Duty to Cardassia Supersedes All – Clandestine Operations

Disturbing Information

Roval was just ending his shift when a message from an unknown source came in. This is not from any of our official contacts on Cardassia Prime.

"This is Roval of SFHS on Deep Space 9, Cardassian section."

The screen cleared to show a female Cardassian who considered him neutrally for some moments before repeating the information he had given. "You are Roval, a member of Gul Melset's team on SFHS-Deep Space 9. Verify identity."

The communication is from the New Order. "Data sent." He saw the woman scan the details with one glance, then nod to someone in the background. This process of verification and additional screening that had been instituted because of problems with a group of dissidents on-world made him uneasy. Roval and his colleagues had been informed about the changes the Order had effected since The Defeat and yet, in an instinctive response, they felt apprehension whenever contacted by this institution.

"Has runabout TK-231 arrived at Terok Nor?"

Roval sent an inquiry to OPS, which was automatically transmitted to Bajor as well. Within seconds the answers came in.

"Negative." He carefully watched the woman on screen, hoping for a hint of what this was about, but she was unmoved in spite of the implications of his reply.

"Notify Gul Melset immediately. The runabout was scheduled to arrive on Minos Korva; contact with the runabout and its personnel has broken off, cannot be re-established. Sontara out."

No sooner had he opened communications with her terminal than another message arrived, this time from a Federation outpost. "Massive detonation on Minos Korva. Extent of damage and number of casualties unknown. Further information to be transmitted once available."

This was not meant for me or anyone on our team but Melset alone. He deleted it from SFHS' communications.

The door to the Promenade opened and for some moments, staff heard conversations outside, people walking by before it closed, once again shutting out the familiar sounds of everyday life on Deep Space 9. Melset exchanged greetings with staff then listened to their reports on developments. Some comment or another provoked suppressed laughter before she came in to relieve him of duty.

Roval got up, giving her his social class' salute to which she replied in kind, then informed her, "Gul Melset, a message from the New Order has come in. You are to access it and reply at once."

She immediately sat down at the terminal to comply with the order she had been given, then looked up at him, "Quark has a special for our team. I recommend it," she said with a hint of a smile.

"As long as it isn't deep-fried tube grubs," was the reply before he left, strangely thankful that he would not be present when she was informed about whatever had occurred.

"Gul Melset here." She transmitted her identification; No doubt the Order's evaluation of the projects that have been proposed.

"This is Nerret. Department of Intelligence. You are alone?"

Melset closed the door to her office and activated a comprehensive privacy screen which she had installed some months ago.

"Runabout TK-231 remains unaccounted for. It was due to arrive on Minos Korva, but moments before its ETA, a detonation was registered by a Federation outpost. Report confirmed by military base onworld. The civilian settlement there has been destroyed. No sign of survivors, a search team is on its way." Nerret turned to speak with someone next to her before saying, "I am authorized to give you the names of the personnel aboard the runabout at the time of its destruction: Gul Lemec, Organizer Garak and Major Kettra. You will receive further details on your terminal. Sontara out."

The screen displayed the emblem of the New Order before going dark. Eyes widened in shock and disbelief, pulse febrile, Melset stared at it, concentrating on remaining impassive in spite of the report; in her function as an officer and member of the Order an emotional response would be an inconceivable lapse. Losses were accepted in the knowledge that the Order's operations could not be curtailed by any incident. Those responsible for organizing the mission would replace personnel within a matter of days to ensure continuation of operations, whatever they were.

Central Command and the Order share the same oath of duty: '...to my last drop of blood, to my very last breath, I live to serve Cardassia and swear to safeguard the Union's integrity with my very life.' This alone is relevant for me, as it was for Garak. Cardassia comes before family, friends, before everything. The woman mentally repeated the words, deriving comfort from the knowledge that the operatives had done their duty as true Cardassians, had made the ultimate sacrifice without hesitation. Breathe slowly, relax, concentrate. Sentiment undermines discipline, leads to errors of judgment, to neglect of duty….

Some minutes were enough to establish the impassivity expected in her function as a liaison officer. As though the transmission had only been a routine though classified update on conditions, she shut down the privacy screen and went to open the door to her office. Daryn and Bertos entered to begin working at their assignments. The only subject of their conversations concerned distribution of supplies or registering the arrival of goods.

Melset informed her Cardassian colleagues, "As Roval is to spend two weeks in the Union for a briefing about his future employment, we are being accorded a substitute to take over his duties while he is off-station." She had not been told as much, but knew that an operative would be deployed to the station as the activities of The True Way seemed to be increasing.

Shortly before the end of her own shift, Kira contacted her, "Gul Melset, I quit work at the same time as you. Let's meet at the Janitza Hills. Quark's or the Replimat don't seem all that appealing today."

Melset looked at Kira's image on the screen with a faint smile that did not reach her eyes. "Agreed. I already know my choice. Melset out." The woman's voice was expressionless.

Surprised about this curt response to her invitation, Kira wondered, She's different, reminds me of someone, but I can't put my finger on it. For a moment she felt the old prejudices surface, pushed them aside as unjustified. There is enough to be concerned about on her home worlds; her people normally don't involve offworlders in their affairs, but at present, they have to do so to survive. It can't be easy for them….

Changes

The remaining two hours of the first shift saw a flood of reports come in on developments, requirement lists, complaints about delays, analyses of some few setbacks so that the entire team was kept busy working off the mass of messages; the way things looked, the second shift would enjoy the same dubious pleasure. As usual, personnel arrived together to relieve their colleagues after being given a quick briefing about what had to be done.

"Hey, come to think of it, we could be Cardis the way we do things here: no dawdling, we arrive at our posts on the dot, receive the necessary info, take over at once where the others have left off once the prior shift departs," Landers commented. "All we're missing are the scales."

"You cooperate intensively with a group, you tend to adopt their ways," was Nerada's explanation.

"Does seem to work just fine," replied Jal.

"Remember, SFHS is Federation, a military installation just like a branch of Central Command," added Galtor. "We come marching in, do our work, march out."

"Nah, Galtor, that sounds more like Vorta facilitators."

"Eeew, don't mention those! They creep me out."

It was with disappointment that they saw Melset leave her office, give them a nod of acknowledgment before walking past without adding a comment of her own to the joking conversation as she usually did.

As soon as she was out of sight, the team exchanged surprised glances, then looked over at their Cardassian colleagues questioningly. Their answer was a shrug, implying Some incident on Cardassia perhaps. She wants to be left alone …

Daryn saw Landers' discomfort and guessed the reason. "Landers, it is nothing you said. At times, even we use the shortened form."

He nodded, replied, "Thanks, I didn't think when I used that expression, was afraid I'd offended her."

"We never fail to make our displeasure about such things known, address offenses at once," was Bertos' reaction, "The intonation you used was friendly."

Once in her quarters, Melset accessed her terminal. No messages had arrived during her absence, so she relaxed slightly but to her annoyance felt her control slip, grief and despair well up. The behavioral modifications necessary for duty among offworlders result in an unacceptably high level of vulnerability. Reverting to our norms may estrange those with whom I cooperate, but in the present situation this is unimportant. Lying down for some time the woman closed her eyes, concentrated on her military and Order training which demanded impassivity combined withfanatic determination to exact revenge from an enemy. My goal is absolute fulfillment of duty which means doing my part to eliminate The True Way which is responsible for the deaths of true Cardassian patriots.

No one apart from her peers in the Order knew her posting at SFCCEI and now at SFHS actually was a long-term mission, a cover used to disguise what she was really doing, gathering information even now. After The Defeat, her people was vulnerable, exposed to outside influence. If the Federation had plans that ran counter to Cardassian interests, they had to be discovered and, if necessary, subverted.

The latest development on station was the arrival of individuals not registered on any of the passenger manifests; now, after the incident on Minos Korva a pattern was revealed.…. Melset went to her terminal Have to warn Gul Madred at once if he doesn't know already. She encoded a message to alert her superior officer to the risk and he would initiate countermeasures immediately.

Have to get ready. Lunch with Kira is usually interesting. She noticed her tolerance of non-Cardassians was now replaced by a degree of xenophobia. Some elements of reeducation are interconnected, so I have to take that into consideration in my interactions or alienate my contacts; taking off her basic uniform, she angrily balled it up to throw it into the cleaning unit and after a sonic shower, came out wearing a simple Cardassian dress, her hair in one braid hanging down her back. Have to request Chief Remosi's and the Commander's support.

Kira was already in the restaurant and, with a smile, made a gesture of welcome when she saw the Cardassian come in and walk towards her.

"Ah, Commander Kira, I do hope I have not kept you waiting too long."

"No, I have just arrived myself as I wanted to get out of uniform first. I see you had the same idea." After some moments she commented, "The menu looks good."

Together, the women considered it then made their choices. Melset hardly said a word, seemed lost in thought, so Kira broke the silence, "Non-stop messages and various incidents today, I think this is the first time today I've been able to catch my breath. It was no different for personnel in OPS."

Without looking up, the Cardassian replied evenly, "It was much the same at SFHS." Pretending exhaustion, she added, "Afterwards, all I want to do is go to quarters."

During the meal, Kira repeatedly glanced at her. No conversation at all? Not a good sign among Cardassians. So I was not mistaken this morning. She really is different, disquietingly so. For a brief moment their eyes met and Kira saw herself confronted by a cold, reptilian gaze before Melset continued her meal as though she was alone at table, silent, vigilant.

The Commander made no further attempts at conversation.

When they had finished and left for the Promenade, Melset looked around to make sure there were no chance listeners before telling the Commander, "I require your and Chief Remosi's cooperation and absolute discretion. You will be contacted at the appropriate time." For a moment Kira had the impression she wanted to say more, perhaps give her an explanation for her change in attitude, however, none was forthcoming as they walked along the Promenade.

A Federation outpost registered a violent detonation on Minos Korva, notified all stations; could that be the reason? To verbalize what she suspected? An exercise in futility. Kira knew that if she asked for information before Melset felt like offering it, the result would be a verbal barrage free of useful details, exactly like Garak's response in the past when he did not want to give an answer.

The next query was totally unexpected.

"My dear Commander, do you recall the various insults your people used for us?" Melset grinned broadly, "I should hope you haven't forgotten all of them quite yet. They may be needed."

At a loss for words after this odd question, Commander Kira stared at her for a few seconds before asking, "Are you serious, Gul Melset?"

"I always am. Good day, Commander."

"Be strong, Gul Melset"

Kira left, thinking, It may be a good idea to place her under surveillance.

As soon as the Commander was out of sight, Melset entered Security to speak to Chief Remosi. "Chief, when I activate my commband's signal you are to order my arrest. Find a reason. It shouldn't be too difficult for you as a Bajoran; after all, I am a Cardássian. Then notify the Commander to come at once." She added in a low whisper, "Both of you will get an explanation afterwards; you have to trust me in this. To make everything credible for the witnesses, recall the past, treat me like you would an enemy. Only remember, I have to survive the arrest," she added with a smile as she knew Remosi had been in the Resistance. "I repeat: you have to trust me."

He did not know what to make of her request, but then nodded in agreement.

The Substitute

Back in her quarters, she accessed and decoded the short message that had arrived on her terminal in the meantime, Countermeasures initiated. There was one more sentence, not encoded, "Roval's substitute to arrive on the Arachnocampa one hour from now."

That must be the operative; her cover is taking over Roval's duties while he is on Cardassia. She looked over at the chronometer. I have to meet her at the docking ring in a few minutes. In spite of recent events she thought, amused, Two days on a Ferengi ship, quite an experience…. At times agents have to put up with quite interesting transportation.

Hardly had she arrived at the appropriate airlock than the doors rolled aside. Exactly on schedule; those little trolls know that their reliability assures them customers in spite of the food and accommodations.

A group of Ferengi got out, looked at the signs and, arguing about some deal or another, made their way towards Quark's. One of the last to debark was a tall dark-eyed, bronze-skinned Ubari Cardassian female who addressed her at once. "Gul Melset, I am Major Okala, Roval's substitute, assigned to SFHS for two weeks."

Melset's commbadge activated, "Okala Essor is assigned quarters on the same level as yours. Chief Remosi out."

"Thank you, Chief."

On their way to her quarters, Melset brought her fellow agent up to date about the mixed staff of SFHS, their methods, patterns of cooperation and interaction.

"Quite an unusual combination of offworlders, isn't it?" Okala remarked when they settled in the living area. "How is their performance at work?"

"For us, their ways seem erratic at times. Even when they concentrate on something, a project, deliveries, whatever, there usually is some form of by-play, a word, a comment or even a joke; they say that it helps them focus. To me this seems like seconds-long phases of relaxation and is quite interesting to observe, alien as it is. However, they complete projects well within deadline."

"Is this a newly established team?"

"No. I have known most staff for some years, cooperated with them at SFCCEI. They applied for work here when this branch of SFHS was created. At times it can be difficult to cope with their ways and fine-tune reactions to mesh with theirs, but they are efficient, accept extra shifts and show as much concern for our affairs as they do for those of allied worlds, nor do they have problems working and associating with the other Cardassians on the team." Melset smiled when she said, "You and I are quite different in appearance which may arouse curiosity as 'Cardis all look the same'."

Okala only replied, "We have realized unity in diversity, all working towards the same goal."

"Indeed." Melset informed her, "Roval left last evening. Staff is informed a substitute will take his place." In a very low voice, she added, "There have been … irregularities on station."

With a gesture to show she was informed about the matter, Okala rose, nodded in dismissal and left for her own quarters to settle in.

Initiated….

After her off shift, Melset accompanied her to SFHS, "Okala Essor is taking over for Roval during his absence."

Nerada spoke for the team, "Welcome Okala, we are pleased to meet you. If you have questions, just ask us, we'll gladly help."

"You are most kind," was the response they got.

Daryn offered, "I have enough time to bring her up to date so that she can take over his duties."

Without a word, Okala joined Daryn at her terminal, setting to work at once after she had been shown the status of current projects.

The team accepted her distant manner when she joined them for lunch, knowing that this was Cardassian standard when among offworlders, but after another day, she began accepting invitations to join staff for downtime as she had orders to observe and evaluate them.

Melset saw her methods validated when Okala addressed her some days later, "Staff is highly efficient and consistently neutral, does not accept any form of iniquity, is excellent at finding solutions to unexpected events, reacts promptly, is discrete, respects cultural differences; both your Cardassian and non-Cardassian staff members are to be commended."

"Do include this in your report as many of our more conservative representatives are convinced any form of cooperation with off-worlders means our being pressured into adopting Federation values. I must not forget: Inform staff about your evaluation. This is a Federation custom considered essential for a positive atmosphere at work."

"Then I will comply with this custom. In addition to cooperating with you, I have been directed to evaluate both your work and that of the team."

So, this is also a tour of inspection.

"Information has come in about clandestine arrivals on the station."

"Since before Minos Korva; during the last meeting Chief Remosi, Commander Kira and I decided to add security measures such as genetic scanning to counter the threat these arrivals could represent. Of course, there are some complaints about delays, but 'we are installing upgrades' is an acceptable explanation. We have agreed to keep our suspicions confidential to avoid concern among the residents of the station. Now that Deep Space 9 has developed into a hub of travel, commerce and exploration, comprehensive surveillance is no longer possible, at least not under Federation and Bajoran law."

"Who are your contacts on station?"

"Commander Kira and Security Chief Remosi."

Melset made a series of barely noticeable hand signs and left after activating the signal she and Remosi had agreed on.

"I will brief you on the facts when you have been arrested." Apparently you trust those Bajorans. If your trust is misplaced...," Okala did not complete the thought.

Initiating Operations

The Cardassian was walking along the Promenade on her way to Quark's when she saw two security officers approaching her, phasers drawn. "Stop right where you are, Melset. You are under arrest. Chief Remosi has traced those transmissions. They were sent from your quarters."

Contrary to her people's custom, the woman did not submit calmly to arrest. She called out, "What is the meaning of this?" and attempted to escape, but was caught and manacled. Only then did she give up.

Lieutenant Sedor passed a scanner over her; "Well, what do we have here?" he said, removing a Bajoran ornament from her dress and holding it up to examine it more closely. "This is far too light for such a piece. The Chief will want to have a closer look at it."

It was then that the commander of the station arrived. "We could have expected as much, you spoonhead butcher. Pretending to be a decent Cardi… You damn lying viper!" She turned to the officers, "Get that scaly abomination to Remosi's. After my shift has ended I'm going to ask that reptile some questions." Turning to the captive, she hissed, "I swear I'll see you imprisoned, you snake! And…" she fell silent, seething with outrage.

The Cardassian's expression was blank, indifferent, even contemptuous as though nothing of importance was happening and the insults were not worth a reaction. A few of the Bajoran witnesses among the gathering crowd of curious passersby were watching the entire scene with marked interest, as if evaluating her; it was those whom she was committing to memory.

Once they had entered the new annex to the holding area, Melset was freed and gave the two officers a nod of approval. "Very well done, Retto and Sedor, the arrest was most convincing! It did cause some consternation among those who witnessed it, but that too has served its purpose, as I expected." With a smirk, she added, "Have all precautions been taken to find and deactivate the clandestine listening devices I have installed? The bloody Cardi bastards can't be trusted, you know."

Remosi, who had just entered, replied, "All scans as per your specifications. Your colleague has double-checked and approved procedure." He turned to his officers, "Continue your round on the Promenade. What has just been said is confidential."

A salute and the officers left after Sedor returned the object to Melset who reattached it to her dress.

Shortly after, the Commander and Okala joined them via a secondary entrance.

It was to Okala to inform those present. "Some months ago we traced leading members and followers of the True Way to Minos Korva where they had established a base disguised as a colony. This base has been eliminated by our operatives. No survivors. Unfortunately, the operatives who were selected for this mission did not escape in time, but their sacrifice was not in vain."

"The True Way has been severely decimated, both in The Defeat and due to Order initiatives so that they are cornered. We have infiltrated their organization, gathered details on their plans and are intensifying our efforts at eradication. That is all you need know."

The operative turned to the Bajorans, "Security Chief Remosi and Commander Kira, considering your personal experiences with our people, I commend you for cooperating with us. The clandestine arrivals are not all that clandestine; using the data transmitted by Gul Melset we have been registering and keeping them under observation. At present, there are at least six surgically-altered individuals on station, casing it for weak spots; more are scheduled to arrive within the next few days."

I have not been informed about any of this, thought Remosi and saw his reservations reflected in Kira's expression.

Okala hesitated. Bajorans listening to this … but our operative has assured the Order that these individuals are trustworthy, takes responsibility for her choice of allies... "We have had moles infiltrate what remains of The True Way and learned that you, Melset, are to be addressed, ideally recruited, as they believe you, a military, resent having to work for the Federation, to associate and cooperate with offworlders. Moreover, your skills would make you an asset to their organization."

"How very well they know me, Okala. I have always believed that accepting Federation and Bajoran assistance would weaken us as individuals, as a people and a culture, make us liable to accept Federation values and later, after recovery, agree to an alliance with that union, even though it would be detrimental to our interests. Now you have the evidence for this development: I, a loyal officer, have faltered due to the nefarious influence of the Federation….."

"You have lived among non-Cardassians for too long, have been influenced without even realizing it…"

"Unfortunately, and I submit to interrogation and re-educative measures when this is over, no matter how … unpleasant they may be," Melset stated. "I have seen the methods used more than once."

"And, my dear Melset, it pains me to inform you that the process will be quite lengthy in your specific case."

The others listened to the two Cardassians with growing concern until they realized that they were indulging in their own form of humor.

"We strongly advise station security to refrain from hindering us in performing our duty; only warn the inhabitants of the station in case of danger. No one is to interfere unless expressly authorized to do so. Is this understood?" The phrasing of Okala's directions hinted that she would not tolerate any questions or interference. "You will be kept informed about every phase, however."

"I'll have your skin if there is the slightest damage to the station or if any of its inhabitants are harmed," was Kira's warning.

"My respected Commander, if something goes catastrophically wrong your plan could prove quite difficult to realize," was Okala's unsmiling reply which had the Bajorans exchange worried glances when they understood the implications of her words.

With that, the conversation such as it was, was over. Kira accompanied the two Cardassians to the Promenade where they noticed a number of Bajorans who were trying to hide the fact they were waiting to see what would happen to the snake who had been arrested.

"I regret the incident, Gul Melset," Kira said, loudly enough for the listeners to hear. "An anonymous warning came in, informing Chief Remosi that you had been attempting to enter both Starfleet and Bajoran records to plant forged information with the goal of undermining relations. Fortunately your comrade had exonerating evidence."

"Ah, yes, an apology," was Melset's sneering reaction. "Very convenient after the fact, isn't it. Unfounded accusations are leveled at us. If a plot is uncovered? It is ascribed to us, the vipers, as you persist in calling us. Whatever suspicions arise, they are considered fact because we are Cardássians. In the interest of continued cooperation, we accept your apology. This time. Good day, Commander Kira." With that, Okala and Melset turned to leave for their respective quarters, their stance arrogant, resentful.

The Commander watched them depart, went back to Ops. What do they expect after our peoples' history? The change she had noticed in Melset since some days before Okala's arrival still disturbed her even though the conversation in Security had given an explanation of sorts. She had become unapproachable in spite of her readiness to cooperate, kept to her Cardassian colleagues. Is this how she really is? Is her friendliness, her respect for us and other offworlders only an act? She no longer seems at all trustworthy, much to the contrary, even though we have to work together in face of this threat, and – where is Garak anyway?

Making Contact

Two days later, the two Cardassian women were sitting close together on the broad rim of a viewport so that they could speak without surveillance devices registering what they said, especially as they spoke very quietly. It was late station evening, the lights had already been dimmed, and the Promenade was nearly empty except for five or six late customers who were leaving Quark's to go to their quarters.

Using Kelani Cardassian, Okala murmured, "The incident the other day should encourage the members of the True Way who have witnessed it to make their move soon. Both the arrest and the insults were a public humiliation none of us, whether officer or civilian would ever forget, let alone forgive."

"Indeed. I have established background stories with a range of conflicts, and will select whichever one seems the most suitable. The arrest is, as Andrews would say, 'the last straw', serious enough to make me consider recruitment if offered the option; two or three of the Bajorans who were watching procedures could be True Way, but I know there are more because since my alerting Remosi, Security informs me about the results of the scans, transmits the visuals to the terminal in my quarters and I share the data," was the reply, given in the same low pitch.

Alerted at hearing approaching footsteps that stopped nearby, Melset looked over at the neighboring viewport, and said, her intonation friendly, "You're late, Kano. Overtime yet again?"

Embarrassed at having been caught trying to listen in on their conversation, he nodded, "Yes, a sudden request for reports on sensor systems; you know how long that takes, was walking around a bit to clear my mind," with that he walked past the two, looked back once.

"Ah, I must not forget, I have this from Setra Baydan," Melset reached into her pocket and took out something that seemed to him like a sample of very fine cloth studded with barely visible ornaments. "Look at this work."

Covertly watching Kano leave, Okala reached over to take the alleged cloth to examine it closely before commenting in admiration, "That embroidery must be of Saranji origin. Their traditional needlework is remarkably intricate. Each ethnicity has preserved its own form of this craft throughout generations. As a Kelani you surely have seen examples of sefrak brocade, embroidery and atiko."

"Indeed. The production of Keneteh print in Ubari Province is another skill we have to preserve. Our cultural diversity..., from folk art to our most revered creations, our entire heritage. The task is overwhelming."

"What can be saved, will be. Surviving ethnographers are..."

In the meantime Kano had slowly gone down the stairs and entered one of the corridors to the habitat ring. Wouldn't have expected Cardassian women to discuss handicraft….

As soon as he was out of sight, Melset changed the subject. "When the Promenade is crowded, I can easily make physical contact with our friends." She held up a minuscule applicator. "You don't feel these nanotransmitters penetrate your skin; they cause no irritation, nor can they be accidentally removed as they have barbs, so hands or forearms are perfectly suitable."

Okala handed it back to her, saying, "Mission initiated; now to wait. In our experience, you have a gift for establishing scenarios suitable for your and our purposes." She turned to face her, "However, I want to make one thing absolutely clear, my dear Melset. We want those elements alive. Is... this...clear?" She stressed every word, her dark eyes met and held her colleague's glance. "Stunned or drugged? Fine. Injured? Acceptable as long as they are still able to answer questions to our satisfaction. Losses due to your actions will see you sentenced for insubordination."

"Of course. These traitors have the information we need to eliminate if not all, but most of what remains of their organization. Working towards that goal is my revenge. The Order will get those I capture alive; I am only disappointed that you have not included me among their interrogators."

"We already have made plans for their immediate future. The information we extract from them is to be shared with you." Okala got up to leave, saying, "It may be advisable to prepare for the next shift which begins in five hours. We meet at your quarters."

The reply was a nod of agreement.

On their way to SFHS the next station morning, they noticed a male Cardassian at the Replimat, a civilian, who repeatedly looked over at them.

"Have you seen Nadroy yet?"

"Last month he reported to the Loo'Wess Bureau of Resettlement to register plans for a new settlement in Saranji Province."

"That area was exceedingly fertile and the fishing industry highly developed…."

"It still is, fortunately, as is the case in my home province. Under circumstances you may meet him while on home leave in some weeks; he should enjoy discussing his projects with you."

Both women had the same impression of the male. It would appear he is one of the moles, Melset signed. Okala inclined her head in agreement.

They nodded a greeting to the members of SFHS when they entered Melset's office and briefly closed the door.

"You can soon put your cover story to the test."

"After a few meetings have confirmed that he is the mole."

As expected, the civilian addressed Melset when her shift was over and introduced himself as Jotrak. "I recognized you at once. You are Gul Melset, the commander of the Orissà when I had my first experience of shipboard life."

"As I recall, you were stationed at Navigation."

"Upon my return planetside I was accepted at the Military Academy." He shrugged, "And now? I am to initiate a new project: organizing a team to remove hazardous organic material from a laboratory slated to be razed prior to rebuilding."

"All of us, working for the reconstruction of Cardassia."

"Everyone doing his or her part, and be it the removal of contaminants." He met her glance, held it.

The reaction was a barely noticeable gesture. [Understood]

"An essential project. They are even discovered in areas we supposed had been cleared." She got up, "I still have some work to do. How long will you be on-station?"

"For roughly a week, then I get my orders."

Unbeknownst to him, the short conversation had been recorded. That same evening, Okala and Melset obtained his personnel file from the Order, which pointed to his story's being a front. He was who he said he was, but had not qualified for the Military Academy, so had opted for the civilian branch of service as the Order was called by operatives.

"The next phase …" Okala said, and Melset nodded once in agreement. Both knew what Jotrak's arrival and project meant and were prepared.

Deception and Recruitment

After a few meetings, he invited her to Quark's for old time's sake.

Shortly before, the owner of the establishment had told Kira of having been threatened by Melset after talking to her as he usually did. "All I wanted was to find out what was wrong, offer her a glass of kanaar and a friend to confide in," he complained. "Her reaction? As nasty and potentially brutal as any Cardassian soldier's during the Occupation."

They settled at a table on the upper level; within moments Broik came to take their orders.

"I owe you much for your advice that time which gave me the option of choosing the branch that best suited me before having to experience the humiliation of being declared unfit for military service."

That, Jotrak, is the hint I needed. The glinns advise the recruits, and submit both evaluations and their proposals to the Guls. You are an Order plant, a mole, but the faulty back story shows which roles we are to play. Your cover is that of a recruiter for the True Way. She nodded once. "It was my duty."

No more needed to be said.

The rest of the conversation was restricted to conditions on Cardassia, the assistance received, setbacks and successes before they left to look at the arboretum Mrs O'Brien had planted; a Bajoran gardener was tending to it now. No one else was there, so he commented, "A Gul working for SFHS, a Starfleet organization, is rather unusual. Your Cardassian staff consists of civilians who are more liable to be influenced than Military or Order."

Melset quickly looked around, checking for listeners, then said, "We keep to ourselves, thus reduce exposure to the ways of our colleagues. They have the custom of what they call 'business lunches'. We join, as the discussions further effective cooperation but that is all. And why I am here? One word: Extortion."

"Since when do Cardassians cede to pressure by Federation institutions?" Jotrek stared at her in disbelief.

"Under the right circumstances from the perspective of those exerting the pressure." Slightly spread neck membranes and the sibilant undertone in her speech hinted at resentment.

"Ah? But we became allies of sorts when we turned against the Dominion's forces."

"If you have power over someone, you use this power to enforce compliance."

"Starfleet ethics... forgotten when convenient," he tilted his head slightly to the side, indicating curiosity.

"At the time of The Defeat I was on Earth, deployed by Central Command to an institute for comparative studies of cultures in the UFP and of some non-aligned planets. However, a Cardassian citizen is bound by oath to return to Cardassia at once if the Union is in danger."

He nodded.

"I got passage on a Klingon vessel, but its Captain was directed to beam me down here. Arrest, court martial for going A.W.O.L. followed. The sentence? Ten years in a Federation penal colony. The commanding officer of SFCCEI managed to have the sentence commuted to ten years at SFHS on Treok Nor; I was given a Federation transponder to preclude escape. Our precept of 'Duty to Cardassia supersedes all'? Declared invalid as Central Command had deployed me to SFCCEI: 'You didn't receive new orders'. From whom after The Defeat? Tell me that, Jotrak!" In a very low voice, she said, "My only defense was summarily rejected."

Jotrak gazed at the woman, evaluating her, recognized her desperate urge to return to Cardassia, work alongside her fellow Cardassians. "You are helping Cardassia here as one of the heads of SFHS-Deep Space 9."

"That is what I am told every day. But my position could be filled by civilians. Look at my team: one former administrator, a construction worker/foreman, an architect, all of them, even the non-Cardassians, excellent in organization." She said with a derisive undertone, "I must return to my post. Don't want to end up in that penal colony after all..."

Satisfied with the scenario, the male watched her leave and smiled faintly in approval. Good background story and acting, very convincing. Extremely dissatisfied with the status quo, under pressure by her taskmasters, all of them non-Cardassians. He left in turn, nodded affirmation at a Bajoran who had been observing the conversation, listening in. Desperate enough to join the True Way after the incident on the Promenade; we can proceed.….

At SFHS, she met Okala's glance at entering her office, uttered a brief hiss before settling down to work and called up the files, fidgeting impatiently.

Her colleague inclined her head very slightly, as though pleased about the project that appeared on screen, transmitted it to the other members. She got up and whispered, "There is one more detail," as she took out an injector and pressed it against the side of Melset's neck to insert a Federation transponder under a neck scale.

"Plan may still fall through if condition of subsoil is not optimal."

"There are alternative suggestions that can be realized, thus avoiding delays in implementation."

Only seconds later, she showed Okala a tiny transmitter: it was receiving a Federation signal; Phase 1 implemented. The two operatives began their work….

Two starships and a shuttle had arrived so that there was a sizable crowd in the docking ring, permitting Jotrak and his fellow True Way colleagues to meet, pretending to wait for friends, respectively to go on board.

"The military may well be a potential member. Is working for SFHS under duress. Unacceptable situation for a true Cardassian. Resentful."

"Seems very friendly with staff and the station commander."

"Not after the incident you witnessed."

"No risks. A weak link? Mission fails, survivors identified, interrogated, information extorted, confessions, execution."

"No. I have prepared for a worst-case development." As if impatient, he lifted his hand slightly, briefly revealing a minuscule container; they nodded once when he said, "They will be distributed just before we take up position."

"In another day or two I expect to find out exactly how strongly she wishes to end this situation," Jotrak said, adding, "and will address the subject of recruitment."

The crowd slowly dispersed, the members of The True Way among them.

This specific meeting had been recorded by a surveillance device, the scene observed in Chief Remosi's office; the Security Chief immediately notified Kira who went over to SFHS. Minutes later, Remosi joined her in Melset's and Okala's office to show them the recording. At once, they began analyzing the individuals' gestures and lip movements.

"Interesting," was Melset's comment when they had worked out what was being said and signaled.

"Ah, you are forced to work here and we despise each other?"

"You were quite convincing at my arrest on the Promenade. Most impressive," Suddenly, Melset startled the Commander by glaring at her, neck ridges tensed, before inclining her head with a slight smile, "Time to be recruited, don't you agree?"

Melset accompanied Remosi and Kira out of her office, "As you can see, there have been no unauthorized communications, nor have we modified any element of the program. Whoever alerted you is obviously attempting to discredit me."

"That remains to be seen."

Two days later, Jotrak saw Melset come over to meet him; together, they took a lift to one of the upper pylons.

"How was the shift?"

"Difficult. Observation has been stepped up so that I can hardly take a breath without it being registered."

He reached out, gently touched her arm, "What if you were offered the possibility of escaping this situation?"

Her reaction was a look of disbelief. "A demand for my extradition would be filed before I could even get close to the Union, and there is this." She touched the area where the Federation transponder was implanted.

"Can be removed easily enough," he murmured, "and you could disappear into the general population, establish a new identity."

Melset looked up at him, obviously tempted, then said, "Remember I am being observed. If seen entering an airlock to board a ship? Immediate arrest. Even this meeting is a risk."

"We can take care of that. Have our people here." His voice very low, he inquired, "You have heard of The True Way?"

"Terrorists who demand a Cardassia for Cardassians alone and who have committed acts of terrorism on various planets, including Cardassia."

"What they want is a free Cardassia. Think of the non-Cardassian groups on our worlds, the Starfleet base on the outskirts of Loo'Wess, the NGOs training our people to work with Federation equipment, delivering goods. Look at yourself, my dear Melset: you and your Cardassian colleagues, obliged to cooperate with SFHS personnel: have you been able to avoid being influenced by them? Are you still the Cardassian Military you once were? Proud and arrogant, combative, prepared to defend the Union, the living proof of our inherent superiority? We risk losing our ways as a people. You risk losing your ways as an individual due to this pervasive offworld influence."

"How can we cope on our own at this stage? We risk delaying reconstruction, and how to protect ourselves from opportunistic system-grabbers?"

He pressed a button on his commband. "Orias…." he answered. "No one knows the shipyard has come through the war undamaged. And no one will. Order affair alone."

"Excellent. But reconstruction of our cities, our systems?"

"We will cope. We are Cardassians, with a history of faithful service to our Union. Do you want to return, work side by side with your equals to create the new Cardassia, the Cardassia it is meant to be? Strong, determined, independent, dynamic, with the indomitable will to revive its proud heritage and retake its place among the leading powers in the Quadrant?" With a motion of his head, he indicated the station, "...or remain here for another six years, a prisoner, your Cardassian pride systematically worn down by constant attacks, contempt and hatred?"

"I am a true Cardassian and will always be." Melset stated, "but it is true that my life here is a torment worse than exile, organizing generous assistance for other worlds and seeing my own receiving the bare minimum of aid," she retorted, her expression embittered.

"How do you decide? Are you with us?"

"I am with you."

Jotrak spoke into his communicator, "Donek and Kyrudo, Upper Pylon 1." He explained, "This has to be done before witnesses."

When they had arrived, he said, "Repeat after me: I, Gul Iníki Melset, swear to support The True Way in recreating Cardassia's sovereignty and power by all means at my disposal, swear to force each and every non-Cardassian off our worlds together with those of my people who have abandoned our way."

She did so, her voice firm, her expression determined, fanatic.

After this brief formality, she clasped forearms with the witnesses and added in a low voice, "Cardassia has given me life, thus is my life. I am prepared to give my very life to protect Cardassia from all who would harm her."

After joining the Terok Nor branch of the True Way, she was carefully observed by both station security and the infiltrators, but clandestinely cooperated with Kira and Remosi; in public, however, their interactions hinted at barely-disguised hostility and mutual contempt. Okala passed on the information Melset obtained during meetings and short conversations while fine-tuning the plans with the agents. At the same time, the two operatives established a fail-safe method of capturing the entire group on station, with Okala informing the Order, Remosi and the Commander about the strategy on which they had agreed.

To make her commitment credible to the members of The True Way, Melset now fully complied with Cardassian norm. Much in contrast to before, she associated only with her own people, no longer interacted with the offworlders on the team except professionally, even avoided them off-duty. They were disturbed at this development, but it did not influence their work in which close cooperation was a key element. However, the Cardassian they had grown to like, considered nearly a friend now seemed potentially threatening.

Once Selon took the risk and gently inquired, "Gul Melset, you have changed, are like a stranger; you no longer associate with us as you did before or even at SFCCEI. You have also been avoiding your acquaintances among the Bajorans living on station. Has something happened to cause this? Perhaps I can help you or make things right."

The response was an icy glare and the words, "This is none of your concern, Selon. We may be obliged to cooperate at SFHS, but I have not the slightest desire for contact with any member of the team outside of this installation, nor with any of the others." She marched away without another word.

He reported back to his colleagues, describing what had happened.

"If that's the way she wants it…" Galtor said hesitantly.

Nerada shook her head, "The entire situation is odd. I'm Betazoid, with our people's sensitivity to emotions and sense that Cardassian has literally raised a wall to shut us out, but there is no enmity. She may also be hiding something. Perhaps the arrest the other day provoked this change. Cardassians are a proud people."

Quark knew nothing either, only told them, "Those reptiles never confide in offworlders. If you're lucky, you'll find out. If not? Forget about it." he shrugged. Just the evening before, he had tried to speak to her again, but she had grabbed him by the collar to underline her threat, her expression furious, "You are here to provide service and entertainment on this station, Ferengi. Nothing more. Presume to overstep limits one more time, and you will pay. Do I make myself clear?"

Information And Procedures

"Melset."

The woman was alert at once, got up and put on basic uniform. "More information?"

"Yes," they went out into the living area. "This won't take long."

"Plan to short-circuit surveillance, sabotage weapons array and life support. Jotrak will beam up to an Order ship, leaving behind the altered members, of whom there may well be more than we think. Remember, there are backups here, also posing as Bajorans. And you…"

"The 'Bajorans' will be revealed for what they are, I arrested under suspicion of having planned the sabotage, thus drawing attention away from the mission."

"Not quite," Okala said, "After all, we want the information you have gathered. There are two sets." The women discussed the details they had accessed, but one element was still missing. So far, there were three alternatives which would have roughly the same outcome: either a detonation resulting in the destruction of key installations on-station, or restriction to sabotage alone, or even an extensive attack by infiltrators already in place both on station and on Cardassia.

"Sabotage of or attacks on sites where reconstruction is being effected with the help of offworlders? Either of these methods, if traced to the True Way, would see the departure of NGOs and Starfleet Humanitarian Service teams from the Union, thus realize their goal of Cardassia for Cardassians, much to our detriment at this time."

"Exactly. I have already alerted the Order. Surveillance has been increased, operatives stationed."

"Chief Remosi and the Commander have to be notified at once. Come."

Melset had already removed the panel accessing the conduits, slipped into the opening, followed by Okala.

Moving as fast as possible while trying to avoid making noise that could arouse suspicion, they made their way to Remosi's quarters, emerging in his living area.

He had heard the access panel fall and, concealed in the shadows, was ready for the intruder, phaser drawn. "Who are you and what are you doing here?"

"It's us, Melset and Okala."

"Lights."

"Disruption of systems is on their agenda, possibly an attack on the station." Okala outlined the alternatives they had found.

"When?"

"Still have to find out," was her answer. "You have Melset's Cardassian transponder frequency."

"Yes."

"Have it traced 26/26 as of tomorrow morning. Ah, yes, it is my turn to be arrested just before the plan is to be set into motion so that I can give you additional details if necessary. I'll be trying to enter a restricted area. Two security officers, different ones this time, are to take me to your office. As of that moment do exactly what I tell you." He listened with increasing apprehension. "Once again, do not interfere with procedures."

"The groups will be directed to various areas." Melset gave Remosi a miniaturized padd only used by the Order. "Here are the frequencies of the tracers I have attached to those True Way members with whom I have had contact; there have been repeated meetings of some minutes' duration in diverse areas of the station with shifting groups of individuals."

Remosi nodded and stored the frequencies, as well as the recordings of the conversations then initiated tracing before returning the device.

"They will take up position in groups of four individuals at most before starting their work. The difficulty is that Jotrak has obtained these…" she held up a container of capsules, "... to be distributed just before implementation. Order provenance. Bite capsule, quick death, rapid disintegration of body, just like a dead Changeling." With a look of mock innocence, she explained, "I have already seen to solving the problem. These are the lethal capsules."

Okala grinned, "Well done."

"I needed the practice.…" Once again serious, she added, "There are enough for 13 people, not counting Jotrak; if I was removed before, this would point to Order involvement, and you know what the result would be. When the field is activated I'll attempt to push through it as it can be penetrated for some seconds while forming. Contact with the force field has a marker all its own; details have been sent to your terminal and that of the Order."

This specific marker will automatically activate transporter systems, and beam the contents of those containment fields onto the cloaked ship that is waiting. Those few without nanotransmitters will be taken as well. I have seen to that. Okala kept this fact to herself.

"Now some last details as to tracing and capturing those terrorists… Just a moment..."

She took Melset aside. "You managed to lift the capsules Jotrak showed you and…?"

"Replaced them with identical capsules containing a strong sedative. Quite simple, really, with the appropriate distraction." Her eyes glittered with pleasure, "A pile of dust cannot be interrogated, can it? But someone who is sedated tends to wake up after some time, ready for processing. I have already contacted the Order. This may strain our resources as to specialists, but it is worth the effort..."

"There was a detail we had to decide on." Okala cautioned, "Absolute discretion. If those supervising the mission have the slightest suspicion that their plans have been discovered and their agents arrested, the remaining personnel of The True Way will disappear into the general population and resume their activities the moment they feel safe. Parallel action here and in the Union."

"What is to happen to the agents?" Remosi inquired.

"Ah, Chief Remosi, We'll leave that to your very fertile Bajoran imagination, especially as you know what Cardis do to their prisoners. Those agents arrested in the Union will be submitted to the same experience. We believe in equal rights for all prisoners. I will request the heads of our department give you the information we extract in case of future incidents."

The Security Chief gave her a surprised glance: Cardassians, especially Order Cardassians offering to share information was a first in his experience.

The three of them sat down together and agreed on procedure within minutes.

"Notify the Commander. Remember: Absolute discretion. I'll see you in Security tomorrow, Chief," said Okala as she slipped into the conduit, Melset following her.

Remosi replaced the panel, straightened and shook his head. Those vipers certainly have a comprehensive set of skills, even unconventional ones. He padded off to bed, then lay staring up at the ceiling for some minutes, worried about what would happen within a matter of hours or days. May as well contact the Commander at once. She has to know about this. He got up and sent a priority message to Kira, requesting she report to his office first thing in the morning.

Initiate Operations

With some trepidation Remosi went to his office early station morning and had hardly sat down behind his desk than he saw Kira arriving. Her stance showed that she was as worried about developments as he.

"Had two visitors last night," he murmured.

"Let me guess: Okala and Melset." Kira looked at him, her eyes reflecting her distrust and concern. "What is going on anyway? For which side are they working? Since the Minos Korva incident, Melset behaves as though she was on Cardassia. Both she and Okala are arrogant, suspicious, treat most non-Cardassians with contempt, and I have heard from Selon that Melset has only been associating with her compatriots lately. I know her as a much different, open-minded person."

"So do I…," Remosi continued, pensively. "I think this is part of the plan. Whom would you try to recruit? A person who resents being where she is forced to be, or one who is thankful for the possibility of organizing aid for her people even though she is far from home? One who appreciates contact with off-worlders?"

He gave Kira a report on what he had been told the evening before and concluded with, "We effect preparations immediately. Tracers already attached to members of The True Way on station and activated. I have registered the frequencies; containment fields in the corridors have to be ready for activation. There is no leeway whatsoever for errors or delays. The moment the alarm goes off, and that is once sensors indicate the presence of people with tracers in critical areas, those fields have to be raised."

"And the Order can pick up a set of sedated vipers; they have orders to swallow those capsules if something goes wrong. However," said Kira, "what effect the combination of sedation and impact with the forcefield has is unknown."

"She accepts the risk. If she didn't or if she was removed just before, this could have unforeseen consequences, even disrupt the mission. Melset has to remain with them until the group is captured. Remember, there are further members waiting on the promenade and in various other places. Okala has transmitted the frequencies of their tracers to the Order. Escape, a spontaneous attack, anything is possible. When those fields are up, our role in the operation has been completed. The rest is in the hands of the Order."

"Never thought we would be cooperating with that lot," said Kira. "So we don't have to arrest them. The Order will."

Remosi laughed. "The enemy of my enemy is my friend. This enemy has been decimated, weakened, but that makes it all the more dangerous."

Kira nodded in agreement and left for Ops. Any time now….

There was another meeting, this time near Medana's shop, where Jotrak and Melset were assured of having witnesses of their exchange. The conversation would distract from the minuscule hand signals with which they conveyed last important details.

"Talsvar Kardassú!"

[In ten hours. Sensors activated, corridors unobstructed.]

She answered with the same greeting, and added, "So, you are departing for Loo'Wess tomorrow." [Three groups of four, equipment ready]

"Indeed. Have to report to the Kedara." [Good. The others on the Promenade, near Security]

"I must leave. Am under constant observation, especially when together with a fellow Cardassian." [In ten hours precisely everyone in place]

"I understand. Inclining his head in a gesture of respect, he handed her a padd with a quick glance over at Security. [This is for the Commander and Security. Order ship waiting, cloaked, to beam up True Way.]

Her eyes widened slightly with pleasure, "I appreciate your getting me Cardassian literature. That of the Federation is entirely too bland and simplistic."

"Enjoy, Gul Melset."

[Imagine, you'll be captured with them]

She entered SFHS to take up her work after a perfunctory greeting for the team and briefly discussed a new project with her fellow Cardassians. Unnoticed, she laid the padd on the terminal, transmitted the additional data to Remosi and Commander Kira, then gave it to Okala and set to work. Now to wait.

Some hours later, there was another distraction on the promenade for passersby to watch and discuss.

One of the Cardassians left the Bureau of SFHS, went into a corridor, then entered a conduit through which she attempted to reach a restricted area. She was promptly arrested by security officers who had been alerted by Remosi. Okala calmly submitted to arrest and let the men take her to Security, but anyone could recognize her outrage about being arrested.

"Second incident within days. Those snakes should be kept off the station," a woman commented to her acquaintance.

"You and I would, but our peoples have signed a treaty, which means they can go wherever they want."

"Not a good idea. First that one head of SFHS, who was later given a public apology, and now this temp. I say that is suspicious… what are they up to?"

"Don't know. Nothing we can do but hope station security gets to the bottom of whatever it is."

In the adjunct to the holding area, Okala and Remosi watched the 'Bajorans'' signals move along the corridor to be joined by two more, then a third. The same was happening in two other areas which were under intensive surveillance.

"Exactly as planned," murmured Remosi, "But where is Melset?"

"Ah, finally. Cardassian frequency. That's her."

"She's late."

"On purpose. Made use of a short break to join. It would be suspicious if she just left in the middle of the shift and was seen entering that area."

The group to be accompanied by Melset was becoming impatient. "Late by six minutes. This must be a trick, sabotage."

"No, there she is."

"Held up by Security. Get going, second passage to the left."

Hurrying, but not so much that they would arouse attention, they moved towards their station to wait for the signal indicating that the others were at their posts and ready.

Remosi's deputy, Elgor, got Remosi and himself a cup of Raktajino, and redleaf for Okala who smiled up at him, "I appreciate this."

Surprised at acknowledgment by the Cardassian, he replied, "You're welcome, Major Okala."

A short burst of static came over the commbadge of the other two group leaders. Jotrak's command was the same for all three units, "Take assigned positions, you know what you have to do."

The teams spread out slightly to avoid arousing suspicion, seemed more like groups of friends returning to quarters after their shift.

"Movement… towards power, weapons array, sensors. The groups ready and waiting. It was a good idea to effect installation of separate power sources for all three when the Federation took over…" commented Retto. "All together would potentially see us defenseless."

"Moreover, simultaneous disablement of these units could short out even emergency power, taking down the force field around the station for a longer period, leaving us open to attack.."

In the corridor, Melset indicated a panel, carefully removed it, examined the connections for the modifications her group had made, nodded once in approval. "Security code input. Only have to disconnect...", when one of the group grasped a cable, she exclaimed with a hiss of warning,"No! Were you asleep when we reviewed procedure? Touching that connection trips alarm…" Her warning came seconds too late. A series of bluish flashes then, suddenly, the glitter and hum of a containment field being formed. "Out! Now!" Trying to escape with the group before it stabilized, Melset rushed at the forcefield, nearly got through but was too late, impacted against it and was thrown to the floor, unconscious, curled up, in shock.

Elgor reported, "Containment fields activated!"

"What's this?" exclaimed Retto, who was responsible for the fields. "They held prisoners just seconds ago and now… no one at all!" Frantically, he began examining the program's settings.

At the same time, station alert went off; the Promenade began emptying as people streamed towards the safe areas closest to them, so focused on getting to safety that they did not notice some of their number disappear. Minutes later, the Commander announced via communications, "Station alert lifted. Malfunction of alarm."

"Your role in this mission has ended," was Okala's statement. "Well done."

The group in Remosi's area relaxed perceptibly.

She turned to the officer who was still trying to find out what had gone wrong and touched his shoulder. "Do not be concerned, Lieutenant Retto, there was neither a malfunction, nor did you make an error. The prisoners are now aboard an Order ship, exactly as planned."

The group went to the annex of the brig, where communications had activated.

"Beam-up effected. Fourteen individuals taken. Nine more beamed out of the Promenade during station alert. Eleven taken from the stolen shuttle which was to impact with one of the upper pylons, destroying it and part of the docking ring," was the report given by the operative captaining the Order's Hideki class ship.

Remosi switched to visual. "Condition?"

"All individuals beamed up from the station are alive, but sedated. One operative is in sickbay, being treated for shock due to contact with the containment field in combination with the effects of the sedative. The other?" The operative moved aside to reveal Jotrak.

"But he…" Remosi fell silent at Jotrak's barely noticeable gesture.

"Your station Cardassian, as some of you call her is scheduled to return to her duties at SFHS within five days. Formalities to be effected on Cardassia first," explained Jotrak. "Roval is on board, ready for beam down to resume his work at once." He quickly touched some surfaces on his terminal, "Ah, yes, I nearly forgot, you are authorized to make the information I have just transmitted public knowledge on Deep Space 9, at SFHS-HQ, and share it with Bajoran as well as Federation security; it will also further Melset's reintegration after this affair. The supplement can be accessed by anyone with security clearance level five and over."

Remosi glanced through the report and looked up, so astonished about what he had read that he could not quite conceal his annoyance, "That is the most blatant falsification of facts I have ever seen!"

"My dear Security Chief Remosi, you should be aware of the fact that truth is no absolute; it can take many forms and always remains open to interpretation. This is our view of what happened. Be strong! Jotrak out."

Those lying spoonhead vipers! Still irritated, he stared at the now-blank screen. That piece of fiction I have been given… No doubt the names Jotrak and Okala are aliases too.

Okala recognized his irritation and explained with unusual candor, "Chief Remosi, The True Way is a serious danger to all of us, thus must be eliminated at all costs. Conditions after The Defeat made it easy for them to recruit new members among the desperate. They are terrorists far worse than your Resistance was, pose a threat not only to their own people but also to the non-Cardassians in the Union and wherever my people is in contact with others. I am quite sure you will be able to find enough reports about their activities without having to invest too much of an effort. Tell me, Chief Remosi, what do you know about the ker'tadj?"

"A parasite that burrows under the skin, causes septicemia and death in advanced cases. If even one segment survives therapy, the parasite regrows. Multiplies even faster. Cauterization is the only effective cure."

"Wouldn't you agree that this is a perfect description of The True Way?" She inclined her head, smiling, "That fiction as you call it is necessary to keep its members from discovering our operatives who have infiltrated their group. And, even better, it puts the blame for the fiasco on the organizers of the mission, leading to reprisals. 34 lost members make quite a difference, so the instigators of the plot may just see their careers come to a sudden, permanent end." With that, she returned her Bajoran commbadge to the Chief with a gesture of respect and struck her commband. "One to beam up" and disappeared in the shimmer of beaming.

Mission Accomplished

On the ship, Melset slowly regained awareness, heard the hum of a Cardassian medical scanner. … severe headache, vertigo, slight nausea, feel stiff, as though I had been exposed to very low temperatures... why do I nearly always end up in Sickbay… She tried to move but felt extremely weak, so did not repeat the experiment, but listened to the ambient sounds before opening her eyes. Everything blurred, indistinct… When her vision fully cleared, she saw an Order doctor; her fellow operative, Okala, was at his side.

"This will reduce the remaining after-effects of both the shock and the sedative." Doctor Orad pressed a hypospray against her neck. "No exertion, Melset," he cautioned, placing a hand on her shoulder, "The strong sedative in addition to the discharge from the containment field when you impacted against it caused cardiac arrest; you had to be reanimated, the sedative filtered out of your system. Just listen for now. Okala has positive news which may interest you."

Her response was a slight nod.

"The mission was a success, Major. Before beaming up, I spoke to your Bajorans about the mission; they will receive commendations for exemplary cooperation with a former enemy to achieve a common goal once inquiries and formalities have been completed," she stated.

"Their assistance was crucial in this mission," Melset managed to whisper.

Okala continued her report then left. "I will return shortly."

A medic scanned her after half an hour and said, "You can sit up now; your colleague is on her way back."

With the medic's help she managed to do so, waited for renewed dizziness to pass. "How many members were taken?" she inquired when Okala came in.

"All fourteen, in addition to nine on the promenade, eleven on a commandeered Bajoran shuttle. The plan was to destroy an upper pylon and part of the docking ring, then attack surviving residents of the station."

Melset's eyes glittered with satisfaction. "I take it they are lined up for interrogation?"

"Their interrogators are already waiting. Extracting information will begin within an hour of arrival." Okala smiled faintly when she said, "There will be no trial; a reliable source has informed their peers that, due to a marked lack of professionalism, they failed in their mission and committed suicide, preferring to die rather than be captured and face execution. A most regrettable loss of personnel."

Pretending annoyance, Melset commented, "Together with their information..."

"You and Jotrak are scheduled to spend two days on Cardassia Prime to present your reports on the mission. All we require of you now is some more acting." She held out an arm to support her fellow operative.

"How is it?"

Melset got to her feet, took a few steps. "Only residual weakness."

She turned to Dr. Orad who was observing her, made a gesture of thanks.

He inclined his head, "It was my duty. I'll check on you when you are in quarters; rest before beginning your report."

With a soldier guarding Melset as though she was one of the agents, they entered the adjoining area where Jotrak was removed from a cell; the group then went past the members of the True Way who watched them leave the brig.

Outside, Okala explained, "The usual precautions: the agents are in separate cells to prevent their agreeing on details that would disguise certain facts. You and Jotrak will spend transit in crew quarters. Be strong!" she turned to the soldier, "Recruit Kengal, take over."

He saluted and gave the operatives official padds before accompanying them to their respective cabins.

From first contact with Jotrak to the capture of the agents. When she had finished, Melset carefully reread her account of events, adding details. Cannot find any error of judgement; cooperation with Chief Remosi and the Commander was essential. In spite of having participated in missions more than once, she was apprehensive. The tiniest error can mean disaster. A moment later, Melset uttered an amused hiss. Our 'arrest' makes it seem to the members of The True Way that we will share their fate, possibly a worse one as we have broken our oath to serve Cardassia unfailingly.

Once the Kedara arrived in orbit of Cardassia Prime, both prisoners and operatives were beamed down to an underground level of Order Headquarters connected to Central Command's provisional base by an underground passage. The members of The True Way were registered, transferred to another area, but not before hearing Sontara's order, "Take charge of Majors Jotrak and Melset. Those traitors' interrogation begins immediately. Their trial and public execution have already been scheduled."

Four Order troops, phasers aimed at the operatives, shouldered their way past the agents who were being removed while Sontara waited; when the last individual had been taken away, she ordered the troops to stand down.

"Your identification of the agents has been corroborated by scans effected on the Kedara. You will submit the padds containing your observations and analyses of procedure to your supervisors; interrogation of the captives begins at once." Indicating the terminals at the other end of the room, she offered, "Feel free to access information on developments. You will be called within twenty minutes."

It was Dejar who came for Melset. Accompanied by a guard, they walked through the brig; the first members of The True Way had already been removed for questioning. "You traitor," Dejar hissed, "We have extracted the first confessions and you have been implicated of aiding and abetting terrorists in each one."

The soldier accompanying them shoved Melset repeatedly, and, to make it all credible, added a kick or two for good measure, but not hard.

We have preserved the tried and true. Apparently resigned to her fate, she showed no reaction to the faked ill-treatment. Prisoners slated to be processed were always allowed to see what would happen to them in turn, except for the final phase of the process. Apprehension reduces resistance.

A last, violent shove had her stagger into a large office; astonished, she looked around. This is supposed to be an interrogation chamber?

"Activate your padd, Major." Dejar pulled out chairs for Melset and for herself.

While the data was being transferred to the Order's central computer for analysis, she explained, "As you already know, the mission was a success, inflicted a substantial loss of manpower and material on the True Way. On Minos Korva, elimination of 178 members of the lower echelons and all but two of the leaders, survivors arrested; Terok Nor? Another 34 members including backup personnel taken. Five other parallel missions have also been completed."

Taken by surprise at the scope of operations, Melset inquired, "How many members does this terrorist organization have anyway?"

"A few hundred, but we are currently making substantial inroads. One mission is underway on Pentath IV even as we speak. Accounts of the crimes The True Way has committed against Cardassia are being transmitted for public viewing accompanied by propaganda to discourage potential recruits." Dejar relaxed slightly and changed the subject, "I assume you are not too disappointed about not being scheduled for interrogation, my dear Major?"

The reply was tinged with a pretense of regret, "In fact, I was wondering whether the Order has developed new methods of interrogation parallel to its new statutes." She smiled derisively, "Imagine, a kinder, gentler Order…. How very pleased the Federation would be about our adopting some of its principles!"

"As you may have seen, the tried and true is still valid," was the reply. "But some slight changes have been made to speed up interrogation without sacrificing effectiveness. By the way, the capsules Jotrak had were identical to those with which you replaced them. Allowing those traitors to commit suicide would have been a waste of valuable information, don't you agree?"

"Yes, the thought did occur to me; however I decided to err on the side of caution to prevent such an outcome."

"Always in the interests of Cardassia…"

"What other interests can there be in connection with a mission?"

"None, only fulfillment of duty."

"I have requested treatment with a psychotropic drug to recover crucial details; sedatives or medical procedures tend to influence memory."

"Dr. Orad has given us the go-ahead. That method has to be effected in another area in case of complications." She turned to the guard, "Have Medic Başak report to Room 202."

Together, they went down another flight of stairs and entered a room only furnished with a chair that looked very comfortable, a desk, another chair for the interrogator and a recording device.

The medic directed Melset to sit down, gave her the injection and stepped back. At once a containment field surrounded her.

This is interesting: Unconsciousness not induced like during my interrogation by Tain and Garak some years ago… within seconds, her mental controls weakened, were eliminated and she felt a brief access of fear, nearly panic at realizing that not even the slightest detail could be held back. The questioning started: Question, answer, question, answer...

When it was over, Dejar inquired, "Now, my dear Melset, what impression do you have of this specific change?"

"Most disturbing. A total loss of control over thought processes in spite of the mental disciplines learned during Military and Order training remains the goal of this treatment. The subject answers questions automatically, while fully conscious of his or her inability to conceal anything or even remain silent. The drug-induced feeling of panic serves to accelerate the process. This phase took roughly three hours?"

Basak nodded once in agreement. "Correct. Commander Dejar and I thought you would appreciate comparing the two variants. Consciously experiencing the process is far more effective as the humiliation of being helpless further reduces resistance."

Her terminal activated and Dejar quickly read the report that scrolled down the monitor. "It may interest you to hear that Jotrak's report tallies with yours. Ah yes, Jotrak, you and Okala will receive commendations for your success in this mission."

Melset only slightly inclined her head in acknowledgment. Duty to Cardassia is to be fulfilled no matter what the cost. Or reward.

"Apart from seriously weakening The True Way, this mission was relevant for our demands on personnel. You are Military and Order-educated; after behavioral modification in preparation for your mission at SFCCEI you cooperated and associated intensively with non-Cardassians, still do, even formed friendships with them; but you are faithful to our way alone, have not been influenced. This method can be retained."

The door opened to admit a guard, "Commander Dejar, Organizer Garak wishes to speak with you."

No! This … cannot be! I was told the operatives were killed… She was tempted to turn around to make sure she had heard correctly but remained impassive, fully in accordance with Order expectations.

"I have the results of preliminary questioning of our captives. All but two confessed at once and in greatest detail after being promised re-education and a lighter sentence…." She could imagine his expression when he added, "We were true to our word: immediate execution to prevent renewed infractions as well as abbreviation of processing. The final indignity? They died as Bajorans, no disrespect meant towards those who cooperated with us."

He sat down next to Melset, waiting.

"Garak, you will accompany Legate Ceklan to his preliminary meeting with General Maradi of the Bajoran Militia in its Headquarters in Bajor's capital as an observer. He will present the general with a detailed report on this past mission whose success depended on cooperation with the Bajoran staff of Terok Nor. Negotiations to expand cooperation are slated to begin. Our common goal is to counter a threat that endangers both the Union and Bajor, as well as our efforts to establish a lasting peace. The Legate, advised by Hogue and Ocett will discuss options with representatives of the Bajoran government and the Militia."

Handing him a padd, Dejar explained, "Guidelines on what may be divulged and what is strictly confidential. In case of infractions, you know what to do. Ceklan, Hogue and Ocett will subsequently return to Cardassia, whereas you, Garak, have a two-day stopover on Terok Nor to inform Commander Kira and her staff about the meeting."

She turned to Melset. "You will return to SFHS. The commander of SFHS-Earth has been informed about the reason for your sudden departure. He readily accepted your TDY, as he called it, said he knew that duty to Cardassia supersedes all then congratulated us on the mission's success. It would appear no one is suspicious."

"My efforts in the interests of the Union are effected with the greatest of discretion, and friendships serve to make gathering information that much easier."

"Of course." With that, she rose in dismissal. Garak and Melset followed suit, saluted and marched out as though they did not know one another.

Nadroy's proposal for an additional change to Order statutes may well be accepted. All of us have the discipline necessary to function on two discrete levels: both as Cardassian civilians and as Order Operatives.

She pensively gazed at the monitor that displayed activities in the corridor. Melset and Garak were walking side by side; as if by chance they briefly drew close, interlaced fingers before once again assuming the neutral stance of operatives.

With a faint smile, Dejar deleted a very few seconds from the visual record, then settled back for some moments, her right hand touching her abdomen protectively…

Returning to Normal

Commander Kira was in her office, concentrating on an element of her duties she disliked with a vengeance: administrative affairs.

She nearly thanked the Prophets when one of her officers contacted her, "Commander Kira, Cardassian ship approaching the station. Its commander wishes to speak to you.

It is best to have witnesses. Kira went down the stairs to Ops and saw a Cardassian military on-screen.

"Ah, Commander Kira. I am Gul Nadroy of the Kedara."

"What do you want?" was her reply.

"Nothing much, only permission to beam down personnel: an officer who is currently stationed at SFHS and recently participated in a mission. As you see, Commander Kira, no nefarious plans at all, unless of course you consider said officer a risk to station security."

Is that Cardássian trying to be funny? "Permission granted. As to the risk factor, I'll take the appropriate measures to counteract any danger said personnel might represent."

"A most wise decision." Gul Nadroy added, now serious, "I have been requested in the name of the Order to express gratitude to you and your colleagues for your cooperation which was a decisive factor in the success of our action against The True Way." He pressed a surface on his array. "Effect beamdown. Nadroy out."

The screen went dark as the ship accelerated before going into warp.

Melset arrived in Ops in the glimmer of materialization. For a moment she looked around then saw Commander Kira coming to meet her and saluted, "Gul Melset reporting for duty at SFHS."

"Welcome back to Deep Space 9, Gul. Mission accomplished?"

"Indeed. The agents we captured provided us with useful information that will advance our goal of eradicating their organization."

"And the agents themselves?"

"Ah, my dear Commander, would you believe they willingly shared everything they knew with their interrogators, and that in great detail after only minor encouragement? Most unfortunately though, they committed suicide soon after, so that they cannot serve as examples for what awaits those who would threaten the Union's integrity," stated Melset with a predatory smile.

The phrasing and the Cardassian's expression sent a chill down her back in spite of her knowing that Melset was a typical Cardassian though unusually tolerant of other peoples. I really don't want to know the details. "I'll notify SFHS that you are resuming duty as of the afternoon shift. My own shift ends an hour after yours. I suggest we meet at the Janitza Hills; I'll inform you about current station affairs."

The reaction was a friendly gesture and "This is most kind, Commander," as she shouldered her duffel and left for the habitat ring.

That one is like a Terran chameleon, but what else can be expected of a Cardassian? Untrustworthy, calculating, dangerous for anyone who seems a threat to Cardassia yet open to cooperation, relatively friendly and, admittedly, interesting company. Some weeks before, Ezri had joked that her contact with Melset was much like Garak's and Dr. Bashir's had been: a constant exchange of ideas, discussing conflicting points of view but also enjoying the challenge of finding the truth hidden behind hints and obfuscation. May as well get back to my paper-pushing...

On her way to quarters, the Cardassian entered the corridor to the habitat ring, but stopped in her tracks, hesitated. Jotrak said the report about the mission would facilitate my re-integration. I'll see how effective it is. She went to Quark's and leaned against the bar, staring at him coldly.

"What can I get for you, Gul Melset?" The Ferengi carefully avoided any gesture that could be misinterpreted.

"My dear Quark, I have a little present for you, courtesy of the Order. Feel free to make use of it in accordance with your Rules without worrying about being observed. You do not realize it, but you have been most helpful, thus this reward." She gave him a friendly smile and laid a padd on the counter.

He stared at it then at the Cardassian, uncertain about what she really meant. "Is this a … trap, Gul Melset? We were not on the best of terms when you left." When the Cardassian slowly straightened and approached, he got ready to duck under the counter and run for safety.

"Take it. I'm not going to harm you," she urged, pushing it towards him.

The Ferengi looked at her suspiciously for a moment longer before the idea of profit motivated him to check what was being offered; he quickly grabbed and activated the padd, stared at the display, his expression shifting from incredulous to pleased, then faced her. "For me to … develop as I like?"

"I think that is exactly what I said. Or do you doubt my sincerity?"

"No, by no means… No offense meant…" He made the Ferengi gesture of gratitude to which Melset responded in same, and rushed into a room to activate the terminal he fondly thought was unknown to all but the Ferengi on station.

Finally back in her quarters, Melset put her duffel on a chair and sat down, thinking, Participating in a mission to safeguard Cardassia's integrity, taking an important step towards her future is deeply rewardingI still possess the same determination and strength of purpose as before in spite of associating with offworlders, am prepared to complete the mission of an operative killed in the line of duty.

And … Garak is alive, will come to the station! We may taught sentiment is weakness, leads to vulnerability, but – Garak and I both serve Cardassia... In only a few more days!

After putting away the equipment given by the order, she pensively looked out the viewport. Four hours before I report back to SFHS. Best check what my team and staff have initiated or decided during the past week…

Later, on her way to work, she wondered how she would be received. As if it mattered. Only fulfillment of duty is relevant, not strange Federation ideas like atmosphere at work, staff interaction. The non-Cardassian staff had been very disquieted by her reverting into a fanatic, xenophobic Cardassian military, so different to the 'Cardi' they had thought they knew well.

At her entering, they stood at attention with a formal salute to which she replied in kind. I never demanded this! Like Cardassians. … remembering Lander's joking comment, she said. "I see you have been practicing. Good work. You only need the scales."

Staff exchanged relieved glances. Andrews gave her a short account, "Welcome back, Gul Melset. There have been no incidents, nor crises. A detailed report is on your terminal for you to read and approve." He risked adding, "No backlog for you to enjoy."

"This is most kind. I am resuming my duties as of now."

All staff were curious about the mission as they had only heard rumors about terrorist activities, but she was not free to reveal any details. May as well keep to the tried and true…. "When the situation on Cardassia has normalized, you should visit my own world. I'll be your guide, thus help you avoid any comments or questions liable to attract the attention of one of our most respected institutions."

"We'll certainly do so," was Selon's answer. "Business lunch at Quark's tomorrow. He's offering another special. Are you joining?"

"Certainly."

With that, the matter was closed.

Full uniform for a pleasant evening in the Janitza Hills restaurant? Not commendable..., she selected a traditional Kelani outfit and arranged her hair accordingly, looked at herself in the mirror. For some reason non-Cardassians consider me with less apprehension when I dress like a civilian.

When she arrived, Kira was already waiting, gave her a friendly wave. I really have to see the report the Order transmitted. It must be interesting to judge by how I am being received.

After they had chosen, she asked the Commander, "Do you by any chance have the report that was given you by Gul Jotrak at the end of the mission?

That so-called report is not worth the power needed to transmit the damn thing; all facts have been altered! Wordlessly, Kira handed Melset the data padd, watched the Cardassian very closely while she read it.

There was no reaction whatsoever apart from a nod of approval.

"Well, Gul Melset? What do you think about it?"

"It is the plain and simple truth, my dear Commander Kira, and a remarkably concise report," she replied with a grin, returning the padd, "Everything is back to normal. For now," then added, "Mission accomplished."