Several hours later, O'Brien was pacing the docking ring deep in thought. He had some extremely difficult decisions to make, and he needed the solitude. He stopped, resting his hands on the metal rim of a porthole. What was he to do -- ignore the desperate pleas of an entire world or throw away his dream? Keiko's unswerving support of whichever decision he made had done little to ease his mental turmoil.

To his annoyance, his concentration was rudely interrupted by the snapping of an electrical discharge and an exclamation of surprise. He hurried towards the source of the noise, only to find Jake and Bashir standing in front of an open panel.

"Did you hurt yourself?" Jake asked anxiously.

The doctor examined his fingers. "No, but I don't think that it's going to be easy to remove."

Between his ethical dilemma and his ire at having his professional territory encroached upon, O'Brien was too irritated to be polite. "What the bloody hell is going on here?"

"Chief! We -- uh --" Jake began uncertainly.

Bashir patted Jake on the shoulder reassuringly. "It's all right, Jake. We've done enough. I think it's only fair to let the Chief take it from here. After all, we did most of the difficult work."

O'Brien folded his arms across his chest and glared at them forbiddingly. "What?"

The doctor gave O'Brien a superior smile. This was the moment he'd been dreaming about. "Yes, Chief, thanks to Jake's vigilance, we have discovered a serious threat to the station."

Jake interrupted, significantly more anxious than Bashir to ingratiate himself with the chief. "And we knew how busy you were, so we decided to investigate it ourselves."

"What are you talking about?" the chief snapped brusquely.

"The Cardassians have an elaborate surveillance system installed on the station! They are able to watch our every move!" Bashir proclaimed.

"We traced their power conduits all over DS9, Chief, and they end in surveillance units. The Cardassians must be able to monitor all of the station's activities. We think they must have rigged it before they pulled out."

"Who knows how much strategic information they have obtained? I'm sure the commander will be very pleased that -- at last! -- someone has learned of this," Bashir said sweetly.

O'Brien pushed between them to look into the open panel. "Where? Show me."

Jake obligingly did so. "Here, Chief. See? These couplings aren't on the computer schematic -- " he held up a databoard and pointed to it " -- and this is one of the spying devices to which they connect."

Bashir couldn't resist twisting the knife a bit. "You know, Chief, I'm a little surprised that, with all the work you've done in these panels, you never thought to examine these leads."

O'Brien withdrew his head from the wall and regarded the two with a mixture of pity, exasperation, and hysterical amusement. "Cardassian spyholes, eh? That's what you think these are?"

Jake and Bashir exchanged a glance. The chief wasn't reacting the way they had expected.

Jake looked uncertain. "Um, yeah. I mean, what else could they be? They're not on the schematic, so they must be --"

"Jake, didn't you notice that something's missing from that schematic?" O'Brien asked gently.

Jake was starting to get nervous. "N-no. All the major life support and engineering -- "

"None of the Security systems are there, are they? Any of the weapons grids? Force field energetics?"

Jake looked over the diagram. "No. I didn't even think of them," he confessed slowly.

O'Brien tried hard not to laugh. "Well, that's what comes of having a clear conscience. I promise you that if you'd consulted Quark, he'd have pointed that out first thing."

"You mean this is something of Odo's?" Jake gulped.

"Well, you weren't totally wrong. This system was left over from the Cardassians. They wired the whole station so that they could check on any corner they chose. Then, when they left, your father and Odo talked it over, and they decided to leave the equipment in place so that if there were ever a reason to reactivate it, they could do so. But we switched the operating frequencies about so that the Cardassians couldn't listen in, and we disengaged most of the system, except for a few key areas that Odo normally keeps an eye on."

Bashir stared at O'Brien, chagrined beyond measure. "You mean you knew about this all along?"

O'Brien gave him a wicked grin. "It would be surprising if, with all the work I've done in these panels, I never thought to examine these leads. Wouldn't it?"

"Yes," Bashir gulped.

Jake stared at the deck, utterly humiliated. "We thought we were saving the station! My father will never take me seriously now! All that work was for nothing. And we spent so much time on it, I never finished my project for the competition. What will he say when he finds out?"

O'Brien was moved to sympathy by the boy's plight. "Well, look, it's not as bad as all that. You were right to be worried. Used by the Cardassians, such a surveillance system would be a real threat to station safety. But in Odo's hands, the very same equipment protects us, and ensures that no one like the Cardassians can sneak in..." His voice trailed off, and he stared into space with a very odd expression.

"But what about the engineering fair? I still don't have an entry," Jake protested. "And now it's too late to start something!"

Feeling more than a little responsible, Bashir tried to help. "What about doing a project on the surveillance system? We've collected plenty of data on it -- it wouldn't take much more time. You could evaluate the system's energy efficiency or maybe compare its pattern of distribution throughout the station with the way a biological organism's nervous system innervates its body. I'd be glad to give you some good references for the latter."

Jake cocked his head to one side meditatively. "That might be interesting... And it's not as though anyone else in the class knows about the system. Mrs. O'Brien will probably be impressed with our discovery."

Bashir looked at O'Brien nervously. "And, er, Chief, I don't suppose we need tell anyone of our minor -- ah -- error. Do we?"

"I've got to go see the commander!" O'Brien exclaimed to himself.

Jake and Bashir blanched.

"But, Chief, can't I tell him myself? I promise I will!" Jake protested desperately.

O'Brien suddenly remembered their existence. "What? Oh, that. No, don't worry, Jake. Your secret's safe with me. I won't breathe a word of it to your dad."

Bashir looked at the chief pleadingly. He could imagine all too vividly the teasing he'd receive if the news of his -- latest -- blunder spread. "Or anyone else?"

O'Brien was now in such a marvelous mood that he was willing to do anyone a favor. "Or anyone else," he agreed expansively. "I promise. Just get that panel closed up without killing yourselves and I'll pretend I never saw a thing."

Jake and Bashir exchanged a look of immense relief. "Thanks, Chief!"

"Yes, we really appreciate it," Bashir agreed humbly.

"No, thank you!" He departed, leaving them staring after him in confusion.

--

Meanwhile, in another section of the ring, Kira was staring out another porthole, acutely miserable. Odo came up behind her, and she flinched, fearing his acerbic comments on the latest developments.

"The tension levels have dropped dramatically ever since Gul Dukat left. I thought you'd want to know."

"That's wonderful," she replied dully.

"Has Esten agreed to speak to the Council yet?"

"He asked me to arrange an audience for tomorrow afternoon."

"Then everything will work out. The Council will be pleased with the way you handled things. You essentially won a planet back for them."

"At what cost?" Kira demanded of the stars. "By representing my government as well as I did, I may have just sentenced an entire colony to death."

"Are you saying you should have done less than your best?" Odo asked in tones of great surprise. "Isn't that equivalent to betraying your world?" He leaned close to her and dropped his voice to a whisper. "Don't Bajorans consider that racial treason?"

Kira turned away. "Oh, shut up! I don't know what I should have done. By helping one planet, I betrayed the other, and you know what? There's no difference between them."

"Well, both groups are at least originally Bajoran..." Odo agreed consideringly.

"I'm not talking about the matter of race. That doesn't matter. And don't look so smug."

Odo blinked. "I didn't know I could."

"You were right; Bajoran insularity is stupid, and we treated Esten's people badly. Are you satisfied?"

"Yes, rather," Odo answered honestly.

"I'm glad somebody is." She turned away bitterly. "I feel like walking out an airlock. Odo, in the past, I've had to do things I didn't like to do, all in the name of Bajor, and some of them affected other people pretty badly. During the occupation, I accepted it as the price of freedom, and after liberation as the price of progress and community. But this price is just too high! I can't ignore my role in killing these people! It doesn't matter that I didn't make the final decision, or that I was just following my own orders, I have a responsibility to do what I think is right, and letting that colony die can't be."

"Perhaps if you told the Council what you just told me -- " Odo suggested.

Without much hope, Kira nodded. "I can try, I suppose. But what if it doesn't work?"

Over the intercom, Sisko's voice summoned her. "Major, can you come to my office? I think Chief O'Brien may have a solution for us."

Kira glanced at Odo in bewilderment, then hurried away.

--

In Sisko's officer, Kira found Esten, O'Brien, and Sisko waiting for her. Esten slumped in a chair, looking weary and defeated. O'Brien and Sisko, by contrast, were beaming with satisfaction.

"What's this solution?" Kira asked warily.

O'Brien ignored her and turned to Esten. "President Esten, I'm delighted to accept your invitation to gear up the tyrillium mining operation on Settlers' Moon."

Esten gaped at him. "But we no longer --"

"Wait a minute. Do you mean that Star Fleet has agreed to back his government over Bajoran objections?" Kira interrupted.

O'Brien paid no attention to either of them and continued to speak loudly. "However, since your people are unfamiliar with Cardassian technology, I'll need to make some kind of arrangements to monitor the equipment and make sure it's functioning properly."

"What?" Esten asked, dazed.

"And since the ore robots will be all over the continents scavenging tyrillium, we'll have to set up some sophisticated surveillance equipment -- maybe in orbit."

Sisko neatly picked up his cue. "Chief! It just occurred to me! Won't those sensors also allow you to detect any Cardassian encroachment?"

O'Brien feigned amazement. "Why, you're right, Commander! Imagine that! A way to ensure Bajor and Settlers' safety! Isn't that convenient?"

Kira had caught on to their intentions and, despite herself, was finding it difficult to keep a straight face before the play-acting. "I feel compelled to point out that Settlers' Moon possesses none of the kind of surveillance technology you're discussing."

Sisko nodded sagely, as if he had expected exactly that remark. "You have a point, Major. Chief, do you know of any place where Esten's government might purchase such a system?"

"I believe Bajor might be able to supply them with the necessary components, sir."

"And where is Settlers' Moon going to get the money for this? Or do you expect Bajor to give them high-tech materials as well as mining equipment?" Kira inquired, glancing at Esten, who was watching the others with slack-jawed amazement.

Exactly as if he were reading a script, Sisko replied. "What a good idea, Major! If Settlers' Moon were to demonstrate its value as a trading partner to Bajor by placing a sizable order for electronic parts, then perhaps Bajor could show its own good faith by giving them some abandoned mining equipment. What better way to encourage good relations between the two governments?"

Esten shook off his aura of disbelief long enough to protest. "But we can't allow Bajor to operate the surveillance system! They might use it to monitor us."

"But without our running the system, how would we be sure that the Cardassians weren't establishing a base -- with your consent?"

O'Brien turned to Sisko with an overdone "Eureka!" gesture. "It sounds to me like an independent organization is needed to take over the surveillance, Commander! Once Esten's people have purchased it, I mean. They need a group that both Settlers' Moon and Bajor could trust, and that the Cardassians would think twice before tangling with. Do you have any ideas?"

Sisko spoke his lines with only a hint of a sigh. "I think I could persuade Star Fleet to fill the role, Chief."

"But the costs --" Esten began.

Sisko dropped out of character and gave the president a stern look. "There's enough in your contract with the Cardassians to cover this, with sufficient funds left over to feed your people. Think of it as an investment in your future. After all, you're getting what you wanted: independence from Bajor and a viable economy."

Kira began to smile. This was an outcome she could in good conscience recommend to her people, and she felt as if an immense weight were lifting from her shoulders. "And if Bajor is actually profiting from the transactions with Settlers' Moon, I think the Council can be persuaded to upgrade her status to that of an equal trading partner. Especially if we're confident that the Cardassians won't get anything other than tyrillium."

Sisko turned to O'Brien with a smile. "Then it appears that all you need to do is pack your bags, Chief."

Kira grinned at him. "But don't take too much; after all, you won't be leaving DS9 forever."

"I have to contact my world and give them the good news! Thank you -- thank you all!" Esten left, beaming.

Kira glanced from one colleague to the other, giving them a look of mock severity. "I hope neither of you were planning a career on stage."

Sisko chuckled. "If our delivery wasn't convincing, I'm glad our plan was."

She shook her head, still amazed that the crisis was over. "I can't believe you managed this. I was sure -- " She broke off, unwilling even to think of what might have happened. "I'm just awfully glad you thought of this, Commander. It's a brilliant solution."

Sisko smilingly indicated O'Brien. "I wish I could take the credit, Major, but this was entirely the Chief's idea."

Just then, with an uncanny lack of timing, Bashir hurried in, databoard in hand. "Commander, I have -- Oh, excuse me, Commander. I just wanted to drop off the latest medical inventory. I'll come back later."

Sisko motioned him in. "That's all right, Doctor. We were just complimenting the Chief for solving the Settlers' Moon affair."

O'Brien glanced at Bashir with a twinkle in his eye. "Actually, Commander, it was the doctor's doing. He was the one who suggested it." The others turned to Bashir with unconcealed amazement; he stared blankly at O'Brien. "And now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go pack."

The door closed behind him, leaving Sisko and Kira to regard Bashir with newfound respect. Bashir, meanwhile, tried desperately to figure out what was going on. He'd expected to be in the doghouse for weeks, but instead he was being lauded for -- for -- What exactly was he getting credit for doing?

Sisko raised his eyebrows. "Well, Doctor, it seems congratulations are in order."

For the first time, Kira awarded Bashir a genuinely admiring smile. "I've got to hand it to you, Doctor. This was quite an accomplishment."

"Er, thank you. Glad to be of service."

"What exactly gave you the idea?" Sisko asked curiously.

Bashir looked frantically after O'Brien. "Ah, well..."

"Benjamin?" Dax's voice called over the intercom. "Jake would like to talk to you. Something about his engineering project?"

"Oh, yes!" Sisko exclaimed. "Doctor, I'm sorry, but now that you've solved our crisis, I've some bridges to mend with Jake. Would you mind if we continued this later?"

Bashir was vastly relieved at the reprieve. "Not at all! And Jake is calling to ask for your help in researching Star Fleet surveillance devices."

The commander gave him an odd look -- when did the doctor become so well informed? "Oh. Er, thanks. Dax, tell Jake I'm on my way to our quarters." Kira stared at Bashir with new eyes. Maybe Bashir's assignment to DS9 had not been a mistake. "Doctor, would you like to -- to have lunch or something?" she asked impulsively. "We really don't know each other as well as we should."

Bashir beamed at her. "Why, Major, I'd be delighted!"

THE END