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Kalem Apren could have been perfectly content with his current lot in life. When he had been minister of Hedrikspool Province, before the average Bajoran even knew that there was a Cardassian Union, there was always a part of him that resented the responsibility that came with his birthright. He had never been like Kubus Oak, who relished his power so comprehensively that it had devoured him, landed him straight into the lap of a traitorous alien presence. No, Kalem had never been one to clutch and grapple at the authority of his D'jarra; he had always thought himself more like Jas Holza that way, content to simply wield his title and let his adjutants do most of the actual governing.
How times have changed, he thought grimly as he wandered through the afternoon marketplace at Vekobet, in the central region of Kendra Province. Kalem had never particularly cared for Kendra, and had often wondered why the Prophets arranged it that he would be here on business when the Cardassians first showed their true colors. It had been a chaotic time, frightening, infuriating, terrifying. He had offered to help reorganize civilians in the aftermath, with Jaro Essa and some of the other Militiamen on the scene -- those of the Bajoran homeguard who had not been killed or absorbed into the false Cardassian-sanctioned new government. And somehow, he had remained here for all these years. He was fairly certain now that he would die here, too, for his new wife was from Kendra, and she seemed to have no intention of leaving. What was there left for him in Hedrikspool anyway? Hedrikspool had lost more than half its population to the exodus, even before the soldiers had come; the government had effectively been taken over by Cardassian political "liaisons," with most of the older civilians falling in line and the younger running off to join the resistance or subsiding into apathy. Bajor didn't need politicians at the moment; it needed leaders.
So now that he lived out a simple life in Kendra Province, with a beautiful new wife and many friends, he could simply resign himself to having been plucked from that uncomfortable seat of responsibility and deposited here, to a time and place where a former politician's roles were much less complicated than before. He still had money and resources; though they had dwindled significantly, there was enough to keep him in relative comfort -- relative to the suffering elsewhere on his world. He still had residual influence among the people here, as much for his role in quieting citizens in the aftermath of the first attacks as for his former minister's seat.
But he could not accept his lot in life. He would not. He recognized now how much he had taken his position for granted in the past -- he could have done more, so much more to prevent his world's current circumstances. But there was nothing to be gained from regret; the only thing to do now was to plan the next step. Because, despite the pessimism of many, Kalem had to believe there would be a next step. It was the only thing that kept him moving.
People greeted him as he passed through the marketplace; a few even stopped to shake his hand. He met the eyes of a man about his own age, a man with a taut, malnourished visage and a pleading expression in his eyes. Please, Minister, his expression read, please assure me it's going to get better. Kalem smiled at the man, saying nothing, but his expression telling him what he wanted to hear. Just wait. Things will be different someday. Did any of them truly believe it? Kalem knew they couldn't possibly -- they simply repeated it to themselves to shut out the roaring insistence of defeat.
Passing through the marketplace, he found his way to the residence of Jaro Essa, who had been a major in Bajor's Militia before it had been disbanded. A great many were slaughtered in the early days of the Cardassian attacks, and the handful that were left put in a very quick surrender -- much to the chagrin of those like Jaro, who had been in favor of a military coup since long before the Cardassians had announced their formal annexation. If only Kalem and the others would have supported his position! But there was that regret again. Nothing to achieve from it now. The Militia was a distant memory, as was any semblance of real Bajoran government; Kubus Oak and the others were a mere panel of Cardassian pawns.
Kalem represented one of dozens of former politicians and leaders who had sunk into informal law-keeping positions, men and women who had simply taken charge of things at the right time to have fallen into permanent ad hoc positions that seemed to carry lifelong terms, for who else would fill their shoes? There were no elections, no formal designations -- only secret town meetings with the few Bajorans who weren't too despondent, who still saw the point in trying to maintain government at the provincial level. Time and again, the people of Kendra agreed that Kalem, Jaro, and a handful of other volunteers continued to do what they had always done -- which was to prevent complete chaos from taking over in the wreckage of their cities.
He stepped to the door of a small adobe home, which opened to his knock.
"Hello, Major," Kalem said.
"Minister," Jaro replied. It was foolish, perhaps, that they kept to their old titles when they spoke to each other, but some shared grain of stubbornness would not allow either to acknowledge for a moment that it wasn't entirely appropriate to do so. Kalem entered the house, and Jaro shut the heavy wooden door behind him, first peering outside as if it would truly ensure they were safe from the prying of collaborators.
"I received the communiqué from Jas Holza," Kalem informed Jaro as the old militia leader gestured for him to sit in a cracked leather chair coated in a thin layer of dust. Jaro was a bachelor, too busy with his informal adjutant position to keep his home especially tidy.
Jaro was taken aback. "Already? I thought he wasn't due to contact us until -- "
"A discrepancy with the calendar on Valo III. We still haven't adjusted it satisfactorily to coincide correctly with Bajor's. I suppose we've been too...preoccupied here to bother with such trivialities concerning the outlying colonies."
Jaro never bothered to acknowledge Kalem's acid sarcasm anymore. He sat down himself, in a chair nearly identical to Kalem's except that the seat was split open along lacy cracks, the stuffing coming out in tufts. Jaro's things had once been sturdy and expensive, but time took its toll. "What news did he have?"
Kalem frowned, feeling disgust as he related the information. "News we should have expected. Jas has managed to make himself out to be some kind of goodwill ambassador to the Federation. They have no idea what our real situation here is, and it doesn't sound as though Jas has any intention of clearing matters up for them. He's enjoying his status far too much to make waves."
Jaro nodded. "As I've been saying, Minister -- we can't rely on the Federation to help us. Perhaps it's better that we forge our plans without the consideration of fickle outsiders."
Kalem shook his head. "But if the Federation truly knew -- if we could make it plain to them what the Cardassians' presence here has become..."
"They won't listen," Jaro said firmly. "It's possible that Jas did try to tell them, Apren, but there simply wasn't anything they could do to stop it -- not within the realm of their own rigid code of sanctimonious laws. We must not pin our hopes on the Federation, or anyone else. There is only us."
Kalem resisted the urge to argue; it would get him nowhere -- they had been over this many times. "What about Keeve Falor?"
Jaro sighed heavily. "What about him?" he said. "My own attempts to reach him have still been mostly unsuccessful, and you tell me that you have had a similar experience."
Kalem nodded in reluctant acknowledgment. Jas Holza was easy to reach, just as long as he wanted to be reached. He still had money, still had influence in alien trade partnerships. He still had a few warp vessels that he somehow managed to keep under the Cardassians' notice -- the Union paid little attention to what went on in the Valo system, too far away to disrupt their own business ventures. But it was another matter for Keeve. Valo II had fallen into dire poverty -- the people there were struggling just to stay alive, to maintain a few strained trade relationships. If it hadn't been for Jas Holza, probably the Valo II settlers would have perished decades ago. A reliable comm system was the least of Keeve Falor's worries.
"We should keep trying," Kalem said. "We should tell Jas to connect us. Bajor needs strong voices, strong leaders who will be ready to do what it takes when the time comes. Keeve is someone I know we can count on."
"If the time comes," Jaro said.
Kalem shook his head. "Major," he said, "we cannot think that way."
Jaro's mouth tightened. "You're right, of course, Minister," he said faintly, but Kalem could clearly detect the brittleness in his tone. They had discussed such things often, but still, the years passed and so little had changed.
It will change, though, Kalem told himself. And we'll have to be ready.
They talked over a few local matters -- rationing their allotment of winter crops early this year, a minor boundary dispute between neighboring farms that they needed to resolve before the Cardassian "peacekeepers" got involved. After a time, Kalem rose to go, shaking the old Militia officer's hand as he left, considering the wisdom of his own dogged optimism as he stepped out into the gathering twilight. Of course, his beliefs were not far removed from Jaro's, but he could not bring himself to speak them aloud, even if Jaro could. Even if everyone else on Bajor could. There was logic in making preparations to guide Bajor in the aftermath of a Cardassian withdrawal, and even if he didn't quite believe that the Union would ever leave them, Kalem would keep moving, keep working to have everything ready. To stop, to hold still, was to welcome defeat.
The services at the would-be shrine had concluded some time ago, but Astraea remained behind, as she always did -- sometimes to speak to individual followers about their concerns, but just as often for her own contemplations.
She had fashioned a small chamber in the cellar of this old storehouse, in the heart of Lakarian City, to be a sort of office for herself. As the guide of her faith, she needed a place where she could counsel her followers, though it had been difficult for her to accept the authority of guide from the very beginning. She had known almost nothing of the Way when she had taken on this persona, the name Astraea and everything that went with it.
The Oralian Way performed their rites now in secret, the once great faith having been reduced to the indignity of meeting in basements and back alleys, forced to communicate in codes and over scrambled contact lines as though they were common criminals. Anyone who could be associated with the Oralian Way in any capacity was immediately categorized as a wanted fugitive. Their crimes were no more serious than peaceful congregation, but Central Command had managed to paint the Oralians as dangerous dissenters whose ideals sought to destroy the very fiber of the Cardassian Union -- and of course, no member of the military had any inkling of what those ideals truly were. They remembered only the threats of civil wars, and the angry public demonstrations of yesteryear, all conflicts that had been borne of misunderstanding. Modern Cardassians did not care to attribute their people's achievements to anything beyond perseverance, hard work, and superiority. But Astraea and her followers believed it was not so simple as that, and for that belief, they were pariahs.
Alone in her chamber, seated at a desk before a small computer, her monitor chimed to indicate an incoming communiqué. She started at the sound; she had not been expecting to receive a transmission so late. The followers of her faith generally came to her in person if they had a query or concern, and there were very few of those who even knew her transmission code. She knew where the call was coming from with near certainty, but still her eyes lit up with anticipation when she confirmed that the message had indeed come from Terok Nor.
The call was scrambled, as it always was, and necessitated a code to access; but once the correct sequence was tapped in, the blank density of her screen broke with a horizontal snapping of blue light that settled into the image of her most cherished friend.
The soldier's black hair was pushed back over a wide forehead that housed a pair of deeply scrutinizing eyes. His gaze flicked up and instantly softened as her countenance appeared on the screen in his office, far away on the space station that orbited Bajor.
"Astraea," he said, the timbre of his voice almost turning it into a pet name -- but the name carried much more weight than just this man's affection.
"Is it safe to speak my name, Glinn Sa'kat?" she asked him, though she instantly regretted the question -- he would not have spoken it aloud if it was not safe.
"I have full control over who reviews these transmissions," he assured her.
"Even over the Order?"
His lips thinned in demonstrative impatience. "I have told you, we have nothing to fear from the Obsidian Order."
She shook her head. "I know you think I'm being foolish, but lately I've had these feelings that I can't shake..."
He leaned closer to his transmission cam. "Feelings?" he repeated. "Do you mean...like those you had before?"
A vision, he meant. Astraea shook her head; she was not talking about the kinds of feelings she'd had just after she'd come in contact with the Bajoran artifact at the Ministry of Science. The Orb. In those days, she had still been the Cardassian scientist who bore the name Miras Vara, but that name -- that identity -- was no more. Miras Vara had disappeared from the Union, from her family, from her job at the ministry. She had become the Guide for the Oralian Way, and had taken on the name used by her forebears as much a title as a designation.
The guide was supposed to be a vessel for Oralius, the noncorporeal being who was said to have dictated the tenets of the faith both in ancient and modern times, before the faith was forced to go underground. Astraea did not know if Cardassian officials were familiar with the title, but she thought it best not to take any chances. It was a well-known secret that the Oralians of past generations had been systematically exterminated by Central Command. The Way was still popularly perceived as a threat to modern Cardassian sensibilities, but Astraea knew better. She believed that the Way would be essential in rebuilding Cardassian civilization someday, for she had foreseen it -- she could still see it, and often did, in her dreams. The near-total destruction of Cardassia Prime.
"Not a vision," she told him. "At least, not about the Order."
The soldier nodded, looked grave for a moment. "The Order can't decipher the encryption that I have used. Our friend has assured me of that."
She knew that he was sure of his "friend's" loyalty, and she didn't doubt that there was at least one Obsidian Order shadow who walked the Way, whose allegiance to Oralius was greater than his allegiance to Enabran Tain, even though the aging head of the Obsidian Order inspired a fierce loyalty in many of his agents. Still, the Order troubled her -- all Cardassians had a healthy respect for the Obsidian Order, and a person in Astraea's position would naturally fear them more than the average citizen.
"But you have seen something, then," the soldier deduced.
"Yes," she confirmed, thinking upon her recent dreams. "A Bajoran. A religious man. I don't know his name, but I have a picture of where he might be. It is not far from the place where I experienced my first visions of Bajor..."
"Kendra," the soldier said.
"As you say." Astraea knew nothing of Bajoran geography, only what she saw in her visions.
"What have you foreseen regarding this man?"
She paused, trying to put into words the things she had sensed about the Bajoran. She was often frustrated by the cryptic "awarenesses" she experienced; even after years of working to cultivate the ability, her impressions were regularly less than enlightening. But then, the Way was a path, not a goal; Oralius taught that many truths were subjective. It was a lesson she continued to struggle with.
"Cardassia needs him. He will bring peace between the two worlds someday, though I don't know when it will happen." He seemed to be waiting for more, and she pursed her lips. "That is all," she told him. "I'm sorry."
The soldier nodded, patiently accepting the fragmentary nature of her prophecies. "You must tell me if you see anything more."
"Of course," she said. "Now. What do you have to tell me, Glinn Sa'kat?" It was clear from his expression that he had information. More often than not, his transmissions bore news that frightened her. While the two shared a mutual affection that sometimes seemed to border on intimate, at least for her, he did not call her without serious motive. Her pleasure at seeing him was always tarnished by what he had to say.
"Our friend tells me that the agent who has been assigned to seek out the Oralians has finally found the object that you hid at the Ministry of Science."
Astraea felt her heart sink. While she believed that the so-called Orb would remain silent for anyone who was unworthy, she also feared that whoever wielded it would undeniably have access to a great source of power, a means of controlling others who sought it. If the Obsidian Order took hold, the Orb would be impossible to recover.
"It will reveal nothing for them," she said with flickering certainty.
"Nothing...except perhaps your whereabouts," the soldier said softly. "The object's shipping container had a digital log, a log that clearly recorded the identification numbers of all who came in contact with it during its stay at the Ministry of Science. Miras Vara was the last person known to have handled that object. The Order has not yet connected the item to us, but it is only a matter of time. Our friend has very emphatically suggested that you change your location."
Astraea took a moment to catch her breath. She had just begun to grow fond of the makeshift shrine where she was currently holding services, and leaving it behind would be an unwelcome upheaval. "Where should I go?" she asked him, without rhetoric.
"You must go to Cardassia City."
"But -- "
"It is the only way. The best means to stay out of the sight of the Order is to be right under their nose. Our friend is going to arrange a place in the Torr sector where you will be safe."
"But the Walkers here..."
"It is the only way," he replied firmly, and then he stopped speaking as his comcuff signaled. "I must go."
"May you walk with Oralius," she said to him, but he had already signed off.
Dukat was agitated, going over the daily output reports in his office alone. There had been a significant drop in productivity in the last few years, and it was getting markedly worse with each service quartile. The reports in front of him painted a bleak picture of whether his tenure here was going to be regarded as a success or failure; he feared it had long been edging toward the latter, through no fault of his own.
He knew that back on his homeworld, many people were beginning to wag their tongues about diminishing resources in and around B'hava'el, the star system that was home to Bajor. But it wasn't for lack of resources that the output had begun to wane. It was because the civilian government had pressured Central Command into withholding funds for numerous ventures here, ventures begun and then abandoned when the stores of minerals were not immediately as abundant as they had been decades ago, at the annexation's very start. The Detapa Council had once been nothing but a figurehead, but they were steadily gaining power, thanks in part to the family of Kotan Pa'Dar, a political rival of Dukat's for many years now. Pa'Dar was the exarch of Tozhat, a Cardassian settlement on the surface of Bajor, and he made no secret of his opinion that the Bajoran "project," as he called it, should be retired. The prefect could not disagree more, and the reports he saw in front of him were clearly illustrative of why it would be an expensive mistake to think otherwise. Pa'Dar was a short-sighted fool.
His companel chimed. One of the duty officers in operations addressed him briskly. "Gul Dukat, this is Gil Trakad."
"What is it?"
"Reporting, sir -- the delayed shipment of mining equipment has finally arrived."
Dukat sighed heavily. "Well! How very kind of the Valerians to finally bring us our merchandise! Inform the captain that I expect a formal explanation for the tardiness of this shipment."
The young gil hesitated. "It was not the Valerians who delivered this cargo, sir. Their ship experienced a mechanical failure and was forced to make an emergency landing in the Solvok system."
Dukat leaned back in his chair. "I see," he said. "So, who, exactly, has brought us our much-anticipated package, Gil?"
"It...it couldn't be helped, sir, the ship grounded on the Solvok moon, and there are a limited number of ships that run through that system, this time of year -- "
Annoyed, Dukat switched on his holoframe to have a look at the security images that cycled along the docking ring and the cargo bays. What he saw instantly made his lip curl, for a familiar-looking ship had docked, and its crew was beginning to unload its cargo. The rust-colored vessel had a bloated aft end tapering toward a much narrower front -- a bit like a stubbier, backward version of a Cardassian scoutship. But Dukat knew too well the design of this courier, and he spoke with the force of a curse.
Natima Lang did not particularly enjoy these assignments, interviewing soldiers as they arrived home from the conflict along the border territories. The brown-uniformed troops who disembarked from their ships at the Mekisar military base outside of Cardassia City were usually exhausted from the long journey home, not to mention the horrors they had experienced on the front lines against the Federation.
Natima knew that her world struggled to keep up with the superior forces of the Federation troops; the Federation had more sophisticated weaponry, and their ships had much better tracking and dodging capabilities than any Cardassian vessel. But then, the Federation lacked something that Cardassia had in no short supply, and that was a particular brand of pride and self-respect that Natima knew was unsurpassed in the entire known galaxy. Cardassia would fight to its last breath over those territories. Whether it was the right thing to do, however, she could not say. She only knew that she was expected to retrieve appropriate sound bites from the returning soldiers to bolster the morale of her people, and she meant to do her job.
She scanned the careworn faces of those stepping through the platform portal, their rocky features revealing little emotion beyond simple weariness. She hoped to recognize someone, anyone, from the last time she had been here. It distressed her to think of those soldiers she'd come to know in any capacity being killed and never returning, but of course it was the reality, a reality that the Information Service always had to face.
When she'd been assigned to Bajor, easily the most violent and primitive world she'd ever seen, Natima had witnessed some of the most unspeakable things of her career. She'd enjoyed the challenge, at first, but was relieved that her request for a transfer back home had finally been granted. Bajor was a cruel place, with cruel people. It horrified her to see the aftermath of the skirmishes between Cardassian soldiers and the resistance fighters on that world, but perhaps the most upsetting revelation she'd had there occurred when she had discovered that she was beginning to relate to the Bajorans on some basic level. It seemed to her the very best reason to come back home, to focus her allegiance where it belonged; but her opinions regarding the Union had never been the same after the years she'd spent on Bajor.
With a small handheld netcam, she spoke to a few soldiers, who responded to her questions brusquely but supplied her with the patriotic phrasings she expected -- and needed -- to hear.
"My unit paid dearly, but the Federation's losses were even more significant. We will prevail."
"Cardassia will not sleep until we have wrested what is rightfully ours from the Federation dogs."
"The families of those who have not returned can feel proud knowing that their son, husband, father, or brother gave up his life to better our world."
Natima winced a little at the last one, for there were women in the military as well as men, but Cardassia was still mired in patriarchy. Females were seldom in combat, although there were a number in command. It was generally believed that women belonged in the sciences, situated as far away from physical danger as possible, for their roles as mothers were valued more highly than any other contribution they might make to the Union. While Natima certainly didn't regret that she wasn't stationed on the border along with these returning soldiers, she might at least have liked the option. As it was, she got plenty of disdain from her male colleagues at the Information Service, who had long tried to dissuade her from covering pieces that might place her in harm's way. It was foolish, especially considering that Natima had no children -- and though Cardassian women were blessed with an especially long window of fertility, Natima's window was more than halfway closed.
In this press of nearly identical soldiers she suddenly saw a familiar face, one that it did her heart good to recognize, for it was the face of her old friend, a glinn named Russol. It was always a relief to see her acquaintances return safely, but it especially gratified her to see that Gaten Russol was still alive.
She put up her hand and called to him, and he turned, along with a few others who looked to see what the commotion was about. Russol smiled in instant recognition, for the two had shared a few exchanges at various press conferences. Natima had come to believe that Russol and she were like-minded politically.
"Hello, Miss Lang," he said, bowing slightly, stepping closer. "On assignment, I presume?"
"You look rather uninterested," Russol noted. "Do you find these interviews tedious?"
Natima was taken aback at his undercurrent of irritability, not sure if he was flirting with her, but Russol then smiled so warmly that she was compelled to smile back. Perhaps he was flirting.
"It's worth it to have run into you," she said, feeling bold. "It's always a relief to confirm that an acquaintance has come back safely from the front lines."
"They'll never finish me off, though it's not for lack of trying." His face twisted slightly, his eyes growing distant before he refocused on Natima.
She cleared her throat, fidgeting with the netcam in her hands. "Do you have any comments that you might like to share with the Union public?" she asked him.
Russol snorted. "No," he said, and his voice was unmistakably bitter. "I suppose I would have something to say, if I thought that anyone would listen to my opinions instead of execute me for them."
Natima was shocked; she knew from their past conversations that Russol had a bit of a radical streak, but she had not expected him to state anything so bluntly. She was not sure how to respond.
From the corner of her eye, she thought she recognized another of the men that were coming across the tarmac from where the returning ships were docking. Turning slightly, she identified the features of a man whose name did not come to her right away, but his profile and expression was immediately reminiscent of quaking regret, of a time that Natima generally took pains to avoid revisiting. Bajor. Terok Nor.
Natima looked away. This was Corat Damar, the former fiancé of Veja, Natima's old friend and colleague from her days on Bajor.
She tried to turn so that Damar would not see her, hoping to avoid an uncomfortable reunion. His memories of Bajor were probably even more unpleasant than Natima's, for it was on Bajor that he had lost the woman he loved. Veja Ketan had not died, but she had been injured so severely as to render her incapable of bearing children, which, according to Cardassian tradition, made her ineligible for marriage.
In a way, Natima had always thought, Veja's ultimate fate was worse than if she had died, for although she was alive and generally well, Damar could not marry her, and Veja was very unlikely to marry anyone. Some women in her position would have taken a lover, but Veja was not the kind of woman to indulge in such tawdry dalliances, and anyway, it was clear that there was no other man for her but Damar. Natima still spoke to Veja from time to time, and had learned recently from her that Damar had married and had an infant son. Veja had delivered the news with heartbreakingly false indifference. The entire subject depressed Natima so profoundly that she wished never to think of it, let alone to speak of it. Natima was unmarried herself, but she had never been especially interested in the prospect of marriage and children. Veja's life's dream had been to raise a family. The circumstances on Bajor had taken that from her.
Natima risked a glance in the hope that the soldier had gone away, but he was there -- and he raised his head and looked at her. She saw the hardness in his expression go slack for a moment as he recognized her, hidden sorrow rising to cloud his gaze. Natima could not look away now, for it would be impolite to pretend that she had not seen him. She smiled quickly, but he did not smile back, looking very much as though he intended to go on his way without acknowledging her. Though it was rude, the possibility that she would not have to speak to him filled Natima with great relief.
"Miss Lang?" Damar called.
She could not reasonably ignore him in Russol's presence, not without a lengthy explanation that she would rather not give. She nodded to Russol.
"Another time, I hope," she said lightly, and he smiled, spreading his arm in a gesture of polite dismissal. Damar strode through the other soldiers in his unit to approach her.
"Hello...Gil Damar," Natima said, after searching his uniform for signs of his rank. She was surprised to see that he was still a gil, for it seemed that his military position had been rising rather quickly back on Terok Nor, over a decade ago. She remembered, then, that he had been a favorite of Dukat -- until he had fallen from the prefect's good graces, following the incident that resulted in Veja's injury.
"Hello, Miss Lang," Damar addressed her, his voice reflecting an edge that indicated a pronounced dislike. He had never made a secret of his opinion of Natima, and she knew that he would not have approached her at all without compelling reason.
"I am here on behalf of the Information Service," Natima said, raising her netcam. She hoped to keep the exchange relatively free from topics that would cause discomfort for either of them. "Perhaps you would like to make a statement -- "
"Do you ever speak to Veja Ketan?" Damar interrupted.
So much for avoiding discomfort. "Yes," she said, keeping her voice hard and steady. "I still see her from time to time. She works within the fact-checking division of the service now, and mostly stays out of the field. She has a little house on Cardassia IV, but then she also stays in the Paldar sector, during the cold months."
"So...she is well," Damar said hollowly. "She is...does she ever speak of me?"
Natima coughed. "No," she lied. She did not wish to continue this line of conversation. "Tell me, Gil Damar, do you have anything to say to the people of Cardassia regarding the situation in the border colonies?"
"The border colonies," he snarled. "They are a waste of Cardassia's resources. I won't miss being there."
"So, you're not to be sent back, I gather?"
"No. I'm to be made glinn next service quartile, and then I'm to join a freight crew for a shipping operation."
Natima nodded. All of Cardassia's interstellar shipping concerns were overseen by Central Command. Officer on a freight crew was still "military" work, but it was a lucrative and therefore much coveted assignment; there were subsidies, contracts, even benefits, depending on the runs. Still, there was no glory in such work.
"Well then! Congratulations are in order regarding your new rank -- and your new assignment," Natima said. She could hear how brittle and false she sounded. "I hear that serving on a freighter can be an exhilarating existence -- plenty of travel, meeting people, experiencing new cultures -- "
"I'm sure it will suit me fine," Damar said flatly. "But Bajor is where I would rather be." He spat on the ground, as if to illustrate his feelings on the matter.
Natima stepped back from Damar, speechless and disgusted at the gesture. Why would Damar want to return to the place that had nearly destroyed him? Natima herself had vowed never to go back to Bajor if she could possibly help it. Besides the danger, there was the remoteness, the climate, the awful smells -- and the dust! Natima would never forget that terrible, choking dust, from the reddish dirt that turned to mud in the humid cold, thick and crusty like wet concrete.
"I would devote my life to the pursuit and execution of the insurgents of Bajor," Damar said, his expression icy cold, completing his statement without words. Because of Veja.
"But...the Bajoran resistance movement...it is only getting more dangerous," Natima said carefully. "We've practically tapped out the Bajorans' resources anyway. We might as well -- "
"It's not Bajoran resources I care about," Damar snarled.
"It's exterminating the people who live to make Cardassians suffer. I don't know why we haven't begun using biogenic weapons in the B'hava'el system yet, but I can tell you that if I were stationed on Bajor, any unit under my command would not fail to drive those terrorists out of the dirty little caves where they squat and scheme. They are a backward and violent people, and their existence does nothing to perpetuate humanoid progress."
Natima flinched. He was wrong to suggest biogenic weapons; that would give the Federation cause to finally put an end to the Bajoran annexation. The Union was already walking a fine line between occupation and genocide -- a thing that the Federation was very unlikely to tolerate, since they couldn't seem to prevent themselves from meddling in other worlds' affairs. But Natima was not comfortable arguing with Damar. It was not only because she understood his personal stake in the matter, but because her own opinions concerning Bajor tended to lean toward the dangerous. Central Command did not always bother to distinguish the subtle differences between mild dissent and high treason. Natima decided to end this encounter; though she might seem brusque in doing so, she had nothing more to say to Corat Damar. "If you will excuse me, Gil -- "
"Certainly," he said, and turned abruptly away from her to follow the rest of the soldiers to the transport station, where they would be sent home to their families for a night or two before heading off to their next assignments.
Natima thought, as she watched him go, of the word he had used to describe Bajorans -- backward. It may not have been entirely inappropriate, in certain contexts, but weren't Cardassians also backward, in their own ways? For if Damar and Veja had still wished to marry, to raise a family, why could they not have taken in an orphan child to raise as their own? Natima knew only too well the dire conditions of the orphans left behind on Bajor to fend for themselves in a hostile, alien society -- not to mention those abandoned children who lived right here, in the Cardassian Union. But it would have been unthinkable for someone like Damar to defy the social constructs of what was acceptable as a traditional Cardassian family. She had dared to broach the subject with him once, and had always regretted it. Damar was a man who did not take tradition lightly, no matter how irrational it might have appeared to an outsider -- or to someone like Natima, who had once managed to glean a sense of her world through the eyes of an alien observer, at least for a moment, and had not much cared for all that she'd seen.
Of the regularly stationed assignments the Obsidian Order had to offer, the surveillance post at Valo VI was easily the quietest. For those agents who preferred a little solace now and again, a short stint on Valo VI was a welcome respite. But to be sent for more than a few months was cause for concern, especially among the older agents who were not yet ready to turn in their sigil. The long-term post to Valo VI was synonymous with retirement. It may have been preferable to death, but for an Obsidian Order agent who had grown accustomed to a lifestyle of unpredictable chaos, being stationed indefinitely at a static listening facility was as near death as one could get while still breathing.
Dost Abor suspected that his own circumstances were different. He had committed no error that he was aware of to have warranted his placement on Valo VI for such a very long time, and he was far enough from retirement age that it made little sense for him to have been put out to pasture so soon. His conclusion was that Tain perhaps considered him a threat. Abor figured he had two alternatives. The first would be to prove his mettle to Tain by accomplishing a breakthrough that could not be ignored and that would guarantee his placement back in the field, where he belonged. The second would be to kill him. It was not entirely beyond the realm of possibility, though it would be something of a trick. Abor felt fairly certain that nearly every agent had entertained such thoughts from time to time, but Tain still sucked air.
This facility, housed beneath an allegedly impenetrable force field on a rather miserable asteroid, was one of many that was unknown to those outside the Order, Cardassian or otherwise. Although there had been a single security breach at this facility some years ago during which an operative had been killed, no data had been compromised, and Abor's superiors had shrugged off the incident as an inconsequential break-in by Bajoran scavengers looking for an easy target. Enabran Tain had never been particularly concerned about Bajoran comings and goings, since he, like most Cardassians, considered them to be a vastly inferior species that posed no genuine threat to the sanctity of Cardassia -- unlike Gul Dukat, who couldn't even get a handle on their pathetic uprisings.
Deep in the bottommost level of the Valo VI Facility, Dost Abor had taken a moment away from the monotony of his post to answer a call from another of his colleagues in the Order, a man named Kutel Esad. Abor had been acquainted with this man since before his recruitment into the Order, when the two were both in their culmination year at school, but Kutel's needle-sharp face had changed very little in all those years. It had often been said that Kutel was old before his time, both in appearance and in outlook, and now, in late middle age, he had finally grown into his cautious nature.
"Hello, Dost," his old friend greeted him. "You indicated in your communiqué that there was some item of business you wanted conveyed to Tain?"
"Indeed, Kutel," Abor said smoothly. "In reviewing transmissions sent from the Ministry of Science at approximately the time of the object's disappearance -- "
Abor hesitated with some impatience. He had forgotten, of course, that Esad would not know what he was talking about without a bit more explanation. "The Orb, I mean. The object I recovered from the ministry's storeroom."
The item in question had been stolen from the Order sometime during the upheaval that followed the assassination of Tain's predecessor, and had landed in the hands of the Ministry of Science on Cardassia Prime. There it had lain, almost forgotten, except for a single report of a disturbing reaction experienced by a young scientist, many years past. The item had not been seen since, not until Dost Abor ordered a thorough search for it, which had yielded results earlier in the month.
Esad nodded now as he remembered. "Yes, the Bajoran artifact. Tain had it refiled within the Order's collection, but we have never been able to glean anything of value from any of the so-called Orbs. I must tell you that he was puzzled why you went to so much trouble to locate this particular object."
"The item itself is of no interest to us," Abor told his friend. "It is who last handled it that might be of some relevance."
Esad did not answer, only rearranged his features to convey dubious expectation.
Abor went on. "I have quite a lot of time to review old transmissions, messages that have been encrypted, intercepted, and then filed away to be decoded at another time. The last time I was stationed here, I happened upon an old one, sent approximately twelve years ago, that had originated at the Ministry of Science with a researcher named Kalisi Reyar. Her father is Yannik Reyar. Do you know him?"
The tight line of Esad's mouth pinched together. "He is Enabran Tain's military go-between," he said briskly.
"Correct," Abor replied. "Yannik Reyar received a transmission from his daughter regarding a matter that she felt concerned the Order. One of our tracers flagged a few terms it felt warranted our attention, but the second check found nothing of immediate interest in the transmission and filed it away to be reviewed at another time. I was the one tasked with reviewing that message to determine its relevance, and I learned something that I found to be a bit curious."
"And what might that be?" Esad's tone indicated that he was indulging his old friend.
"It seems that his daughter was the person who gave authorization for our object to be removed from the science ministry's storeroom, the last time it was taken out -- before it became classified and then misplaced."
Esad nodded, but his expression still held no interest.
"That last encounter with the object coincided with an outcropping of rumor surrounding the Oralians."
Esad made a face now, expressing his disgust regarding the followers of the so-called Oralian Way. The ancient faith had supposedly experienced a resurgence in the past decade or so, a surprise to many who had previously accepted that the followers had all been killed in the settlements on Bajor, where they had been relocated prior to the annexation of that world. Modern Cardassians were not sad to see them go, for their religion was an impediment to progress, a throwback to a time of foolish superstition and a cumbersome theocratic government. Recent reports indicating that groups of Oralians had begun to meet in secret was puzzling and perplexing to Central Command. Many believed that these groups were simply comprised of young, rebellious people, experimenting with forbidden nostalgia that they did not actually understand.
"Enabran Tain is fairly certain that the rumors surrounding the Oralian Way are just that -- rumors," Esad said.
"They may be only rumors, but even if they are -- the inception of those rumors coincided with the disappearance of that Orb."
Esad nodded slowly. "Have you reviewed the files regarding the Ministry of Science's records on the object?"
"Yes. The last scientist to handle the object was a woman named Miras Vara. I believe she was the one who misfiled it in the first place."
"The ministry claimed that it was misfiled accidentally. They are not known for their efficiency, as anyone can attest -- "
Abor interrupted the other agent. "Miras Vara disappeared at the same time as the object. She did not misfile it by accident, Kutel. She took pains to hide it. Now, why do you suppose she would have done that?"
"I have no idea," the other agent replied. "But if you have a theory, I suggest you enlighten me, because I am sure that Tain would love to hear it."
Abor hesitated, deciding how much he wanted to elaborate. "She is affiliated with the Oralians," he said. "I am sure of it."
Esad chortled lightly. "Your certainty will not go far with Tain. But if you can prove it, Dost, then I suspect Tain might have reason to congratulate you."
"I don't want congratulations," Abor said. "I want to be back in the field, where I belong."
Esad smiled. "Well. I will let Tain know of your, ah, suspicions, and we'll see what he has to say."
Abor returned his smile with cordiality. "I will look forward to his reply."
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