The baseball diamond lay in the middle of a sunny clearing, birdsongs echoing among the adjacent trees. Only the neon red sign offered the slightest incongruity, with its "AFTER ENJOYING YOUR FANTASY, ENJOY A FANTASTIC DRINK. VISIT THE BAR DOWNSTAIRS". It hardly fit the sylvan setting, but Quark refused to pass up any chance for free advertising. Sisko and Jake were well used to ignoring the Ferengi's addendum to their program, and they concentrated on the important things, like who was ahead in their home run derby.
Presently, they were involved in less competitive activities, as Sisko spent some much-treasured leisure time coaching his son. "Jake-o, check your stance. That's better. Now watch your elbows. Lift the bat a little. A little more..."
Jake ran out of patience. "Come on, Dad. Just throw the ball."
His father cocked an eybrow at him reprovingly. "Look, do you want to hit it or not? If you don't pay attention to the details, you'll never be able to -- "
Sisko shrugged. If Jake wanted to learn the hard way, the boy was old enough to make his own decisions. "All right."
He threw the ball, a deceptive looking curve that veered in at the last moment to nick the corner of the strike zone. Jake knocked it clear to the far wall of the holosuite.
Sisko stared after the baseball, his expression pensive. Finally, he inquired, "Have you been practicing on your own?"
Jake grinned. "How about if we just play a game?" Then, realizing his father might take the suggestion as a personal slight, he swiftly added, "It's not that I don't appreciate your coaching, but -- "
He needn't have worried. Sisko adjusted to his new position as supernumerary with a fair amount of grace. It had only been a question of time, after all, and the signs had been there for a while. "Hmm. All right, but only if you give your old man first choice of players."
Jake beamed at his father, relieved that the commander was taking it so well. "You got it."
Dax's voice over the intercom shattered their moment of mutual affection. "Ops to Sisko."
Father and son exchanged a look. Sisko tossed his glove down with a grunt of frustration, while Jake merely looked resigned. He was used to this, and he rested the bat across his shoulders.
Sisko activated his communicator. "Go ahead, Dax."
Dax ignored the undertone of irritation which was clearly audible over the intercom; her own voice was strained with tension of its own. "Benjamin, you'd better get up here right away. We have reports of a possible Cardassian invasion into Bajoran territory."
Sisko's pique evaporated, and tossing his cap to a waiting Jake, he sprinted from the holosuite. "I'm on my way!"
At Ops, Kira was rushing to and fro, calling up information on three different terminals while simultaneously talking to Bajor. Meanwhile, Dax struggled to enhance a surveillance photo on her console.
"Commander!" O'Brien called to him as soon as Sisko strode from the turbolift.
Sisko hurried to O'Brien's side. "Chief, what's going on?"
"It seems that some minor Bajoran diplomat was on vacation with her family, and they decided to bounce over to Settlers' Moon --"
"The agricultural colony two systems over? Why? Even its inhabitants are desperate to leave. There's nothing there."
"It looks like there is now," O'Brien countered. "They thought it would be a good place for a picnic or something like that, but when they approached the planet, they found Cardassian ships in orbit."
Sisko's spine began to tingle. "Didn't the treaty cede Settlers' Moon back to Bajor?"
O'Brien nodded grimly. "Yep. So when the diplomat realized who was there, she hightailed it back home to report, and now all hell's broken loose. Some members of the Council have been talking about war."
"Now wait a minute," Sisko protested. "That's more than a little premature. Has anyone even confirmed that the ships were Cardassian?"
Dax came up behind them. "I'm afraid I just did. The tapes from Ambassador Tendiye's ship leave no room for doubt. There were at least three Cardassians in orbit, and one was a heavy cruiser."
"Are there any other explanations for the Cardassians' presence?" Sisko asked, desperately trying to think of one.
O'Brien shrugged, his broad face set in uncharacteristically pessimistic lines. "Like what? You yourself said it, Commander: there's nothing there. The Cardies settled the world with Bajoran conscripts fifty years ago, hoping to make it into an agricultural center, but right from the start the colony was a wash. The crops never grew, and the residents have been close to famine several times. Why would the Cardassians waste their time there?"
"Maybe some kind of mechanical problem on the ships?" Sisko offered, thinking aloud.
Dax quickly disabused him of that notion. "All of them? Simultaneously? Considering how close Settlers' Moon is to Cardassian space, even if they were having some kind of emergency, I can't believe they wouldn't be able to limp back to their home territory."
Kira hurried up to the others. "Commander. You've heard the news? I just finished speaking with the Council. Nobody authorized a Cardassian visit to Settlers', so their presence there automatically violates the terms of the truce. The Council wants to know whether we can count on Federation assistance in the event of war."
That did it. Things were spiraling out of control. Sisko held up a hand and spoke firmly. "Let's not get ahead of ourselves, Major. Has anyone contacted Settlers' Moon?"
"There's been no answer for the past three hours. Naturally we tried as soon as Tendiye told us what she'd seen." Kira took a deep breath. "I'd like your permission to take a runabout -- "
O'Brien's shout interrupted her. "Commander! I have an incoming transmission from the Cardassians."
Sisko and the others instantly wheeled about to stare at the viewscreen. "On main viewer, Chief."
Gul Dukat's image appeared on the monitor. He had a half-smile on his countenance, as though secretly aware of and enjoying the uproar on DS9. "Commander Sisko. It is always pleasant to speak with you. Are you well?"
Sisko was very cognizant of Kira smoldering at his shoulder, and he spoke quickly, before she could. "I don't have patience for small talk, Gul Dukat. What is the meaning of your encroachment into Bajoran space?"
Dukat frowned in a puzzlement that was clearly artificial. "I'm certain I don't know what you mean."
Kira could no longer restrain herself. "We mean your invasion of Settlers' Moon, Dukat! If you don't remove your ships immediately --"
Dukat's brow cleared. "Ah, Major. Now I understand. You are under a misapprehension that Settlers' Moon is Bajoran territory."
"Don't try to rewrite the treaty at this late date!" Kira snarled. "Cardassia relinquished all claims to Settlers' Moon when -- "
"Major, you really must not overexert yourself in this fashion. Perhaps there is someone here who can explain things in a way which you can understand." He stepped aside to reveal a Bajoran man. The Bajoran was neatly, if plainly, dressed, and he appeared to be in perfect health.
The young man bowed slightly. "I am Esten Talbo, president of the independent republic of Settlers' Moon."
"The WHAT??" Kira yelped.
Esten ignored her and addressed himself to Sisko. "Commander, I formally extend the greetings of my government to the Federation, with the request that you acknowledge our sovereignty."
Sisko glanced quickly at Kira, but she was as confused as he. "President Esten, are you aware of the concern on Bajor that your world is being threatened by Cardassia? Can you offer any reason why we should not believe this declaration is made under duress?"
Dukat shouldered his way in front of Esten, a genuine note of warning in his voice. "Commander, I would make such accusations with care. We are here at the request of the new government. My people wish for nothing but the most excellent relations with our neighbor."
Esten spoke earnestly. "I appreciate your concern, Commander, but it's unnecessary. What Gul Dukat says is entirely true. My world declared her independence from Bajor almost four days ago. The Cardassian ships didn't arrive until yesterday -- at our invitation, just as the Gul says."
Kira set her hands on her hips and regarded him skeptically. "Oh yes? Then why didn't you answer Bajor's hails? If you're in no danger, why haven't you responded until now?"
Esten tugged on his ear, slightly embarrassed. "To be frank, because we weren't ready to talk to you. We had counted on a slightly longer period of your continued indifference towards us, and when you suddenly started demanding to know if we were under attack, we were at a loss as to what to say." He gave them a disarming smile. "We're new at this, you know."
Kira was not in the least amused. "If you're under no compulsion, then you won't mind if Bajor sends a few ships over to look around."
Esten's tone sharpened. "On the contrary, Major. We would mind very much. In case you weren't listening, let me repeat myself. Settlers' Moon is no longer a Bajoran protectorate but a sovereign state. Bajoran forces can no longer land upon our world at will. However -- " He forestalled Kira's exclamation of "You see?" to Sisko " -- I would be happy to authorize the visit by a party from Starfleet. That should be sufficient to prove that we are not acting under any Cardassian compulsion."
Sisko spoke to Dax without taking his eyes off of Dukat. "Assemble a team. Take two runabouts, and make certain that you check everything out."
Dukat's composure was unruffled. "You will soon see that your unflattering suspicions are groundless, Commander, and I expect a retraction of your intemperate remarks. What is more, since my business with President Esten is complete, my ships will be leaving Settlers' Moon and returning to Cardassian space." He spared a contemptuous glance for Kira, who instantly bridled. "Even the Bajorans will be hard-pressed to maintain their coercion theory in the absence of any Cardassians."
Sisko chose his words carefully. "If my teams find that the people of Settler's Moon are acting of their own volition, I am certain that apologies will be forthcoming." He ignored Kira's snort. "However, President Esten, I believe that Bajor will still have several matters to discuss with you."
Esten smiled ruefully. "I'm certain you're right, Commander, but for fairly obvious reasons I'm reluctant to go to Bajor at the present time. Unless Star Fleet would be willing to guarantee my safety?"
"Just what are you implying?" Kira demanded, outraged.
"Merely that one man's patriot is another's turncoat. I'll be happy to explain my government's position to you, but I'm not willing to risk my life -- or any of my people's lives -- without a promise of fair play."
"Would you be willing to meet on DS9, rather than the planet?" Sisko asked swiftly.
Esten considered the proposition for a moment. "I suppose I would."
"This is a Bajoran station!" Kira hissed at Sisko angrily.
Sisko replied quietly, so that his words would not be picked up by the others. "Isn't the important thing to speak to the man? If he considers this station neutral territory, why not use it as such? Would your government agree to these terms, meeting here and a guarantee of safe passage?"
Kira bit her lip in vexation, but she was forced to grant his point. "Yes; I'm sure they would."
Sisko addressed himself to Esten. "It's agreed then, President. Bajor will send a representative to meet with you here. You do understand that these talks are conditional upon my teams' findings."
Esten waved a hand negligently; wholly unworried. "Yes, yes, of course."
Dukat glanced from Kira to Esten. "President Esten, may I escort you to the station? Seeing that your world lacks interstellar vehicles, an oversight the Bajorans never saw fit to remedy, I would be delighted if you would make use of mine."
Esten looked at Kira before replying. "Thank you; that's most kind."
"It's settled then, Commander; we shall leave for the station shortly. Dukat out."
The screen went blank, and Kira instantly turned to Sisko. "What nonsense! Do they really think they're fooling anyone?"
"I take it, Major, that you don't believe the colonists are acting on their own," Sisko observed drily.
Kira laughed scornfully. "With Dukat hanging around like that? Hardly. The Cardassians are up to something. This is just another one of their tricks to get Bajor and the wormhole back."
Sisko was not so certain, but he saw no point in provoking a fight with Kira. "I suggest you apprise your government of these latest developments, while I make the necessary arrangements for the conference."