Brenok didn't know what to expect. He wasn't even sure he wanted to know, but he found himself waiting for the mysterious trio in the same place he saw them a day earlier.
He stood, observing quieting city life, streets getting less crowded, as people rushed back to their families and their homes. A group of children ran, laughing, they passed by him, some glanced at him with curiosity; they seemed so happy, so oblivious of the great tragedy that touched their home planet. The group stopped in the middle of plaza, around a tree, and played there. Then one of girls left the group and ran back toward Brenok. She had something in her hand. She stopped when she reached him and extended her hand, handing him a small branch from the tree, with a small bud at the end of it. He took the gift and she ran back to her friends, while his eyes filled with tears. Would his daughter also see him as a hero, if she'd reach this girl's age? He slid the branch into his sleeve, leaving the tip outside, so that the bud lay on the top of his hand.
“It's time,” said a voice next to him.
He was so concentrated on the girl and her gift that he didn't notice the woman's approach.
“Come, Glinn,” she put her hand on his shoulder. The younger woman was also here. He didn't notice it earlier, but there was a resemblance between them. Was it a mother and a daughter?
They led him to the other end of the plaza. He noticed that the younger woman called the group of children and they joined them.
They entered a building and went downstairs. It was cool inside and Brenok felt uncomfortable shivers. He had enough of coldness after the Romulan deal: he had to spend hours in cold rooms, because Romulans preferred cooler places and for some reason the temperature was adapted to their needs, not Cardassians'.
They arrived to some big, dark and cool chamber. A basement no doubt.
“We don't need to do it here any more, we could do it even outside” the woman said, “but we prefer to hold our meetings here. This place means a lot to us.”
He nodded his acknowledgement, although he didn't know what she meant. He rubbed his hands to warm them up a little.
“Here,” the girl, who has given him the flower put a warm cloak on his shoulders. “It will keep you warmer.”
“Thank you,” he said. “For the cloak and for the flower.”
She smiled and left. The younger woman – the daughter? - led him to a chair in a corner.
“You don't have to do anything. Just listen and watch. You can leave any time you want to,” she said and went to sit next to her mother in one of front rows.
He pulled the cloak to cover his neck ridges better. He glanced at the girl and she must have felt his sight as she turned and looked at him. She smiled warmly and he returned her smile.
And then someone entered. A woman. She wore elaborate clothes, which reminded him of something.
Then it hit him. They were Oralians!
He observed the ceremony with curiosity. He always thought of them as deluded, not completely sane fanatics, but he saw people, who found some joy in what they participated in. He'd been taught religious people were dangerous and they had to be removed from Cardassia's surface, because they were weakening the system, but these people here didn't appear to be dangerous in any way. They were nothing like Vorta and Jem'Hadar, who believed in their gods.
No one bothered him, although a few Cardassians looked his way, as if they wanted to ask who he was and why he was sitting there in the corner all alone. No one seemed to mind his armour, in spite of the fact that it made it clear he didn't belong here.
“Come,” the 'flower girl' came to him, after the ceremony ended.
“To meet my friends.”
He reluctantly rose and she grabbed his hand and pulled him to a group of adults and children in the other end of the chamber. The... how did they call her? A guide? The guide was among them too. And so was the older woman and her daughter.
“Welcome,” said the guide.
He nodded, not sure what to say or how to address her.
“He's my friend,” said the 'flower girl'.
He smiled and squeezed her hand gently, as she didn't let it go upon bringing him here.
“You lost someone,” the guide said.
His eyes opened wider, partially to stop tears, and partially because of surprise. How did these people know? He tensed. The girl raised her other hand and closed it around his, embracing his palm in both of her small, warm hands.
“I did,” he said eventually.
“We all did,” said the guide. She put her hand on his chest. “But you can't let your heart go cold and empty. There is always someone left.”
“No one is left,” his voice shook. The girl squeezed his hand.
“Do you see her?” the guide pointed to the girl. “She lost all her family. Everyone. She's an orphan.” Brenok looked at the girl and she smiled to him. Orphan? A parentless child
?? “She also had no one, but she found someone to take care of and someone to take care of her.”
He looked back at the guide.
“If no one cares about you, she will,” the guide said.
He felt a sting in his heart. He was so unfair to her, he treated her like an enemy, he took every her word as an attack, but all she wanted to do was to help.
“There is someone, who cares,” he said quietly.
“So now there are two.”
He looked at the girl and then knelt down on one knee, facing her. She let go of his hand and threw her arms around his neck. Tears ran down his cheeks when he pressed the girl to his chest.
How was it possible that this girl was stronger than him? He lost everyone, but he was an adult, he could go on with his life. She lost everyone and she was just a child, she couldn't take care of herself on her own, but she still could smile with her eyes, in spite of being something undesirable in Cardassian society.
He let her go and she moved away a bit to look at him. She grabbed her long, hanging sleeve and dried his face from tears. His heart smiled and then this smile crawled onto his face.
“Will you come tomorrow?” the girl asked.
“I can't. I have to leave Cardassia for some time.”
“But you will come again?”
“I will,” he promised.
“It's time to go,” the mother told him, so he rose. He took off the cloak and gave it back to the girl. She took it and waved to him, while he followed the woman to the exit. He waved back.
They were almost out of the cold basement, when a sharp pain shot through his right arm from the shoulder down to his fingers. He grabbed his neck ridge with his left hand and instinctively squeezed. He could feel his scar under his fingers.
The bridge was quiet. Everyone was busy with their tasks. Ma'Kan was preparing battle simulations and new sets of exercises for troops. Jarol welcomed her initiative. The woman might have been young and inexperienced, but she loved her job and did it well.
Brenok entered the bridge and went to his post. He had smudges on his face, so Jarol guessed he returned from the engineering. They had some problems with secondary warp induction coils and Zamarran asked Brenok to help him, as everyone else was busy with weapons systems.
“Er... sir?” Ma'Kan spoke to Brenok. He raised his head and gave her an asking look. She pointed to his cheek. He raised his eye ridges puzzled and shook his head. She smiled a little apologetically, went to him and cleaned the smudge from his face. He looked a little bit shocked, but didn't say anything. Jarol pretended she didn't see anything, as the rest of the bridge crew, but she was sure she saw real affection in Ma'Kan's moves.
There was nothing wrong about it. Ah, except the fact that Brenok was Ma'Kan's superior, but she sought no special treatment, no promotion. It was pure attraction on her side. Ma'Kan was entering the age, when a woman was instinctively starting to look for a mate, for the perfect man, who would share her life and who would father her children. Jarol was lucky to find Joret without looking, but if a girl's marriage wasn't arranged, if her family's status didn't demand it, she had to look for the best candidate by herself. Ma'Kan surely had a good taste, if she was interested in Brenok, but Jarol knew her attempts would be futile. Brenok's heart was still with his wife, Asra. A beautiful, delicate and gentle woman, who he was hopelessly in love with. His heart was not ready to let her go. If she didn't know from her own experience, she would say it would never be, but she knew better. After Joret's death she thought she'd never love again and then Demok came to her life for the second time and stole her heart with his smile. Although it seemed impossible now, she knew that some say she could be ready for another man stealing her heart again.
But not soon and she didn't expect Brenok to be ready soon either.
“We're in sensor range of the convoy,” Karama reported.
“Hail them,” Jarol ordered.
A man's face appeared on her oval screen.
“I am Gul Jarol,” she introduced herself. “I am here to escort you to Cardassia.”
“My name's Captain Andric,” he said and smiled, although she had an impression his smile was a bit forced. “We appreciate your assistance.”
“We will enter parallel course to yours and follow you.”
“Do you know who attacks convoys?” he asked.
“No, Captain. We plan to investigate this matter, however your safety is our priority.”
He nodded and disconnected, so his face was replaced by a star view, three cargo vessels and one Oberth class starship.
“Brenok, can you search the database on this Captain Andric?” Jarol looked at the Glinn.
“Searching...” he tapped his console. “Captain Ivo Andric commanding USS Anika.” Brenok silenced, read from the screen and continued. “He fought in the Border Wars and later in the Dominion War. He received his own command recently. Currently responsible for convoys to Cardassia. It's not his first run,” Brenok finished, raising his head and looked at Jarol. “The rest is some irrelevant information.”
“The Border Wars you say,” Jarol said slowly.
Brenok nodded. “That's correct.”
That would explain his behaviour. She was surprised the Feds would choose such a person to run those convoys. The man clearly fought against Cardassians in two wars and now was told to help them. But then – she
also fought in those conflicts and she was here too, wasn't she...?
“Ma'Kan, keep scanning. I want to know if anyone is in the neighbourhood the first moment they enter scanning range.”
“Keep someone at it at all times. I want to be notified even in the middle of the night.”
The first day passed without any special events. Zamarran kept fixing, Ma'Kan kept scanning, Jarol kept waiting for something to happen, not sure if she wanted trouble – to fill her time with some action; or didn't want any problems – to deliver the Federation ships safely to Cardassia Prime.
She was in her office and couldn't stand being useless any more. She decided to find herself some task. She established contact with the Federation Captain.
“Good morning, Gul. How can I help you?” he asked.
“I was wondering... It isn't the first time you lead the convoy to Cardassia, is it?”
“No, it isn't. Why?”
“Had you been under attack before?”
“Yes. Two months ago a small fleet of ships tried to take control of our cargo.”
“Is there any data you could pass to me? I'd like to investigate this matter.”
“We have something in our database, but it's not much. Some visual recordings, crew logs.”
“I would appreciate access to that data.”
“I could allow you access to low security files,” he said slowly.
“Would there also be possibility to talk to crewmen, who witnessed the attacks?”
“I can't order them to talk to you, but I can ask if anyone would be willing.”
“Captain,” she smiled the most charming smile she could muster. “Finding those responsible is in our both interest. We could...”
“Frankly, Cap... Gul, the problem is that I am not sure you are sincere in your offer.”
She silenced, surprised. “Why not?” she managed to ask eventually.
“Because those attackers were Cardassians.”
“How do you know that?” she didn't expect it, but it didn't surprise her. The curfew, the need for troops on Cardassia – all those things weren't there without a reason. Some people were like Demoks', accepting others under their roofs, but some preferred to steal food from weaker ones to have more for themselves. What happened to never-ending sacrifice and good of Cardassia? Did the Dominion purged them of their own dignity?
“Those attack ships were mostly Hideki class. According to reports from other convoys, there are also some Maquis attack ships, but most of them were Hideki.”
“That doesn't prove those were Cardassians, it only means they used Cardassian ships.”
“See? You already look for excuses.”
“No, Captain. I just don't assume things without proofs. I would still like to see those reports and data.”
He stared at her. “Will you try investigate and share the results, regardless of who it is?”
“Do you ask me if I would let the attackers go, if they were Cardassians?” she asked. “Captain, whatever you think about us, we have our justice system and are not much more fond of crime than your Federation.”
“Fine then. I will... no, I have another idea. Come to my ship. We will discuss it over a breakfast. Did you have a breakfast yet?”
“No, I didn't. I accept your offer.”
“My transporter chief will beam you to the Anika.”
“Can I take my aide with me?” she asked.
“Yes. See you both in... let's say fifteen minutes,” he nodded and disconnected.
She tapped her wristcomm. “Brenok, meet me in the transporter room in ten minutes.”
She arrived to the transporter to see Brenok already there. He looked tired.
“Did you sleep?” she asked.
“Yes, but not much.”
“You can help Zamarran, but not at the cost of your own rest.”
“I need to keep busy,” he said.
“All right,” she nodded and patted his shoulder. “We're going to pay a visit to our Federation friends. I hope you're hungry and ready for culinary experiment.”
“Splendid,” he muttered, stepping on the transporter pad.
“Garesh, contact the Anika and tell them we're ready.”
A moment later they were on the alien ship.
It was bright, cold and angular. A woman, a blue woman, waited for them.
“My name is Commander sh'Salas. I will take you to the Captain's dining room.”
“Thank you, Commander,” Jarol nodded politely. She searched in her memory and decided that this woman must be an Andorian.
Both Cardassians followed the Andorian through corridors and one ride in a turbolift.
Captain's dining room was a separate room, next to the mess hall. There were four chairs at a table, in the middle of which stood a small vase with a single red-green flower.
“Welcome to USS Anika,” the Captain entered the room and motioned toward the chairs. “Please be seated.”
Jarol and Brenok sat, and so did sh'Salas.
“The Captain likes to cook himself,” the Commander explained.
“I'm afraid I wasn't expecting any non-Federation guests, so I planned rather Earthling type of food.”
“That's all right. We are ready for an adventure,” Jarol tried to joke, but wasn't sure it worked.
“I'm glad to hear that,” Andric put a steaming bowl of something yellow-white in the middle. Then he put a plate with light yellow cube and a blunt knife next to it and finally something, that Jarol was almost positive was bread.
“You didn't replicate that?” she asked, looking at the Captain, who sat down.
“Nope. I make sure to always have some real ingredients. I enjoy cooking. It relaxes me. And kills time too.”
Brenok scratched his nose. “How do we eat it?”
“With appetite, mister...”
“Oh, where are my manners! Captain, this is Glinn Brenok, my aide.”
“With appetite, Mr. Brenok. You eat it with appetite.”
Brenok smiled. He observed Andric and then followed the Captain: first took a slice of bread, then a knife and spread the soft yellow substance from the cube on it. And then he took some of white-yellow thing on his plate.
Jarol noticed sh'Salas was observing Brenok and first she wondered why, but soon she realised the woman was interested in Brenok's hair. The Gul was so used to her friend's long braid she didn't pay attention to it any more, but many people, including aliens, still were surprised by this unique feature.
“It's good!” Brenok shouted. “Is this some kind of eggs?” he asked the Captain.
“Yes, they are chicken eggs.”
“That's a kind of bird.”
For a moment Jarol observed Brenok, who ate with clear pleasure, and finally decided to give it a try herself.
It really was good. Very simple, but very tasty.
“Captain,” she started. “About those shi...”
“Not when we eat,” he raised his hand. “Breakfast time is for the breakfast. Then we can get to business.”
She smiled and nodded.