Duty To Cardassia Supersedes all – The Gratitude Festival

Negotiations of sorts

At mid-morning station time, Selon went over to Melset, "Melset, preparations for the Gratitude Festival are going to begin soon; Commander Kira has expressly invited our entire staff to attend."

The Cardassian looked up from her analyses. "Go ahead; Daryn, Bertos, Roval and I will continue here and field inquiries." After a moment, she looked over at Selon with a hint of a smile, saying "Peldar joi!" before turning back to her work.

He responded to her friendly reply but did not leave. Yung came over to join him, "Oh no, you won't. You lot have been expressly invited as Melset initiated the negotiations for the unconditional return of the artifacts. She met the Kai himself. Or do you think that is a secret? Such news spreads like wildfire when non-Bajorans or Snakes are involved." She added, "The Commander said, 'The entire staff.' And that includes you Cardassians."

"So it would seem." Melset remained where she was, not offended by Yung's use of the word 'snake' as they had become friends, and Yung's sense of humor could be as confrontational as her own.

"You always were on your way on your home world around this time, so have never experienced this celebration," Selon urged. "In spite of everything that has happened, you and your people have much for which to be grateful." With some hesitation, he added, "The locusts have departed, the Prophecy has been fulfilled. All has been repaid and, most importantly, the first very tentative steps towards a lasting peace have been taken even though some resentment remains on both sides."

The Cardassians exchanged glances, not quite convinced.

"Please do come. We'll meet on the upper level, at Quark's, in an hour," Nerada said. "I am sure you will agree that even the preparations are worth seeing. The atmosphere cannot be described – you have to experience it first-hand. Aren't you" she met the eyes of the four Cardassians in turn who were gazing at her expressionlessly, "even the least bit curious about this?"

"You won't recognize the station once everything has been completed, from Cardassian monstrosity to a place of celebration." Chambers said provocatively

The whole team now crowded into the Cardassians' area, already anticipating the occasion, describing the decorations, the music, the opening ceremony which would be Kira's and Navri's to perform. "Aren't you the least bit curious?" was Andrew's query which was a repeat of Nerada's. "Who knows? You may end up getting some valuable information."

"Now look, set those terminals to automatically register incoming messages and get going." Landon said.

The Cardassians again exchanged glances, shrugged inwardly, realizing they would not escape this time. Bertos spoke for the group, "We will join, but you will bear the responsibility for possible incidents."

"In an hour then," Neraya said.

As they walked along the Promenade to the habitat ring, the Bajorans they passed were busy organizing everything they would need. Some stalls had already been set up, soon to see merchants selling their goods or foods from various regions of Bajor; in public areas, wherever there was enough space, groups of acrobats and jugglers were reviewing their routines, Bajoran musicians tuning their instruments before going to their assigned places on the Promenade. The entire Promenade and some sections beyond were being decorated with lights, garlands, artfully draped lengths of gauzy cloth. The decorations played a double role: points of orientation as well as the creation of a magical feeling, an illusion of passing from one reality to the next.

Everyone they saw was excited, anticipated the celebrations, walked around, watching, commenting, entranced by it all.

"There's a smell of incense, very light, nearly subliminal," Melset whispered to Jal, inhaling slowly.

"It is meant to evoke a meditative atmosphere, and is relaxing for Bajorans, associated with positive experiences; this incense is always used during celebrations of positive events, blessings of the Prophets," Syrineh explained, "has been used for thousands of years."

They saw Vedek Navri and his staff were decorating the outer area of the shrine together with Commander Kira. Curious, the members of SFHS stopped to watch what was being done.

"When everything is finished, you won't recognize the Promenade, really beautiful," said Isnaya, her pale green eyes reflecting her delight.

By chance Kira happened to look over. At recognizing the group she waved to them with a welcoming smile. Her gesture was answered in like before she turned back to the preparations.

"Hectic and yet relaxed, everyone is anticipating the celebration. And, more importantly, everyone is welcome," was Andrews' comment. "All of us have attended repeatedly and," he gestured at Daryn and the other two Cardassians, "Even with you."

Daryn took over, "There were no incidents as everyone on-station knows the members of SFHS and what we are doing." I can risk saying this as she did listen to us that time when we told her about our lives under the rule of the Order and Central Command, "We know many do not trust us, call us vipers behind our backs, but according to Selon, all negative emotions and attitudes are on hold during this time. We were even invited to write our own scrolls and did." These rituals are nothing but primitive superstition. Sorrows and problems cannot be burned, but the joy of the Bajorans, of all the others influenced even us... for some moments, we were happy, too.

"Let's get going," called Nerada, "We'll meet in an hour."

An unexpected visit

When she entered her quarters, the first thing Melset saw was a dress lying carefully draped over the back of the sofa, stared at it, wondering. I don't have anything like this… The basic color was burgundy, the insets with their scalloped pattern of fine stripes in gold and black added to the elegance of the garment.

With a low call of delight, she held it up against herself, glanced into the mirror, quickly turned, smiled at seeing the way the material followed her motions, and thought, Apart from the Kelani outfit Garak made for me, I have never hadanything like this. It would seem he had it sent to me…. However, I am one of the Organizers … this could well make the wrong impression, possibly raise suspicions about my integrity.

Melset shrugged. It was given me, I didn't purchase it. Most of what I earn goes to the Reconstruction Fund. She entered the sonics area and after some minutes came out, wearing lightweight thermal clothing, then slipped on the dress, again considered her reflection. It is indeed beautiful and a perfect fit! On an impulse, she undid her hair which hung to her hips in lustrous waves and gathered it, inserting a hair ornament to hold it back, looked at herself, her pleasure very evident.

At hearing a familiar voice she started slightly, "It would appear my modest effort has met with your approval, my dear Iníki. I have been observing you."

Melset turned to see Garak standing just inside the door of her private office.

"Garak, when did you arrive? You didn't notify me you were coming."

He went over to her to touch palms. "A little over an hour ago. As usual, I contacted Chief Remosi at once so that he can take precautions, considering the ominous fact there are now five vipers on station. I informed him that this constitutes an entire nest which requires constant observation." He looked at her for some moments, then murmured, "May I?"

"Of course."

He removed the ornament, combed out her hair to braid it into six plaits which he interwove, fastening them with one of the hair ornaments he had brought. He opened them just below her shoulders, inserted the second ornament. "There, Kelani informal, quite attractive."

She looked into the mirror; the style underlined the color and texture of her hair as did the dress.

"My dear Garak, both tailor and hair stylist… agent of the Order and interrogator." At his tilting his head a little to the side like a curious kyssil*, she added, meeting his eyes, "Many-talented,"she continued in a very low voice, "much appreciated, and not only for your talents." She placed her hand against his chest.

Disguising his response to her words and gesture, Garak added, "You forgot to mention my skills as a gardener," before he indicated her closet. "What you have in there is serviceable, attractive, appropriate for conditions on station but nothing more, so I decided to present you with something more suitable for this occasion."

He briefly left the main room only to return minutes later wearing the male equivalent of her outfit. "This is, after all, your favorite among my simpler creations." For a moment he hesitated before opening a small packet wrapped in sefrak and taking out two pledge bracelets, fastening one of them around Melset's wrist. It was to her to put the other around his own. "A Kelani custom I had nearly forgotten in the upheavals of the past few years. I managed to find someone in Aigela City who still knows how to make these."

"But wearing matching outfits and these bracelets on such an occasion will make it obvious that we have joined. This could endanger us both." She was apprehensive. "Only my family, the Chief Archon and Dejar know. And Vedek Navri."

"You do remember the statutes of the New Order which I let you read? Others have been added since and unanimously accepted. Among them is this one." He put a data rod into the computer, found the statute: Extortion is prohibited by law as a method of ensuring compliance by threatening a Cardassian citizen's family. This law protects each and every individual facing court procedures, regardless of social class or profession. Any operative or civilian guilty of this infraction will face trial and a sentence commensurate with the degree of his or her crime.

"As you see, family is no longer a liability for members of the Order."

And this came too late for many of us, for you, too, Garak.

"This has resulted in a most interesting joining, my dear. Just imagine: Dejar and Nadroy. They already had a clandestine relationship when you returned from Earth." He shook his head once in mock disbelief, "Now who would have expected that of these two? Such fine, upstanding, dedicated members of Central Command, respectively the Order…" Garak smiled slightly. "They have three children who were being raised by their own relatives. As soon as the new regulation came into effect, they officially joined; Nadroy recognized the children so that they are finally living together as a family. A daughter and two sons. It could well be that the fourth child has been born in the meantime."

"And you didn't find out before the statute was included?"

"No. I only wondered about her repeated, half-yearly missions, but as it was Madred who initiated them, he received the reports. His family, by the way, has grown by a son, much to Jil Orra's delight." Garak saw Melset withdraw very slightly, suspected the reason. "As Humans say, we will cross the bridge facing us when the time comes."

Melset laughed quietly, "I never suspected anything like that. I only wondered what she meant when she told me you had anticipated my return not only because of our cooperation, but for other reasons as well."

"Ever the matchmaker," commented Garak. "Here's another: Professor Lang and Kotran Pa'Dar."

"They have been cooperating intensively since the reestablishment of Detapa, have both had their share of problems with the old Cardassia. What Dukat did to Pa'Dar and his son Rugal as well as his reasons for this deed has become common knowledge so that Pa'Dar is no longer in disgrace, and Lang? She has a reputation for unremitting dedication in recreating Cardassia."

"I know: Our friend Dejar has excellent instincts for what works. Don't inform Quark though. He might be so heartbroken when he learns about this fact that he may miss nailing some deal or another … which would be most painful for him, even more so than a lost love," was Garak's comment.

"Not a chance of that happening," Melset smirked. "He even made a pass at me once or twice, he misses her so very much. As to Dejar, I put her success down to Order training, careful observation of individuals." She added, "I did not know you were on your way to negotiations, Elim."

"This is an invitation. Remember that I proposed entrusting you and Lang with the negotiations for return of the artifacts, assuring the Bajorans involved that we are giving them back unconditionally. This will be effected in about a year at the very latest."

He briefly held her close, felt her put her arms around him, then suggested, "And now, my dear, let's meet the staff of SFHS before they become concerned, thinking something has happened in spite of your security measures and alert Chief Remosi."

"In my own quarters?"

"You may be one of four Cardassians on staff, but as you have known these off-worlders since your arrival on Earth, you have become their 'very own pet snake'. Not quite trusted, considered with cautious affection, accepted after a fashion and even protected. As far as I have noticed, you have the same status among some of the station Bajorans." His grin was decidedly evil.

"The Bajorans on my team were very useful during my time on Earth; they never did realize they were helping me stay under the radar." She laughed softly, "Admittedly, they have become good comrades; we often meet after duty, at times are joined by station Bajorans. After all, their own planet faced a very difficult process of reconstruction after Liberation. Some of their proposals have already proven invaluable for our own projects."

* A kyssil is a birdlike creature, much like a miniature archaeopteryx with iridescent black feathers.

3-The Festival

Side by side, they went across the Promenade, up to the second level where the staff of SFHS were already waiting.

"Melset, you didn't tell us Garak was coming too," said Isnaya.

"I wanted to surprise her and succeeded."

Yung was looking at Melset's clothing, "Lovely outfit. We could use a creative tailor here, Garak. Quark often praises your work, misses you and your skills."

"Ah, Yung, don't be too hard on Ekon, he does good, solid work. Do not forget one little detail: he is Bajoran, I am Cardassian. Different worlds, different styles. Perhaps if you make a rough sketch of what you want..."

"Let's look what they've been doing at the shrine." Galtor suggested before the discussion could become lengthier.

Together, they went to the balustrade which overlooked this area. The station's lights were now dimmed as far as possible so that the main source of illumination came from the shrine and artificial torches along the walls.

"So much more pleasant than the bright lights of normal station days, for us at least," was Roval's comment.

The shrine and its immediate area had already been decorated with lengths of carefully-draped, translucent material shimmering in the colors of the Temple Gates; at the entrance to the shrine, a scattering of flickering candles lead up to the entrance of the shrine, encased for safety in transparent holders. The muted station light, the glow from within underlined the spiritual importance of the shrine as well as of the Temple of the Prophets beyond the confines of the station. It looked welcoming, festive yet contemplative. The Bajoran members of staff were planning to spend some time there later in meditation and to give thanks for positive developments on their world, in their families.

"In a few more minutes, the Commander will light the ritual flame which will burn the scrolls," A member of Remosi's staff, Retto, had come over to explain the opening ceremony. With a smile, he distributed pens and blank scrolls among the staff of SFHS, included Garak. At seeing the Cardassians' doubtful and skeptical expressions, he said, "Just write down a specific challenge or event, a difficulty that initially seemed insurmountable or was of great concern to you or to your people, and place the scroll in the fire. The purifying flame reminds us that evil, negative events of all kinds, discouraging incidents or other situations that could arouse doubts about the kindness of the Prophets, will be resolved, someday be only a distant memory." He urged, "Non-Bajorans may well be skeptical, but do join us in this: it offers comfort." Retto added, his eyes bright with happiness, "Peldar joi!"

The others replied in like, exchanged glances. For some minutes, the members of staff were silent, pensive, before they began writing… Soon they had their scrolls ready as did all of the others attending.

Silence fell.

"Look, there's the Commander," whispered Johnson.

"Beautiful," Andrews' comment was followed by murmurs of agreement.

Commander Kira was dressed in a tight, deep red suit and, over it, a sheer, wide garment of gold and red weave that followed her every gesture. Yung said softly, "I've only ever seen her cheerful and optimistic during this time as though the past was really forgotten, and the future would see the resolution of all problems and evils. At this Festival, dressed like this, it seems she has shed everything that could distress her together with the status conferred by her uniform."

"We are all on the same level during that festival, regardless of heritage, rank or status, Children of the Prophets," Bos added.

"She believes in the Prophets with all her being as do most of the Bajorans I know. She does not have the slightest doubt, or she and so many others of her people would not have survived the Occupation and, most importantly, kept their culture and belief intact," was Andrews' comment. "Over 60 years of unremitting terror and exploitation… Only deepest faith to counter it…"

He heard a barely audible reply, "Indeed. Their faith gave them strength and courage. Helped them endure. I witnessed it myself, some years ago…"

He saw Melset standing next to him with an expression he could not quite read.

Silence fell when Kira briefly closed her eyes, then chanted the ritual prayer before pouring incense and oil into a long, translucent pipe that, once filled, would feed the flame for the full twenty-six hours. The fluids mixed, ignited at contact with the air, their color and that of the flame became a luminous blue, a shade associated with the Temple Gates.

The moment the flame was lit, she called out, radiant, rejoicing, "May our worries and fears turn into ashes like the scrolls we cast into the flames. Peldar joi!"

Together with the staff of SFHS, Retto joined the crowd which, though dense, followed a pattern that allowed everyone to pass by the brazier unhindered, drop in his or her scroll. With surprise, he heard Melset whisper the ritual phrase, then bow her head in a gesture of reverence. Even more surprisingly, her companion followed her example. After the Burning, which opened the festival proper, the silence was broken, the Promenade suddenly came alive with activity, a hum of voices, as all of the attendees began dispersing, meeting friends, ready to enjoy the Festival, looking at everything, caught up in the sense of well-being this occasion always created.

Bajoran musicians, nearly but not quite out of earshot of each other, presented traditional tunes and songs. For offworlders the complex melodies sounded meditative, even mysterious in the subtext of their harmonies, exquisitely beautiful. Each group was surrounded by an audience and, during pauses, the listeners either moved on to the next group or the next event, were replaced by others or remained.

"For us, music is both worship and pleasure," whispered Selon. "Just listen attentively. Even if you listen to what one group of musicians plays, you may catch a hint of that of the others' tune. That in no way lessens the pleasure of the one, but creates a new harmony, like the ideal harmony we want to have in our lives.

Mesro, who happened to pass by, briefly came over to explain, "Everything we do now and in our daily lives, we do in praise of the Prophets, both work and pleasure: the one in service, the other in thanks." He made a gesture of blessing that included the entire staff and walked on slowly, looking around, seemingly happy in himself, at peace.

For some seconds the recollections of Terok Nor during the Occupation came to the Cardassian woman's mind. This is past, has become a distant memory, but one that cannot just be burned together with a scroll on which it is written… It is burned into the memory of those who witnessed , but were never allowed to speak of it. And in that of the victims. We tried to destroy a way of life we did not comprehend.

Next to a group of musicians from Dahkur Province, a number of station Bajorans and their guests from that same province spontaneously got together to perform a dance, accompanied by the musicians who accelerated the rhythm ever so slightly. To delighted applause from the crowd, Kira, laughing, impulsively ran over to join, animated, joyful, as if, for once, she did not have a care in the world…

When it ended, Bos exclaimed, "This is how the Gratitude Festival should be celebrated! Appreciate everything, even participate if you wish."

"Look! Even a storyteller has come!" Melset called out in delight and went over to where a Sirah, accompanied by his assistants was preparing to tell legends which were illustrated by silhouettes behind a screen, a shadow play. She gestured to the others who were undecided about what to see first. "You may enjoy this as your translators can transpose this form of Bajoran."

Without waiting for them, she sat down on the ground after inclining her head in respect to a group of Bajorans she knew. One of them, Alesha, looked over at the team which was still hesitant, and made a gesture of welcome. "There is place enough for all of you. Come. It will begin in a moment!"

After a short discussion, they joined.

Within minutes, both Bajorans and off-worlders were caught up in the legend of the arrival and discovery of the first Orb of the Prophets thousands of years before, the vision which guided its finder who would later become the first Kai, the new religion which spread among the Bajorans, peacefully, as if they had expected it. The rhythm of the Sirah's language was soothingly even, nearly like a song, the account accompanied by hushed music and chants which underscored the inherent mystery of the legend. There was not one sound from the audience, nor did they seem to notice the bustle beyond their group.

During intermission, Selon explained, "This is an integral part of the Gratitude Festival. They have been protecting us since then, have guided us even in periods of great evil, reminding us that, no matter how dark times may seem, we always have reason to be thankful, and be it for even the smallest thing. He will tell this story two more times during the Festival, so that everyone has a chance to hear it."

"And nearly a thousand years ago, they guided the Messengers of the Bringers of Light to our own world," Melset whispered so that only he could hear. "No Orbs, but the rules, given our people by the Ancestors…"

How did your ethnicity manage to keep your customs alive through decades of constant observation, propaganda and forced diaspora. Perhaps I can ask you sometime. I wonder I never thought to do so at SFCCEI.

From a distance, two groups of musicians could be heard very faintly. This did not disturb any of the listeners; according to Selon, music was an element of worship, and inclusive. It was part of the background during the entire Festival, unobtrusive, peaceful.

After the Sirah had finished the legend, they left with the other listeners, discussing what they had heard, separated, scattered in the crowd to watch the various jugglers and acrobats who started out by doing childishly simple tricks and routines, joking with the spectators, replying to the ribbing they got when they slipped up even though everyone knew this was part of the act. The joking soon died down and ceded to calls of approval and admiration when their performances grew increasingly challenging. Every motion and effect was underlined by small lights on their clothing and equipment, which, in the dim illumination of the station, made the acts seem unreal, had the spectators fascinated.

The entire atmosphere on the normally starkly functional station evoked wonder; for this one day everyone could believe that everything was possible. All of the attendees and participants readily responded to this ambiance, felt carefree and joyful.

Once again together with Melset, Garak commented on a holoprojection on a large screen. "Look at that incredible range of color... Constantly shifting, creating a quite realistic three-dimensional impression of the vortex. Quite beautiful actually."

The two Cardassians were joined by some Bajorans and part of the team working for SFHS. Melset covertly looked around, saw them gazing at the same display, admiring it. "Interesting. The others do not seem to recognize the effect: humans, Bolians, Betazoids, Galtor the Lissepian…. It would appear they do not have tetrachromatic vision as do we and the Bajorans."

"And if, in different ranges within the ultraviolet wavelength or even infrared, which we cannot see." Together they watched the display for some minutes. It was mesmerizing.

"While I was here, in exile, I never did attend this Festival, nor would I have been welcome to do so," Garak said pensively. "Moreover, I had no use for it and its optimism which I considered sheer escapism. Cardassians face facts; hope creates illusions thus causes weakness."

He got no reply, but Melset thought, Facing the facts awakens the determination to overcome adversity, and without the determination to recreate what we have lost, we would never have survived. We saw the new Cardassia in our minds, pursued this … dream. "Perhaps fulfilling our duty whatever the cost is our own form of hope, or else, as Landon expresses it, 'We could have just rolled over and died.'"

"A different definition of hope then, my dear," was the answer.

There were also more personal events which the members of the team saw, young couples meeting under the covert supervision of relatives, or children enjoying the entertainment that was offered them; their areas were not in one specific segment of the Promenade, but still separated from those where the adults met. Parents took it in shifts to observe the children, enjoying their reactions to all of the novelty around them. The smallest stayed with their elders who, in very simple terms, explained the Festival to them; these little ones watched everything with wide, astonished eyes, clinging to a parent not in fear, but for security in face of all of the new impressions and activities they were seeing, some of them for the first time. The aliens they met were looked at fearlessly, curiously. "We are all Children of the Prophets, no matter how different we may be among ourselves" was one of the first lessons they learned.

Some hours later, the staff gathered at the food stalls, attracted by the scents. Bos declared with pride, "What is offered here is the very best from all over Bajor. I for one, plan to sample and enjoy as much of it as possible, especially as it has been prepared by hand, not replicated."

The Bajoran woman who was serving at the stall closest to him, a plump, cheerful member of the Farmers' D'Jarra, overheard his comment, laughed and gestured at her stand, "Then, my friend, you can begin your project right here! You do look as though you needed to be fed far better. With real food, not replicates."

As one, the team looked at him. He was a very tall, very slender and sinewy Bajoran.

"And how do you think you will manage that feat? Or do you have a second stomach like Morn?" asked Roval. "I suggest a stay of some months with this good woman's family: it would certainly result in a quite remarkable change."

Laughter was the answer.

All depending on species, a few members of the team had to avoid some foods, but there were enough others for the group to cheerfully indulge in, at times exchanging bits among each other, then checking out what they had not yet tried. Even the owner of the Janitza Hills restaurant had a stand with specialties from his home province. These dishes, freshly prepared on site, could never be recreated to perfection by a replicator, not even by one which possessed the incredible range of functions of the one at Quark's.

"Where is Quark anyway?" Geroth said, looking around for the Ferengi. "He should be somewhere around here, aiming to make a profit out of something or another. Ah, I see him… there he is, at his bar, seeing to a different kind of spiritual matters." Suddenly the Bolian gasped, nearly uttered a whoop of amusement, "I don't believe it! Just look at him!"

The sight was indeed memorable, had the group staring in disbelief. Quark and all of his employees were wearing Bajoran earrings which, on the Ferengi, were grotesquely over-sized. When he looked up from serving some customers, he caught sight of the team and waved an invitation. The Bajorans on staff barely managed to suppress their amusement when they approached; his bar was even more garish than usual, and, besides the earrings, he and his staff were dressed in an imitation of Bajoran festive clothing. The bar itself was overdecorated with replicated Bajoran art which seemed very much out of place, would have been out of place on Bajor itself, it looked so bad and was immediately recognizable as fake.

Chambers told the others about an incident he had witnessed at the before-last Gratitude Festival, "Say, do you remember? Two years ago he made the mistake of replicating Bajoran religious symbols for use as decorations and had arranged them on the bar. I do not think I have to describe the Commander's reaction to that. After telling him in no uncertain terms what she thought about his idea, she stood there observing him, hands on her hips, her expression murderous until he had removed every last one, then told him that the next time he crossed the line, she would make him pay, and dearly too."

They went over to his establishment as they didn't have the heart to walk past, especially as he always saw to it that they had their usual spot for their business lunches and at times even gave them a rebate. Not much of a rebate, certainly, but a generous gesture by Ferengi norms. Of course, it was an open secret that he always listened in, no doubt used the information he managed to glean to effect some negotiations of his own, negotiations which Melset and Remosi, later the Cardassian Ministry of Finances carefully observed.

"I have a special on spring wine for the Bajorans, and for the Cardassians, a selection of the finest kanaar. Or if you want something different? Whatever you want, you can get it here, in my bar."

The group exchanged glances, readily agreed, feeling more than slightly overstuffed after "eating their way clear across Bajor," as Arnem put it. The other Cardassians shuddered inwardly when Quark, grinning broadly, brought their orders and offered Melset her 'favorite poison' as he phrased it.

With profound disgust Garak covertly watched her drink the root beer, savoring every drop.

While enjoying their drinks, they discussed the activities on station, what each of them had seen, their impressions, and what was next on everyone's agenda. From where they sat, they could see what the other attendees were doing. Some of them were sitting in quiet corners, singly or in groups, resting and observing the others who were walking around, enjoying everything they saw, speaking about what they had seen and done before getting up and going to the next event or joining acquaintances they had recognized. No one was hurrying, nor did Security ask loiterers to move on as normally would have been the case. For today, this specific law was not in effect. Chief Remosi had also seen to it that his personnel had shifts that made it possible for them to spend some hours of downtime at the Festival, even took some downtime of his own.

At the shrine a number of Bajorans had gathered for meditation or silent prayer, one or two of them were speaking with Mesro. To judge by their expressions and gestures, they had good news to tell him. Soon, Navri came out of the shrine, went over to them, spoke to a family. He did not actively join in the celebrations, but repeatedly looked across the Promenade, his expression serene, Yes, all of us who are here, we have every reason for gratitude.

Andrews commented, "Everyone is so laid back, you wouldn't recognize the station, nor the people who work here. No one in a hurry, there's no 'X, please report to station Y immediately'. I don't know about you, but I could get used to this."

"Without this very difference, we would not value the change so much," offered Daryn.

"There is no rowdy fun that could lead to fights, but fun of a different, nearly reverent kind. It is hard to describe." Landon replied. "No one is pressured to join either. It just happens."

"This is a time to savor life, give in to your interests, even be playful, gather good recollections in the knowledge that this Festival only lasts for a day. Both good and bad pass, so treasure the positive memories, burn the bad ones," was Arnem's explanation. "As you see, everyone is wholeheartedly enjoying what is being offered."

"In three hours, there will be presentations of Bajoran folklore from four different provinces," said Chambers. "I know I'm going to attend that."

"I remember the last time. It was really beautiful, and it was interesting to compare the various acts, the differences and the resemblances. Every Festival, four other provinces are represented. I have recorded all of the performances I have seen so far; the performers agreed at once for the price of copies," said Andrews. "So whoever wants the file, I'll share it with them."

They separated after finishing their drinks to return to quarters for a short rest. "Never thought having fun and relaxing can be so strenuous," joked Yung.

"Sure it can. Think of it: we have been on the go from the start, a full nine hours," said Arnem. "And have been at Quark's for three. Time sure passes quickly at such events, doesn't it?"

"That means fourteen more to make use of!" Geroth called excitedly. "See you in two hours."

Even the Cardassians smiled faintly; that Bolian could be terminally overbearing at times, a real know-it-all, but was fun-loving, infected everyone with her cheerfulness, no matter how heavy the workload. Both she and Andrews, you could always rely on the two of them to lighten the mood when the going became difficult.

The first group on the agenda was from Dahkur Province. Their style of music was lively, with unexpected combinations of instruments and harmonies and a rapid beat which, in some cases shifted unexpectedly, surprising those not familiar with it. After some acts, a song was announced. The staff murmured their approval as they had heard it before and were fascinated by the way the voices of the singers harmonized, were nearly as one.

"Say, look, there's Kira!"

She had joined the group of singers for a song of thanksgiving, a harvest song, but a harvest of a different kind, a reward for unshakable faith, for walking the path the Prophets laid out for everyone. Her voice blended in perfectly with those of the other singers, yet was instantly recognizable, beautiful. The audience listened, spellbound, many remembering different times when overt displays of Bajoran culture were forbidden by the occupying forces. And in spite of this, their culture had remained intact. At the end of the performance, there was rousing applause for the Dahkur groups who then cleared the stage for the next ensemble.

Kira looked around and at seeing the staff of SFHS, went over to them, curious to hear about their impressions of the Festival, as she had recognized their enthusiasm. "I hope you are staying for the next two as well, it is Relaketh and Tekendra Provinces," she suggested, quickly making eye contact with Melset.

"We have planned to see all four presentations. The range of styles is incredible."

"Our people took care to transmit everything we knew and did, our songs, dances, our very culture and traditions to the young, impressed the fact on them that Bajor and Bajorans would be lost if we ever forgot our cultural wealth of tens of thousands of years. We had our ways, our places, our refuges, though concealing them was a challenge."

Turning to the Humans, Bos commented, "You had such great diversity once, too, until the Third World War after which a global government was instituted. Around that time, you encouraged homogeneity rather than diversity, believing that this would reduce the potential for conflicts. So many of your customs and traditions were lost, or, in some cases, reduced to simple attractions, pure entertainment alone, even recombined into unlikely mixtures."

Johnson replied to his comment with a truly hair-raising example. "Yeah, the Mazurka Festival in New Berlin, the clothing dirndls, lederhosen and those funny felt hats. An incongruous combination indeed, if you know about the time before that war. Three discrete regional traditions in one."

Addressing the Cardassians, Kira inquired, "Do you have such a festival on your world? I never thought to ask."

"Actually no, as we have no religion, unless you consider unremitting duty to Cardassia as such; our public celebrations commemorate historic events, important victories such as that over the Lissepian attackers, the creation of Alliances; these events involve military parades, speeches by high-ranking officers. Family celebrations are reserved for special occasions, as is the case with you as well," Daryn explained, "but they are only meant for family."

"A far different system," was the reaction.

"It is according to our culture, and a culture develops in accordance with living conditions, circumstances and experiences. Our history? A constant fight for survival." Bertos answered, "But we appreciate seeing this. We never did get much information about Bajoran culture." He indicated the stage, the performers, the Festival in its entirety. Kira could only imagine what he left unsaid.

Kira then went over to Melset, briefly whispered to her.

"I didn't see him last time I was on Bajor, Thank you, Commander Kira."

The Relaketh group began with instrumental music, a complex combination of various kinds of flutes, strings and, in the background, sticks struck together to give the rhythm. One of the songs was unlike anything they had ever heard before: the two singers sounded as though they were performing a duet with themselves and each other.

"One of the most difficult forms of song in our tradition, it demands perfect control of breathing and of vocal cords," Bos quickly whispered. "Takes years to master the technique; we call it Cho'omil."

Garak looked to the side, noticed that Melset was enjoying it as much as she had the preceding presentations, was absorbed in the acts.

This was followed by a village dance; when it was announced, one of the Bajorans came over, spoke to and embraced Melset who introduced him to the others. "This is Usso, with whose uncle's family I spent nearly a year after making a slightly disastrous suggestion."

"And that is putting it extremely mildly, my dear," was Garak's comment.

A rapid exchange of gestures with the group of Bajorans followed; Melset nodded in agreement and went to join the dancers who began at once. It was an intricate sequence of steps and moves while singing, clapping the complex rhythm.

"Just look at her: she's usually serious, driven. This must be the first time I've seen her really enjoying herself." Andrews covertly looked over at the Bajorans. Some were stunned, others bemused at the sight of a Cardassian in a Bajoran group, happy, caught up in the moment, in the dance, as if she were in a different place and time entirely.

Yung quickly looked over at Garak, "Look at him," she nudged Andrews.

The Cardassian male's expression was a combination of disbelief and resignation.

She seemed to know the dance well as there were no missteps, her timing was perfect nor did she hesitate in joining the song. When it ended, Usso touched Melset's shoulders and, smiling slightly, watched her return to the others to take her place next to Garak, ready to enjoy the following acts.

"You could have warned me, you know," he said.

"I didn't know myself. Kira only said there was an old friend in this group. Usso gave me so much information, later tried to help me integrate when it seemed I was going to be left behind. Besides, this Festival is about thanks and thankfulness, both addressed in the song accompanying the dance." She met his glance, "Garak, all considered, we have much to be grateful for."

"Where did you learn it?"

"This dance has been part of our cultural tradition since the time of the Ancestors and was an integral element of the Samagaltayi Magtaal; I learned the Bajoran words while in Nevaris Village, at that time believed the Bajorans had learned it from us."

"When Iwas a child,Mila told me about that celebration, but we never could attend it, for reasons that are not hard to guess."

She moved closer to him so that they were nearly touching and together they watched the remainder of the performances with pleasure, at times discussing some point or another in barely audible voices.

Once, Selon looked over at her, those present just considered you with curiosity, not resentment, appreciated your gesture. You were and are like a snake, insinuating yourself wherever you can, he thought. When a slight metallic sheen at Garak's wrist caught his eye, he looked more closely, saw a telltale ridge under Melset's right sleeve. Pledge bracelets, their clothing: they are together…. Neither your people nor ours are meant to be alone.

The staff of SFHS passed the remaining hours walking around, spending as much time as they wanted wherever they saw a crowd, curious to see what had attracted them, or they settled near the viewports, in an area which gave them a view over the Promenade, a few among them revisited one event or another which they had especially enjoyed. The Bajoran members, as they had already planned before, spent the last part of the Festival attending the shrine's open service. In spite of the long day, the excitement, the impressions, not one member of the team felt tired enough to return to quarters before the Festival ended.

Commander Kira suddenly decided to make this occasion special and after getting Vedek Navri's approval, contacted Remosi's deputy, a Betazoid, who set off at once.

He guided a runabout towards the Wormhole, waited for a few minutes.

Over the station intercom, Kira said, "My fellow Bajorans, May the Prophets bless us today and forever as we follow the path laid out for us!"

The runabout flew towards the Wormhole which opened, admitting the ship into the whirling vortex of radiant light which, for the Bajorans was the Gate of the Celestial Temple. All of the Bajorans stood in silent awe when they saw the Temple Gates open, then, as one, prayed to the Prophets, whereas the aliens who witnessed it fell silent in respect for the reverence this phenomenon elicited among their hosts…

When the time had come for the Festival to end, Vedek Navri spoke over the comm system, enumerated all of the positive events of the past year, those that gave hope for the future, nor did he forget setbacks, considering them a challenge to the strength of the Bajoran people's faith. Finally, he called out, raising his arms in blessing, "May the Prophets guide and protect us all, both the non-Bajorans on station and our own people, may they grant their children lasting peace and serenity."

Slowly, the crowd dispersed; the station lights were powered up to normal level. Those attendees who had volunteered to do so, Kira among them and once again in uniform, went to help remove the decorations, preparing them for storage. When this task was begun, everyone recognized with regret that the Gratitude Festival was over.

Undercover Operations

Back in Melset's quarters, both she and Garak were still caught up in the events of the day even though they would never have admitted to the fact they had been fascinated, even impressed by an event that was based on primitive superstition although, some generations before, her ethnicity had beliefs that strongly resembled those of the Bajorans.

The couple sat together, discussing the progress made on Cardassia Prime and outlying colonies, a number of which no longer needed assistance as their populations had everything they required to manage on their own; within another year industrial production on these worlds would make it possible to produce much-needed goods: a further step towards independence. After some time, Garak rose to get redleaf for himself and Melset.

"I have some information for you, Iníki." He lowered his voice, which implied he had news of an incident that aroused some concern.

"Oh? About what? Have there been problems resettling Rodinian district and initiating the reconstruction of its capital?"

"Fortunately not. Much to the contrary, my report is quite positive: We have finally eliminated the few surviving leaders of The True Way as well as lower-ranking members who were trying to recruit new personnel; this success is due to the sustained efforts of the New Order. You will be pleased to hear that, in spite of its new statutes, statutes which have declared a number of the old methods illegal, the Order's work was not hampered in the least. As you see, your concerns were unfounded, as were mine. After a discussion of the facts and inherent risks both Detapa and Central Command agreed with us that this organization presents a serious danger to Cardassia's security, could potentially destroy everything we are trying to realize, thus has to be eliminated at all costs."

"To keep them from fulfilling their goal of a Cardassia for Cardassians alone." She turned to him, waiting, recognizing by his intonation that there was more.

"I was indeed invited to attend the Festival; that for once is the truth, but the Order made use of this simple invitation to set an essential mission into motion. I was accompanied by two agents as intelligence had discovered a number of those terrorists, surgically altered to appear Bajoran, were planning to attack during the celebrations; they were planning a massacre that would have claimed many lives. If they had succeeded, been captured here, on-station, a genetic scan would have revealed what they really were: Cardassians. And this incident would inevitably have led to the departure of all NGOs onworld, of SFHS as well as Federation and other off-world groups with whom we are cooperating, and destroyed our hopes for peace."

"Where are the agents now?"

"They were recalled as soon as I notified the Order that our mission was accomplished." Garak smiled ruefully, "Would you believe I never learned their real names? And I am one of the three heads of the Order..."

"The old procedures…."

Garak nodded, "During transit, we managed to discover, isolate, then discreetly execute and dispose of the terrorists. They were so considerate as to travel in a group." His grin was predatory, his eyes cold, "No one noticed a thing, my dear. They are most likely floating around somewhere in space, slightly the worse for wear of course."

"You liquidated them without the Captain's and the crew's noticing?"

"We met with the captain via a faked arrest. Remember Manhardt and Hinricks? They have been promoted and assigned to that cruiser, the Ulan Bataar. They convinced Captain Winters to let us take care of the matter in accordance with our methods as these individuals were Cardassians, thus under our jurisdiction. Moreover they were planning to sabotage not the Federation's, but their own people's, our, work. I must not forget: they mentioned having cooperated with a certain Cardassian officer at SFCCEI who explained to them how justice is served within our system in case of potential sabotage or terrorist activities. We assured the captain neither his crew nor his cruiser would be endangered by this operation, which would be carried out discreetly."

"You and your fellow operatives must have had excellent arguments as the Federation usually wants a lengthy trial."

"For some reason, the Captain and First Officer agreed to turn a blind eye to our operation, most likely due to the fact some Federation officers and civilians had been killed by members of this group in the past. You must agree that it was most fortuitous to have Cardassians on site to carry out the dirty work Federation officers are too squeamish to effect on their own." Garak briefly fell silent, remembering an incident when he was still an exile on Deep Space 9 then, after a few seconds, added, "Due to the risk of their intercepting a message and thus being warned of our own plans, we decided not to contact you. However, if one of those individuals had managed to reach the station, Remosi would have been notified at once, and he would have cooperated with you. I think you may remember Ro Laren's report on the True Way's attack on a colony planet some years ago."

"Indeed. They killed an undisclosed number of Bajorans and other innocent bystanders, many more were injured."

"Such mayhem caused by but three agents served to convince him those criminals had to be eliminated and even if it hadn't, it would have made no difference. We would have officially accepted his reservations then gone ahead anyway, clandestinely obeyed our orders. You may appreciate the honor they accorded you: Professor Lang and you were on the top of their list of targets due to your respective roles in the negotiations for the return of the Bajoran artifacts as well as your cooperation with offworlders in reconstruction."

"Too blinded by fanaticism to realize that without this help, many more lives would have been lost… many places would still be in ruins, recovery uncertain."

"All they saw were the non-Cardassians on-world, the Federation base as well as those who willingly cooperated with them." He sighed, "It is over now, but we have recruited specialists who are watching for a resurgence of such groupings."

"And I was incautious, enjoyed the Festival, joined those Bajorans, participated in the dance. Joy is indeed vulnerability."

"No, not at all, my dear Iníki; there was no reason for you not to indulge in whatever you wanted. Had there been even the slightest risk, I would have warned you, and we could have hunted down those people together with station security then had a celebration of our own afterwards." He smiled slightly, "I do hope you are not too disappointed that you did not get the chance to liquidate at least one of those terrorists, considering how they would have disrupted everything we are trying to establish."

She shook her head, "Come to think of it, you could have left me one, my dear Garak. But it will be a relief to most Cardassians when and if they hear about the New Order's success. It will serve to demonstrate that dangers from within can be effectively countered without having recourse to the highly invasive methods of the past. That is nearly more important than anything else as it will make the population feel safe, protected." She looked over at Garak and, in an uncharacteristic display of affection, gently touched his arm, leaned against him. "On the other hand, it may be advisable to keep this operation a secret," she said pensively. "If these misguided individuals have sympathizers who support their cause, they would go deep underground, making it harder to track them down."

"Leading to unrest and concern in the population. And a population that feels unprotected can easily be recruited by anyone who promises safety," added Garak. "If such people are discovered, they will fall victim to unfortunate accidents. No trials, no public executions. Under no circumstances must terrorists become heroes, martyrs serving as examples to those who would emulate them."

When he saw the woman's expression, he added, "No. The extreme surveillance as used to be standard will not be recreated. Operatives will infiltrate suspect groups, observe them, accumulate the necessary evidence subsequently present it to the leaders of the Order, Central Command and Detapa as a basis for discussion of further measures."

She quickly met his eyes, thinking, Sounds like the old days, but the methods have indeed changed.

He got up, saying, "It may be commendable to end the day. The cruiser that will take both passengers and deliveries to Cardassia Prime before continuing on its mission will arrive early station morning and only have a short stopover.

Together they went into the private section of her quarters. For tonight, it was perfectly enough to be together. Before the door slid shut, they had already begun bickering viciously about the reasons for her tolerance of Bajoran superstition…

At awakening early the next morning, Garak saw that Melset had already begun to prepare everything so that they could still spend some time together before he left for Cardassia. He got up, dressed then packed his duffel and went out into the living area. The table was set, the smell of redleaf, mapa bread and hasperat was tempting.

"An odd combination," was his comment.

"Not all that odd," she replied. "Think of the returnees. Cuisine in Kelan Province is markedly changing. However I do appreciate both Bajoran and Cardassian traditional except for raw taspar eggs with a living embryo in them."

"How about with one in it that has been boiled, leading to its untimely demise?" Garak asked, grinning. "With root beer to wash it down?"

She did not reply, suppressing amusement.

During the meal, they spoke about plans that were being made for reactivating a dam that, when ready, would produce hydroelectric energy. The former residential area of the wealthy civilians and upper echelons of the Military had been destroyed and become an extensive swamp which would serve a double function: a natural water purification plant for three or four of the small towns that had replaced the old Loo'Wess and as a nature refuge, considering that various insects, amphibians and reptiles had made it their home. The suggestion some Bajorans, who had come to assist in reconstruction had made was thus implemented.

"Ah, singularly appropriate. Humans call the culture of corruption among the prosperous and some politicians a swamp. Unfortunately, corruption had become a problem even in Central Command."

"Yes, Boheeka, Quark's invaluable contact, was trying to raise the funds to buy himself a promotion. In the Order, too, regrettably enough, there was infighting, jostling for positions, at times one agent or another disappeared," added Garak when he rose to put the dishes into the replicator, thinking Some of the leading members had up to three or four large safe houses distributed both on and off-world…. Have to see what happened to Tain's home on Arawath some day.

When he picked up his duffel to leave for the docking ring, Melset suggested, "I will accompany you to the gate, then continue on to SFHS for an early start."

"That is most kind." He realized what she left unsaid and added, "Not quite a year, and your time at SFHS is over, you can return to Cardassia on a permanent basis. Your new posting … and our home will be waiting for you." As will I.

In uncharacteristic silence, they walked across the Promenade to the docking ring where people were already debarking from the cruiser. All of them were more interested in either getting to their quarters or reporting to the station commander for duty so that one Cardassian couple was not all that noteworthy. Realizing they were unobserved, Garak quickly pressed his palm against Melset's, "Be strong, my dear. As far as I have been informed, you will be spending some downtime on Cardassia in a month."

"Yes, two weeks in all. Be strong, Elim."

When he went into the passage leading to the cruiser, he thought: A Cardassian on his way to an assignment considers duty alone, before suddenly remembering another departure, another parting,… and turned to look back at Melset who raised her hand in a gesture signifying 'Be safe,' then passed it over her combadge as though checking whether she had put it on her dress. Garak responded in like, then their glances met for some moments, serious, before she left for the offices of SFHS… only then did he leave the station.