by Travis Anderson
The Bajoran pair swiftly discovered why Keplek wasn’t a Cardassian hot spot. Unlike Bajor, which was the system’s eleventh planet and still temperate, Keplek orbited a red sun and was barely habitable, even though it was the third planet in the system. The equatorial ranges were fertile but the rest of the planet was snowy and icy.
Adapted to warm climates, Cardassians would naturally be prone to hypothermia anywhere but the equator, and even then, they would be uncomfortable. Even Anara and Neela had to dress more warmly. As the Ark approached Keplek, Neela had read off a fact sheet on the planet.
There were five continents altogether. The largest was a supercontinent. There were two polar breakaway shelves and two spread across Keplek’s massive ocean. One was halfway around the world and the other was between it and the supercontinent but was furthest down in the southern oceanic range without touching the southern polar continent.
Keplek’s capitol was located in the equatorial belt. It was a hub for grains, fruits, vegetable, and livestock. Heavy industry was located farther north and south. There was little habitation on the polar continents. The two breakaway continents were largely used for resource extraction since they were too cold to grow food upon. The settlers had to rely upon greenhouses and hydroponics just to subsist.
The primary landing site was in the industrial town of Kallipa on the supercontinent’s northern range. It was a shipping hub for all of Keplek’s goods. An orbital dry-dock network built and maintained the domestic shipping fleet. The defense force was akin to Bajor’s in that it relied upon in-system impulse driven ships.
Anara and Neela utilized local transportation to transit from Kallipa to Cardone. What became apparent was that the Orions had a strong presence on Keplek. Both Bajorans knew that meant the Orion Syndicate would have a strong local presence as well.
The Ferengi also had a strong mercantile presence. While Keplek was a very minor trading partner with the Federation, it had a much larger penetration into other markets. It had been denied Federation membership shortly after Coridan was successfully admitted, but it was found that Keplek’s criminal enterprises were embedded into the legitimate ones and membership was denied on that basis, since then the interweaving of the legal and illegal had only magnified.
Recently, Keplek had been engaged in an insurgent civil war. Mercenaries had been brought in to supplant the native police forces since the police had served as troops for the current government and the opposing faction no longer trusted them. The native Sector Defense Force had sat out the conflict and instead kept the system free of opportunists looking to maximize profits at the expense of Keplek during its troubles.
The Bajorans discovered a “relaxed” form of martial law had been imposed — or at least it had until “stability” had been achieved. Both Anara and Neela knew from the Cardassians that such promises were never fulfilled.
En route to Cardone, Neela had mused over what political activists like Lang and her students thought of recent events. Anara had to wonder why it mattered at all. Neela gave Anara a rueful look.
“If Lang and her charges were willing to speak out against the Central Command and the Obsidian Order, what makes you think they won’t aggravate the locals here?” Neela inquired.
“They’ll be watched,” Anara groaned.
“Now who’s the quick study?” Neela teased. “So the question is, how will these mercenaries react when we go after their surveillance targets?”
“The bigger question is will they stop us or help us,” Anara pointed out.
Anara knew she should have been the one pointing out these factors. She’d been trained to, after all. Once again, she was seeing a side of Neela that discomfited her.
Once in Cardone, Neela approached the closest available public information kiosk. It turned out to be a Ferengi built system that yielded unexpected information just in the primary languages that it displayed information in. The languages to choose from were Keplekan, Federation Standard, Orion, Ferengi, and Romulan. The last came as a surprise because none of the data Neela had perused through had even hinted at a Romulan presence on Keplek.
Neela chose Federation standard and prayed she wasn’t too rusty to understand what would be displayed. She’d hardly been fluent when she’d been arrested. Five years in a cell surrounded by Bajoran texts hadn’t bolstered the skill any.
Still, Neela managed to discover that Natima Lang was a professor at Hovis University, the planet’s largest. It doubled as a neutral party political think tank renowned throughout the Alpha Quadrant and even sections of the Beta Quadrant. Rekelan and Hogue were research fellows in the university assigned to Professor Lang’s department. Little surprise there.
Further inquiry revealed that the three Cardassians shared an address. It was on the edge of the city. Looking into the engineering and design of the building, she discovered it was a four bedroom townhouse suitably equipped with environmental controls capable of replicating Cardassian environments.
After a quick conference, they chose to confront the Cardassians in their home. So they boarded mass transit and went across town. The professor and her teaching assistants were still at the university for the day, so Anara and Neela sought out a nearby eatery with a view of the street leading from the mag lev strain station to the targets’ home.
The shop offered teas, coffees, and pastries from across the quadrant. Anara ordered raktajino and a scone. Neela chose a Terran latte and a cinnamon roll. Anara was astonished.
Neela shrugged. “They served human coffee and pastries in prison. If you obeyed the rules and were attentive at the vedek’s lessons, you’d earn credits to buy coffee and sweets.”
“I bet you never missed out,” Anara quipped.
Neela wore another half smile as she softly said, “You’d be surprised. But I can be very compliant when I need to be.”
Anara felt another chill run up her spine. “So are we actually here to kill them?”
Neela seemed to consider it. “It would certainly be the easiest course of action.”
“But they aren’t a threat to Bajor,” Anara began to argue. “They’re actually a threat to Cardassia.”
“That’s a matter of opinion,” Neela said wearily. “According to my source on Deep Space Nine, Natima Lang advocates for a democratic system similar to those enjoyed by the Federation and Bajor for Cardassia.”
“And the problem is?” Anara asked testily.
“A nonhostile Cardassia is even more invasive than an openly hostile Cardassian Union,” Neela lectured. “They’ll want cultural exchanges, technology transfers, commercial trading routes, mutual defense pacts, and finally when the grand democratic experiment languishes and the citizenry want a return to perceived strength and security, they’ll descend upon Bajor like voles to an unprotected carcass.”
“The Federation won’t allow it,” Anara argued.
“That’s debatable.” Neela sipped her coffee. “Have you ever heard the expression ‘Never Again?’”
“Not in this context,” Anara admitted.
“Earth had a nation state called Israel,” Neela offered. “Look up their history sometime.”
“I’m not killing these people,” Anara finally protested.
“Keep your voice down. You’re drawing attention,” Neela advised. “We don’t necessarily have to kill them. I just said it was the easiest option.”
“You have another idea?” Anara desperately grasped at that straw.
“The Prophets showed me another path,” Neela revealed. “It’s not an easy one but it may accomplish our goal.”
“So what is it?” Anara wanted to know.
“Not now,” Neela shut the conversation down. “They’re walking down the street.”
“Not now?” Anara almost yelped, “Then when?”
“Just follow my lead,” Neela instructed. “Everything will become clear to you.”
Neela headed for the door and Anara grumpily followed.
Lang was asking Rekelan and Hogue how their day’s research went. Hogue snorted, “The Central Command laughably calls troop movements into the DMZ ‘colonization.’”
“But why does the Federation put up with this fiction?” Lang wondered.
“It gets worse, Professor,” Rekena warned her. “The troops are officially discharged from the Cardassian Guard. They’re then transported to Bryma or other colonies. Because of the Maquis threat, every ‘ex-soldier’ is issued a rifle and a few hundred power packs.”
“There is no way one trooper could use hundreds of power packs,” Lang frowned.
“But Cardassian paramilitaries could distribute the charged packs amongst themselves,” Hogue suggested. “And then they’d have a nearly inexhaustible supply because while a few hundred are charging, a few hundred more would be used. Frankly, it’s quite a coup on the Maquis.”
“Well, never forget the Maquis are just as much criminals as the Cardassian paramilitaries,” Lang urged.
“But the Central Command started this conflict by dispossessing colonists and forcibly evicting people from their own colonies,” Rekelan argued.
“But they’ll never accomplish anything good by killing,” Lang retorted. “But enough of that. Anything else?”
“The Detapa Council’s struggle to interfere in the Central Command’s sphere of responsibility has gone public,” Hogue reported, “thus creating a backlash whereby citizens are calling for a return of military control over the Cardassian Union. It’s even bred terrorist groups advocating this position.”
“What groups?” Lang asked sharply.
“The foremost is called the True Way,” Rekelan answered.
“What a laugh,” Lang cynically commented.
“Professor, the True Way has successfully lashed out at the Federation and Bajor,” Hogue explained. “They’ve also failed on occasion. But their rhetoric is escalating and now they’re threatening to strike at the Detapa Council itself.”
“And,” Rekena stated, “any threat to the establishment of renewed military power is considered a viable target by the True Way.”
“I…” Lang frowned. “Did the front doors just open?”
“Be careful,” Rekelan urged as Lang moved to investigate.
“We should be safe in our own home.” Lang was upset. “After all, we paid Quark’s cousin enough to be certain of that.”
“He was overpaid,” Neela said as she and Anara entered the room.
The Cardassians saw the Bajorans were armed. Hogue moved to intercept but Neela aimed at his chest. “I wouldn’t if I were you.”
“Why would Bajorans hunt us down?” Lang wanted to know.
Neela lowered her phaser so Anara did the same. Neela began her explanation. “Actually, we were sent here by the True Way.”
The Cardassian trio all exchanged looks. Lang pointed out the obvious. “But you’re Bajoran.”
“Which is why we were tasked with proving our loyalty by killing you,” Neela divulged.
“Then get it over with!” Hogue yelled out.
“Getting excited isn’t helping you out any,” Neela observed. “If I wanted you dead, you’d be so already.”
“Then what do you want?” Lang asked.
Neela turned to Anara. “Explain our mission.”
Anara relayed how the Militia had sent her and Neela to infiltrate the True Way with the hopes of crippling it. Lang turned to Neela. “So you’re both Bajoran Militia officers.”
“You’re wrong,” Neela admitted. “Anara is an officer. I was an officer.”
“Then what are you now?” a still hostile Hogue demanded to know.
“Someone who was chosen for this,” Neela answered enigmatically.
“Then why involve us if you don’t intend to actually kill us?” Lang needed to know.
“We can lure the True Way into adopting a strategy to immolate itself,” Neela revealed. “But in order to do so, we need bait to distract the True Way from what we’re doing.”
“Us,” Lang suddenly grasped. “And if we refuse to cooperate?”
“Then our mission is already a failure and you’ll hide here until the next assassin really does kill you,” Neela decided not to spare the trio.
“Thank you for your candor.” Lang ushered her protégés off to her bedroom to discuss Neela’s plan.
“I had no idea this would be your alternative,” Anara admitted. “It’s either absolutely brilliant or it will get them all killed.”
“Either way, it’s the will of the Prophets,” Neela said simply.
“What if they refuse to leave with us?” Anara wondered.
“It’s the will of the Prophets,” Neela shrugged.
“To stay here or go with us?” Anara was a little confused.
“Wait and see,” Neela suggested.
Lang and her associates returned to the living space after some deliberations. Lang asked the obvious question on everyone’s mind. “Can you guarantee our safety?”
“No,” Neela freely admitted. “We’ll do the best we can to protect you, but in the end, there’s only two of us and an unknown number of them.”
“You’re not really selling this idea to us,” Lang complained.
“I’m not trying to sell it,” Neela informed them. “I’m putting your own convictions to the test. Are you willing to help remove a blight from Cardassian society? A society you profess to cherish so to help ennoble itself? Are you willing to stop talking and take direct action and by taking direct action are you willing to risk your own lives for your own professed cause?”
“You’re speaking from experience, I can tell,” Lang surmised. “How does any of this help Bajor? Because that’s what you’re really here for, isn’t it?”
“It eases a very real threat to my people that has even reached as high as the office of First Minister,” Neela divulged, “and by removing a societal trigger that could plunge your worlds into war with mine, I’ve improved future relations between our two societies.”
“And why would you do that?” Lang was curious. “Because you both strike me as former Resistance members.”
“The Prophets guide my people,” Neela stated. “You may refer to them as ‘wormhole aliens’ like the Federation scientists but that doesn’t mean they haven’t guided my people through the millennia. But I’m convinced they have a plan for Cardassia as well. It wasn’t an accident that brought ancient solar sail vessels from Bajor to Cardassia. Neither was it an accident that brought Cardassians to Bajor. You were led.”
“I could argue with your interpretation,” Lang quipped.
“But what good would it achieve?” Neela asked. “We’d both still be entrenched in our own positions. Why not show a little tolerance and let me be what you’d phrase as ‘superstitious’ and I’ll forgive you for apostasy. Fair enough?”
“You’re a very strange Bajoran,” Lang commented. “You’re not at all the type I met during the Occupation.”
“No, during the Occupation I would have just killed you and called it good,” Neela confessed, “but that was then. I’ve had a few years to wrestle with my faith and how I perceive things. My faith has only grown through the process. I don’t need you to believe in the Prophets. I just need you to not deny me my right to do so.”
Lang glanced back at Hogue and Rekelan. They both silently nodded. Lang squared her shoulders.
“We’re in,” she announced. “Thank Hogue and Rekelan. They’re far braver than I am.”
“Then get ready for an uncomfortable ride back to the DMZ,” Anara warned. “We came in a stolen military transport. It’s designed for ferrying troops to discreet locations, not for comfort.”
“Could we bring a few things with us?” Lang asked.
“It would be best if you didn’t,” Neela conveyed. “In fact, we’re going to have to make you all look a great deal more ‘distressed’ before we ‘deliver’ you to the True Way.”
The Cardassians exchanged another look. Lang spoke for them. “We understand.”
“Anara’s good,” Neela promised. “Really.”
Anara didn’t look like she shared Neela’s confidence. “Stand over here and hold these.”
Anara handed over comm beacons. “In due time we’ll transport you to our ship.”
“But we have permanent transport inhibitors in place,” Lang warned them.
Anara smiled. “You haven’t since we arrived. I’d have someone look at them after you return.”
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