales, dark hair and light eyes, in brief: a Cardassian."

A laugh was the answer. "I'll be ready then." When Kira got up to go to her own quarters, Melset thanked her, saying, "Your assistance is valued, Commander Kira."

After returning to quarters, Melset immediately sent a subspace message to Vedek Serad; contact was made within two hours. After the formal greetings, she explained, "Vedek Serad, at your request, Commander Kira has invited me to spend two days in the Bajoran capital to attend the Ministers' Session. Is it possible to arrange a meeting with either Kai Unkteh or one of his aides? I have been entrusted with a subject of some sensitivity by the provisional government of Cardassia." Melset looked at the Vedek who had protected her years ago, could see the request had taken him unawares.

He answered slowly, pensively. "This is unusual, child; I cannot promise my efforts will be successful. Be assured, however, that I will speak for you well before attending the Vedek Assembly in the capital. I take it your request is in connection with recent Cardassian affairs?"

She shook her head, "No, Vedek Serad, it dates back to the Occupation, is of relevance for Bajor;" After a moment, she added, "thus the old Cardassia. I cannot give details, as it is strictly confidential. Vedek Serad, I thank you for listening to me whatever the outcome."

The Cardassian informed Vedek Navri about her mission on Bajor the following morning when he stood at the entrance of the shrine after the service. Recollections of the terror of over five decades made him react with suspicion when she requested he contact Vedek Yarim or one of the Vedeks of the Kai's order. A few hours later, he reached Yarim who assured him procedure in no way presented a threat to Bajor's spiritual integrity, so, hesitatingly, he agreed. After all, it was only one viper.

While waiting to hear from Kira, she went about her duties. In the afternoon, the Commander came into SFHS' offices. "Gul Melset, I am leaving tomorrow afternoon and have arranged for you to be assigned a room adjoining mine at the visitors' centre; for security reasons, I thought this the best solution, rather than staying with friends." She hesitated for a moment, "Is there something specific you wish to do apart from obtaining information about our own programme?"

"I have an appointment with Vedek Serad who will be in the capital for an Assembly. We have to discuss a development that is positive for Bajor."

Kira looked at her, momentarily suspicious, then thought: You may be a Cardassian, as arrogant, vicious and secretive as all your kind, but according to Rendon, Arna and Selon, you are relatively tolerant of our ways, respect them. I have noticed this myself. More than once, she had seen this 'viper' together with some Bajorans who resided on the station, but still wondered about the mission. You will tell me in good time…

"There is no reason for concern, Commander. What I have been asked to initiate involves neither threats nor extortion or, I assure you, I would not be cooperating."

Much to Kira's relief, Melset was wearing Cardassian clothing that strongly resembled Bajoran attire and wore her hair Kelani style when she joined her at the docking ring, "Commander, I have opted for my own ethnicity's clothing as it is neutral; or," Melset inquired, "would uniform have been preferable?"

Kira's response was a slight smile when she recognized the humour, "Your choice makes perfect sense."

The short transit went smoothly. At beaming down, Kira quickly looked around to find Minister Gerion who was to pick her up. "Ah, there he is," she said to no one in particular before going towards the exit where a member of Shakaar's staff was already waiting for her.

The minister's smile of welcome faded when he saw a Cardassian accompanying the Commander. Kira quickly explained, "Minister, Gerion, you may have heard about Gul Melset. She is one of the three personnel heading SFHS on Deep Space 9. That is why I personally invited her as she is interested in our own procedures in reconstruction. Two years ago, she accompanied the Shiron brothers and Yisach to Cardassia and saw to it they were protected while they worked there. Moreover, Vedek Serad has requested she come."

The Bajoran turned to Melset, "I regret my reaction, but old habits die hard. If Commander Kira speaks for you, that is enough for me. Welcome to Bajor, Gul Melset. I trust you will find your stay informative. Only a word of caution: Do not leave the building unaccompanied. The Cardassian-Dominion Alliance has increased resentment and that could lead to incidents. A member of the Bajoran militia will accompany you and the Commander whenever you leave quarters."

Melset noticed she was addressed by her title although she was not in uniform, a courtesy, as far as she had heard, not accorded Gul Dukat even before his cooperation with the Dominion. She inclined her head briefly in thanks before answering in Bajoran, "Thank you for your concern, Minister Gerion, I am most grateful to the Ministers for permitting me to attend."

His warning was not unexpected; Melset herself resented the Klingons and the Dominion as a whole, even while accepting that some few individuals were not enemies. Resentment for a group in its entirety was a normal reaction after suffering wrongs. Yet she had remained on friendly terms with G'Kathor and N'Kreth and, four years ago, had protected a stranded Vorta, at times even found herself wondering what had become of Lakeena.

Transfer from the beam-down point to guest quarters was uneventful. When they went to their rooms, Melset looked around her own. It was simple, yet comfortable, nearly luxurious in comparison to what she and Garak called home on Cardassia…

Half an hour later, the intercom activated and Kira inquired, keeping the unit on audio only, "Are you ready? The restaurant adjoining this building is excellent, and, as far as I have seen, you like our foods. I can explain some details to you then."

"Yes, but won't it make things difficult for you? I need not tell you that we are not exactly welcome on Bajor or Bajoran areas anywhere; you could have the meal brought to our respective quarters to avoid an incident."

Melset heard Kira laugh. "Certainly, but Minister Gerion has defused the situation by informing the owner about your cooperating with Bajorans at SFCCEI and your attitude towards us. I'll come for you in fifteen minutes."

They were received as if there was nothing out of the ordinary; their table was not in a discrete area of the room, their orders were promptly taken, nor were there stares from the staff or other customers. Melset whispered, "Did Minister Gerion threaten to close the establishment in case of problems?"

Kira noticed the exaggeration, responded in like. "No, he only offered to recommend the restaurant to the next Klingon delegation whose presence would be far more interesting than that of one unarmed viper."

Melset glanced at her: Nearly friendly relations, shared humour; her using the term 'viper' in this connection is definitely such... but the least doubt, the smallest mistake, and I'll be The Enemy again. How naive Gul Dukat was to think that 12 replicators and a speech about mending the errors of the past could heal the wounds of decades of terror and suppression within months.

Kira saw Melset's pensive expression and realized what she was thinking. "You are perfectly right. We cannot forget the past in spite of the precepts taught us by the Prophets. As yet, there is not one individual among us except for the very youngest children who does not have horrific recollections of the time before Withdrawal. Even Legate Ghemor, much as I liked and respected him, had taken part in reprisals, was involved in the Tekendra Valley Massacre. He was eighteen years old at the time, had wanted to serve Cardassia, and told me before his death that propaganda had presented the us as a people of brutal terrorists working towards the annihilation of Cardassians everywhere. Now Cardassia has returned an Orb and for that we are thankful, but the fear that your people's wish for reconciliation is but a search for a weak point is always there, no matter what the occasion."

A nod was the reply. "Our response exactly. We had repeated, long-drawn-out conflicts with the Klingon Empire and the Federation, and will never forgive nor forget what was done, especially not the invasion after Detapa deposed Central Command." Melset looked away, "Klingons wore Cardassian neck vertebrae as trophies of their victories, prided themselves on how many of our militaries they had killed, gave the injured and seriously ill in our clinics an honourable death before destroying the buildings. Ah, yes, we are proud of our culture even now, most of us arrogant, contemptuous of others; some even hoping to launch a retaliatory strike against those who levelled our cities. I, too, have these thoughts, always will, but have learned that cooperation, even with a former enemy, can be far more effective than subjugation and revenge. Vedek Serad told me: 'All evil is repaid, returns to its author: not as vengeance, not as punishment, but as a chance given by the Prophets to learn from past errors.'"

Surprised at hearing these words, the Bajoran looked into the Cardassian's eyes, their expression was calm, resigned even, with no indication of subterfuge.

The situation was subtly disturbing, so that Kira was relieved when the waiter brought and arranged the dishes. When they wanted to pay, he said, "Minister Gerion offers you this," and showed them a padd. "Enjoy the bounty the Prophets have given us." He hesitated and added, "Both of you. These foods are also suitable for Cardassians."

During the meal, Kira explained some procedures to her, fully conscious of the covert glances they were getting from the other guests and saw Melset noticed them too, as she unobtrusively but repeatedly looked to the side in an instinctive reaction as though anticipating an attack. The fact that Kira herself was sitting at one table with a Cardassian was a sensation. Outwardly, Melset seemed relaxed as she spoke to Kira in Bajoran Standard, using the gestures she had learned while in Rellaketh Province. Nevertheless, she knew that only Kira's presence and the fact she had been seen in one or two transmissions prevented an unpleasant incident in spite of Gerion's effort. Old patterns …

Once they had finished, Kira suggested, "It may be best to return. Tomorrow the meeting will take place in the early morning, at 7:00 hours. As an afterthought, she added, "Full security is provided for you; a member of the Militia will be stationed outside your door. The window to your room is inaccessible from the outside, but a guard posted, so if you wish, you can open it; the temperatures should not be unpleasant. Fresh air will certainly make a welcome change from the recycled atmosphere on the station; I know I always appreciate it."

The next morning the two arrived in the lobby to wait for admission to the Hall of Ministers. Some of Commander Kira's acquaintances among the Ministers were already there, speaking to one another, involved in animated discussions, exchanging news; while she did register slight differences in the way they addressed and behaved towards each other, Melset noticed that hierarchy was not as sternly enforced as on Cardassia.

Minister Gerion came over to inform Kira about some minor details and, at noticing the Cardassian's observation, explained, "We abandoned our hierarchy together with the D'jarra system once we recognized the purpose of the Occupation; this allowed us to fight against the occupiers far more effectively than if we had had to consider restrictions due to caste. By heritage, Commander Kira is a member of the Artists' D'jarra, I a member of the Carpenters' D'jarra, First Minister Shakaar is the only one of us who still works within his family's former D'jarra, that of farmers."

"We never did have a caste system in the true sense of the word, but in some families, certain professions predominated. My family was Military and Order, but there are a number of scientists in our family. At present, status and profession no longer count; we cooperate as equals, no matter what status we had before The Defeat, transfer leadership according to the area of competence each of us has," was Melset's response. "It makes for greater efficiency. No doubt some elements of our former system will be recreated, as we only feel comfortable and secure within sharply defined boundaries, but they will never become as stern as they once were."

Shortly before the meeting was to begin, a group of Vedeks arrived to open the session; one of them looked around the lobby as if searching for someone until he caught sight of the only Cardassian in the hall. Turning to his neighbour, he said in a low voice, "Ah, there she is. Vedek Padrjiak, I will return after some time; there is something Iníki and I have to resolve first." At seeing the other's shocked expression when he realized who was meant, he added, "Vedek Padrjiak, I know her well. Remind me to tell you more later on. They are not all the same, and, in her case, there is something additional that has to be considered."

With a smile of welcome, Serad walked over to the Cardassian female accompanying Kira.

"Welcome to Bajor, Commander Kira, Gul Melset." With those words, he reached out to give Kira the ritual welcome before touching the Cardassian's ear to greet her with the same ritual. "Welcome to Bajor, Iníki. I have good news for you."

Turning to Kira, Serad said, "Commander Kira, I greet you, my child. May the Prophets bless this session." He then added, "Please excuse us. I have to discuss something with your guest before we go to the monastery. We will return to the assembly afterwards."

Kira was curious, but refrained from asking for information, even though the Cardassian's safety was her responsibility as she had invited her. Seemingly there was something important enough for the Kai to admit a Cardassian into the monastery or possibly even his presence.

"I promise you your guest is safe. I take responsibility for her from now on until we return."

Together, Melset and the Vedek went over to a secluded corner where Serad quickly informed her, "I have managed to get an appointment with Kai Unkteh's aide, Ranjen Geras. He has agreed to receive us in the monastery, but I do not know how you will be welcomed. Just a word of caution, child. Stay close to me at all times. There are very negative feelings about Cardassians, in spite of your having returned an Orb two years ago."

He spoke to the guard who was waiting patiently, hiding his bemusement at this particular encounter. "Lieutenant Hedrin, you need not come with us. No one would attack a Vedek or the person led by him. I shall notify your superior and tell him I take responsibility for her safety as of now."

With a nod of encouragement, he took the Cardassian by the hand, not in a gesture of intimacy, but in a sign of walking the same path. After half an hour's walk along carefully maintained but unpaved paths surrounded by dense vegetation growing along the banks of a brook, they reached the monastery, a huge, impressive building made of golden sandstone that seemed an integral element of the hill. Its windows were decorated with elaborate carvings, the framework nearly organic in its aspect.

Melset looked around, taking in the atmosphere, analysing it. How quiet it is here… so unlike our own cities with their covered streets, their crowds, the relative darkness which was so reassuring, the constant surveillance which kept us safe at all times.… Here? The buildings, the nearby city, the greenery… they all formed a peaceful, harmonious whole, no one element encroaching upon or diminishing the other, inviting the person in this area to rest, to meditate.

Melset remembered how this very arrangement had given her people the impression that Bajorans had no sense of order, were little more civilized than insects with marginal, but malignant intelligence. This perception had remained unchanged in spite of evidence to the contrary. Bajor had millennia-old traditions, elaborate social structures, an ancient culture and religion which were reflected in all its people did. The Bajorans stubbornly refused to give all this up for a place in the Cardassian hierarchy of peoples, nor were they considered powerful and aggressive enough to be integrated into the Cardassian Union as allies. Their technology was derided, although their ancient spaceships had travelled to the stars in spite of their ephemeral appearance. Although she appreciated the beauty and peace of the surroundings, Melset felt sorrow for what her people had lost. Bajor the weak had endured, Cardassia the strong had fallen, victim of an ill-conceived alliance, of one person's obsession with power.

Noticing her reaction to the surroundings, Serad said gently, "I see you have kept your affection for our world and its ways, but mourn what your people has lost. Take comfort from the knowledge that your civilization will live again; it will be different to what it once was, but it will live, and become the new Cardassia. I have heard that enough information has been recovered on data carriers and is preserved as memories in the minds of your people, which is the most precious of all." He saw Melset incline her head. "Remember the Verses of Life and Creation? 'The beauty and genius of a work of art may be reconceived, though its first material expression be destroyed; a vanished harmony may yet again inspire the musician*1. All is in the hands of the Prophets forever, for them to give, for them to take.' If you wish, I can read some of the texts with you; they should prove comforting."

She did not reply, only fleetingly met his glance to see the understanding and compassion reflected there. Melset asked, "Vedek Serad, how do you know I have not reverted to my former attitudes?"

A nearly inaudible laugh was the response. "You are willingly cooperating with us, what I have felt in your pagh and, especially, your reaction to the account of your ethnic group's heritage. How typically Cardassian it was! I know you believe me and yet had my words validated by Dr. Bashir…" He continued, "Haven't you noticed you are under constant observation, Iníki? What you consider primitive superstition is real, at least for us. It cannot be objectified in a laboratory, but you have been influenced. Ah, Gul Dukat was, too, but his greed for power had him reject the truth, his desire to be loved by the very people he exploited corrupted his knowledge because he remained the exploiter. He considered himself the savior of Bajor even while furthering the destruction of the peace and spirituality that had reigned for millennia, nearly rendering our people destitute in mind and pagh as well."

And he destroyed Cardassia. Destroyed our culture, dragged so many of our finest down with him... My brother Damar...Very nearly me. She averted her face to hide her reaction.

Serad whispered so softly she hardly heard him. "Your brother would have learned. Commander Kira told Vedek Navri about him as she wanted to come to terms with her feelings about what she had seen. He died like a Cardassian, but gave his last order to one Bajoran, one Changeling and one exiled Cardassian, expressed his respect and gratitude to the Bajoran he had once hated, accepted the Changeling, the representative of the enemy subjugating his own Union, as his ally, and entrusted his mission to save his people to the exile. You have that thought as comfort for what you have lost." He did not say any more about the matter, but informed her about the monastery and its history, giving her time to cope with the grief that had resurfaced.

With that, they arrived at an ornate portal; Serad struck the chime, then waited patiently. Within moments they were admitted by a tall, slender Bajoran wearing purple robes, his posture dignified, proud and yet not arrogant. He exchanged greetings with Serad before staring coldly at Gul Melset who submitted to his scrutiny. His attitude would not have been tolerated in former times, and even now, it is irritating; old expectations die hard, but when he learns of the purpose of this mission

In a low voice, she said, "I greet you, Ranjen Geras," and waited, her head slightly inclined.

His query was informal when he addressed her. "Iníki, you have requested an audience with Kai Unkteh in your role as a representative of the Cardassian Provisional Government."

"Yes, Ranjen Geras. Important discoveries have been made on Cardassia Prime in the course of the past months. I have been sent to Bajor to inform the Kai or one of his aides of these discoveries. If my heritage excludes me from this honour, I am authorized to give the data to Vedek Serad who has agreed to be my intermediary should this be the case."

The Cardassian just kept from moving away in an instinctive reaction when, without any warning, Ranjen Geras reached out to touch her cheek before grasping her ear, closing his eyes in concentration. Moments later, he let his hand drop, seemed more relaxed. In a very low voice, he directed, "Come."

He led the two into a large chamber illuminated by the sunlight that shone through high, partitioned windows; the inside walls and ceiling were of the same pale gold sandstone as the exterior. Statues of the Prophets carved in relief stood between the windows which offered a view of the entire capital, minor shrines on the hill, the river and the countryside over to the distant mountains. The sounds of the wind, of the city were barely audible. The atmosphere was solemn, yet peaceful, an invitation to thought and introspection. Primitive superstition, yet your belief gave your people unexpected strength. You were secure in yourselves, content with what your world offers, never felt the need to conquer and subjugate other peoples. For us, this was a sign of weakness. We derived our pride from what we are: Cardassians with an old and proud culture, a tradition of conquest, of unyielding strength. You derive your confidence from your spirituality, the continuity of your contact with your Prophets….

He waited in silence as did Vedek Serad. Together the two Bajorans watched Melset unobtrusively but carefully, evaluating her posture, her expression as she considered the antechamber. With an inflection that seemed neutral but conveyed implications she was unable to understand, Ranjen Geras asked, "I have been told that you have read some of the Texts, know the basics of our beliefs. Do you now wish to view an Orb, Cardássian?" His pronunciation of the name was offensive.

In spite of herself, her eyes briefly widened in astonishment. To see an Orb! She had often heard about them, there was one in the station's shrine, but its container kept sealed. Most of them had been taken from monasteries on Bajor to be transferred to Cardassian laboratories where scientists, under Obsidian Order supervision, had examined them to quantify the power they possessed, to exploit this power for the greater glory of Cardassia.

These Orbs permitted Bajorans to see the past, even the future; each one had its own specific gift. An Orb Vision was the most revered experience imaginable for a Bajoran, an inexpressively sacred event. Melset knew this privilege was for Bajorans alone, and even among them, only a very few were chosen to experience it. Sisko the Emissary had been an exception, as he had been sent by the Prophets, was indeed part Prophet.

"I very much would," she admitted, "I have been told that the spiritual impact is unimaginable. Yet for me to accept your offer would be sacrilege. I am not of Bajor, do not share your beliefs. I am a Cardassian, a member of the people who tried to destroy both your culture and religion."

Both Serad and Geras relaxed imperceptibly. Some moments later, a second aide came out and addressed the group. "Kai Unkteh awaits you."

Melset quickly exchanged glances with Vedek Serad who gave her a slight nod.

They entered an immense room, the office of the Kai himself. The wall behind his desk was decorated with the symbol of the Temple Gates; at either side of the door, a statue representing a Prophet holding the emblem of the Bajoran religion had been carved in the stone.

Melset inhaled slowly; the air in this room carried a scent that hovered on the very edge of perception. She wondered if the Bajorans next to her also noticed it; disquieted, she took another breath, analyzing the sensation; it seemed as though whatever it was began to exert a subtle influence, made her feel threatened, exposed, yet, at the same time, strangely relaxed, as if suspended somewhere in time, observing and observed. Much like the drug I was given during interrogation to keep me from dissimulating my thoughts! Melset controlled her unease. It is the atmosphere: this monastery is millennia old, the quality of the light, the seeming vastness of the rooms – an illusion?

The two aides took position at either side of the door when a Bajoran dressed in heavy gold brocade robes entered from an adjoining room and welcomed the visitors. Melset inclined her head very slightly, turned her hands palms outwards, arms slightly spread; Vedek Navri had shown her this gesture of reverence.

"Vedek Serad told me some days ago that he would come to me with a Cardassian, that this one would have important information." His voice was indifferent but tense, his manner distant. "Now you have come with Vedek Serad. What information do you bring us?"

After waiting for some seconds, Melset advanced slowly, her head still slightly inclined. In both hands she held out a padd so that he could take it without touching her. "Kai Unkteh, we have recovered numerous Bajoran artefacts and sacred objects while clearing the rubble out of the ruins of the Obsidian Order's headquarters. This padd contains a list of the objects which were taken from you during the Occupation." She briefly hesitated, searching for the correct words. "The Bajoran people had the charity to come to our assistance although you had but little to spare, had suffered so much during the Occupation. You saved many of us from starvation in those first weeks and months after The Defeat. It may be years before we are able to reciprocate, but for now, we want to restore these objects to your people in a gesture of sincere gratitude, in the hope of future reconciliation."

Wordlessly, the aide took the padd from her, then activated it before presenting it to the Kai who quickly glanced at the list that scrolled down the display, his expression shifting from grim to pensive. In a low voice, he said, as if to himself, "All of these, removed from our world in an effort to destroy us by destroying our beliefs … The Cardassian occupiers were clever at tracking down and taking our most precious religious artefacts off-world to melt down or to keep; with all that was happening, we did not realize the scope of the pillage." He whispered as if to himself, "Take a people's holy objects, and you take its very soul…" He stared at the list again before raising his head to gaze at Melset directly until she met his eyes. "And now, Cardássian, your people have experienced just retribution for their crimes against us and so many others. Your own humiliation has opened your eyes to the evil you perpetrated on us in your arrogance. All of Bajor recalls the past, the massacres, the atrocities, the wanton acts of violence."

These words, even though she accepted the truth in them, touched her innate pride in her people and its ways, provoked anger and sorrow for what her people had lost, making them dependent on the charity of peoples they had considered inferior. And yet, these very people had responded. Melset met Serad's glance and held it. If I want to fulfil my mission, I have to accept these justified accusations. Our arrogance made us lose perspective. Gul Dukat, who declared how he loved the Bajorans represented this, even though he was not the initiator. Yet, we had to expand to keep from falling back into abject poverty, becoming a powerless people open to invasion by the first comer… She did not finish the thought….

With apprehension, she suddenly realized that she was experiencing a strange sensation, a feeling of unreality; both views, Cardassian and Bajoran, were juxtaposed in her mind, shifting and mingling; the worst element was not knowing to what to ascribe that feeling of detachment, of being separated from reality by an impenetrable yet translucent wall. We can block a mind meld, are resistant to most forms of non-Cardassian interrogation – what is this? Here, in the Kai's room, she realized she was one Cardassian subjected to the scrutiny, reproach and resentment of the representatives of a people her own kind had victimized, underestimated because they had appeared weak, contemplative, and so spiritual they did not know how to fight or even exploit the resources on their world, who considered power and control over others undesirable as they led to destruction and terror. In sheer self-preservation, they had abandoned these principles, had taken up arms to regain their freedom.

Her own suggestion years before had not been made because she had recognized the injustice and evil of Cardassia's actions, but because of her desire to further Cardassia's interests. She had been raised to see Cardassia as the one power in the Quadrant that had the right to rule over all other peoples, a power that demanded and was accorded total devotion…

Her mentality was still the same, but experience had taught her and, seemingly, a number of others, that if pride in their people was justified, total contempt and disrespect for those who had different values was not.

Lost in her thoughts, Melset did not realize that the others were silent, that minutes had passed, that she was still gazing blindly at the statues; upon feeling a hand gently touch her shoulder, she gave a muted hiss of fright. Kai Unkteh had come to stand directly in front of her, was so close she had to look up to meet his glance.

"Now tell me, Viper, what was the purpose of your suggestion to include us among your allies all those years ago?" The Bajoran's voice was very gentle, his expression kind, even compassionate. "Was it for our sake, because you had recognized the evil that was being perpetrated, or for that of Cardassia?"

She barely disguised shock at realizing the Kai and his aides were informed about her mission, nor could she deny it, as Vedek Serad had witnessed everything. "To free us to strike a decisive blow in the Border Wars. We were forced to commit so much manpower to keep Bajor's population under control that we were waging a war on two fronts, costing us more than we were extracting from your world. An alliance with you seemed the best option, permitting us to strike all that harder along our borders, especially as we had found resource-rich systems there."

"You were left just outside Nevaris Village after making that proposal. When you were found, you had been severely abused in the course of interrogation, were close to death. Your sentence was to be killed by those for whom you had spoken." His voice had once again shifted to compassionate, giving her the option to adopt the role of the unfortunate victim.

She inclined her head, then heard a soft sound of steps, a swish of robes and glanced to the side to see Vedek Serad who gently smiled at her, then nodded in encouragement. Somehow, repeating the facts as they really were appeared strangely… right.

"Kai Unkteh, that was some years after the original incident. I was prepared to make me appear a victim and exploit your precept of charity and compassion for those in need, then sent to gather information on the Résistance, to eliminate it once and for all, and I did. At the time, I had only contempt for your people, believed, as did my compatriots that you were weak and contemplative, only fit for exploitation, but refused to accept your place in the Cardassian order of peoples. I was taught to resist all forms of indoctrination or emotional manipulation; but had also been taught to manipulate and influence others without their realizing it. The truth about my mission was betrayed."

She looked away, then continued, "The people of Nevaris Village protected me, permitted me to live and share their lives in spite of their knowledge. Vedek Serad explained the basics of your religion, read the simpler Texts with me, explained them… All this taught me about your own innate strength, your loyalty to your own and your way of life, a loyalty that was as strong as our own to ours. Kai Unkteh, I will always be what I am: a Cardassian. I believe in the superiority of my people and would never betray our Union. Yet, I have learned to see your people and many others differently, respect and appreciate them. This would have constituted treason in the time before Defeat, so I did not repeat my recommendations again. Later on, I heard that, at Withdrawal, that village was totally levelled, killing a number of the people who had shown kindness to an enemy." She could not continue, trying to suppress despair and confusion, realizing that something was being done to make her react so intensively.

Resignedly, she closed her eyes when she felt Kai Unkteh grasp her ear. Silence, then his voice, very low, "What Vedeks Yarim and Serad have told me is indeed true. You are sincere in what you say, have not given up your own code, but respect ours." At receiving no reply, he said, "Iníki, you have come to us as a supplicant, one who has something to offer."

"Yes, Kai Unkteh." She adopted the posture of subjection and backed away.

Vedek Serad and Kai Unkteh's aides now read the information on the padd together, discussing the list and the government's proposal in barely audible voices, using ancient Bajoran. After some minutes, Kai Unkteh inquired," When and how does your provisional government propose to return these objects to us?"

"This is not for me to decide, Kai Unkteh. The remaining rooms of the Obsidian Order's building first have to be cleared to ensure that no further artefacts are left. Once that has been done, possibly in less than ten more months, they will be returned in one transport, unharmed, unconditionally; I have chosen the Gul who will return them."

She looked at the padd until the Kai gave it to her, then called up a code. "Kai Unkteh, this is the code to reach Natíma Lang, our negotiator. I was to open negotiations and allay suspicion; as I have friends of long standing on Bajor, it was thought best to send me. Natíma is a friend, will be straightforward in her negotiations." Melset returned the padd with the words, "There is one more thing I have been asked to do: it is to express my, our, gratitude for your surmounting the past enough to assist us. It is more than we had any right to expect."

There was a brief conversation between the Kai and his aides, then Geras addressed Melset, "This very day we shall enter into contact with Natíma Lang. It is our hope that what was ours will be returned within as short a time as possible."

"It is my hope, too."

With that, Vedek Serad and the Cardassian were free to go. Ranjen Geras accompanied them to the portal, then accompanied them both out. He added, "Tell the Ministers that Kai Unkteh will briefly address the Assembly this evening. This concerns all Bajor." Before dismissing them, Ranjen Geras said, "Walk with the Prophets."

Melset inclined her head and said, "I am most grateful to the Kai for admitting me into his presence. Be strong, Ranjen Geras."

A nod, and the portal closed.

The two left in silence; Serad was still perturbed after having seen the great number of sacred objects taken from Bajor and repeatedly looked over at the Cardassian female. You were as much a part of this as all of the others, even though you were only on border patrol, helped annex Federation systems… Rapacious and brutal and overbearing … You believed Cardassia was above all moral considerations; you committed atrocities like all of your kind and triumphed, laughed about the weakness of those you subjugated, merciless, unheeding of their entreaties. The female's presence became nearly insupportable as did the fact that he was holding her hand.

It seemed Melset sensed his feelings, for she quickly looked to the side and away again. She wondered what had happened during the meeting, suspected she had been led along the path desired by the Bajorans, yet they had not manipulated her into betrayal or treason; openly admitting her past guilt was disturbing, but without distress, nor did it endanger her.

"Vedek Serad, the air in the Kai's office…"

"So you did notice. We were not sure you could as it is said your olfactory and auditory senses are not as acute as those of humans or Bajorans. We have an incense made of various saps and herbs; it is very rare, very hard to produce as the ingredients have to be gathered at precisely determined times of the year, mixed according to exact measures. The scent should be at the very limit of perception, one element of many of the background scents in a shrine or a monastery, of the materials that have gone into its construction, in the same way as our religion is the basis of all we do, a part of life inextricably entwined with all our acts, thoughts and words." The phrasing was that of a Vedek instructing a young Bajoran. "This incense opens the mind, assists in meditation; it helps us sense the world beyond the confines of the body and pagh to create understanding of all that is around us."

For a moment Melset stopped in her tracks. How did Kai Unkteh know of my mission? Why was I admitted into his presence in spite of this information? Was this a plot to discredit me? "Kai Unkteh – he knew everything. Does he also know….?"

Serad went around to face her, took her by the shoulders and said, "Iníki, we have no reason to betray you. Recall the patterns of which I once spoke: suspicion – interrogation – execution … your being left to us broke the pattern. Thus, there was something unusual we could not accept. I only gave the Kai the details of your time in Nevaris Village and of your Kelani heritage. Otherwise, the past is the past, the present is what we are experiencing, and as to the future? The Prophets alone know, and that is as it should be."

Suddenly, she remembered the captives she and Gul Renor had taken on Terok Nor… "Vedek Serad, well before Withdrawal, we took Bajoran captives, terrorists. They told us: 'Take care to remember that the more of us you kill, the more of us will rise to fight against you. The Prophets will reward us for our sufferings and sacrifices, free Bajor in the end; once we have gone through these trials, Bajor will be renewed, but Cardassia will fall in retribution for its crimes against our people, our world and all other worlds it has subjugated. Not today, not tomorrow will this happen, but inevitably. You can only hope the Prophets will be merciful and not permit the Cardassians alive today to live long enough to witness the inevitable end.'"

"And your reaction was no doubt derision and contempt," was Serad's comment. "You no doubt called it primitive superstition."

She did not answer, only nodded once.

They continued on their way, Melset considering the surroundings, again lost in thought. At arriving at the Hall of Assembly, Vedek Serad stated quietly, "Here we are, my child, far later than expected, but the reports should still be in progress."

They entered together to go to an empty seat next to Commander Kira; with a nod at the Commander, Serad commented, "It was very rewarding, Commander Kira. You will understand, however, that Gul Melset is not allowed to give any details of the meeting. That information is not hers to pass on, nor will it ever be."

Wordlessly, she took her seat and soon was absorbed in the discussions – there was talk of re-establishing agriculture in the semi-arid regions of the Southern Peninsula. This would be a difficult phase, as only few had experience in this type of agriculture. For a moment, she remembered the first group of Cardassian returnees, how her people had quickly learned their methods and were now using them with success. I have to talk to Garak and Natíma. Surely some of our people could pass on the methods they have always used in our dry-land areas. It would be thanks, and more useful than anything else we could give in return. Her quick motion had Kira look to the side. "Afterwards, Commander. I just thought of something that may be of assistance in this project."

The panel of Ministers called a break an hour later after establishing unofficial discussion groups. One of the Ministers came over to where they were sitting and inquired, "Gul Melset, let me introduce myself. I am Minister Jendro. We have heard from the returnees; it would appear they are happy on Cardassia in spite of the hardships involved in reconstruction."

"We have always been suspicious and extremely xenophobic," Melset replied, "Thus Garak and I first informed the others about the returnees' different ways. Fortunately, they have been accepted without greater problems, and are not being pressured to give up what they were taught on Bajor. Minister Jendro, we are most grateful for your supporting the initiative to let them come to teach us their skills, your skills and finally return home. Bajor has arid regions on the Southern Continent; I shall ask my fellow coordinators whether a team of our people experienced in dryland farming could be sent to Bajor, help in your own effort to cultivate your own drylands. On Cardassia, we have combined our respective skills; my ethnicity still has oral traditions describing the old forms of agriculture before the inception of factory farms. I cannot make any promises, but am certain this can be done."

For a moment, Jendro hesitated. "This might take people offworld whose knowledge you require more urgently than do we, and we will not be able to pay them much; they would return to Cardassia with nothing or very little to show for their work. Those teams who are off world now are earning funds for reconstruction."

"When Ambassador Troi organized an exchange to send teams to Federation worlds, that very concern was mentioned by groups who thought this would delay reconstruction by sending much-needed specialists offworld. Some well-meaning members of the UFP Ethics Commission expressed concern whether Cardassia wasn't being held back in reconstruction due to the brain drain effect since some of the most highly skilled people participated in the exchange. She established a team to look into the situation which revealed these reservations were unfounded. Detapa reacted with gratitude that the Union's interests were being considered even after the conflicts of the past, then immediately followed up with its own detailed report invalidating these specific concerns; at the same time, the provisional government invited representatives of the Commission to see for themselves how reconstruction was progressing, thus laid these concerns to rest. As to compensation, that can always be resolved in one way or another."

"You know Ambassador Troi?" Jendro seemed surprised.

"It was she who initiated, then implemented the official exchange program which has greatly helped us, especially as we have never been a prosperous people. We are making every single credit, each delivery of goods count; we improvise, use and reuse whatever we can. Nothing is wasted." Her voice became low, pensive. "Many hesitated at the idea of having Cardassians onworld, but Ambassador Troi proved an excellent representative of our interests, saw beyond our reputation."

"That we did not know. Then, could you give us information in exchange for our own? It would help in the discussion, provided your government approves the proposal."

"I am quite sure there will be no problems. We have of necessity become slightly less secretive." The last was said with a rueful smile to which the minister responded in kind.

Turning to Kira who had been listening interestedly, he said, "I had better get back, there are still some details under discussion."

Shortly after, they were admitted to the canteen, and during lunch, First Minister Shakaar came to sit at their table. It was the first time she had seen him in person: a tall, impressive Bajoran who neither denied his résistance past, nor his present work as a farmer. He was direct and honest, an unusual trait for a politician, according to Remosi. Shakaar did not react to her scrutiny apart from a friendly nod, recognizing that the nearly unblinking, reptilian stare was curiosity.

"Here is the padd you were promised, Gul Melset. Perhaps some of the processes described may be of use to your people. Minister Jendro has informed me about your own conversation of some time ago; I think there would be no difficulties in realizing such a project." He became pensive. "The Prophets work in inscrutable ways… Reconciliation after so much suffering and destruction."

"… and all is finally repaid; show mercy to the guilty, shame him with forgiveness and do not repay evil with evil. This will lead him back to the Path if he opens his heart to Their will," were the barely audible words.

At Shakaar's sudden intake of breath, Melset explained, "Vedek Serad read the simpler verses of the Texts with me while I was in Nevaris Village." Melset inclined her head, remembering her apprehension at realizing the changes in her view of this people she and her kind had always derided.

"Friend and foe will walk the path together, side by side, once again at peace, once again friends, brothers, children of the Prophets," Kira completed the verse.

They sat together in silence after reciting the verses. They had done so in turn, something unusual, considering the composition of their group. So much had changed since the Occupation, so much had happened since The Defeat, no one was left untouched. In former times, Melset would have had the worst to fear for this specific knowledge and her respect for Bajorans.

After a moment, Shakaar again looked at Melset, apparently wondering that he had seen this 'viper' return accompanied by a Vedek shortly before. "If you can share the information, Gul Melset, what is the situation on Cardassia?"

Melset suppressed anger at remembering one specific detail, "First Minister Shakaar, all of the information about our Union is stored in Starfleet's files under 'Denorios Sector'. Bajor was not involved, but when the Federation's assistance program was established, each and every one of our planets was scanned without our permission." More calmly, she explained, "First Minister, we are now scheduling the resettlement of Quinor, Olmerak, parts of Soukhara, Septimus, Trivas and Lavol. It will be difficult because of the loss of population, but those who were evacuated from these colonies in the first phase want to return as soon as possible. This should help make a start and reduce pressure on as yet very limited resources on Cardassia Prime. A number of these worlds have extensive resources and should become autonomous in the near future. Of course, all these projects are in the planning phase. Surviving the outcome of The Defeat has been our priority of the past five years; at present, survival seems assured, but there are still are crises, and there will be more until we have reestablished our society's structures."

"Your resenting the unauthorized scans is understandable; the same was done on Bajor to see which areas still held resources, which could be resettled. We had to cope with poisoned fields; the occupying forces realized a 'burnt soil' policy to leave us to starve in revenge for our resistance." His voice was calm, the statement matter-of-fact. "Many Bajorans fled offworld to save their lives and those of their families, then returned after Withdrawal. In the beginning it was hard to reintegrate them because those who had stayed resented the fact the returnees had gone offworld while they themselves had remained and endured."

Kira nodded, remembering various incidents and the affair of the soil reclamators. "Not even those who had endured were always trustworthy. Kai Winn placed her own interests, her thirst for power before Bajor's, nearly provoking a civil war. She thought of trade, of giving Bajor and, subsequently herself, status in the Quadrant. Most of us thought it was more important to ensure the subsistence of our people before even thinking of export. Only once did she have a moment of clarity; but in the end the Prophets' warning went unheeded. She refused to abdicate, to give up the power she had which was leading her off the Path."

Kira added, "I wonder who Anjohl Tannan really was. He disappeared at the same time she did, was never heard of again. His brother said that Anjohl had died nine years before, and yet, there he was, on the station, with Kai Winn. There is a rumor that he was a surgically altered Cardassian, but the DNA scan and its results have been lost without a trace, as have Kai Winn and Anjohl. Her aide, Ranjen Solbor, disappeared shortly before." Kira's eyes widened when she realized something, "And no one has heard of Gul Dukat, either …"

"I fear there are some things we shall never find out. As to the destruction you mentioned, when I was in Nevaris Village, I saw fields burned shortly before harvest time, villages were levelled or severely damaged; the villagers rebuilt, took up work again in spite of everything, shared the very little they had with those who had even less. Not even I was made to pay for what my people did while I was in that village.… And yet, you came to our help, did not leave us to our fate, which many called 'poetic justice.'"

Shakaar leaned forward, remembering, placed his hands on the table as if ready to once again argue for the relief programme. "Gul Melset, it took days of heated discussions. There was great opposition to sending help to your Union as Gul Dukat had fought against the Emissary. The argument that finally made the difference was that the civilian population itself was innocent as Gul Dukat alone had negotiated the alliance. It was the population that bore the impact of the Dominion's retaliatory strike. That, and some of our Texts helped us decide in favour of assistance. Still, many feared helping Cardassia would have Bajor suffering renewed shortages."

"The donations you were able to send saved many of us from dying of starvation and exposure in those first months. It was much, all considered. We never forget who has attacked us, but we also never forget who has given us help in need."

A chime resounded through the hall, signalling that the break was over. With a nod at Kira and Melset, Shakaar returned to his place for the last phase of the meeting which mainly concerned formalities until the Kai came to end the Session.

"Bajor has reason for thankfulness. The sacred objects taken from our places of worship have been recovered and will be returned to us. Negotiations for their return are scheduled to begin within a month. This is all I am permitted to say, but this is a joyful occasion for our world." A moment of silence, a prayer, and the session came to an end.

After taking part in the closing ceremony, Kira and Melset returned to quarters and, the next day, travelled back to the station. It seemed Melset did not want to be alone with her thoughts and impressions as she spent the two hours of transit in the co-pilot's seat, reading the padd the First Minister had given her.

"What do you think?" was Kira's query after some time spent in silence.

"These methods are quite remarkable, and effected without further damage to your world. It seems that some procedures can be adapted to our circumstances, for example on some of the less-damaged worlds due to be resettled within another year."

For a moment, Kira was silent, "There should be news about Jivan waiting for you."

"Perhaps. It all depends. Normally, we have intensive contact within our families, but there is so much to be done at present. I have seen him only twice so far; he is so much like Damar was at that age! Whenever I am on Cardassia, Garak and I constantly travel from one area to the other, at times together, more often alone, registering facts and developments, meeting the other organizers, sharing reports with them, establishing contact with relief agencies. Now, we have to see when we can return the remaining domes and the last replicator. We do not want to keep any of these elements for longer than absolutely necessary." She shrugged very slightly, "Jivan's second year is to begin in roughly three weeks, so I will be given the information then."

Realization

When the shuttle docked, Melset stood talking to Kira for some time. "I thank you for doing this. It has made it possible for us to open negotiations directly. Transmissions can be manipulated, whereas direct communication makes deception far harder to conceal."

Kira nodded her agreement. "When I think of the time before Withdrawal… There was so much we did not understand about you and your mentality. It was roughly sixteen years ago…. We caught a transmission on Cardassian military channels while trying to get information about your forces' next move against us. It was a report about a Gul's heroic sacrifice in a battle on the border to the Federation; it ended with, 'Cardassia is our very life, our family, for us, it is everything. This officer's sacrifice has secured a new, resource-rich system for our people.' There was no mention of anything transcending service to Cardassia." Kira asked, curious. "What do you believe in?"

"Cardassia, Family, Duty," was the spontaneous reply. "We are taught that precept from earliest childhood on up. To do anything that would endanger Cardassia even marginally is treasonous and punishable by death. Whoever harms Cardassia harms her people, the well-being of all is compromised by this one person's act."

Kira tried to absorb the implications: a political union that was worshipped, nothing beyond that… And yet, at times it had seemed that even these people had a sense of something transcending the principles they so devotedly followed, something that went beyond the Empire and duty. And I have especially noticed that in your case.

Melset's glance grew distant when she said, "When I was a Gul Ninth Order, a Glinn 3rd level under my command, Glinn Kovar, was due for promotion to Gul within two months. I had to notify him that his parents had been killed in the bombing of a Cardassian enclave on Bajor, Dahkur Province, I think it was. He refused the leave offered him, saying that he had to face the facts like a Cardassian. Two days later, Kovar made a minor error. He believed he had compromised our mission in spite of my assurances to the contrary. The other Guls also agreed to let the matter pass. He committed suicide during his off-shift..." Melset recalled her anguish at the news. "It must have been about nineteen years ago. We were to join after his promotion to Gul." And all of my losses, carefully planned by Tain, to recruit another operative, another cipher prepared to do anything for Cardassia, valued for its usefulness, yet easily replaced or sacrificed for the sake of the Union.

The two females, one Bajoran, one Cardassian, suddenly realized who had been involved in the incidents, the attack and the sacrifice. Their eyes met, but were quickly averted from the knowledge in those of the other.

"I have to leave. My shift begins in eight hours," was Kira's reply.

"Mine in ten. I thank you for the invitation; it was a most rewarding experience, Commander Kira."

Melset realized she did not wish to face the questions she knew would come up if she reported to SFHS immediately after her return. With a wave at Kira, she went into a corridor, and, making sure no one was nearby, removed a panel then made her way through the conduits to her quarters. A very brief message from Lesana 1 had arrived during her absence. "Remaining rooms cleared, no further artefacts found except for some Bajoran jewellery which will also be returned. Perhaps it has some obscure meaning for Bajorans as it was stored with the other objects. Garak out." She saved the message then left for her offices. There was nothing else to do for now except to take up duties once again the next day.

The information she had obtained from Shakaar was indeed highly interesting; a few of the elements definitely could be adapted to Cardassian procedures in the course of resettlement projects on the planets concerned. She entered the data, transmitted it to the administrative centre in Loo'Wess; no doubt Gul Madred would be pleased: he was in charge of Lavol's redevelopment and had deployed a group of operatives to that world for preliminary research.

A message from Ertinas Dejar was waiting for her when she arrived in her office; on an impulse, she contacted her. "Gul Melset, the enclave on Earth which you had been told about and shown while a captive years ago was not inhabited by traitors as you suspected; Tain had selected some of his operatives to pose as militaries then allegedly switch sides and apply for sanctuary within the Federation instead of facing 'insupportable suppression and terror on Cardassia.'"

Melset remembered the enclave she had been shown when she was a captive on board the Tejon and replied, "Those were operatives?!" then looked away, embarrassed about her error.

Dejar briefly smiled. "I assure you that there is no need to be humiliated at not having recognized this. Tain was most pleased about your reaction as it showed his ploy was successful; the people there are all Order operatives who, as you, fed Federation Intelligence incorrect information with the goal of creating openings for attack. During those years, there were constant clandestine shifts in personnel. Those in place during the Dominion War have been stranded there for the past six years and are to be recalled. Garak informed the provisional government which has issued a 'comprehensive amnesty for all exiles and traitors remaining off-world, thus permitting them to return to Cardassia to help in rebuilding and prove themselves true children of the Empire'." Dejar's carefully-neutral expression softened a little in amusement as she explained, "This is currently being praised by the Federation as the dawn of a new era of sentients' rights on Cardassia…."

To Melset's bemusement, Dejar had even more details, "Starfleet is according them free passage on Federation cruisers; they are to be provided with ample supplies, additional funds and generous donations by various activist groups. It seems to them that we are seeing the error of our ways. In essence, the only Cardassians who are now offworld are the teams employed by companies and research groups."

Still considering what she had just been told, Melset effected the transferral of the data she had been given by Shakaar, then went to the office she shared with Andrews and Selon to pass on the information. "The First Minister of Bajor has given me this. These methods can be transferred to Federation efforts as well. You do have a number of worlds slated for resettlement within the next two or three months."

Andrews turned and smiled at her in greeting. "Thank you for sharing the data, Gul Melset. How was your stay on Bajor?"

"It was a very rewarding experience. When your wife arrives next month, do take her on a tour of Bajor once she has settled in. I think she will appreciate it as the planet is beautiful," was Melset's reply. She did not feel like answering any further queries, thus resorted to distraction – it usually worked well.

Perhaps you will tell us more in a few weeks. Andrews recognized what she was doing and played along. "Perhaps you and Selon can make some suggestions?"

"In that case, you can ask Arnem, Lyoba, Selon, Remosi, Daniro, Medana, in brief, any of the Bajorans on Terok Nor…. They know most areas of their world, but be prepared for one thing: each one of them considers his own home province the most beautiful of all… as we did ours." After a moment, she added, "Rellaketh is the one I would suggest. Before Withdrawal, I spent a year there."

Decisions

Roughly three months later, a Starship docked at the station, which was not all that remarkable in itself, took on deliveries, brought some new personnel, had others beam up who were to transfer to new postings.

Kira was expecting a request for clearance for departure when her Communit activated: "Commander Kira? This is Captain Farid of the USS Lewa. Commander Chandler and Vice-Admiral Toddman request a meeting as soon as possible. They have a matter to discuss and state beamdown into the ready room is commendable."

The Commander wondered at this procedure. "Of course." She transmitted the coordinates to the transporter chief in Ops.

There were curious glances in direction of her office from personnel in OPS as this operation was not normal procedure, but no information was forthcoming. Up to then, this had been done only in critical situations.

After the usual introductory phrases, Commander Chandler inquired, "Is Gul Melset on the station?"

Kira spoke into the intercom. "Chief Remosi, please locate Gul Melset."

Seconds later, he stated, "She is presently in the Shrine, attending a service."

Ignoring the carefully-disguised curiosity of her guests, a Cardassian in a Bajoran shrine, that was indeed unusual, she replied, "Sorry, Commander Chandler, I cannot call her. Nor am I authorized to answer the question I know you want to ask. The service will be over in another twenty-five minutes." Kira's expression showed that she would not cede in this point, Cardassian or not. "May I ask why you are inquiring about her?"

"We are planning to downsize this branch of SFHS within a little over a year, but already have to consider who will be prepared to leave earlier or extend his contract so that we can plan ahead. That is why it is necessary for us to discuss this question with Gul Melset and her co-organizers Andrews and Selon. Or do you have the information by any chance?"

"No, nor would I be authorised to pass it on."

"We heard about the returnees who came thorough Deep Space 9 right after the Defeat; after the first three or four weeks, there was not one Cardassian dissident or refugee on a Federation world or anywhere else outside the Union," said Vice-Admiral Toddman.

Kira remembered scenes that had taken place while Melset was spending four weeks on Cardassia to gather data on the situation. "After The Defeat exiles, dissidents and expatriates, nearly three hundred in all, came through this station in a period of roughly six weeks with only one purpose in mind: to do everything they could for Cardassia. They accepted no matter what transport, stayed in the area of the docking ring, waiting for passage home, reluctant to use part of their funds to secure a meal or even a place to sleep because that would have taken away from Cardassia. They bothered no one, just waited patiently … In the end, we gave them provisions and quarters, promised to find them openings; the last group departed within less than a week. I have no love for them, but can respect their devotion to their home systems."

"Gul Melset was recalled by a contact who apparently informed the other expatriates as well. She told me that even criminals would be granted amnesty once they had returned and taken up their duty to Cardassia." He looked out the viewport. "I remember how desperate she was to return; in spite of her strict self-control, those who knew her well recognized her agitation, her fear of being forced to stay offworld. I swear, when she asked to be repatriated…" If I gave details, she would consider this an unforgivable indiscretion. He briefly fell silent, then said "If she had not been transferred, she might have found a way to leave, hoping to be exonerated in accordance with Cardassian law."

"The rate of progress they are making is incredible." Kira added, "Jake Sisko spent some days on Cardassia Prime to report on the situation and was impressed by the single-minded determination of each and every Cardassian to rebuild, reorganize. He said they were like ants, not thinking of themselves, only of their worlds, whatever the cost," Commander Kira replied, nearly laughed. "I don't think I need tell you what response this description got from Melset's Cardassian colleagues."

They still exchanged news on the status quo in the area, then saw the Bajoran staff take over their posts.

"Gul Melset, report to OPS."

Within minutes she arrived, once again in full uniform, saluted the senior officers and waited, standing at attention, expression neutral.

"At ease, Gul Melset." Vice-Admiral Toddman said. "First of all, we wish to notify you and your colleagues that the work effected at SFHS reflects the highest standards, assistance is given neutrally; reaction times to unforeseen emergencies are short, help underway in a minimum of time. Cooperation with NGOs and governmental institutions is excellent. There is no waste or loss of either funds or goods, but everything accounted for with the greatest of exactitude. Your branch and the entire staff are to receive commendations for your efforts." He permitted himself a slight smile. You have done excellent work."

"Vice-Admiral, I am gratified about the evaluation, but the honour is not mine alone, but that of the personnel with whom I cooperate as well as the efforts of those on site. Their dedication and hard work have made everything possible. And, I must not forget to mention the assistance given us by the UFP base on Cardassia Prime."

The Vice-Admiral let the misunderstanding pass, if it indeed was one. He and Commander Chandler had already noticed that, when cooperating, Melset did not see herself as a discrete member of the group, but as one element in a unit working towards the same goal, fully in accordance with Cardassian mentality.

"As we do not have much time, I'll make a long story short. In a year this branch of SFHS is to be downsized from 21 personnel to 14, and to eight the year after. Do you have suggestions to make as to repatriations or transferrals?"

"No disrespect meant, but this is a question that must be discussed in our group as I do not know of the other's plans, nor, in the case of militaries, whether they will be posted elsewhere, thus precluding independent plans. I do know that Roval has work lined up on Olmerak Prime, so he should be included in the first round of downsizing. In fact, you can already inscribe his name on the list as he has shown me his contract. A copy will be expedited to your offices."

"Then you can prepare termination of his contract and begin processing his application for resettlement assistance. My evaluation of his work will be included in his files."

Commander Chandler inquired, "And you, Gul Melset, in which group do you prefer to be included? I can imagine that you want to finally return to Cardassia on a permanent basis."

He could see that his question was unexpected.

"Indeed, but there is one more element that I have been requested to supervise to its implementation. It does not concern Cardassian or SFHS affairs, but Bajoran ones; the provisional government selected me to take this matter in hand, at least in the beginning phases as I am familiar with Bajoran customs; later on, Professor Lang will see to its being effected. Until then I might at times be needed as an adviser. I know you would like details, but I am not authorized to pass them on. But I can tell you that it is a further small step towards reconciliation. May I make a suggestion as to the question of downsizing?"

"By all means."

"Next week we have a planning session during which the question of downsizing by a further six personnel besides Roval can be discussed, and the list of candidates expedited to the offices of SFHS – Earth immediately after. This decision cannot be made spontaneously, so staff will be notified today as soon as I begin my shift. Personnel will discuss it among themselves and give me their decision then."

"Agreed." Chandler and Toddman exchanged glances. Still typically Cardassian in her mindset. She seems to think that we expect the decisions to be made on the spot as though it was a combat situation. "We expect the list within a month so that everything can be completed on schedule."

"Commander, you will receive it immediately after the planning session, complete with all of the data regarding personnel," was the prompt reaction.

"Acceptable, Gul Melset." Vice-Admiral Toddman saluted her and said, "That will be all. You can resume your duties at SFHS."

"Vice-Admiral Toddman, Commander Chandler," Melset saluted, then left for her station, as she called it. Two more years – the conclusion of the Bajoran affair and, possibly, other developments….

1 William Beebe – in The Audubon Notebook © 1981 Running Press

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