House of Cards
by Temis the Vorta
Timing: After the series finale. All this stuff belongs to Paramount except the original ideas of the Wonderbat!

PS, if you’ve read Poetic Justice, the prologue might seem err a tad familiar. That’s because I used that scene as the jumping off point for this novella, but the story takes a very different direction after the prologue…

The stench was still there, but it had long since ceased to bother Garak.

In the weeks following the destruction of Cardassia by the Dominion, Garak had wandered in a daze amid the rubble of the former capitol. The Jem’Hadar had done a thorough job. The capitol city, like hundreds of others on the planet, had been totally razed. Streets that had once teemed with life were now silent, lined on either side with the piles of brick, steel and stone that had once been buildings.

Since the streets were no longer identifiable, it took Garak a few days to find the remains of the house where he had grown up. It took another week for him to dig through the fallen beams and brick.

He had only his bare hands at first. Then he thought to use a small beam as a lever, and the work went faster. A massive slab of jevonite – formerly, part of the dining room – blocked his way. Slowly but with determination, he inched it aside, to reveal his goal: the steps leading down to the basement

Mila was still there, at the bottom of the stairs, where they had left her. There had been no time during those last, frantic days to give her corpse a proper burial.

Seeing the shape the corpse was in, Garak knew that it should have smelled horrible in the basement. But for countless kilometers all along the street, and all along all the other streets of the city, there was nothing but rubble. People had taken refuge in their own basements during the destruction, and very few had survived. Garak’s nose had simply become accustomed to the smell.

Garak wrapped Mila carefully in a green blanket and carried her up the stairs. After many days with no food and little sleep, Garak was exhausted and he could hardly carry his burden. On the street, two passing Cardassians offered to help. They mumbled something about not being able to find their own homes or families. They led Garak to the pit.

A major building had collapsed into itself, leaving a vast gash in the ground. The gash was now being filled, little by little, by bodies. Mila was just one of the multitude as she tumbled into the pit. The green shroud was visible for a few minutes. Then a tired man arrived with a makeshift cart piled high with corpses. They went into the pit, and Mila was gone.

Garak turned around. The view was the same, regardless of which direction you looked. Cardassian architecture had once been the envy of the quadrant. Even those who hated Cardassians agreed that the graceful, organic forms of their buildings held a unique combination of beauty and power. Now it was all gone.

“It used to be so lovely,” Garak’s companion said. “By the way, my name is Aamon Kyarps. What’s yours?”

“I killed the Vorta who did this,” Garak said, as though he hadn’t heard the man.

“What?” Kyarps said. “How could one Vorta do all this?”

“He gave the order. And do you want to know why he did that?”

“Because of the rebellion, wasn’t it?”

Garak turned and looked at Kyarps. “No. It’s because Vortas have no concept of beauty. I think it’s about time they learned, don’t you?”

Kyarps shifted his eyes nervously. This person seemed a little unbalanced. It was understandable, but it could be dangerous. He signaled to his friend, and they turned to go.

“My name is Garak! Elim Garak.”

Kyarps and his friend stopped. “I’ve heard of you,” he said.

“I was with Damar and his resistance cell,” Garak replied.

“Damar,” the other Cardassian said. “He was a great man. We should do something to honor his memory.”

“I agree,” Garak said. After the shock of the last several days, he had not been able to think clearly, or focus on anything but digging Mila out of the basement. But now his mind was regaining focus. A terrible, clear focus.

Dr. Julian Bashir hadn’t meant for his meeting with Kira to take three hours. He just wanted to give her his weekly medical report, as he had when Captain Sisko had commanded Deep Space Nine. He was still getting used to the idea of the Bajoran Colonel being in command of the station, now that Sisko was…in the Celestial Temple, with the Prophets, or wherever he was.

Ordinarily, Colonel Kira Nerys preferred her meetings to be cordial but quick and to the point. Over the seven years that she and Bashir had served on the Federation outpost, they had progressed from antipathy (on Kira’s part, towards the once-annoying young doctor) to passing friendliness and finally to true friendship. Bashir could even recall when the change had come. It had been four years ago, when Bashir had tried – and failed – to save the life of Kira’s then-lover, Vedek Bareil. Afterwards, Kira had started calling Bashir by his first name, without any further comment.

And Kira was probably feeling the same sense of mourning now. Just a month before, there had been a profound shift of personnel at the station. Not just Sisko, but Chief O’Brien, Worf, and Odo had been reassigned or otherwise left. So maybe it wasn’t so odd that Kira, now seated in Sisko’s old office in Ops, had launched into a diatribe against bureaucracy. After all, besides Bashir and Ezri Dax, who did she have now who would listen to her troubles?

“…I have no idea why this had to happen now,” Kira continued. “The new Kai hasn’t even been confirmed yet! The Council must be out of its mind to apply for Federation membership, when things are so up in the air.”

“But that’s always been Bajor’s intent,” Bashir said. “I mean, wasn’t it? It was all just delayed because of one crisis or another. Then there was the war…”

“Julian, you have no idea of the administrative headaches I’ll have to deal with, if the Council ratifies the application. The Bajoran militia will be integrated into Starfleet – me included…”

“Not all of the militia. It will probably be split, with the planet-based units functioning as they’ve always have, as Bajor’s police force. Off-planet units will become part of Starfleet. I’m just guessing what the Council wants to do, but it makes sense. This arrangement is the norm for Federation planets. We have the same setup on Earth.”

“That doesn’t help me! Is DS9 part of Bajor, or is it off-planet?”

This stumped Bashir. “There’s no clear precedent. A space station in orbit around a planet is usually considered part of that planet. But DS9 was moved so far away from Bajor…”

“I just know what’s going to happen. The Council, in its usual, wishy-washy way, will decide that DS9 is both part of Bajor, and not. So they’ll want to continue the Bajoran militia presence here, and increase the Starfleet contingent as well. Which just means twice as much bureaucracy as before.”

“We all have a lot to adjust to…” Bashir began.

“Starfleet can find someone else to handle these headaches,” Kira said, slamming her fist on the desk with such force that Sisko’s old baseball jumped in its holder. “I’m going to resign and move to Bajor.”

“Huh? And do what?”

“I don’t know! Be a sculptor!”

“If that’s really want you want to do, I think you could be very good at it. I liked that sculpture you gave to Sisko as a birthday present a few years ago. It was a very nice Horta.”

“Thanks for the complement. But it was supposed to be a Baneriam hawk.”

Bashir smiled. “Maybe you should keep your job here, then.”

Kira sighed. “Admiral Ross is pressuring me to do just that. So I guess I’ll have to stay. Doesn’t Starfleet have anyone who can run this place besides me?”

“You do know DS9 better than anyone else.”

“I suppose it’s my djarra to end up as an overworked Federation bureaucrat. I just hate this job! Sitting around, filing reports, doing nothing useful.”

“If you’re feeling useless, I have the cure. I’m taking the Defiant to Cardassia again tomorrow for another medical supply run. We could really use an extra pair of hands.”

“I’ll do it! That Starfleet second-in-command, what was his name? Thompkins? Let him file the reports for a while. If I stay in this office for one second more, I’ll scream.”

Long Snout huddled in the cargo hold of the freighter. The pink tentacles ringing the knob at the top of his body – which would, in another species, be called a head – were twitching slightly. He willed them to remain still. At the end of each tentacle, an optical nerve collected light and allowed him to see.

What he saw was depressing and frightening, but somehow also exhilarating. Next to him was Lightning’s Glow, whom he had known all his life. She huddled against a cargo barrel, clutching an unfamiliar weapon. Next to her was Laughing Boy, then someone that Long Snout did not recognize. They all had the unfamiliar weapons – long, green and
slippery-smooth. Not well-adapted to tentacled races like the Calmendi.

They had been told these strange weapons were called “disrupters,” and that they had been smuggled in from someplace very far away, called “the Alpha Quadrant.” The twenty Calmendi in the cargo hold had been trained to use these strange weapons, in preparation for their current mission. They knew they had to succeed, but they also knew they were certain to die.

The Calmendi had been Dominion subjects for 800 years. They had never been a particularly peaceful race, but no amount of belligerence could have kept them from being conquered by an entity that was so much more advanced than they were. At the time, the Calmendi had been at a primitive level of development, far from the point of space travel.

Some cultures had been able to adjust to Dominion rule, but the Calmendi were not one of those. They valued the beauty of their world – its shallow, warm seas teeming with life; its majestic volcanoes which soared over deep tropical forests; its tempestuous weather, which could change from placid calm to roaring hurricane within the space of hours.

The Dominion did not value the Calmendi homeland, except for its resources. The crust of the planet was rich in several important minerals. Over the past several centuries, the Dominion had removed all these resources. Their planet had been polluted. The beaches were cemeteries of dead fish. Weather patterns had changed, ruining Calmendi agriculture, and leaving the population more and more dependent on imports, which were ultimately controlled by the Dominion.

Things had not been too bad at first. The Calmendi had given up their traditional occupations as fishermen, farmers and artisans and went to work in the Dominion’s mines. Then things got bad. The mines played out, and remaining deposits were too difficult to reach. The Dominion left the Calmendi homeworld.

With a ruined planet and a population that could not feed itself, the Calmendi faced starvation. And they were not permitted to trade with races other than the Dosi and Karemma. The Calmendi homeworld was still inside Dominion space, and no traders, other than those favored by the Dominion, were allowed to cross the border. The Dosi and Karemma took full advantage of their shared monopoly, and charged extortionate prices for food and fuel. The Calmendi were in an impossible bind.

So it was no surprise that, when a resistance organization sprung up among the Calmendi, there were no shortage of volunteers. Even for a suicide mission. The resistance leaders had obtained these weapons, and told the recruits that they were just part of a much larger organization, which comprised many other worlds chafing under Dominion rule. Their goal was to kick the Dominion out of this sector of space, and keep them out.

At first, Long Snout and the others had a hard time believing that anyone could fight the Dominion. The invaders were very well organized. They had orbital stations around every subject world, garrisoned with Jem’Hadar. Everyone knew that the Jem’Hadar were unbeatable in battle. The mysterious Founders who ran the Dominion were rumored to have godlike powers. They saw and heard everything that went on in their territory. How could such people be fought?

One of the resistance leaders had shocked the recruits by telling them that, indeed, the Dominion had met a civilization they could not conquer. It had happened in that far-away place, the Alpha Quadrant, in a war no one had heard about until now. A coalition of worlds had fought the Dominion to a standstill, and forced them to withdraw to their own space. Such a thing would also be possible here, the leader argued. But only through great struggle and sacrifice.

That was how Long Snout had ended up on a cargo ship, heading toward the orbital station that loomed over his world. Only Bright Scales, their leader, knew what their goal was. The rest had only been told that they were about to attack an entire garrison of Jem’Hadar. And that achieving their mysterious goal would eventually result in the freedom not only of the Calmendi, but of all the Calmendi’s allies in their struggle, and possibly destroy the Dominion altogether.

Long Snout shook his tentacles wearily. How could this rag-tag group bring down the Dominion? Bright Scales had been exaggerating, to bolster their spirits. But it did not matter to Long Snout. Several of his own family had died of the kwashi disease, which struck those weakened by starvation. He had seen many children with birth defects caused by the Dominion’s pollution. He would have been happy to give his life just to destroy one orbital station.

Still, he hoped that somehow, Bright Scales was right.

The Dominion orbital base had not seen any actual fighting for centuries, and they were not expecting trouble. This was only one base out of a dozen in the system. From a tactical standpoint, it made no sense for a single ship to attack one base. Even if the attackers got onto the base, within a few hours reinforcements would arrive from the other bases, and the attackers would certainly be slaughtered.

So no one had any reason to suspect the vessel that docked at airlock fourteen of any ill intent. The cargo hold door opened, and twenty armed Calmendi jumped out. The four Jem’Hadar at the airlock were vaporized in a moment. Then Bright Scales trotted down the corridor, opened an access hatch in the wall, and jumped in. As pre-arranged, half of his troops followed, and the other half headed for the station’s command center.

Within seconds, the Vorta in the command center knew the station was under attack. He assessed the situation. Twenty Calmendi terrorists from the planet had boarded the station from a cargo ship. The Vorta yawned. It was an unusual event, but hardly anything to get excited about. He contacted the Jem’Hadar Firsts of each of the three security areas on the station and instructed them to take the standard suppression measures.

The Vorta and the Jem’Hadar Firsts assumed that the target of the attack was the heavily-fortified command center. A thousand Calmendi could not have broken through, much less ten. The small band of attackers was wiped out at a junction in the corridor, two hundred meters from the command center. They hadn’t even gotten close.

In the command center, the Vorta noted the quick death of the terrorists. He shook his head. It never failed to amaze him now stupid the inhabitants of Dominion subject worlds could be. And for absurd reasons. A Jem’Hadar had shot one of their trouble-making relatives. The scenery on their planet had been mussed by resource-extraction industries. It seemed that anything would set them off. It was a good thing they were so woefully incompetent and disorganized.

Cowering in the access tunnel, Long Snout overheard passing Jem’Hadar casually discussing the abortive raid. He could not believe it: the other team was dead! He looked at Bright Scales, who crouched just behind him. Their leader had heard the Jem’Hadar too, but his expression did not change. It seemed as if he had been expecting his other team to fail.

“What will we do now?” Long Snout whispered, furiously.

Bright Scales did not reply. He kept looking at an alien device in his hand. He seemed obsessed with the device and would not take his eyes off it. He had briefly explained it on the trip over. The device was a highly-sophisticated “tricorder,” capable of scanning life forms and distinguishing between them by their DNA. Long Snout frowned. He was not convinced such a device could exist, or if it did, where Bright Scales could have obtained it.

For several agonizing minutes, the team waited in the tunnel. It was only a matter of time before they would be caught. Abruptly, Bright Scales signaled to the team that it was time to move.

Bright Scales led the team through the access tunnels, higher and higher. He never took his eyes off the tricorder. Finally, they arrived at what had to be their destination.

“Set the disrupters to their lowest setting,” Bright Scales hissed. He showed each of the team how to do this, checking each weapon with great care.

Once again checking the tricorder, Bright Scales nodded. “We will run twelve meters down the corridor to the right,” he said. “A group of Jem’Hadar is stationed at the entrance to a power grid at the corridor intersection. You are to shoot all of them.”

“And then take over the power grid?” Long Snout asked.

Bright Scales shook his head. “No. Simply shoot the Jem’Hadar.”

Kicking out the access panel, Bright Scales hit the ground and led the way. Long Snout felt dizzy. He was certain he was going to die.

He was not the first to die, though. The disrupters, at their low setting, did not work well against the Jem’Hadar. Three of the Calmendi were killed almost immediately, and by the time all the enemy were rendered unconscious – for the disrupters at that setting could not kill – only Bright Scales, Long Snout, and two others of their team were alive.

But not for long. Long Snout heard clattering boots behind him, as a squad of Jem’Hadar approached. Bright Scales swept the tricorder over the unconscious bodies and smiled. He placed a tiny red device on the chest of one of the Jem’Hadar, who vanished into the sparkle of a transporter beam.

Bright Scales’ eyes were shining with pride. “We have saved our people,” he announced. “We have purchased their freedom with our lives.”

Long Snout felt sick. The thundering boots were very close now. Clearly, Bright Scales was insane. He and his companions had died – were about to die – for nothing.

The next morning, the Defiant left DS9’s spacedock. That was the way it went these days. The vessel would be allowed only the barest of turn-around times, so that essential systems could be checked and the compact craft deemed spaceworthy. Then it was back onto the familiar heading to Cardassia.

In the weeks since the Dominion withdrawal from Cardassia, dozens of Federation ships had been making this run, carrying sorely needed medical supplies. With the main planet, Cardassia Prime, in ruin and 800 million dead, Cardassia needed all the help it could get. And the fact that the Federation was its erstwhile enemy hardly mattered in the face of such devastation.

As always, Bashir oversaw the transport of the supplies. The Federation was short on the type of dermal regeneration plasma that was compatible with Cardassian physiology. During the trip, he used the sickbay replicators on a continuous basis to create more of the plasma, stacking the packets into containers.

Bashir replicated as many packets as possible, taking up every spare inch of the infirmary, science lab, crew quarters and corridors. He left just enough room for people to squeeze past the stacks. Satisfied, he left sickbay for the bridge, where Kira was in the captain’s chair.

Kira saw the doctor enter the bridge and sit down with a sigh. “How bad are things on Cardassia, anyway?” she asked.

“I can’t really describe it,” Bashir replied. “All the major cities were destroyed, some of them totally. Millions were killed, and thousands more are dying every day from hunger and disease. Operations like this one are just a drop in the bucket.”

Kira nodded. She looked around the bridge, where the crew did their tasks silently. Nog’s was the only familiar face, and all the faces were grim. The effect, no doubt, of running these kinds of missions.

It was strange. Kira had been on Cardassia Prime during the destruction, but she hadn’t been outdoors, in the middle of it. Instead, she had participated in the final assault on the Dominion command bunker. She regretted the deaths, but she couldn’t find it in herself to really feel devastated by them. In some secret corner of her soul, she had to admit that she was glad the Cardassians had been decimated. It wasn’t something she was proud of, but she couldn’t deny it, all the same.

Besides, you’d have to be a Cardassian to really feel it, she told herself. Like Garak. Kira remembered how incensed he had been at that odious Vorta, Weyoun, who had ordered the eradication of all Cardassians. Well, that wasn’t fair. No doubt the Founder had given the actual order. But she hadn’t blamed Garak for killing Weyoun.

Her memories triggered a thought. “Julian,” she said. “Have you seen Garak at all during your trips?” It seemed reasonable that he would be taking part in the relief efforts.

“No,” Bashir said, with an uncomfortable frown. “I haven’t heard from him at all since we parted on Cardassia. Well, at least not until…”

“Until what?” Kira asked.

“I received an odd message last night.”

“From Garak?”

“I’m not exactly sure.”

“How can you not be sure?” Kira said, incredulously. “What did the message say?”

“‘The teller of the tale does not reveal the enigma. He is the enigma.’ It was followed by a set of street coordinates, near the supply drop-off point in Cardassia’s capital city. And a date and time – a few hours from now.”

“The teller of the enigma…” Kira said. “What in the name of the Prophets is that supposed to mean? Sounds like Cardassian double-talk to me.”

Bashir smiled. “It’s one of Garak’s favorite quotes, from an author of enigma tales. I forget his name. It probably means that Garak wants to meet me, at that place and time. It will take at least two hours to unload all these supplies, and I’m sure I can find out whatever it is he wants in that amount of time.”

“So what do you think he wants?”

Bashir furrowed his brow. “He didn’t say. Honestly, I’m a little worried about his sanity.”

Kira nodded. “Having to live with the near-total destruction of your homeworld. I can see how that would make the most stable mind unbalanced. And Garak has never been the stable type, has he?”

“I never really thought about it, but you’re right. When he was on DS9, he just seemed…like one of us. But he’s a chameleon. He blends in, wherever he is. And he’s not on DS9 anymore. He’s among Cardassians now.”

“And after what’s happened, the Cardassians are more dangerous than they’ve ever been,” Kira said. “I think you should take some security officers with you.”

Bashir smiled. “Kira, this is Garak we’re talking about.”

“That’s right, it’s Garak. And I still think you should take some security officers with you.”

“Don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine.”

“Suit yourself,” Kira said. “But remember, you’d better be back in two hours, or we’re leaving without you.”

She winked at the doctor to tell him she was only kidding, but Bashir was somber. “That’s a good policy. If I’m not back in two hours – the way things are on Cardassia now – I might not be coming back.”

As always, Bashir beamed down to the supply drop-off point. He stepped off the transporter in a vast warehouse filled with stacked boxes and barrels. The mix of races from all over the quadrant reminded Bashir of DS9. But when he looked up, and saw the huge gashes in the warehouse’s roof caused by polaron cannon bombardment, he remembered where he was.

Several Cardassians were helping the Starfleet personnel unload the medical supplies. Bashir walked out of the warehouse and across a street, to a makeshift hospital. He always tried to find time to check in with the doctors there.

The view when he left the warehouse was always jarring – he never got used to it. The warehouse and adjacent hospital were on a low hill, with a twenty-kilometer view in every direction. Cardassia’s capitol city had been vast, and it filled the entire horizon. But Bashir couldn’t see one intact building. Mostly, it was strips of black rubble criss-crossed with the gray grid of roadways. In the far distance, Bashir could just make out the burned-out bulk of Central Command.

The weather was miserable, as it always was on Cardassia. Yellow clouds filled the sky, making everything hot and muggy. A slight drizzle began, although it was almost indistinguishable from the general humidity.

The hospital across the road was another warehouse, like the one Bashir had left. Instead of supplies, this one was filled with people. He grimaced at the injuries he saw – a man with no legs, a child with a burned face and arms, people suffering from fevers and skin diseases that Cardassians had eradicated centuries ago.

Bashir helped the mix of Federation and Cardassian doctors at the hospital as long as he could. Just before the appointed hour, he left for Garak’s rendezvous point. The rarely-seen Cardassian sun was setting behind the clouds, and Bashir felt unnerved by the failing light. He remembered that Cardassian nights at this latitude were long, and envied the natives for their ability to see well in the dark.

After an eternity of stubbing his toes on piles of rubble, Bashir reached the coordinates. By then it was entirely dark. His only comfort was the red blinking light of the hand-held geopositioning device he’d used to find the location. Around him, black heaps of rubble loomed against a slightly less-black sky. The humid air was suffused by the sickly-sweet smell of decay. There were no noises – no animals, no birds, no people. No life. A shiver went down Bashir’s spine, and he hoped Garak would get there soon.

Bashir sat down on the remains of someone’s doorstep and waited. After a half an hour, he was ready to give up.

He heard the click before he felt the pressure on the back of his head. He didn’t recognize the sound, but knew it was nothing good.

“Get up,” said the owner of the disruptor aimed at Bashir’s head.

Bashir tried to comply, but it wasn’t necessary. A second Cardassian yanked him to his feet. Before he knew what was happening, he was being halfway-thrown down a dark stairway. Then he was dragged down a long corridor. Bashir marveled that the Cardassians could see where they were going in the darkness. The brief and exciting trip ended with Bashir being shoved in a small, unfurnished room. He didn’t need to try the door to know it was locked.

It occurred to Bashir that his kidnappers might be planning to ransom him back to Starfleet. If so, he was in trouble. Starfleet had a strict policy against ransoming its personnel. Otherwise the problem could get out of hand, like it did 100 years ago with the Orion pirates. Bashir sincerely hoped his “hosts” were familiar with Starfleet’s policy. It would be ironic to have survived the war, just to get killed now, he thought.

After an hour, the door opened. Bashir was relieved to see Garak walk in.

“Am I glad to see you! How have you been?”

Garak smiled. “Never better.”

“You look different. What is it?” Bashir noticed that Garak didn’t seem to be wearing his usual sort of clothes. It was difficult to tell in the gloom, but he seemed to be wearing something dark gray or black.

“Is that a new suit?” Bashir asked. “Keeping up with the tailoring?”

Garak looked at his clothes, apparently puzzled, and laughed slightly. “No, I’m afraid my current activities leave little time for tailoring.”

Bashir tried to make his voice sound casual. “So what have you been up to, anyway?”

“Oh, I’ve been very busy. I’m organizing a group that, in its small way, will help rebuild Cardassia. A ‘New Order,’ if you will.”

“I see. Those fellows who brought me here – are they part of your ‘group’?”

Garak chucked. “I do apologize for their manners. I simply asked them to escort you here. The streets unfortunately are far from safe. Their overzealous natures are explainable, if not excusable. Right now, Cardassians have a heightened regard for security. And…” Garak paused.

“And what? Come on, Garak. What were you going to say?”

“This is very awkward,” Garak said, although he did not appear embarrassed in the least. “Cardassians do appreciate the Federation’s help, really. But I’m afraid my associates – like many Cardassians – harbor a bit of hostility toward Starfleet.”

Bashir shrugged. “Oh. That’s perfectly understandable. Until a few months ago, we were at war with…”

Garak shook his head. “It’s not that. Cardassians aren’t the sort of people to hold grudges towards, how shall I put it? Honorable opponents in combat. We aren’t exactly Klingons, drinking with our enemies on the eve of battle and all that nonsense. But we aren’t Romulans, either. Holding grudges for centuries, really. That would just be rude.”

“Then what’s the problem?”

“There is considerable resentment towards the Federation’s overly-charitable policy towards the Dominion.”

“You mean, the treaty,” Bashir replied. He could understand why Cardassians would resent the treaty that ended the war. After all, the Dominion had been given very favorable terms. The war had essentially been called a draw, and the belligerents had withdrawn to their corners of the galaxy. The continued peace depended on all parties honoring the agreement to stay out of their neighbor’s space.

Bashir tried to be conciliatory. “You’re not the only person in the quadrant who didn’t like the treaty. Several Romulan senators were mad as hornets about it. There was some grumbling on the Klingon High Council that the Dominion was treated too leniently. Even people within the Federation questioned the wisdom of not disarming the Dominion. Advocate T’Poan of Vulcan called the treaty ‘illogical.’”

“Ah, Vulcans. I’ve always admired them. Such intelligent people.”

“So does that mean you do oppose the treaty?”

“And why shouldn’t I? The treaty allowed the Dominion to take its starships, all its means of waging war, and simply go home. If I didn’t know better, from reading the treaty, one could get the impression that the Federation lost the war.”

“The treaty simply acknowledges that both sides made errors that led to the conflict,” Bashir said patiently. “We had a choice, either to remain at each others’ throats or to try to settle our differences and keep out of each others’ territories. The treaty does that. We stay in our space, they stay in theirs. And they’ve lived up to their end of the bargain, haven’t they? Isn’t it better than continuing a costly war? I think we got a damned good deal with that treaty.”

“I’m afraid that’s where I have to disagree with you.” Garak’s voice was as smooth as ever, but Bashir once again got that strange feeling – there was something definitely different about Garak, a savage edge to his civilized manner. “To my knowledge, only the female changeling has been punished for war crimes. You’ve seen the destruction on Cardassia. Did she manage to kill 800 million of my people all by herself?”

“Oh, come on, Garak. I can understand why you’re bitter about the Dominion. But still, you can’t take it out on the Vorta and Jem’Hadar. They were only….”

“Following orders? Strange, I know little of Earth history, but there is something about that phrase that rings a bell. Perhaps you could enlighten me?”

“Garak, I’m sorry if you feel betrayed by the treaty. But the peace is holding, and I really doubt that anyone in the Federation is going to upset that by seeking vengeance against the Dominion…”

“You misunderstand me, Doctor. I didn’t ask you here to discuss vengeance, or even politics.”

Bashir smiled. This was the ever-devious Garak he knew. It was almost a relief to see the mask re-emerge. “All right, Garak. What did you ‘ask’ me here to discuss?”

“I wanted to finish our discussion of your favorite enigma tale.”

Bashir was nonplussed. “To be honest, I don’t have a favorite enigma tale.” Bashir found enigma tales - the convoluted, repetitious, and extremely verbose novels favored by Cardassians – to be nearly unreadable. Garak had spent years trying to convince Bashir of the great literary merit of enigma tales, but the doctor had never managed to get through a single one of them

“Of course you do,” Garak persisted. “Reflections of a Loyal Life by Gami Krale. Don’t tell me you don’t remember it? You read it four years ago, and seemed quite impressed by its insights.”

Bashir sighed. “I really don’t remember it, Garak. What was it about?”

“A very uplifting tale of two friends. It was set during the ancient Hebetian period, during a time just before a terrible civil war broke out. The friends agreed on everything, except for the impending war. One friend was sure it would break out soon, and that rather than wait, their side should stop being so blind and prepare for the inevitable. The second friend argued that to prepare for a war might bring one about, and that they should do nothing.”

“Garak, I don’t recall reading that book in the first place. So how did it turn out? Which one was right?”

“That’s the brilliant thing about this particular enigma tale. It’s unfinished, and deliberately so. The reader must decide for himself which of the friends was right.”

“There was a philosopher in Earth’s history who once said, ‘One cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war.’ So I’d have to side with the second friend.”

Garak smiled. “Of course, that answer is as valid as any other. It will be interesting to see how the tale turns out.”

Bashir frowned. “Turns out? You said it was unfinished.”

“The author is still alive. He was fortunate to be…away from the destruction when the Dominion began razing the cities. So there is still the possibility that he may choose to finish his tale.”

“Well, if he does, be sure to send me a copy,” Bashir said, getting up and making it clear he had to leave.

“I certainly shall.”

Bashir was soon back out on the street. He knew that Garak didn’t call him there just to discuss literature. He had the odd feeling that his strange Cardassian friend, in his usual oblique way, had asked him to do something. And that Bashir had refused. But what he had refused to do was something of a mystery.

The Masersis Corridor was a well-traveled stretch of interstellar space. For a time, it had seen regular Dominion convoys, being the most direct route between Dominion space and the wormhole leading to the Alpha Quadrant. All that had stopped nearly two years before, when an entire fleet had been “swallowed” by the wormhole.

Now, for the first time in years, a pinprick of light appeared. It multiplied into a hundred points of light, then thousands. The points resolved into silver, bug-shaped figures with glowing purple undercarriages. Most were smallish, with a few large cruisers here and there. It was the Dominion fleet, coming home.

Three thousand vessels were returning from the Alpha Quadrant, the last of several phases of returning vessels. Like a swarm of deadly insects, the cruisers, supercruisers and assorted freighters flew in tight formation towards the borders of the Dominion, as established by the treaty of Bajor-B'hava'el, the treaty that ended the war.

After crossing the border, a segment of the fleet broke off at each star system along the way and stopped there. The returning Jem’Hadar and Vorta would be redeployed around Dominion space. They already had their orders from the Founder who had remained in the Quadrant that her servants had left. With no hesitation, they obeyed her command.

By the time the fleet had neared the core of Dominion space, the number of vessels had been reduced by half. At yet another nondescript star system, two dozen vessels broke formation and dropped out of warp towards the yellow star of Kurill. The rest of the fleet sailed on, towards the remaining systems on their route.

Kilana stood motionless on the bridge of the cruiser, one of a dozen assigned to this system. It meant nothing to her that she was returning to Kurill, the system where the Vorta had originated.

Born in the Alpha Quadrant, the seventh of her line, Kilana had been immediately assigned to her current vessel as a field supervisor. Her hair was short, dark and curly, her skin icy pale. She wore the nondescript green and brown uniform common to all of her kind. In most ways, she was the prototypical Vorta.

But Kilana was different. She bore the sad memories of the sixth Kilana, who had failed to save the life of one of her gods and activated her termination implant soon after. Against all expectation, she had not been deemed defective for the failure, and she had been awakened from the cloning vat to continue the esteemed Kilana line.

The cloud she was under was solely of her own creation. It was an unfortunate fact of Vorta existence that each new clone would receive the memories of all former clones. It was necessary. Otherwise, how could a new clone understand the roles and responsibilities of his predecessors? But it also meant that the she line would forever be haunted by that gravest of failures.

The Jem’Hadar First announced that the orbital station was close enough to begin docking procedures. Kilana adjusted the virtual display in front of her eye and focused her mind back on her work.

Kilana looked out onto the Kurill system. The yellow star was orbited by four planets. There was a small orb of molten metal near the star and two gas giants further out. In between was one planet covered with the green of verdant forests and grasslands, and the deep blue of calm seas.

The axial tilt of Kurill Prime was not severe, and so the seasonal shifts were mild. Rainy cool weather alternated with somewhat less rainy, warm periods. A human happening upon the planet might have called it paradise. Perhaps in distant times, Kilana’s ancestors had thought the same. But the current residents of Kurill Prime cared no more for the planet of their forebears than they did for any other of ten thousand inhabited worlds in the Dominion. None of them were capable in the least of appreciating their planet’s beauty.

Kurill Prime was fortunate in being resource-poor. This, and not any misplaced feelings of love towards their homeworld, was all that had prevented the Vorta from stripping this planet bare, the way they had done with so many others.

Girdling Kurill Prime was the continuous loop of a ring-shaped space station. The vast structure served as the administrative and supply hub for several sectors. As Kilana’s ship approached, the metallic hull of the ring station faced the fires of the Kurill star and glowed fiercely in the light.

Kilana spoke into her communicator. “Vessel 1457 to Kurill Docking Control. Request docking.”

A smooth, bored voice responded. “Vessel 1457, please provide authentication codes.”

Kilana complied. She had expected heightened security. Kurill Prime held the distinction of housing several of the Dominion’s most sensitive installations - ketracel-white processing plants and cloning facilities for both Vorta and Jem’Hadar. Kilana took no offense at the lengthy authentications she was required to go through at the demand of the curt voice on the other end of the comlink.

A length, protocol was satisfied. “Vessel 1457 cleared for docking.”

The airlock dilated and the vessel docked. Kilana left the vessel and the Jem’Hadar stayed. That, too, was normal. The First would know their next assignment. Kilana neither knew nor cared. Of course, she didn’t bother to bid farewell to the Jem’Hadar she had lived with aboard that ship for the past two years. Like all Vorta, Kilana regarded the Jem’Hadar as just more Dominion-owned equipment. Disposable, replaceable, and valuable only in their potential to serve the glorious Founders.

Kilana had her own tasks to carry out. Her orders had come through, and she was to be reassigned to another outpost, in the Calmendi system. She had never heard of it, but the Vorta who had relayed the message said that there had been some sort of unexplained trouble in Calmendi. Several Vortas with recent combat experience in the Alpha Quadrant were being sent to the outpost.

She took a turbolift to the secured area, three levels higher. No Jem’Hadar was ever allowed on this level. The briefing room was just a few steps from the turbolift door. She entered the room to find the briefing already underway.

The room was dark, lit only by a display at the front. A Vorta was in the process of explaining something to a crowd of about twenty. The display changed, and orange and green lights flickered briefly across the pale, attentive faces of the assembled Vorta.

The display was a schematic of the Calmendi orbital station. “The invaders were wiped out here, and here,” the Vorta said, indicating the places where the rebels met their ends. “There was no significant disruption of the station’s activities. No vital systems were ever in any real danger. A few Jem’Hadar were killed.”

Someone in the audience spoke. “What measures have been taken to prevent a recurrence of the rebellion?”

“One of the planet’s continents has been rendered uninhabitable,” the Vorta said, blandly.

“No reprisals among the population?” the other said, surprised.

“Not directly, no. We’ve found that the Calmendi do not respond well to deaths among their people. Destroying all plant and animal life in a large segment of their land has a much more demoralizing effect. They are quite sentimental about their wretched little planet. And they don’t have much land mass. The continent’s population has been relocated, and they’ll be more crowded and impoverished now. The population in general will see that the rebels have hurt them, not helped them.”

Kilana spoke up. “What caused the attack?”

“That’s what you will be sent to Calmendi to determine. And we don’t think this is any ordinary rebellion, or else we wouldn’t bother to investigate. The Calmendi have never been particularly troublesome. We suspect outside agitators instigated this attack. We want to know who they are. They need to be stopped before they cause any further disruption to the peace and security of the Dominion.”

“Is Calmendi important strategically?” another Vorta asked.

“No,” the lead Vorta said peevishly. “Its resources are gone, and its location is utterly unimportant. And if the answer were so simple, don’t you think we’d have discovered it by now?”

The assembled Vorta were given their orders. When Kilana came forward to receive hers, the lead Vorta took her aside.

The Vorta waited until the others had left the room. “My name is Tevan,” he began. “And I wanted to speak with you because your service record implies that you understand Alpha Quadrant races. I think when the truth is uncovered about Calmendi, you’ll find that someone in that quadrant is involved.”

Kilana was appalled. “Then they’ve broken the treaty!”

“We don’t know that for sure. But it’s very possible. They wouldn’t regard the treaty with the same reverence as we do. If you discover that Alpha Quadrant races are behind the attack, I want you to report it to me, personally.”

Tevan dismissed Kilana, and she walked out, her mind reeling.

The Alpha Quadrant races were capable of acts of such betrayal. She knew that. But still, she could never understand their thinking. The treaty had been signed by the Founders. It was therefore sacred, and any servant of the Dominion would rather die than violate it.

The treaty was a complex document, but its aim was simple. The Alpha Quadrant races – the Klingons, the Romulans and the Federation – were prohibited from entering Dominion space. In turn, Dominion vessels were barred from ever passing through the wormhole to the Alpha Quadrant.

All that mattered was for the will of the Founders to be upheld, and the treaty was all that the Vorta had left of that will. The Founders had retired to The Great Link, trusting that their servants would handle all the mundane affairs of the Dominion. It was said that Odo joined them later. Since that time, Link had remained a placid, rolling sea. No Founder had emerged to summon their servants. It was possible that none ever would.

In some parts of the Dominion, things had gotten a little disorderly. Disruptive elements had taken advantage of the distraction of the war to cause trouble. Four hundred and fifteen planets had been punished for various infractions. Fortunately, the Dominion possessed weapons capable of killing people without damaging infrastructure, and industrial production had not been materially affected.

The Vorta returning from the Alpha Quadrant, like Kilana, had swiftly been re-integrated into the Dominion hierarchy. But the war had not been without its pain. The Founder who had led the Dominion forces had sacrificed herself in order to ensure the safety of the Link. Kilana, remembering the great sacrifice of her god, found it difficult not to cry. The treaty was sacred because it was the will of the Founders, but even more so because it had been paid for by the freedom of a Founder.

Kilana felt angry at the Calmendi rebels, and even angrier at whoever it was from the Alpha Quadrant who had instigated the trouble. She swore that she would get to the bottom of it. To, in some small way, ensure that the Founder’s sacrifice had not been in vain. And that the Dominion would continue to reign in peace and prosperity, as it had done for millennia, and would do for millennia to come.

Bashir’s shift was over, and out of force of habit, he wandered into Quark’s bar. It was late evening, the hour when the bar was at its most lively.

Elbowing his way through the raucous crowds, Bashir glimpsed something sad in the corner of the room. The dartboard. O’Brien had left it behind, but Bashir hadn’t had the heart to play a single game since. Then he saw Kira at a nearby table, and walked over.

“What are you drinking?” he inquired. It was a rhetorical question. Kira always drank the same thing.

She held up the glass of sparkling, clear liquid. “Wanna join me? What’s that Earth saying…?”

“Misery loves company,” Bashir guessed. He nodded towards the Ferengi waiter. “I’ll have another,” he said, pointing at Kira’s glass.

Kira was astonished. “What are you, a Betazoid?”

“Just an observer. If you don’t mind my saying so, you looked pretty…”

“Miserable? That’s surprising, because I’m feeling more angry than anything else.”

“More bureaucrats getting under your skin?”

Kira nodded. “But not Bajoran bureaucrats this time. Starfleet Intelligence.”

“Really?” Bashir said, as the waiter brought the spring wine. He sipped it gingerly. Not too sweet. He liked it. “What did they want?”

Kira threw up her hands in exasperation. “They wanted Captain Sisko’s personal logs! Can you believe the gall?”

Bashir was puzzled. “I thought they already downloaded copies of his personal logs, months ago when he…joined the Prophets.”

“Yes, they did! But now Starfleet Intelligence wants the erased logs as well.”

Bashir almost choked on the wine. “They want the erased logs? Why? Aren’t they, well…erased?”

Kira laughed ironically. “Maybe they enjoy listening to the blank hiss of erased logs. To be serious, I suppose they could try to reconstruct the logs.”

Bashir nodded. “Could be. No matter how securely you think you’ve erased something from the computer, it could still be stored there. Miles explained it to me once. When I accidentally deleted an important medical file, he came by, fiddled with the computer, and there it was. I wondered how he did that. Turns out, the file was still in the computer. Erasing it had just released the storage area to be overwritten. But no new files had been stored in that area, so the original file was still readable. I suppose if Sisko’s erased logs hadn’t been subsequently overwritten, there might still be something there to find.”

Kira shook her head. “If he wanted to keep something private, he would have used a pretty sophisticated erasure algorithm.”

Bashir shrugged. “And I imagine Starfleet Intelligence has some pretty sophisticated un-erasure algorithms as well.”

Kira took another gulp of wine and resumed her complaining. “What rankles me is, what business do they have, poking around in the captain’s personal logs, anyway?”

“That is unusual. They must be looking for something pretty important.”

Kira combadge beeped. One of the many new voices in Ops was speaking. “Could you return to Ops, Colonel?” the voice was young and a bit frightened. “We detected something coming through the wormhole.”

Kira and Bashir exchanged glances. The wormhole was a major source of tension. The treaty kept the Dominion out, but who knew if they would stay out? Every freighter passing through from the Gamma Quadrant could be the vanguard of an invasion fleet. Everyone was on edge for trouble.

Kira headed immediately back to Ops. Bashir followed behind, just as concerned.

The young ensign who’d called was at the scanning station in Ops. “It doesn’t appear armed or hostile,” he said. “But I can’t identify…wait, I’m getting visual.”

A face appeared on the screen. Kira flinched. It was an unfamiliar species, and not a pretty one, either. It didn’t even appear to have a head, just a topknot of grotesque pink tentacles. They squirmed like a nest of tube grubs. A round white glob of jelly protruded from the end of each tentacle. Kira assumed those were the thing’s eyes.

“I am sorry to be a bother,” the creature said, although the location of its mouth was a mystery. “I am Fortunate Breeze, captain of the Living Star, lately of the Calmendi system.”

“I’ve never heard of Calmendi,” Kira said.

“Understandable,” Fortunate Breeze continued, in his soft tones. “Our world is within the territory of the Dominion. It is terrible for our people there. We have escaped, and we request sanctuary.”

Kira relaxed. “If you want to apply for sanctuary with the Federation or Bajor, you’ll have to go through official channels. In the meantime, you can stay at DS9. Do you wish to dock?”

The tentacles waggled. “I only need passage through this sector. The Calmendi have friends elsewhere in this quadrant. They are also friends of the Federation. There is no need to be suspicious of me.”

Kira narrowed her eyes. The captain seemed sincere, and his vessel was not made for fighting. She remembered what it was like during the Dominion occupation of DS9. It had only been a short time, a few months, but it had seemed like a lifetime. She thought about this captain and his crew, living their entire lives under Dominion rule. Her heart softened and she decided that the Calmendi were no threat. No threat at all.

“No problem,” Kira said. “You’re free to go on your way. And good luck.”

Tevan had warned Kilana that Calmendi was a backwater outpost, and it certainly was. The station was small and its technology was outdated. Of course, she had been used to only the most advanced Dominion technology in the Alpha Quadrant. The war had been a high priority. Kilana realized she had to be patient and adjust to the mundane life of a Dominion administrator. Tevan had been certain there was more to the Calmendi attack than disgruntled natives. If so, what she uncovered here could be vitally important.

Very little evidence had been left on the station to indicate that there had ever been an attack. A few phaser burns in the corridor, that was all. Kilana shook her head at such useless resistance.

Tevan accompanied Kilana on their inspection. “Twenty Calmendi broke in, a ridiculous number considering that the Jem’Hadar complement was over 300,” Tevan explained. “Ten of the Calmendi attacked the command center, which was the logical target. Of course, they were wiped out almost immediately. The other ten, for no apparent reason, climbed the access tunnel up to the 14th level and attacked a unit guarding one of a dozen polaron power generators.”

“Was there anything…?” Kilana begin.

“No,” Tevan said impatiently. “There was no particular significance to that generator. Even if the terrorists had knocked it out – in the unlikely event that they could have gotten through the door – it would have had no effect on the overall power supply. The attack was entirely pointless.”

Kilana had heard of suicide missions like this one. Sometimes, the inhabitants of worlds under Dominion rule seemed to go mad and do strange things. “Perhaps this was like the Betholda uprising,” she suggested. “An irrational outburst with no objective and no hope of success.”

Tevan shook his head. “We might have thought so, if it weren’t for a few disturbing items we found among the attackers. Each of the Calmendi corpses was armed with a Romulan disrupter.”

“Romulan!” Kilana said, as the hair on her neck stood up. The fifth Kilana had died vainly trying to defend the Founder homeworld from the sneak Romulan-Cardassian attack several years earlier. Kilana still had vivid memories of Romulans.

“But there’s more,” Tevan said. “The disrupters carried by the team that attacked the power generator were placed on non-lethal settings.”

Kilana was confused. “I was not aware Romulan disrupters had non-lethal settings.”

“The ones used by the military don’t,” Tevan said. “These disrupters were specialized models, which the Romulans use only on their own territories, in policing operations. That is one of the biggest mysteries here. A smuggler could have obtained Romulan police disrupters only with great difficulty. Military ordnance would have been much simpler to obtain.”

“So I assume they used the non-lethal settings?” Kilana said.

Tevan nodded. “All the Jem’Hadar in that unit were stunned, not killed.”

Kilana smiled at the thought of anyone – especially enemies of the Dominion – going to such lengths to safeguard Jem’Hadar lives. “So we are dealing with unusually humane Romulans?” she asked ironically.

Tevan frowned in thought. “We still don’t know if the Romulans had anything to do with this. Among the Calmendi bodies was another item. A Federation tricorder. And not an old, surplus model, either. It was a sophisticated device of recent manufacture.”

“The Romulans and Federation are known to be allies.”

“Very tenuous allies. Particularly now that there is no war to justify their alliance. I have some new intelligence briefings on the political situation in the Alpha Quadrant, which you should read.”

“Is their alliance collapsing?”

“The situation is confusing, but it appears so. The Federation is, as always, laughably simple to figure out. They want to keep the alliance going because they are afraid of the Romulans. They’ve always depended on their good relations with the Klingon Empire to counterbalance the Romulans. But the Klingons are in terrible shape now. And the Cardassians obviously no longer can provide a check to Romulan ambitions.”

Kilana nodded with satisfaction. Served the Cardassians right for helping destroy the Founders’ homeworld. If only the Romulans had been stupid enough to ally themselves with the Dominion as well…
Tevan continued. “The only important powers in the Alpha Quadrant are now the Federation and the Romulans. No one is certain what will happen next. Some factions on Romulus advocate closer ties to the Federation. At the other end of the spectrum, there are the Romulan warmongers who have never wanted anything but the Federation’s total destruction. You can find members of the Senate with every opinion inbetween.”

“Even if their alliance is falling apart, they might join together to support a rebel operation against us,” Kilana said.

“True. But there are other factors to consider. After the attack, we discovered that one of the Jem’Hadar guards was missing. No doubt, that was the reason the rebels didn’t kill all of them.”

Kilana raised her eyebrows in surprise. “Missing?”

“My thoughts exactly. Who in the name of the Founders would bother to kidnap a Jem’Hadar? But the fact remains. The unit swears that one of its number has vanished.”

“Are you sure he was not vaporized by a disrupter?”

“I am sure. There were traces from a long-range transporter in the area. The Calmendi must have placed a transponder on him. We can tell from the traces that it was a Dominion transponder, of the type used by our own forces in the Alpha Quadrant. It’s possible that some of the transponders were left behind after our withdrawal.”

Kilana saw the significance of this. “And would still be in Cardassian hands?”

Tevan shrugged. “Or Federation hands. Or Klingon, or Romulan, or Breen…”

“I see the difficulty. The whole scenario is incomprehensible. But we cannot serve the Founders well by being complacent. I will get to the bottom of this.”

The Rugath virus was a mystery, wrapped in a riddle, contained in two strands of DNA encased in a protein shell. And it was driving Bashir nuts.

The doctor studied the magnified image of the virus on the display. He was back in his infirmary on DS9, using his time between medical runs to try to develop a cure for one of the many new plagues ravaging the Cardassian population. Bashir suspected at least some of the diseases had been caused by biogenic weapons, used by the Dominion during their final spasm of destruction.

His attention was diverted by a call coming in from Starfleet Medical. Bashir assumed it was the authorization he’d requested, for more personnel and ships to help in the Cardassian relief. He didn’t like being away from station himself so often. After all, he was supposed to be DS9’s resident doctor, and it wasn’t fair to the people living on the station for him to be gone so much.

But the functionary on the viewscreen knew nothing about the authorization. He had perplexing news. Starfleet Medical had an emergency project for Bashir, one that took precedence over Cardassia.

“What could take precedence over that?” Bashir said testily. “Have you been to Cardassia? Ten thousand people a day are dying…”

“We’re sending more than enough personnel and medical supplies to handle the situation,” the man on the viewscreen said. Bashir grimaced and wondered if that were true. “The Defiant can continue making the runs, but you’re to stay on the station and work on finishing your ketracel-white cure.”

Bashir asked the man to repeat that last part. Then he shook his head. “I’m sorry to be rude, but are you insane? What possible reason…”

“You can do it, can’t you?” the man said angrily. “Your report on the Bopak 3 incident implied that you had developed a way to cure the Jem’Hadar of their addiction!”

“Yes, I did. I found a way to change their genetic structure so that their bodies would naturally produce the isogenic enzyme they need in order to survive. But I filed that report nearly four years ago. And you’re just getting back to me now?”

“You know Starfleet bureaucracy,” the man said with an ironic grin.

Bashir didn’t see the humor. “Do you have any idea how important that cure was? It could have saved the Jem’Hadar from slavery to the Dominion. But it’s useless now! If we try to cure the Jem’Hadar, we would be…”

“Violating the treaty. Yes, I know. The cure isn’t for the Jem’Hadar. It’s for a planet – you don’t need to know the name, but it’s in Federation space. It’s in an area where the Orion Syndicate has been very active. The planet has a widespread drug addiction problem, and we’ve finally tracked down the cause. The Syndicate got ahold of some of their allies’ white supply, modified it, and sold it to the unfortunate people on this planet. They’ll probably do the same thing elsewhere, so we need to develop an antidote to it in a hurry. That’s why this is such a priority. It comes from the highest levels of Starfleet Medical.”

Bashir shook his head. “The most direct way to approach this problem would be for me to work on an antidote to the modified white. Not the original formula.”

“No, no, no. Medical just wants you to re-create your cure for ketracel-white. The original type. Other researchers can take it from there.”

“But why? That would simply take longer…”

“Listen, doctor. I’m just a bureaucrat, not a mind-reader. This is what I was told to pass on. Now are you going to do it, or am I going to have to tell the Director something that might get you court-martialled?”

“No, I’m not going to do anything. Not until I get a better explanation. Why should I work on your ‘mystery project’ while lives are being lost on Cardassia…”

The bureaucrat brightened as he thought of something. “How many doctors do you need on Cardassia, anyway?”

Bashir was taken aback. “Fifteen hundred…maybe sixteen hundred. Why?”

“How about this. I go right to the Director and make sure those doctors are immediately reassigned to Cardassia. And you stop arguing and work on the cure. Is that a deal?”

Bashir was amazed. “You can do that?”

“No, but the Director can.”

“And Starfleet Medical wants this cure that badly.”

The man nodded.

“Well…” Bashir faltered. He wasn’t about to let this incredible opportunity slip through his grasp, even if it made no sense. “I suppose we have a deal. But there’s one more problem. I need a sample of a specific Jem’Hadar’s blood in order to…”

“Right, Goran’Agar. A case of his blood samples will be shipped to you by tomorrow.”

“Wait! How in the galaxy did you get…”

“Nice doing business with you, doc.” The man signed off and Bashir was left to ponder the mysterious ways of bureaucrats. Some of them can be more confusing than Garak.

For the next few days, Bashir fielded dozens of subspace messages from his overburdened colleagues on Cardassia, thanking him for persuading Starfleet Medical to send more help. Bashir deflected the praise, not from false modesty, but from puzzlement. Evidently, the Director had lived up to his end of the bargain. To send so many doctors to Cardassia must have put strain on countless other Starfleet operations, and Bashir couldn’t help but feel guilty.

And mystified. The case of blood samples had arrived, and a quick check had confirmed the unbelievable fact that it was Goran’Agar’s.

So he must have survived Bopak 3, Bashir thought. But how did the Federation obtain these samples? There was no point puzzling over it. If there really was an addicted planet, Bashir had a duty to help.

He still had his notes from four years ago, and realized that re-creating the cure would be simple. It might take him, at most, one week. But he still didn’t like the situation. It rankled him that he had been left in the dark like this.

It still bothered him later that evening, when he and Ezri were having a nice, quiet dinner. From a distance, Ezri had always considered Julian’s obsession with his work to be endearing. But it became increasingly less charming when it was the sole topic of conversation.

When things in the infirmary were going well, Bashir would actually talk slowly enough that she could ask the occasional question. She did her best to steer the dinner conversation away from gory topics. Bashir had that amazing ability, common in his profession, to discuss the color and texture of someone’s intestines while slurping up a plate of spaghetti. Ezri’s stomach was considerably less strong.

But when Bashir was excited or angry about something that happened in the infirmary – like this evening – he generally launched into a lengthy diatribe seemingly without pausing for breath, waving his fork around to emphasize his points, while his food congealed on the plate. At times like these, Ezri found herself reminiscing about the marriage of her former host, Jadzia, to Worf. The Klingon’s dinner conversation had been limited to terse statements such as, “this bloodwine is good, very dry,” and “pass the gagh.”

“Ezri! Ezri, are you listening?”

“Um? Oh, of course, Julian.”

“Well, what do you think about it?”

Ezri was at a loss. “About what?”

“About Starfleet Medical just calling me out of the blue and telling me to finish work on the ketracel-white cure! It’s maddening. I could have finished the cure by now, if they had just allowed me to. I don’t know how many reports I filed with Medical, pointing out how important the cure was. They ignored me for years, and now suddenly they want me to finish the work, now that the war is over and it can’t do the Jem’Hadar any good.”

“But you wouldn’t have been able to finish the cure, right? Didn’t you need a blood sample from that…what was his name?”

“Goran’Agar. But that’s the most maddening thing of all! They sent me the blood samples. Starfleet must have him in custody! I wonder how long ago he was captured. I might have been able to finish the cure long ago. Not only would it have freed the Jem’Hadar from the Dominion, but imagine what a boon it would have been to the war effort!”

“Would it have been? How do you know the Jem’Hadar would have deserted the Dominion? They seem to be fanatical towards the Founders.”

“Granted, it wouldn’t have made them stop worshipping the Founders. But the Vorta control the Jem’Hadar only through the ketracel-white. At the very least, the cure would have caused chaos in the Dominion command structure.”

“Julian, why fight old wars? The war is over, it’s a moot point now.”

“I know. It’s just aggravating. And I hate having to work this way. Do you know Starfleet Medical won’t tell me anything about the situation? Which planet has been addicted, the people, their physiology, details on how the altered ketracel-white differs from the original…anything! Just work on the cure, that’s all they’ll tell me. They’ll use my work as the basis for developing the cure for that specific planet. Why not just let me work on the specific cure?”

“That is strange. Why are they being so secretive?”

“It’s a touchy matter for some reason. Maybe the planet in question is actually in Orion-held space.”

“You don’t think Section 31 has anything to do with this, do you?”

“I don’t see how.” Bashir picked at his food morosely.

This Goran’Agar was a very interesting person. For a Jem’Hadar.

The various Vorta assigned to the Calmendi outpost had each taken a different assignment in their investigation. Kilana had been assigned to research the identity of the missing member of the team guarding the polaron generator.

The more she dug, the more Kilana was convinced of something very surprising. The attack on the outpost had not been aimed at the outpost. Or the generator.

The sole intent had been to abduct one Jem’Hadar.

Kilana had all of Goran’Agar’s records in front of her. She was stunned at the oversight they implied. Several years ago, he had been stranded on a planetoid, named Bopak 3. He had been subsequently rescued, and no further inquiry into the matter had ever been made. Well, that was normal. A Vorta would have been in charge of the rescue team, and since when did a Vorta ever think twice about one stray Jem’Hadar?

But a few years later, the same thing had happened. This time, Goran’Agar had gone AWOL, taking his entire unit. Months later, he had been discovered. His unit was dead. There were signs that the Jem’Hadar had killed one another, and that Goran’Agar was the sole survivor.

The incident had apparently been glossed over. Tensions had been rising with the Alpha Quadrant powers. Goran’Agar had quickly been reassigned to a forward unit. Under the circumstances, no one was very interested in investigating this odd but probably trivial situation.

But to Kilana, it was far from trivial. For starters, Goran’Agar should not have been able to survive on Bopak 3 either time he was there. His white supply had run out, and he should have died. Kilana was horrified that this had been overlooked, not once, but twice. The Vorta tendency to discount the importance of Jem’Hadar had led them to make bad decisions often enough. This was just another example.

There was no overlooking it now. It was clear. Goran’Agar, for whatever reason, was not dependent on the white. He had gone for years without anyone noticing.

Kilana looked up from the monitor and rubbed her eyes wearily. This was an incredible discovery, with horrifying implications. The peace and security of the Dominion depended on the Jem’Hadar, and they could only be trusted as long as they depended on the white for their survival. Evidently, Goran’Agar was a genetic fluke. But such a fluke could be copied…

A theory began to form in Kilana’s mind. The Calmendi – or their unknown allies in the Alpha Quadrant – had discovered a fatal chink in the Dominion’s armor. If the Jem’Hadar could be cured of their need for ketracel-white, what guarantee was there that they would remain loyal? And without the Jem’Hadar, the Dominion would collapse. Hundreds or thousands of worlds were just like Calmendi. Seething with resentment, ready to rebel, held back only by the knowledge that resistance would lead to a futile death. Without the Jem’Hadar, such uprisings could succeed.

Kilana continued her investigation. She dug up old files from the Dominion survey team that found Goran’Agar the second time. They cataloged some strange equipment found on the planet, badly smashed. The cataloging was haphazard, and Kilana had to fill in the blanks by journeying several days to the supply depot where the salvaged items were still in storage.

Vorta bureaucracy is formidable. Even other Vortas find it daunting. The official in charge of the supply depot was old and grouchy, a veteran of many wars, who saw her safe post as the due recompense for her life of service to the Dominion. She ruled the grungy, dark supply depot and made it very clear to Kilana that her word was law.

But Kilana was even more determined to find what she sought than the malicious old Vorta was to hide it from her. Finally, Kilana was admitted to the dark and confusing corridors where the cataloged items were stored.

Behind a hundred crates of tulaberry wine, stacked to the rafters, Kilana found what she sought. The equipment salvaged from Bopak 3. She hauled it out into the light – what passed for light in the corridors – and took a good look at it.

She recognized a desultory collection of Dominion equipment, warped and beaten. It looked as though someone had attacked it with a club. Kilana assumed that the Jem’Hadar, in the throes of withdrawal, had caused the destruction.

Then she stumbled across something that made her stomach turn. A Federation tricorder

She took a better look. Specifically, it was a medical tricorder. It was badly smashed and totally unusable. But she was certain that it was significant. Especially when she found other bashed-up Federation equipment among the scraps.

Someone had cobbled together a mish-mash of Dominion and Federation equipment on Bopak 3. The Jem’Hadar may have destroyed it, but they hadn’t assembled it in the first place. They wouldn’t have had the knowledge to. Who had brought the Federation parts to Bopak 3 and assembled it? More importantly, for what purpose?

Over the next several hours, Kilana re-assembled the equipment, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Its purpose had definitely been medical. Knowing what she did about Goran’Agar, she was not surprised to discover that she was reconstructing a crystallography device.

Kilana was no expert on genetics, but then, every Vorta knew something about the subject. Being created by genetic engineering gave one a natural interest. Crystallography was the means by which the structure of DNA would be revealed. If a scientist wanted to analyze someone’s DNA – in order, for instance, to re-create it – he would start with a crystallography device. Just like this one.

The pieces fit all too neatly. Goran’Agar, with his unique and dangerous genetic makeup, had been on Bopak 3. Perhaps he had stolen the Federation equipment. Perhaps he had met Federation scientists capable of learning how and why he was not dependent on the white.

And perhaps the Federation had learned the secret, but their research had been abortive. They had been driven away before it was complete. Now, they needed Goran’Agar – specifically, his DNA – in order to continue their work. The Calmendi had abducted Goran’Agar. It was obvious now where he had gone.

Kilana left the dark corridors, passing back through the main lobby of the supply depot. As she made her way to the airlock where her vessel was docked, she passed some Jem’Hadar. Like most Vorta, she usually didn’t notice them, taking them for granted. But after her horrific discovery, she started to see the Jem’Hadar.

Even in this obscure depot, there were dozens of Jem’Hadar. More were on the vessel on the other side of the airlock. Still more on the Calmendi outpost, where she was returning. Billions upon billions of Jem’Hadar, all over the Dominion’s vast territory.

For the first time in her life, Kilana realized that the Jem’Hadar outnumbered Vorta by a factor of thousands. She stared at the gurgling tubes of white at their necks. She imagined them – countless billions of them – freed at last from the tubes. She felt sick to her stomach. There would be little doubt what the fate of the Vorta would be if that ever happened. She knew what the Federation was planning, and that she had to stop them.

When Miles O’Brien had left for Earth, Bashir had wondered whether he really would keep in touch like he promised. Or would their friendship just lapse into an afterthought? Bashir had to admit the Chief sometimes seemed like the unsentimental sort.

But he should have known better. Underneath the gruff exterior, O’Brien was as mushy as a teddy bear. He was the one who started calling Bashir every week, without fail. They had fallen into a routine as comfortable as their regular darts games and holosuite sessions.

Bashir always tried to keep the conversations light. He didn’t want to burden the Chief, for instance, with his aggravation about his new “mystery assignment” from Medical.

O’Brien, on the other hand, loved to complain about his new job teaching engineering at the Academy. For the first time in his life, he had been confronted by the unique mixture of self-confidence and total cluelessness that is the province of every 18 year old, freshly ensconced at the San Francisco campus as a new cadet.

“I’ll tell you, Julian, I look out onto those smug, know-it-all faces, telling me that I know how to fix a warp drive, my daddy runs a commercial fleet between Andoria and Earth and I’ve been working on the engines since I was twelve! Well, I say, just wait till you’re out in the field, with only a sonic spanner to fix a balky subspace inverter while your captain is screaming at you and the Romulans are about to lock phasers…then you won’t be so cocky!”

“I’m sorry to hear the job isn’t what you expected,” Bashir said, earnestly.

O’Brien changed his tune. “Oh no, I didn’t really mean that. Keiko and the kids are a lot happier, now that we’ve settled down. I actually love teaching. Even if some of the students are stuck up little sods, just because I never attended their precious Academy. Besides, it gives me a chance to tell them some good stories, about the kinds of things that really happen ‘out there.’ They’ve had their noses stuck in books too long!”

The idea that their adventures were now classroom examples struck Bashir as funny. “What have you been telling them? Did you mention the brilliant work we did together, dismantling the Harvesters on T’Lani?”

“Are you kidding? I told that story on the first day of class! I’ll never forget how you decided that being on ‘lookout’ meant sitting down next to me and yammering about some French ballerina’s ‘exquisite feet’ while I was trying to fix the com station and save our necks!”

Bashir grimaced. “Uh oh. Am I to take it, then, that the moronic antics of a certain doctor play a large role in these stories?”

“Well, you have to admit, there have been a few times when you’ve done things without thinking of the consequences.”

Perhaps because of the doctor’s recent assignment, he was reminded of a particular incident. “Like on Bopak 3,” Bashir said.

“Just like that! That was the best engineering I ever did, smashing up that damned experiment.”

Bashir remembered it without rancor. It had been a sore point between them for a little while after they had returned to DS9, but it didn’t bother either of them anymore. “You should tell your students about that, too,” Bashir said jestingly. “To teach them the merits of disobeying a superior officer.”

O’Brien chucked. “I never did thank you for keeping that detail out of your report. Hey, that reminds me. You’ll never guess who contacted me about a month ago. Our old buddy, Garak! I couldn’t imagine why he wanted to talk to me.”

Bashir was perplexed. “I can’t imagine either. What did he want?”

“Who knows? It was Garak, wasn’t it? He kept rambling on about the situation on Cardassia. According to him, things are going pretty well. The planet is recovering quickly.”

Bashir felt sick. “That is not true. Cardassia is in horrible shape. But the last time I talked with Garak – it was, let’s see, less than a month ago – honestly, Miles, I wasn’t sure about his sanity. What else did he say?”

“He seemed plenty sane to me. Anyway, he just asked a few odd questions about some medical research you’d done.”

Bashir was alarmed. “You didn’t tell him anything confidential, did you?”

O’Brien was miffed. “Of course not! Besides, how would I know any confidential medical research, unless you’d told me? And when did you ever do that? Let’s see, we talked about your hangover antidote for excessive kanar consumption. That time you cured that skin rash that Morn had…”

Bashir recalled the rash. “Feh. That was certainly nasty, wasn’t it?”

“I’ll say. And Quark couldn’t get Morn to stop coming to the bar and driving away all the customers. Oh yeah, and Bopak 3. When you mentioned it, that’s when I remembered. Garak said that you told him all about the incident.”

“Yes, I vaguely remember mentioning it to him at lunch shortly afterwards. Well, everything that wasn’t classified. And I didn’t tell him about your mutiny, either. But what did he want to know about it?”

“Just one thing, and I have no idea why. The name of the Jem’Hadar who wasn’t addicted to the white.”

Bashir’s throat tightened. “Goran’Agar. Did you remember the name?”

“Of course! After that experience, how could I forget it?”

“And that is all he wanted to know?”

“I think so. After I told him, I had the feeling all his other questions were, well, red herrings. Trying to cover up what he really wanted.”

They chatted for a while longer and then Bashir signed off. Now he was really perplexed. Why would Garak care about the Jem’Hadar’s name? And why would he ask the Chief, rather than simply asking me?

Over the next few days, Bashir made swift progress on the cure. On Bopak 3, he’d had only crude equipment to work with, jerry-rigged from Dominion and Federation parts. But now, in his own lab, he had only the best instruments.

One of the first things he’d done was to pinpoint the enzyme in Goran’Agar’s blood that gave him freedom from the white. His lab computers isolated the crystalline form of the enzyme. This showed its amino acid sequences and structure.

A quick comparison to the hundreds of thousands of humanoid enzymes in the Federation databank revealed that Goran’Agar’s enzyme was unique. Of all known species, only Goran’Agar possessed this enzyme: an enzyme very close in structure to the isogenic enzyme in ketracel-white.

Bashir realized that his work was almost finished. Once the enzyme had been discovered, curing the Jem’Hadar of their addiction was simple. Enzymes were essential to life because they drove the chemical reactions within cells that kept a being alive. All humanoids created the enzymes they needed within their own bodies. Except for the Jem’Hadar. Their genetic structure had been designed to lack a crucial enzyme, which could only be supplied by ketracel-white.

Enzymes were made up of amino acids, and amino acids were produced by genes. The next step was for Bashir to back-track, to determine which specific genes Goran’Agar had that his fellows lacked. After that, it became simple. The Federation had many advanced techniques for gene therapy, to insert “missing” genes into the DNA strands. One delivery method was a serum.

If, in theory, you wanted to cure all the Jem’Hadar in the Dominion, this was the point at which you’d be stuck. You could dump the serum into the ketracel-white itself – preferably into the vats at the processing plants. But Bashir didn’t have the slightest idea how anyone could circumvent Dominion security and do such a thing. He’d never been inside a processing plant. On the Defiant, he’d helped blow one up, once. And that had been hard enough.

Using an airborne vector for delivery would make more sense. Even then, introducing the virus onto who knows how many Dominion vessels would be a chore in itself. But there was no point worrying about any of this. Starfleet Medical had specifically requested that the gene therapy be developed in serum form. And, Bashir reminded himself, none of this would ever benefit the Jem’Hadar themselves. It was for that mysterious “addicted planet” near Syndicate space.

The next day, the serum was complete. All Bashir had to do now was call Starfleet Medical and tell them to come pick it up. Then they’d take over the work, adapt the serum for the people who needed it. And Bashir could forget about all of this.

But Bashir didn’t call Medical. He sat in his lab, staring at the overhead display of the enzyme he had created. He couldn’t shake the feeling that this didn’t add up. The odd conversation with Garak on Cardassia. The ominous signs that his New Order was not as benign as Garak pretended. And then his conversation with the Chief, which implied that Garak, of all people, had some interest in Goran’Agar.

But the order to create the cure hadn’t come from Garak, or from Section 31. Despite some recent bad experiences with Starfleet bureaucracy, Bashir still believed that most people in the organization were basically good. He couldn’t believe they would conspire with Garak against the Dominion. At the very least, he couldn’t believe they would be so stupid. Any move against the Dominion could upset the delicate balance that was keeping the peace. The Cardassians might be willing to take insane risks to extract vengeance, but Starfleet had no such motive.

Bashir decided to give himself a little more time. He’d made very fast progress, and Medical wouldn’t notice if he simply didn’t contact them for a couple of weeks. If he deflected any inquiries by telling them he was still working. If he checked things out, to find out whether that addicted planet existed at all.

Bashir finished up some work at the infirmary and then locked up for the night. He didn’t go directly back to his quarters. Instead, he wandered around the promenade, trying to stimulate his thinking. He suspected there was more to Medical’s ketracel-white story than they were telling him, but he didn’t have the slightest idea what to do next.

More out of habit than plan, he wandered into Quark’s. He was astonished to see Jake and Nog sitting at one of the tables. Then he realized that they had to be about 21 years old by now, plenty old enough to be sitting in a bar in the wee hours of the morning. Twenty-one. That’s how old I was when I graduated from the Academy. And here they are, just like Miles and me. Suddenly, Bashir felt as old as the stars.

Quark sidled up to his elbow. “Yeah, I can’t believe those two kids are old enough to drink in here now, either.”

“Times change.” Bashir was forming an idea. Jake is a reporter for the Federation News Service. Maybe he can use his contacts to find out more about this mysterious, drug-addicted planet.

Bashir walked over to Jake and Nog’s table. “Mind a bit more company?”

Jake and Nog looked up in unison. “Sure, Doc,” said Jake. Bashir considered telling him to just call him “Julian,” but stopped. He sort of liked “Doc.”

“So, what’s new in the infirmary?” Jake asked.

Bashir hesitated. He realized he might sound like a paranoid nitwit, but he had to try. He explained to Jake and Nog about the orders from Medical to develop the ketracel-white cure to use on a planet that supposedly had been addicted by the Syndicate to a similar substance.

Jake’s newshound instincts pounced. “That’s an incredible story! Is this on the record? Can I use it for the FNS?”

“Fine with me,” Bashir replied. “In fact, I was going to ask you to investigate. There are some things that just don’t click about what I’ve been told. I suspect this addicted planet may not even exist. But I can’t leave the station. I’m the only doctor here, and besides, that would look suspicious. You and Nog are in a better position to ferret out the facts than I am.”

Nog looked surprised. “Why’s that?”

“Well, you’d need to contact someone in the Syndicate…”

If Nog had feathers, they would have ruffled. “What?! What makes you think I’d know anything about them? Just because I’m a Ferengi? And that automatically makes me a lawbreaker, is that it?”

Bashir was embarrassed, but Jake came to his rescue. “Don’t fly off the handle, Nog. Everyone knows that now that your dad is Grand Nagus, well…some Ferengis are leaving for ‘other opportunities.’”

Nog conceded the point with a shrug. “You’re right. His reforms aren’t very popular. And the Syndicate is the ‘last outpost of pure capitalism’ in the quadrant. At least, that’s what Uncle Quark says.”

Bashir was astonished; he had guessed right about Nog’s connections. “So you do know people in the Syndicate.”

“I shouldn’t tell you this, but…yes. My dad’s cousin, Gaila. He’s pretty high up in the organization, now. He hates my dad and uncle, but for some reason, he’s always liked me.”

Jake’s eyes lit up. “Can you arrange for you and me to meet him?”

Nog squirmed. “I suppose…”

“This is great,” Jake said. “I hope you’re wrong, Doc. If this addicted planet is for real, it would be a great scoop. Ever since the war ended, good stories have been as scarce as bloodwine after a Klingon banquet.”

“I really appreciate the help,” Bashir replied – he almost said “kids” and then stopped himself – “and I hope the planet is for real, too. But I have a bad feeling that the story is going to be more interesting than any of us would want it to be.”

The trip went fine until Nog contacted Gaila on subspace. Then Nog spent the rest of the trip in sulky silence.

Jake tried to coax him out of his funk. “Come on, Nog. Why were you offended by that? Gaila is being very cooperative, very polite…”

“Jake, you still don’t understand Ferengis!” Nog exploded. “Gaila was not being ‘polite.’ He was being obsequious! It’s revolting. I hate it when Ferengis act that way. And it’s just because my father is Grand Nagus, and they think by currying favor with me…”

“But isn’t that the Ferengi way? You should be happy to be so important.”

“I’m not important! I mean, not in any way I want to be. I don’t want people slobbering all over me just because of my father!”

“This is funny. It reminds me of the way the Bajorans used to treat me. Because my father was the…” Jake’s voice trailed off. “You know, this is the first day since dad…I mean, it’s the first day I haven’t thought about him.”

Nog sighed. “I’m sorry about that. I shouldn’t complain. At least my dad is still around. Doesn’t Captain Sisko ever…you know, he could contact you if he wanted to. Couldn’t he?”

“I’m not sure,” Jake said. “I’ve spoken with the new Kai about using the Orb of the Emissary. He agreed, and I’m going to Bajor in…”

The cockpit controls of the shuttle started beeping. “That’s Gaila’s moon, dead ahead,” Nog said.

As pre-arranged, Jake and Nog landed in the shuttleport at Gaila’s mansion. Then they were put through a gantlet of security systems. Voiceprints, retinal scans, DNA analyses – by the time Jake and Nog got to Gaila’s ornate, solid-latinum front door, they’d had their identity confirmed in every conceivable way.

With a pneumatic whoosh, the door disappeared, revealing the ugliest thing Jake or Nog had ever seen wearing a bikini.

“Hello miss…umm,” Jake said, cautiously. He warily regarded the muscular, furry torso and the fanged face of the female Nausicaan who met him at the door. She was as tall as Jake, and three times as massive.

The Nausicaan grunted. Her kind were not known for their sparkling conversation. She gestured for him to step through the door. As he did so, another female Nausicaan, even beefier, followed behind.

Jake gawked at the loot of several star systems that glutted Gaila’s mansion. Nog stared doggedly ahead, embarrassed by his crass relative. But there was no time for the guided tour. The Nausicaans left him at an interior door, which opened onto Gaila’s private sanctum.

Gaila himself trotted out to meet them. He was middling-sized for a Ferengi, which meant that his head roughly reached mid-chest on Jake. He was attired in a golden robe, and on his feet were anti-grav slippers that allowed him to glide around without touching the floor. Jake could only imagine what they cost.

Gaila genuflected before the Son of the Grand Nagus. Nog snarled, “Stop it! We’re here on official Federation business.”

With a shrug, Gaila complied. With a wave, he sent the Nausicaans away. As they left, Gaila sighed. “Aren’t they gorgeous?”

Jake looked at Gaila and realized he wasn’t kidding. “I guess. Those two make Klingon women look like dabo girls.”

Gaila huffed. “Well, I can’t expect you to appreciate the finer points of lady Nausicaans. After all, with your tiny lobes, I doubt oo-mox would work on a human at all. I’ve always felt sorry for your poor, stunted species.”

Jake smiled. “Mr. Gaila, can we start the interview now?”

Gaila’s eyes glittered. “Has my distinguished cousin discussed my proposal with the Grand Nagus?”

“Don’t worry, I will. And there should be no problem getting Dad to lower the inheritance tax rates. How much do you want it lowered?”

“Down to where it used to be! Zero!”

“Are you kidding? The treasury will be depleted in no time!”

“It doesn’t have to be zero forever! Just long enough for me to collect my grandmother’s inheritance. Then your father can reinstate the extortionate rates I know he loves.”

“You’re not being very respectful to the Grand Nagus,” Nog shot back, enjoying Gaila’s slip-up. “And why does your grandmother have so much latinum, anyway? Females aren’t supposed to make profit.”

“We all have to endure socially embarrassing relatives,” Gaila responded. “Females who make latinum…cousins in Starfleet…and people wonder why I can’t show my face on Ferenginar!”

“All right,” Nog said, to deflect anymore whining from Gaila. “I can convince Dad to do that for a few weeks, long enough for you to get the latinum transferred to your account. But you better have worthwhile information.”

Gaila’s eyes glittered with humor. “About this ‘addicted planet’ near Orion space?”

“That’s right,” Jake said. “What do you know about it?”

“That it’s an excellent idea. I wish I’d thought of it myself. And that it proves that you’re not the only Ferengi in Starfleet.”

“Huh?” Nog said. “What do you mean by that?”

“Because whoever in Starfleet Intelligence made up this ludicrous story thinks so much like a Ferengi that they must be a Ferengi themselves!”

“How do you know the story is a lie?” Jake asked.

“The Dominion never would have allowed the Syndicate anywhere near the white. The Vorta were very secretive about that stuff. They never really trusted the Syndicate. Well, we never really trusted them, either. There were one or two attempts to get a sample – I remember that Boss Benrah captured a Dominion vessel once, and tried to blame it on the Federation. He just wanted to get his paws on that formula. But it didn’t work, the Jem’Hadar wouldn’t surrender, and when they die, that goop turns to powder. Useless. A few days later, Benrah was discovered dead in a rather unpleasant way. After that, the Syndicate lost its curiosity about ketracel-white.”

Bashir waited at the airlock for the visitor to arrive. When Jake and Nog had returned from their interview with Gaila, Bashir decided that he had enough evidence to refuse to turn over the cure. He still didn’t fully understand what was going on, but he knew that the “addicted planet” was a fiction.

Medical had put up strenuous objections, but either could not or would not comply with Bashir’s demand that they prove the planet was real. Instead, the Director was sending someone out from headquarters to explain the situation in person, to “set his mind at ease” that the cure was vital to Federation interests. It turned out that Bashir’s visitor was coming from Intelligence. Which at least confirmed that this was far from just a medical matter.

Bashir wasn’t sure how to react to this situation. It certainly was different from the former shadowy visits of Sloan, the Section 31 operative, who was prone to simply showing up in Bashir’s quarters in the middle of the night. This time, everyone back on Earth seemed like they were trying to be reasonable.

The secrecy of Section 31 had confirmed Bashir’s suspicions that their shadowy dealings needed to be exposed. In contrast, Starfleet Intelligence seemed quite willing to do everything in the light of day. It made Bashir nervous, as though he was somehow in the wrong to withhold the cure until they told him the truth. Was he being paranoid? Or even disloyal? Bashir was used to the feeling of being morally in the right all the time. It was unsettling to think he may have made a miscalculation in this case.

Ella Frost’s visit was just as mundane and unexceptional as the arrival of any Starfleet functionary on the regular shuttle from Earth. Medium height, short brown hair, gray eyes whose slanting eyelids gave her a sleepy expression. She wore the gold collar of Security and had a standard-issue flight bag slung over her shoulder.

Bashir shoved his self-doubt into a corner of his mind and stepped forward to greet Frost. After the usual pleasantries, she got down to business.

“Where can we talk in private?” she asked.

“The infirmary, I suppose,” Bashir replied.

“Good, let’s go,” she said, and abruptly started down the corridor.

Just as Bashir assumed, the infirmary was unused when they arrived. Frost briefly scanned for any listening devices – “just routine, don’t be offended,” she said – and satisfied, she sat down in the chair usually reserved for patients on the other side of Bashir’s desk.

“So, Doctor,” Frost said laconically. “You have the ketracel-white cure. Is that correct?”

“Yes,” Bashir replied, sitting down behind his desk.

“But you have certain…concerns…about relinquishing it to Intelligence.”

“Yes, I do,” Bashir said, speaking quickly, going on the attack. “And I should remind you that as a doctor, I am perfectly within my rights to ask for a formal explanation. And if I find the explanation inadequate, I intend to file a formal protest with Starfleet Medical…”

“Whoa, calm down,” Frost said, putting up her hands and smiling. “No need to threaten to bring down the bureaucrats on me. We’re all on the same side here. You’ll get an explanation. And when you hear it, I’m certain that we will be in agreement as to Intelligence’s need for the cure.”

“How can you be so sure I’ll agree?” Bashir said, sitting back, once again feeling on the defensive.

“If you’re as conscientious as your profile implies, you will. The cure is essential…”

“To save the population of this mysterious ‘addicted planet’?” Bashir asked sharply. “There is no such planet, and you know it.” Bashir held his breath. He wasn’t absolutely sure that Gaila’s story was true.

Frost pursed her lips in thought. Then, to Bashir’s relief, she admitted, “You’re right.”

Masking his relief, Bashir asked, “Then might I ask what the cure will really be used for?”

Frost gave the doctor a cynical smile. “Of course. Since you obviously think you know more about intelligence work than the professionals…”

“I never said that.”

“But you think so. Unfortunately, I am going to have to burden you with a secret that if it is ever exposed, could do irreparable damage to the Federation. Are you sure you want to know?”

“I am,” Bashir bantered. “Are you sure you can trust me to keep a secret?”

“I don’t have much choice, do I? You’re the only doctor in the Federation capable of reproducing this cure…”

“I think you overestimate my abilities. There are many competent doctors…”

“I was going to say, of reproducing this cure by our deadline. And since you’ve got the formula locked up in your computers, I assume with a password only known to you, then telling you this secret is a risk I have to take.”

Bashir was puzzled. “Why do you have a deadline?”

“I’m afraid that your old friend, Elim Garak, insisted on the deadline. He’s the one who demanded the cure.”

Bashir was incredulous. “Garak wants the cure? That must have been what he was talking about…the enigma tales…he wanted to find out whether I’d work on the cure myself.”

“Hmm, well, I didn’t know he had spoken directly to you. But when he realized you wouldn’t work on the cure if you knew it was for him, he must have decided to get it by blackmailing the Federation.”

Bashir was stunned. “How could Garak…”

“I don’t have a lot of time for lengthy explanations, Doctor. So I’ll get to the point. Over a year ago, a Romulan Senator’s ship was blown up a few light years from this station. It was presumed to be Dominion sabotage. Unfortunately, it was not. The bomb was planted on this station, by Garak, with the knowledge of the commander of this station, Captain Sisko.”

Bashir bolted upright in his chair. “That is impossible. Sisko would never…”

Wearily, Frost continued. “You might recall that Intelligence recently downloaded all of Sisko’s personal logs. We reconstructed the erased logs – or, I should say, the single log that had been erased among all of them – and it contained what amounted to a confession of complicity.”

“It must have been faked!” Bashir yelled.

“Keep your voice down, Doctor. These walls aren’t that thick. And don’t you think we checked that log in every conceivable way? We were praying that it was a fake, left by Garak while he was still on DS9. Unfortunately, we were forced to conclude that the log was genuine.”

“Good lord,” Bashir said. “And the Romulans found out.”

“Not yet. But Garak is threatening to tell them, unless we hand over the ketracel-white cure to him. He knows corroborating details that no one else could. We have to assume that the Romulans would believe him.”

Bashir shook his head in disbelief. “I still can’t believe that Captain Sisko would conspire in murder, regardless of the circumstances.”

“If it makes you feel any better, I think ‘conspire’ is overstating the case. I’ve listened to Sisko’s log, and his involvement was strictly after the fact. The worst thing he’s guilty of is not informing Starfleet of the crime Garak committed. But the Romulans aren’t likely to take a charitable view of the incident. They’re convinced that Garak has been a Federation agent for years. And how can you blame them for thinking that? The Cardassian was living on DS9. Sisko sent him on several Starfleet missions. Garak even served aboard the Defiant, I’ve heard.”

Bashir sighed. “Yes. We couldn’t leave him on DS9 when the station was occupied by the Dominion. And he was a great help to us then. I guess we just treated him like he was part of Starfleet.”

“But he’s not Starfleet, is he?” Frost said sharply. “He plays by his own rules, not by ours. It was sloppy, Doctor, and you know it. And this is the result. If Garak releases his evidence to the Romulans, we could have a diplomatic disaster on our hands. You probably know how touchy the situation is with the Romulans right now.”

Bashir knew all about it. Once the crisis of the Dominion War had passed, relations between the Federation and their erstwhile Romulan allies had degenerated. It had been predictable, but unavoidable. The Romulans had always regarded the Federation-Klingon alliance as a serious threat. To some extent, this threat had been balanced in the past by the Cardassians, and then by the Dominion. Now both were out of the picture, and the Romulans were feeling threatened. Given their tendencies toward paranoia and aggression, this was not a healthy situation for anyone.

Worse, the Romulans were not as devastated by the war as they claimed. They still possessed a potent military force. And Romulan hawks were starting to gain support in the Senate. The revelation about Vreenak’s murder – which at any other time might just be a diplomatic tempest in a teapot – could break the alliance and possibly start another war.

“Garak is playing with antimatter,” Bashir said. “What makes him think the Romulans won’t come after him as well?”

“I have a feeling your friend feels very secure on Cardassia. He appears to be re-creating the Obsidian Order, with himself at the helm.”

Bashir nodded. “That would fit with what I saw there. The Romulans might have a hard time getting to Garak, or even tracking him down. This ‘New Order’ of his could be a match even for the Tal Shiar.”

“I’d say so. He’s already created quite an effective organization. He was even able to provide us with the blood samples you needed to finish your work.”

“Hmm,” Bashir said ironically. “So Federation never captured Goran’Agar at all.”

“That’s right. A race called the Calmendi – Dominion subjects who’d rather not be – captured Goran’Agar and brought him to Cardassia. Garak contacted us at Intelligence, made his demand, and ‘helpfully’ turned the samples over to us.”

“And then you contacted me with the bogus Syndicate story,” Bashir said. “But I still don’t understand why Garak wants the cure.”

“Maybe the New Order really is a humanitarian aid group, just as Garak claims it is,” Frost said sarcastically. “He merely wants to free the poor Jem’Hadar from Dominion enslavement.”

“After the Jem’Hadar decimated Cardassia? I think I have a more likely explanation. If the Jem’Hadar are cured, the Vorta will no longer have any control over them.”

Frost nodded. “The white is the only thing holding the Dominion together. Without it, the Vorta and Jem’Hadar would be at each others’ throats.”

“I imagine the Vorta would get the worst of that arrangement.”

“Exactly. But the Jem’Hadar aren’t bred for independent thinking. On their own, they would be an ineffective fighting force. That makes the Calmendi’s motives plain. They’re planning to use the chaos as an opportunity to rebel.”

“And Garak’s motive is vengeance, pure and simple. Hurt the Dominion in any way possible.”

“You’ve analyzed the situation perfectly, Doctor. Perhaps you should make a career change to intelligence work, after all.”

Bashir grimaced. “I’m not sure I could agree with your policies. Are you really going to let this happen? We do have a treaty with the Dominion, you know!”

“And we are honoring that treaty. We’re not prohibited from giving medical supplies to the Cardassians. We do it all the time nowadays. You’ve been on the convoys yourself.”

“But those convoys deliver supplies the Cardassians need! The only possible reason Garak wants the ketracel-white cure is to try to destroy the Dominion with it.”

Frost shrugged. “Probably. But once we’ve handed the cure over the Garak, it won’t be our concern anymore.”

“Well, that’s a very neat splitting of hairs. Did you used to be a lawyer before you went into spy work?”

Frost leaned forward and placed her folded hands on Bashir’s desk. Her expression was grim. “You seem to be an intelligent man, Doctor. So, tell me. What exactly would you do, if you were in my place? Just let Garak tell the Romulans the truth about Vreenak? Cause a schism between our governments, just at the worst possible moment? Possibly cause another war? A war, I might add, that the Dominion could take advantage of? We’re not fools. We know the Dominion could break the treaty at any time. We can’t afford to relax our preparedness or show any weakness at all. Giving the cure to Garak is the right thing to do because it’s the only thing we can do. Circumstances have tied our hands.”

After a moment’s reflection, Bashir answered sadly. “I imagine Captain Sisko thought he was trapped by circumstances too, when he turned a blind eye to Vreenak’s murder.”

“Hmm. Don’t forget, the Romulans did help us win the war. Sisko was right about that. If he and Garak hadn’t done what they did, we could be taking orders from a Vorta right now.”

Bashir repressed a shudder. “If we’re doing the right thing, and Captain Sisko did the right thing, then why is this all such an awful mess?”

“Awful messes are my business, Doctor. Frankly, I’ve had worse situations to deal with. Besides, I won’t cry if the Vorta get what’s coming to them.”

“Really? Just out of curiosity, Commander…are you really just perfectly content to allow an entire species to be murdered, when you could stop it?” Bashir couldn’t help thinking about the way Section 31 had poisoned the Founders. He liked to think that Intelligence, as a legitimate branch of Starfleet, would not be so quick to use genocide as a stratagem.

Frost pondered the question. “Are the Vorta really a ‘species’? They’re artificial. Whoever the real Vorta were, they’re long gone. Replaced by a bunch of clones, genetically engineered to have the worst imaginable traits.” Then she made a face of disgust. “I’ve had an opportunity to talk with a few Vorta, Doctor. Most people haven’t. Have you?”

“As a matter of fact, I saved one’s life once.”

“My condolences,” Frost said, bitterly. “I’m sure he was an upstanding citizen, and completely deserved your efforts on his behalf.”

Bashir squirmed at the memory of Keevan. “Well, to be honest…”

Frost smiled triumphantly. “Then that Vorta was very much like the ones I had the misfortune to meet. That’s my point. They aren’t real, like you and me. They don’t even reproduce like a real species. Why should we care if a billion Vorta die? They can just clone new ones. What galls me is that the subjects in the Dominion are real species, natural ones. I won’t pretend that I like the idea of natural species, like the Calmendi, being repressed by these, these creatures…”

Natural species, being repressed by these creatures. The words echoed in Bashir’s mind all the next day as he tried to concentrate on his work. He tried to put his decision out of his mind. Of course it had been the right one. How could he not give Frost the ketracel-white cure? She was right; it was necessary, to protect the Federation and prevent another war. It was the lesser of the two evils. And possibly, just possibly Garak might never find a way to introduce the cure into the ketracel-white supply. Even if he did, it would only mean freedom for the Jem’Hadar. Didn’t they deserve to be free, like any other species?

The thoughts went around and around in his mind. Bashir finally shut down the lab and left. He couldn’t focus on his work. The rage was boiling up in him. He climbed to DS9’s second level and looked out at the starscape through the large oval windows.

Fears about fate of the Cardassians, or Garak, or the Vorta, or the Jem’Hadar wasn’t the source of Bashir’s increasing ire. It was Frost’s attitude. Maybe she didn’t know that he was a genetically altered being himself. Maybe she saw that detail in his intelligence file, but had forgotten. Or maybe she thought it didn’t really matter. He was a loyal Starfleet officer. Of course he had to agree that genetic engineering is evil. Artificially created species are unstable, untrustworthy, and not as valuable as “natural” species. Frost’s attitude – that the Federation should take the side of the Cardassians against the “disgusting, unnatural” Vorta – was simply a summation a prejudice shared by practically everyone in the Federation.

No one ever voiced such thoughts, but they were pervasive. The Federation prided itself on freedom from prejudice. But hatred and fear of the genetically altered was not regarded as prejudice. It was simply common sense. Every schoolchild learned the bitter lesson of the Eugenics Wars. Besides, there were few genetically altered humanoids in the Federation. Those few who existed were locked up for their own good. How could anyone be “prejudiced” against an invisible and nearly-nonexistent minority?

Hypocrisy, all of it! Bashir thought furiously. I’ll bet there are a lot more people like me than anyone suspects. Probably even some here, on the station. Hiding, afraid they’ll be found out.

Bashir was surprised at the depth of his anger. If he told Ezri about it, she would probably tell him it had been building for years, and that his conversation with Frost simply triggered what had been there all along. But he didn’t want to tell Ezri about it. He felt a great divide had suddenly come between them – between him and every “normal” humanoid on the station. He was sick of the hypocrisy, and determined to do something about it.

The Rio Grande had left spacedock and was through the wormhole before anyone in Ops realized Bashir was gone.

Garak studied the blue vial lovingly, as though admiring a particularly well-crafted vintage of kanar. It occurred to him that it looked a little like kanar – thick and viscous, although he’d never seen kanar such a bright shade of blue. He felt almost tempted to take a sip, see what it tasted like. But of course he knew better than to fool with a genomic serum.

Master kanar distillers often gave names to their finest vintages. Garak immediately thought of a name for this particular “vintage”: Vengeance.

On second thought, I don’t need a sip. I know how it could taste: sweet.

Replacing the vial into its slot, Garak left the sick bay and proceeded to the bridge. It wasn’t a Cardassian vessel, and its design was unfamiliar. The people were even less so, tall and muscular with elaborate blue-and-orange tattoos all over their faces and arms.

Ill-mannered and mercenary, the Dosi were nevertheless trusted Dominion subjects. They could get Garak into Dominion space, with his little “gift.” It had nearly bankrupted what was left of the Cardassian treasury to do so, but Garak had no doubt that it would be worth every slip.

A surly-looking woman turned the orange half of her face to Garak and snarled: “We’re approaching Hesbril VIII. It’s time to hand over the rest of the latinum, Cardassian.”

“I’ve arranged with certain friends there to beam the latinum on board your vessel,” Garak said with studied politeness. “Right after I beam off.”

The Dosi woman sneered but didn’t object. Within minutes, she had her payment, and Garak was in a dank and musty room.

“Ah, the Gamma Quadrant,” Garak said, looking around. “It’s every bit as lovely as I remember.”

Garak had arrived at the rendezvous point a bit early, so he sat on some stairstep-like objects – apparently chairs – running along the wall to wait. The room was several meters high, with small windows running all around the room at ceiling height. Outside, rain constantly pattered against the roof, sometimes blowing in through the windows. The dampness didn’t bother him, but the cold certainly would have, if he hadn’t been trained to ignore all discomfort.

Garak smiled. He was happier than he’d been in years. His meaningless, frustrating exile was now over, and he had finally taken his rightful place as the head of Cardassia’s true government. He had succeeded Tain, just has he had always been destined to. The Obsidian Order, after all, had always controlled the Union. Tain had allowed the egotists in Central Command to think that they ruled, but everyone in the Order knew the truth. Cardassian society had always been organized so, ever since the destruction of the Hebetians and their weak and dissolute democracy.

When the Order did not rule, Cardassia was weak, and weakness led to starvation, chaos, and destruction. That had happened under the Hebetians. Not coincidentally, when the Order had briefly been taken out of action in recent years, devastation had struck again.

Even if Garak had wished to remain in exile, he knew it would have been irresponsible. Cardassia needed the Order, and so it needed him. It was necessary to prove to everyone in two quadrants that Cardassia was no longer weak. If the Dominion were allowed to escape unpunished, the Union would soon be gobbled up by its enemies.

Garak’s musings were interrupted by a series of knocks. He recognized the code and opened the door.

An odd trio entered the room. A tall, female Calmendi entered first and surveyed the room with her waggling tentacles. Beside her was a stocky, hunchbacked male whose sleek skin shone with iridescent highlights of green and blue. He was from another Dominion world – his people were known as Ixi’ites. His pugnacious attitude was underscored by his broad face, blunt nose, and large lower incisors that curved up in yellowed tusks.

The Ixi’ite was dragging the third person along by a rope tied around his neck. Garak was mildly surprised to see that it was a Vorta. He was astonished to find that he recognized the Vorta.

“I take it that you are Bountiful Sun and Melorgak Rune?” Garak said politely.

The Calmendi waggled her tentacles in unison; Garak recognized it as the ritual greeting of her people. “Indeed,” she said in a mellifluous voice. “And you are our friend from the other quadrant, are you not?”

Before Garak could reply, the Ixi’ite interrupted with a deep, gravelly voice. “Do you possess the serum? We need the serum!”

Garak glanced at the case containing the vials, which sat at the foot of the stairstep chairs. Then he looked at the Vorta. Why are they talking about the serum in front of him?

The Ixi’ite noticed Garak’s wary glance. “Don’t bother yourself over this pawdo!” he growled. “He knows about the serum. How else do you think we plan to introduce it into the white?”

“I had been wondering about that,” Garak replied smoothly. “I was counting on your ingenuity, and I see that you have a plan. Please explain it to me. I am curious to know what role Keevan will play in all this?”

The Ixi’ite jumped up and down on his paw-like feet and gnashed his tusks with glee. “You know the Vorta pawdo’s name? Ha, ha! The Cardassian is clever!” With every bounce, the rope around Keevan’s neck pulled tighter.

“If Keevan is important to our plans,” Garak said, “perhaps you should not strangle him just yet.”

The Ixi’ite made a sour face but calmed down, giving the rope one last yank. “Not so comfortable now, are you? No force fields to protect you, no Jem’Hadar to kill anyone who ventures too near to the ‘Dominion overlords!’ Ha, ha! The Vorta is not so clever, is he?”

Struggling to loosen the rope, Keevan looked up at Garak. At first he was puzzled. Then Garak saw his expression change to recognition.

“The Cardassian with the Starfleet combadge!” Keevan said in a voice that, while raspy, still carried its usual unctuousness. “I see I should have killed you when I had the chance.”

“As I should have killed you. But my Starfleet colleagues frown on murdering prisoners, I’m afraid. And speaking of that – I’m surprised the Dominion would have cloned you again.”

“They believed they had repaired my ‘defects.’”

“And did they?”

“I’ll let you be the judge of that.”

Rune wiped the grin off Keevan’s face with another nasty tug of the rope, and resumed bouncing excitedly as he continued his tale. “We killed all the Jem’Hadar, but the Vorta surrendered! He said he hated the Dominion. Ixi’ites are clever! We thought, ‘ah ha! Perhaps we can use this pawdo!”

“In the interests of brevity, allow me to explain,” Keevan gasped as strove to loosen the rope a little. “Ixi’ites have the tedious habit of never getting to the point. My original deficiencies – namely, that I serve my own interests before those of our ‘glorious’ Founders – were not erased in the cloning process. I was able to maintain the charade for a while. But then, the region supervisor decided to put me in charge of a squad of Jem’Hadar, to hunt down some Ixi’ites, which believe me, are a never-ending source of trouble…”

“Ha! Ixia will never bow to the Dominion!”

Keevan gave Rune an aggravated look. “Don’t be ridiculous. Your absurd little planet was conquered over six hundred years ago.”

“The Vorta lies! We have won many battles! We won the battle of Benk’shua, where four thousand Jem’Hadar were slain! We won the battle of Nurgley, where twelve thousand…”

“Garak,” Keevan said, while Rune rattled on. “If he recites the entire list of battles, he will be at it all night. Believe me, I’ve heard it many times. It was a very long journey from Ixia…”

The Ixi’ite was finally convinced to be quiet and Keevan continued. “As I was saying, I already knew that the last seventeen pacification squads sent against the Ixi’ites failed to return.”

“They provided enough meat to feed a village for a whole winter!”

“I don’t doubt it,” Keevan replied.

“Vortas taste terrible! We always eat them last, when our supplies run low!”

“Charming. Now, as I was saying, I certainly did not wish to participate in this suicidal nonsense. But I knew very well that to refuse would be suicidal as well, and probably a less pleasant experience than ending up in an Ixi’ite cooking pot.”

“The Ixi’ites killed the Jem’Hadar but the Vorta begged for his life,” Bountiful Sun added. “Since he is presumed dead as well, the Dominion may have cloned him again. In that case, they would not have deleted his access codes. He could still get inside the ketracel-white production facilities.”

“And dump in the serum,” Garak concluded. “In return, we permit Keevan to live. Amazing that it takes so little to corrupt a Vorta. You’d never see a Cardassian selling out his homeworld to save his scrawny neck.”

“That’s odd,” Keevan sneered. “I recall hearing about a certain gul who once did something similar. But I’d help you in any case. This quadrant could use a few more dead Jem’Hadar. ”

Garak smiled. “So you believe we plan to poison the Jem’Hadar? What if I told you that our true goal was a few more dead Vortas?”

Keevan shrugged. “Just as long as I’m not one of them. I have no intention of ever dying again. You can’t begin to understand what a nuisance it is to die and be cloned and die and be cloned, and on and on. It’s usually unpleasant and always a bore. I’ve died many times, in ways you can’t even begin to imagine…”

“I rather doubt that,” Garak replied. “One of my favorite hobbies nowadays is dreaming up new ways for Vortas to die. I think I’ve surprised even myself with my creativity.”

Bashir wondered more and more what in hell he was doing here, alone, in violation of several Federation treaties, in the heart of the Gamma Quadrant. He hadn’t been very far inside the wormhole when he’d been apprehended by Jem’Hadar patrols. Some quick talking and claims of personal friendship with a Founder had convinced the Vorta in charge not to have him vaporized on sight. They’d beamed him onboard and then obliterated the Rio Grande in a burst of polaron cannon fire.

That was a good little runabout. Sad to see it go. But it can’t be helped. Too bad I didn’t think ahead and take the Rubicon instead. That would have been appropriate, because I’ve certainly crossed it. If I ever make it back to Federation space alive, my Starfleet career is over.

On the journey to the Founder homeworld, Bashir had plenty of time to mull over his rash decision. The Vorta – possibly intimidated by the concept that Bashir really was the close friend of a god – left the doctor alone. The Jem’Hadar displayed their usual lack of curiosity. At the end of their journey, Bashir found himself on a familiar small island in the middle of a vast golden sea.

What do I do now? “Odo?” he yelled.

The only response: a gentle sloshing.

“ODO!” he bellowed. The word was lost in the wind.

Bashir sat down to wait. After several hours of watching the hypnotic ebb and flow of the tide, something odd happened. A hand formed at the edge of the sand. Its arm followed, then a head, body, and legs. Soon Odo stood before the amazed doctor, looking impassively down on him.

“Hello, Doctor. I’m glad to see you. I trust everyone on the station is well?”

Bashir stood up. “Yes, well…you heard about Captain Sisko?”

“Of course. The Federation considers me their ambassador to The Great Link. They send the occasional representative out here, to keep me informed of important events. I’m sure Kira will do a fine job running the station.”

Bashir nodded. He was a little apprehensive at Odo’s strangely distant manner, and didn’t like hearing him refer to Kira by her surname. He’s changed. Not too much, I hope. I’m counting on the old Odo to help me.

“I imagine this isn’t a social call?” Odo said.

“No – Odo, there’s something you need to know. And I’ve taken a hell of a risk in even coming here. It probably means the end of my career.”

“But you were forced to do it, because it’s the right thing to do. I’ve always respected that about you, Doctor. You care more for justice than expediency.” Odo shook his head. “I’ve never understood how people could think any other way…but what is this thing that’s ended your career?”

Bashir took a deep breath. “It’s Garak.”

“Ah, yes. One of the ‘expedient’ types. I suppose I liked him well enough, despite some past unpleasantness between us. He was always such an engaging person. But I just can’t fathom his way of thinking. Him and Quark…”

“This is more serious than a smuggled shipment of stembolts, Odo! Garak has obtained a genomic serum that will free the Jem’Hadar from their dependency on the white. He plans to use it…”

“To wreak vengeance against the Dominion.” Odo nodded, and Bashir started to see a little of his old self re-emerge. “Not that I blame him, Doctor. The female changeling was unduly harsh on the Cardassians. There’s no way to justify what she did, and the Link now repudiates such extreme measures.”

“Tell that to Garak! He won’t stop until either he’s dead, or every Vorta in this quadrant is!”

“I see the dilemma. But what would you have me do?”

“I have to confess, Odo. I was the one who developed the ketracel-white cure. I want to help undo the damage I’ve caused.”

Odo gazed into the reddish sky. “The Vorta usually handle things like this. I’ll find out how you can be most useful.” Before Bashir could say anything, Odo melted back into the lapping waves.

Having the personal recommendation of a Founder proved to be very helpful to Bashir. Every door was opened to him; every deference granted. But he just couldn’t adjust to the reality of the Dominion. Everywhere he looked, he saw Jem’Hadar. And if it wasn’t a Jem’Hadar, it was a Vorta, bowing and scraping before the “personal friend” of a Founder.

Somehow, Bashir had thought it would be different. In the back of his mind, he’d always had romanticized notions about genomically altered species. He’d always searched for the spark of humanity inside them – with Goran’Agar, for instance. He didn’t want the Federation’s prejudices about such species to turn out to be true. But the more he saw of the inner workings of the Dominion, the more he had to wonder if genetic alterations weren’t inherently sinister, after all.

Bashir’s Jem’Hadar escorts finally left him in a small, sparsely furnished room on some space station or other. He was entirely disoriented, having spent several days in a vessel with no viewscreen and no windows. Only the configuration of this structure, with long tubular corridors and no apparent bridge, convinced him that he was on an orbital station of some sort, rather than on another starship.

He looked around and sighed. No windows, of course.

At long last, he had a visitor. A female Vorta appeared at the door and gazed at him warily. “You are the Starfleet person sent by the Founder?”

Bashir stood and extended his hand warmly. “Yes! My name is Julian Bashir.”

The Vorta stared at his hand as though it might bite her. “I am Kilana. It is an honor to work with you.”

Self-consciously, Bashir withdrew his arm. “Yes, well…because I know Odo, I suppose.”

“Precisely. I am in charge of the investigation into the possible sabotage of the white. I have been told that you wish to assist me.”

“If I can.” Bashir motioned towards a set of chairs and they settled in. “How much do you know about the situation?”

“I think you should tell me what you know first,” was Kilana’s icy reply.

“Of course. I imagine you’ve been briefed about the cure.”

Kilana nodded curtly.

“My guess that it’s going to be brought into Dominion space by a Cardassian named Elim Garak. He’s probably already here.”

“Impossible. No Alpha Quadrant vessels are permitted within our space.”

“He has allies within the Dominion.”

Kilana’s eyes flashed. “Dominion subjects aiding this Cardassian? Who?”

“I don’t know!” And even if I could name names, I wouldn’t tell you. God only knows what would happen to them. “But the important thing is this: Garak needs to get inside a ketracel-white processing plant and introduce the serum directly into the vats.”

“Then he’ll fail. Only Vortas have access to the plants.”

“Garak will find a Vorta to help him.” Kilana started to object but Bashir interrupted her. “And yes, he’ll find a way to do it. You don’t know Garak like I do.”

“And you don’t know Vortas like I do. We cannot betray the Dominion. Our genetic code wouldn’t allow it.”

“Maybe I don’t know much about Vortas, Kilana, but I do know something about humanoid genetics. It simply isn’t possible to have such total control over genetic sequencing, not on such a huge scale. How many Vortas are there? Millions?”

“Why do you need to know?”

“It doesn’t matter, really. My point is that every now and then, there’s bound to be a slip-up. And before you say that’s impossible too, I’ve encountered two of the Dominion’s ‘mistakes’ in the past few years.”

Two Vortas who were defective?” Kilana looked worried. “In what way?”

“Well, I only heard about one of them. The sixth clone of Weyoun had a conscience. And I met the other one personally. I didn’t realize it at the time, but in retrospect, he must have been defective as well. He betrayed the interests of the Dominion to save his own life.”

“I know about that. Keevan.”

“So, you see, there are likely to be some Vortas that Garak can subvert – either through appeals to their ethical sense, or to their self-interest, depending on how their ‘defects’ manifest themselves.”

Kilana picked up what looked like a Dominion version of a padd and tapped it. “We don’t have to worry about Keevan. He was re-cloned over a year ago, but a few months later, he disappeared on Ixia. His current clone is in the Parel System, hundreds of light years from here.”

“Are you sure he died on Ixia?”

“Very sure. That planet has been nothing but trouble for centuries, and several thousand Vorta and Jem’Hadar have vanished there.”

“’Vanished’ isn’t necessarily the same as ‘dead.’”

“On Ixia it is. Corpses are rarely recovered from that particular planet. The inhabitants like to eat them.”

The jungle was dense and steamy. Above, trees towered in the mist. Birds screamed, small animals scampered through the underbrush, and insects swarmed in a dense black fog around the heads of the quartet who made their way through the foliage.

Garak’s thick Cardassian skin made him immune to the insects. Rune, apparently, had an equally thick hide. Either that or he likes being bitten, Garak thought. Bountiful Sun had swathed her delicate tentacles in blue netting, leaving no part of her body exposed. Poor Keevan, however, was covered with welts by the time the group reached the clearing.

Swatting at the swarm, Keevan whined: “I should have let the Ixi’ites eat me. At least they would have been quick about it.”

“If you want to go indoors, Keevan, there’s our goal.” Garak gestured forward, towards an enormous metallic structure that gleamed in the torrid jungle heat. “If, that is, you can really do it.”

Keevan snorted and started forward. “Just watch me.” His progress was brought up short by the rope around his neck.

“Careful, pawdo!” Rune snarled. “I’ll be watching you with this!” He brandished a nasty-looking little phaser. Keevan rolled his eyes.

The rope was untied from Keevan’s neck and he was allowed to advance into the clearing while the other three hid in the brush. The Vorta approached a seemingly solid wall and waved his hand in a complex gesture. Something clicked loudly, and an opening appeared in the metallic wall.

Keevan turned and shrugged. He was too far away for Garak to discern facial expressions, but the Cardassian intuited a sneer.

Garak and his companions hurried across the clearing and ducked into the door behind Keevan. The door slammed shut behind them. Only then did Garak notice a humming noise, very faint, coming from someplace deep beneath the floor.

“So far, so good,” Garak said. The bag of serum felt heavy on his shoulder.

Bountiful Sun pointed down the corridor. “Lead on, Vorta.”

Keevan smiled and strolled into the darkness. “There will be Jem’Hadar here, you know. I do hope that none of you panics easily.”

Rune snarled. He didn’t like seeing the Vorta without the rope around his neck. “Worry about your own skin, not ours.”

As the four progressed down the corridor, the humming grew louder. The corridor terminated at another door.

Keevan paused. “I don’t know what that ‘serum’ is supposed to accomplish, Garak. But these vats only supply three sectors of Dominion space. That won’t accomplish anything, you know.”

Garak leveled his disrupter at the back of Keevan’s neck. “And how would you know what we’re trying to do here?”

“You’re planning to rebel, of course, and that’s why you want to poison the Jem’Hadar beforehand. What you don’t seem to understand is that sabotaging this plant isn’t nearly enough to keep your Calmendi and Ixi’ite friends from being massacred immediately. Let me help you break four or five more plants. Thousands of Jem’Hadar will die. That will give you pathetic rebels enough of an advantage for you to be massacred slowly instead.” Keevan grinned.

Garak pushed the disrupter against Keevan’s pale neck. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were trying to convince us not to kill you after we’re finished here.”

“I’ve always appreciated Cardassians. You’re so much more perceptive than Gamma Quadrant species. Maybe when this is all over, I’ll spend my ‘retirement’ in your lovely quadrant.”

“I don’t think a Vorta would be very welcome there,” Garak snapped. “And your plan won’t work. In a few days, the Vorta supervisor for this region will discover what we’ve done here. By that time, we must be far away. That doesn’t give us enough time…”

“Not if you dump the serum directly in the vats! I can take you to the room where the raw material for the white is stored. Introduce the serum there, and you’ll have two weeks – possibly more – before the sabotage is discovered.”

Garak glanced at his co-conspirators. He saw by their expressions that this was an unexpected gift, and one that they would not willingly throw away. Garak made a quick calculation. Four or five plants would feed at least a dozen sectors of Dominion space. A rebellion across twelve sectors would be a serious blow!

The Cardassian said nothing. Everyone was waiting for his decision. Can I trust a Vorta? Of course not. But maybe, in a way, I can. They’re vicious, but predictably so. Weyoun was merciless towards the enemies of the Dominion. Why wouldn’t Keevan be equally merciless – but toward his own people, even his ‘gods.’ Gods he doesn’t believe in. Gods he wants to tear down and destroy, like the mindless creature he is

Garak removed the disrupter from Keevan’s neck. “We accept your plan, Vorta. So for now, you live. Lead the way.”

Three plants in eight days. Garak moves fast.

Bashir rubbed his eyes and stretched. The red and blue images on the computer monitor – showing the planets that Garak’s group had visited – were dancing before his eyes. In the past week, he had gotten very little sleep. The saboteurs always seemed one step ahead of him.

Kilana had quickly determined that Keevan’s access codes were being used, but deleting them did no good. Apparently, the Vorta knew ways to circumvent Dominion security. In the meantime, she had ordered the white that had been tampered with destroyed. That meant privation – possibly starvation – for hundreds of Jem’Hadar in this region.

Bashir didn’t bother to try to convince Kilana to allow the white to be used. He knew that she would rather let the Jem’Hadar die than allow them to be cured of their addiction. In the past week, he’d learned not to…see…the disturbing realities of the Dominion.

How many planets had they visited, where the indigenous population had scattered in fear upon their approach? How many wrecked cities – long since deserted and overgrown with vines – had he trudged through, at the rear of a procession of heavily-armed Jem’Hadar? Never before had Bashir so thoroughly felt like he was part of an occupying army, the oppressor of countless worlds. Starfleet had never prepared him for this.

And Starfleet never prepared me to live in a tin can, either. Bashir looked at the bare silver walls of the Dominion cruiser and sighed. I wish that, for a change, Kilana would tell me where we’re going next.

“Doctor Bashir,” a smooth, calm voice echoed through the small room. “Please report to the bridge. We are preparing the final stages of descent.”

“Which planet is it this time, Kilana?”

A long pause intervened. “This world is in the Boranis system. The third planet from the local star.”

Bashir started to get out of the uncomfortable chair that had been installed especially for him. Then he stopped. Something in the back of his mind warned him that this world would be different from the rest.

Impatiently, he snapped himself out of it. They’re all the same world, Julian. Every one of them, the same damned thing. The only thing they have in common – the only thing Kilana cares about – is that they have a ketracel-white plant somewhere on the surface.

The streets were deserted. The buildings, destroyed. Here and there, a tower tottered, perilously close to collapse.

Garak looked around with narrowed eyes. The wind provided the only sound. All life, humanoid or animal, had been blasted out of existence some months or years before.

“You know, Bountiful, I’ve come to appreciate the subtle graces of this quadrant. The uniformity, the expectedness of it all. Every planet we’ve seen is essentially like the last. So comforting, don’t you agree?”

Garak’s witticisms were no use here. Bountiful Sun said nothing as her tentacles drooped in sorrow. Even the Cardassian was becoming unnerved; this place seemed more devastated than his own home planet. Let’s find that plant and leave quickly…
Nearby, Melorgak Rune kicked over a slab of wall. On it were the remnants of a painting, which at one time had been a lovely piece of art.

Rune yanked on the rope in his paws. Keevan flinched, but he was used to it by now. “Look at this, pawdo! Isn’t it enough to murder the people here? Can’t you even leave their artworks to honor their memories?”

Garak knelt and inspected the destroyed painting. “I’m afraid that question is beyond Keevan’s comprehension. Vortas have no sense of aesthetics.”

The Cardassian kept digging, uncovering more bits of the painting, now smashed beyond repair. Seeing a small hand, blackened and shriveled, in the rubble he drew back. Carefully, he replaced the stone over the mummified hand.

“It’s just like Cardassia,” he whispered to himself.

Bountiful Sun glided to his side and leaned down so that her tentacles lightly touched his shoulder in a gesture of empathy. “No, my friend. It’s just like my world, Calmendi.”

Hours later, another group passed through the same streets. Four Jem’Hadar trotted at the front of the procession and four more at the rear, weapons drawn and senses alert for the slightest danger.

The Jem’Hadar Second dropped to one knee and inspected the ground. “The rebels passed this way recently.”

Kilana walked over to the Second. “How long ago?”

“Two hours at the most.”

“We still may have time to catch them at the plant. We know the direct route there, but it will take them longer to find their way through the destroyed city.”

Bashir nodded silently. All the street signs have been destroyed. Whatever map Garak has will be little use. He felt depressed and apprehensive at the inevitable confrontation that was to come. Garak and his allies would not give up easily. Bashir hoped that he could do something to arrange their surrender. Otherwise, the Jem’Hadar were certain to kill all of them.

The bright glare of the setting sun was directly in his eyes as the group continued on. Bashir’s gut felt worse. Something else was bothering him besides concern for Garak’s life.

He noticed the ruddy glow of the sun. It triggered a memory from years ago, of a city with just that kind of light…with a rush of memory, he realized why “the third planet in the Boranis system” had sounded so familiar.

This is Ekoria’s world, where I cured the Quickening! My god, what happened here? It was ruined before, but not like this. And where are all the people?

He caught up with Kilana. “Wait! What caused all the devastation here?”

Kilana gave him a strange look, but kept walking. “Standard punishment procedures for rebellious worlds were implemented here recently.”

“Recently? Why?”

“There’s only one reason for any planet in the Dominion to be punished. They defied the will of the Founders. We never punish obedient planets, we always allow them to live in peace. If the people here had only…”

“What could they possibly have done to deserve this?” Bashir yelled.

Kilana stopped and stared at Bashir. “I already told you! They defied…”

“The will of the Founders, yes, I heard you the first time. But what specifically did they do?”

Kilana sighed and checked her padd. “Here it is. Originally, Boranis III was treated leniently. The population was simply infected with a disease…”

“Called the Quickening. I know about it. You call that ‘lenient’?”

Kilana looked mildly surprised. “Of course. After all, their race was allowed to survive. Their lifespans were simply shortened somewhat. It’s hardly the harshest punishment the Dominion has ever meted out. But instead of being grateful, the Boranians somehow found a way to thwart the disease.”

Bashir’s stomach felt like it was filled with ice water. “The Dominion discovered that the infants on this planet were immune to the Quickening.”

“That is exactly what happened. Blatant defiance of the Founders’ chosen punishment! There was only one option: to eradicate the population.”

Bashir staggered towards a wall for support. After all I went through to save these people – to save Ekoria’s baby – the Dominion killed them as though they were insects! I remember holding that baby in my arms, thinking that he represented his planet’s future. In reality, he foretold its death.

Finding his voice, he gasped: “You killed them all? All of them? Every person on this planet?”

Kilana rolled her eyes. “When you’re through having your hysterical fit, can we please keep moving? We’re taking a serious risk that the terrorists will get away again!”

“Terrorists? You’re calling Garak a terrorist? The Dominion murdered an entire planet! Isn’t that terrorism?”

“No, it isn’t. Not if it is the will of the Founders.”

Bashir stared hard into Kilana’s icy lavender eyes. Uncomprehending eyes. She honestly does not see that what the Dominion did here was wrong. To her, the ‘will of the Founders’ justifies anything.

“I’ll tell you something that you probably don’t know, Kilana. I was the person who cured the Quickening.”

Kilana’s eyes widened. “Then you are responsible for their deaths!”

“Me? I was trying to save them from the torture you damned Vortas inflicted on them!”

“What right did you have to interfere with planets within Dominion space? This is precisely the sort of Federation arrogance that caused the war in the first place! Do you people never learn?”

“I’m a doctor! I have the right, the responsibility, to fight illness, suffering and pain wherever I find it!”

“In Federation space, you have that right! But not in Dominion space. The Founders determine what happens here, and no one else!”

Bashir was speechless with horror. It was clear that Kilana would not understand his point of view. Then he remembered – she could not understand his point of view. Her genetic makeup renders her incapable of accepting what I’m saying. She couldn’t agree with me even if she wanted to. The medical scientist in Bashir found this fascinating as well as repulsive. And immensely sad. He wondered once again whether it might be the right thing, after all, to try to convince Odo to have the Vorta genome changed…

He pushed that dangerous thought out of his mind. “I won’t argue with you, Kilana. I know why you’re acting this way. You have no free will, thanks to the Founders. You’re incapable of changing your beliefs.”

Kilana’s eyes flashed with annoyance. “And are you so sure that you have free will, doctor? Could you ever change your beliefs? Could you accept the fact that the Founders’ wishes are infinitely more important than your desire to cure disease?”

Bashir smiled weakly. “You’ve got me there, Kilana. No, I could never accept that, either.”

 Kilana sighed wearily. “Then this conversation is pointless. Let’s get moving.”

She signaled to the Jem’Hadar and the group resumed their quick pace towards the ketracel-white plant. Bashir was too numb and exhausted to think clearly about what was going to happen next. That he might have to help kill a man who had once been his friend, in order to save the lives of the most morally repugnant species he had ever encountered.

Bashir and his companions hid in the rubble of what had once been a massive building, looking down onto the first intact structure he’d seen on the planet. It was a low, rambling metallic complex that glinted with a harsh light, hurting Bashir’s eyes. No doors or windows were visible. And right in front of the structure, four figures stood. Two were from unfamiliar species; one, Bashir recognized as Keevan.

The fourth stood with his back turned to Bashir, but he was a Cardassian, and it wasn’t difficult to guess his identity.

I can’t believe this, Bashir thought. There’s no escape for Garak now. It had to happen, but still, I’m surprised that he’d be so careless…

Kilana whispered to the First. “Take five of your men and dispose of the terrorists.”

“You don’t need to kill them,” Bashir objected. “You could take them prisoner.”

“Yes, I could. But why should I bother?” To emphasize the Vorta’s point, the two Jem’Hadar who remained behind leveled their weapons at Bashir. He watched helplessly as the others shrouded and presumably advanced on the rebels.

Moments later, they revealed themselves and opened fire. The disrupter blasts passed harmlessly through Garak and the others, hitting the side of the ketracel-white plant.

Kilana jumped to her feet. “Decoys! Some kind of holo-projections. They must already be inside the plant!”

She and the two Jem’Hadar scrambled through the boulders, with Bashir right behind. Kilana ran to a corner of the building and signaled for the door to reveal itself.

Inside the plant, it was dark and cool. Bashir could barely see his own feet as he stumbled along behind a massive Jem’Hadar. Rumbling and clanking noises reverberated in the corridor.

Suddenly, Kilana brought the group to a halt. She scanned the area with a hand-held device and pointed down an adjacent hallway. “I’m getting life-signs from that direction. It makes sense; the storage room for the lichen is that way, and that’s what the terrorists have been poisoning. Knowing the Cardassian, it’s probably another false lead, which means they’re really in the main processing area.” She gestured straight down the corridor and the Jem’Hadar thundered ahead.

The corridor ended at a catwalk overlooking a vast, light-filled room, containing large circular vats. Inside the vats, a milky white substance roiled and bubbled. The room was not as noisy as the hallway. Only a low hum was audible.

The Jem’Hadar shrouded themselves, but Garak had a surprise waiting for them. An energy net of some kind encircled each soldier, outlining his form. Realizing what was happening, the First de-shrouded and his men followed his example.

Immediately, disrupter fire erupted from someplace on the floor of the plant. Three of the Jem’Hadar were killed immediately, and the others retreated to the corridor. The First ran past Kilana and Bashir with his men and disappeared through a chute that Bashir had not noticed before.

“Another route into the plant?” Bashir asked, unnecessarily. Kilana didn’t bother to respond.

The Jem’Hadar re-appeared on the floor of the plant, weaving their way around the vats. After a few minutes, the First yelled up. “The Cardassian has surrendered!”

What is Garak playing at now? Bashir thought. But he didn’t say what he was thinking. I wonder if Kilana knows that this has to be another trick.

Kilana and Bashir made their way across the catwalk and down a steep set of stairs to the floor. In the narrow space between two vats, the Jem’Hadar were guarding two prisoners.

“Doctor!” Garak said in evident surprise. “Fancy meeting you here. I’m famished. Care to join me for lunch?”

Bashir only shook his head. “Garak…”

“Yes, yes, I know. The cuisine on this planet is simply awful. Non-existent, in fact. I believe it has something to do with the entire population having been eradicated. That sort of thing tends to have a rather negative effect on cultural niceties.” Garak pointedly stopped smiling.

Kilana ignored the Cardassian and directed her gaze to the other prisoner, who was sitting casually on the floor. “Am I in trouble?” Keevan asked innocently.

“I doubt that, in the two-thousand year history of the Dominion, whether any Vorta has ever been in as much trouble as you are now,’ Kilana snapped. “You should have let the Ixi’ites eat you, Keevan.”

“Odd. I was just thinking the same thing.”

Kilana pointed at Keevan and spoke to the First. “That one stays alive. Kill the Cardassian.”

Suddenly, Garak and Keevan vanished in a transporter beam.

“They’ve disabled the dampening fields!” Kilana yelled. She signaled the Dominion vessel with her communicator and, to her horror, heard a familiar voice.

“Hello again,” Garak said. “Perhaps I failed to mention it, but while you were chasing us all over this lovely planet, a few of my Calmendi and Ixi’ite friends happened by and took over your ship. I do hope you don’t mind.”

Kilana looked like she was going to burst a blood vessel. “You won’t survive to return to your own quadrant, Cardassian!”

“Perhaps not. Now, let’s see, what shall we do with our guests down there on the planet? I rather like the idea of just leaving you behind to enjoy the lovely cuisine of Boranis III. Except that there doesn’t seem to be any food there. So you’ll starve.”

“The Jem’Hadar won’t starve,” Bashir said.

Garak laughed. “How could they starve in a ketracel-white plant? They’ll be quite healthy. However, I introduced the cure into the vats before you arrived. So, Doctor, you’ll have the opportunity of seeing the effects of your generosity up close. I wonder if they’ll break your neck along with the Vorta’s? Care to place a bet? I’m betting they will.”

“So this is how it ends, Garak?”

Bashir heard nothing but a faint hiss from Kilana’s communicator. “Perhaps not,” Garak said, in a different voice from before. Around the Jem’Hadar, several forms materialized. The battle was swift; all the Jem’Hadar were killed. In the confusion, Kilana vanished.

The surviving Calmendi and Ixi’ites surrounded Bashir. “Don’t worry,” Garak said to them. “He’s not armed. Well, Doctor, I suppose I am a sentimental old fool after all. I’ll give you a ride back to Federation space and we’ll forget this little incident ever happened.”

“And you continue your sabotage unopposed.”

“Doctor, are you having mental difficulties? Isn’t it obvious by now that I do not share your idiotic notions about Vortas having a right to live?”

“We’ll never agree about this, Garak.”

“You always were infuriatingly pig-headed. Anyone who can’t appreciate a good enigma tale simply isn’t worth arguing with.”

“I wish this were only a debate over an enigma tale, Garak,” Bashir said as he took a few steps back up the stairs to the catwalk. “I doubt you’d shoot me after you just went to such lengths to spare my life.”

Garak sighed and stepped onto the lowest rung. “Doctor, you really need to stop acting so foolishly…”

Arcs of electricity surged through the plant floor; the jolt rattled even Bashir and Garak on the stairs. Garak turned; his allies lay on the floor, their corpses blackened and steaming.

“Nice security measure,” Garak said a bit shakily. “I suppose we have your Vorta friend to thank for that.”

Realizing he was a sitting duck on the stairway, Garak jumped onto the rim of a vat. “Ow. I’m really too old for this…”

Kilana appeared on the catwalk above, shooting at the Cardassian. But Garak was a better shot, and Kilana collapsed onto the ground, mortally wounded.

“A pity she didn’t fall into one of the vats,” Garak said. “I wonder what a touch of Vorta would do to the white…Doctor, where are you going?”

Bashir hurried up the stairs. “Kilana might still be alive.”

With great effort, Garak scrambled from the vat back into the stairs. “OW! I really am too old for this. Doctor, what do you propose to accomplish without a medkit?”

Bashir picked up Kilana’s disrupter. “Nothing. She’s dead anyway. Give me the rest of the vials, Garak.”

“Oh dear. I’m afraid I used them all in this plant.”

“Are you telling the truth?”

“My dear doctor, when have you ever known me not to tell the truth?”

Bashir aimed weapon right at Garak’s head. “Drop your disrupter.” The Cardassian complied; the weapon clattered down the stairs and sparked impressively as it hit the electrified floor. “This may come as something of a shock, Garak, but I think I’ve learned to tell when you’re lying. And you’re lying now. You wouldn’t waste all the serum on a single plant, when spreading it around could be so much more destructive. So you’ve hidden it somewhere around here.”

Garak sighed and reached into his jacket. “Careful!” Bashir barked. Garak gave him an aggrieved expression and drew out a small packet. “You’ve grown so suspicious. Where is the fresh-faced naïve lad I once knew?”

“Dead and gone, and I don’t miss him one bit. Is the serum in that pouch?”

“All that’s left of it. Seven vials.”

“Toss it to me.”

“From here? I’m afraid, what was that sport Captain Sisko liked so much? The one with all the tedious rules that involves a great deal of throwing and catching things. Anyway, I’m not very good at that sport, and if I tried tossing this pouch from this distance, it’s very likely that it would end up in a vat. Which I believe would defeat your purpose.”

“Then walk up here. But remember…”

“Of course. You’re a vicious killer, eager to blast me into a billion molecules. Now who’s the liar, Doctor?”

“I’m not lying, Garak. I think you know that.”

“The pity is, I do. But I still can’t let you have these vials. My friends up there in orbit are counting on me.” Garak stopped several meters away from Bashir on the catwalk and dangled the pouch over the railing. “It would be ironic for our fascinating conversations to end this way, wouldn’t it? Why don’t you just turn around and walk out that door? For old time’s sake.”

“You know very well that I can’t let you commit genocide.”

“I’m not doing this only for Cardassia, you know. The Dominion will always be a threat to the entire Alpha Quadrant! Their society is organized around total obedience. Even the Order couldn’t expect the kind of loyalty the Vorta and Jem’Hadar show. Such power, in the hands of a few lunatics, can be very dangerous, as I think we’ve all seen. Take the people of this planet, for instance. I believe you once told me that you cured a terrible disease here. Doesn’t look to me like it did them much good, thanks to those Vortas whom you are so keen to protect.”

Bashir flinched but kept Garak in his phaser sights. “There’s a simple way to make sure things like that never happen again. I’ll ask Odo to change the Dominion’s policies towards the worlds in their territory…”

Garak let out a short bark of laughter. “Odo? What good could he be?”

“Odo is influential in the Link! They’d listen to him.”

Garak shook his head. “Doctor, I can see that our little chats made absolutely no impact on you at all. Hasn’t it occurred to you that the Link might be controlling Odo, rather than the other way around? It’s not like it hasn’t happened in the past.”

Bashir made no reply. He hadn’t even considered that possibility.

Sensing his opponent’s weakness, Garak smiled. “Put down the phaser and walk away. What I’m doing here has the tacit approval of the Federation. Do you think you know more about inter-quadrant politics than they do? Than I do?”

“You may know more about politics than me, Garak, but genocide is genocide and I can’t let you use that serum. I understand that you’re angry about what happened on Cardassia.”

Angry? Oh, no, no, no. Didn’t I tell you once that a good agent never lets his feelings intrude upon his work? I’m not after vengeance, Doctor. That would be unforgivably sloppy of me!”

“Then, why…?”

“Cardassia has no leaders now. The Order is as much of a government as the Union is likely to have for the foreseeable future. That means that safeguarding Cardassia’s interests falls on my shoulders. I’m sure you haven’t failed to notice that we share our lovely quadrant with some rather belligerent neighbors – Klingons, Romulans, Tholians, Breen – I hardly need list them all. And every one of those powers are watching Cardassia now, to see if we really are as weak and they hope we are. To allow the Dominion to murder millions of my people, without responding in kind…well, even you can see how foolish that would be.”

“So it’s just politics.”

“Precisely. I have nothing personal against these Vorta, you know. I don’t hate them. To the extent that I even think about them, I suppose…I pity them. They’re miserable little wretches. Slaves, soulless abominations. I really think I’m doing them a favor by putting as many of them as possible out of their misery.”

“You don’t have the right to judge and entire species, Garak. For the last time, toss me that pouch!”

Garak sighed and shook his head. “But it would be a criminal waste of perfectly good serum. There are so many other sectors where this could do some good…”

They’re going to transport him out! Bashir thought. It’s now or never! Almost without thinking, he fired. The pouch, his target, exploded into a thousand dazzling shards of glass as the vials broke. Several of the glass shards embedded themselves in Garak’s neck and chest.

Horrified, Bashir dashed to Garak’s side. The Cardassian was barely conscious. Bright yellow blood oozed from his wounds. “Lay still,” Bashir said as he swept his tricorder over Garak. His lifesigns were fading fast.

Garak reached up and with a smile, patted his friend on the shoulder. “Executed like a true professional. I believe, dear Rubal, that you’ll make an agent yet!”

“Rubal? What are you talking about?” On the tricorder, the heart and pulse rates went to zero. Garak’s hand fell off Bashir’s shoulder and onto the catwalk. Too stunned to move, the doctor stared at the dead Cardassian for a few moments. Then Garak vanished in a sparkle of light. His allies had transported him to their ship – too late.

“Is Garak on board?” Rune barked.

“Yes,” a mellifluous voice replied. “He is in sickbay, though I fear it may be too late.”

Rune grunted. “Another martyr for our songs! Garak the Cardassian, the noble friend from far away. When I return to Ixia, I will ask the bard to compose two hundred verses in his honor. He is so lucky! His name will live forever among the Ixi’ites!”

The captured Dominion bug broke from orbit. Rune left the bridge and lumbered to the room that served as an impromptu brig.

Keevan sat on the floor, contemplating yet another change in his changeable fortunes. “I don’t suppose you’d consider living up to your end of our agreement. After all, it isn’t my fault that we were apprehended, and I did help you break into several plants.”

“Let it never be said that Ixi’ites are ingrates! You will be the guest of honor at our homecoming feast!”

Keevan was unsure how to interpret this remark. “How…nice. Don’t make anything special for me. Vortas have very little sense of taste.”

“Don’t worry about it! It’s all arranged. When I left Ixia, my wife told me to pick up something for dinner, anyway.” He exited the holding cell, gleefully chomping his tusks at his fine joke.

At least, Keevan hoped it was a joke.

“It was an accident, Julian! An accident. How long are you going to beat yourself up over this? You didn’t intend for Garak to die, it just happened.”

Bashir slumped on the couch in his quarters on DS9, staring out the windows at the stars. Ezri was trying for the hundredth time to draw him out of his funk. Ever since he’d returned from the Gamma Quadrant two weeks before with the terrible news that he’d killed his old friend, he’d been deeply depressed.

“I suppose I should be grateful. I’m lucky that I won’t be court-martialled. Thanks to Odo for putting in a good word to the Starfleet brass for me.”

“They should give you a commendation! What you did was very brave.”

“Don’t hold your breath waiting for any awards. You can hardly expect Starfleet to admit to their admit their role in all this. They’ll want to bury it, forget about it. I’m just grateful they didn’t bury me along with it.”

Ezri sighed. “It’s times like this that it’s good to have friends in high places.”

Seeing that Julian would not be cheered up, she left him and walked towards the replicator. “Do you want some Tarkalian tea? I know I could use…” She stopped at a table near the door, noticing a nondescript package addressed to “Julian Bashir.”

“Julian, were you expecting something?” Ezri held the small package out.

“No,” Bashir said as he unwrapped it. The package contained a padd. He turned it on. “It’s an enigma tale! Reflections of a Loyal Life, by Gami Krale.”


“Some Cardassian author that…Garak…told me about. My god, Ezri, Garak must have sent this before he went to the Gamma Quadrant. His last gift to me.”

Bashir sat on the sofa for many hours, reading the enigma tale. It was obvious that the author, at long last, had decided to finish the story. As ever, Bashir found the story to be boring, unnecessarily convoluted and pointless. Until he came to the final chapter of the book.

By then, it was “the wee hours of the morning” by DS9 reckoning. Ezri was in the next room, fast asleep. Bashir kept reading, with an ever-increasing feeling of deja vu.

The novel’s protagonist hides in a factory secretly manufacturing munitions for Cardassia’s enemies. He attempts to sabotage the machinery when he is discovered by his erstwhile friend.

Bashir was mesmerized and read on quickly. He expected, but could hardly believe, what happened next: the agent’s friend shoots a container of explosives, which detonates. The agent lies mortally wounded in a pool of his own blood.

Then came the line that made Bashir practically jump out of his skin: “Executed like a true professional. I believe, dear Rubal, that you’ll make an agent yet!”

Bashir jumped off the couch like he’d been bit by a snake “Ezri! Look at this sentence!”

Ezri groggily woke up. “You know I don’t like enigma tales, Julian.” She read the line and shrugged. “What about it?”

“That’s precisely what Garak said to me, just before he died!”

“He must have seen this manuscript before he left Cardassia, that’s all.”

“But everything leading up to this scene parallels what happened to Garak and me on Boranis III. How could it all be a coincidence?”

Ezri gave him a skeptical look and took the padd out of his hands. “I knew it was a bad idea to let you read this, so soon after…” She stopped talking and stared at the padd. “Julian, wait, I think you might be onto something.” She pointed at the author’s name at the top of the padd display.

“Gami Krale,” Bashir read. “Sounds like an ordinary Cardassian name to me.”

“Don’t you see, Julian? That’s an anagram for ‘Elim Garak’!”

Bashir blinked in confusion. Then he flipped the padd display forward to the story’s conclusion. Despite the apparently fatal events of the factory scene, the Agent was still alive at the tale’s end.

…and night descended on the Agent, as he watched the still form at his feet for any sign of life. He had been right, and his friend had been wrong. The Agent could feel the wind in his face as the clouds moved overhead, blotting out the twin moons. He wished that dear Rubal had heeded his advice. This was not the conclusion he had hoped for, but as he examined the many years he had known his friend, the Agent now understood that this was, in truth, the only possible end.