TO SERVE CARDASSIA

At the Loo'Wess Central Centre for Secondary Education, the graduates were finally permitted to see the results of their final examinations on their computers after waiting for a month for them to be determined. In spite of being educated to caution and secrecy, the students showed barely suppressed reactions of pleasure, respectively of disappointment while viewing their marks. When they began whispering to one another, Alkani called out,

"Go to form A-45-E3, fill it out, close file."

There was a flurry of activity; the group fell silent as the young Cardassians registered their respective choices of profession. The forms would be transmitted to the Ministry of Education and Intelligence for evaluation as it was the Ministry's affair to subsequently assign candidates to those universities which offered the best education in their chosen subjects.

The educator and interrogator of the Loo'Wess Superior Achievers' Group, Professor Alkani, went from student to student before returning to the front of the room to state in an even but proud voice, "This is the conclusion of the first phase of your education. With your choices you have determined in which capacity you are to serve the Empire." She considered her group with pride. "You have done well. Tomorrow at this time those among you who have applied for pre-admission training will be notified to which centres of education they have been assigned." For a moment, she wanted to say more, but decided against it – it was safest to stick to the usual phrases, phrases of which she at times was thoroughly tired.

Suddenly pensive at realizing they were leaving the Centre for good, the students filed out silently, leaving Alkani to evaluate the selections made by her students for transmission to the Order in accordance with requirements. "Sciences, technicians, doctors, organizers, merchants, civil servants …" she murmured to herself, pleased about the diversity; a broad spectrum of desired professions was expected of all groups. At reaching Melset's file, however, she drew a deep breath when she read, "Military career – command level."

With suppressed disbelief Alkani read and reread the words, hoping she had accessed the wrong file. For this specific student, her advice would have tended to linguistics or sciences, had it been her prerogative to counsel her students; she had always been aware of the young woman's deep patriotism, a trait expected of any Cardassian, but at the same time it had become evident that she did not possess the innate ruthlessness requisite for that career. Iniki would either be crushed in the course of training and forced to demission in disgrace, perhaps even face trial for treason at some point and be executed. The alternative would be to totally submerge her true nature beneath the layer of callousness, casual brutality and unremitting exploitation of others that developed as a matter of course during military training, combat situations and contact with subjugated peoples.

I once saw your expression at seeing a report on the destruction of a culture that had opposed us – you immediately disguised the horror you felt with a call of "Talsvar Kardassu!" When you saw entire towns destroyed. Will you be capable of participating in a massacre or the wholesale eradication of populations as will inevitably be demanded in the name of the Empire? She settled back pensively. And I cannot even attempt to advise her to reconsider, not without risking my own life and career. Feeling totally disheartened by the discovery, helpless in face of the conditions with which she was forced to comply, the interrogator briefly shook her head before resuming her work. Soon she was absorbed filling out applications for university scholarships. Five students from destitute families had achieved brilliant results, showing their potential for promising careers.

Have to notify their sponsors – they will be pleased.

When Iniki Melset arrived at home, her mother was already waiting – she had received the results at the same time as her daughter. On Cardassia, young people did not begin a life of their own until they embarked on their own careers. Until then, their parents had unrestricted access to their educational files, expected obedience and respect for their wishes as a matter of course. Revolt against elders was considered equal to revolt against Cardassia and its hierarchical system – a sign of potential traitorous tendencies.

"Your results are good, my daughter, and I am in full agreement with your choice of profession. A pity your father is not here; he would be gratified. I have sent off a message so that he will know within a day at most. Remember, however, that your chosen career is a most difficult one. We are confident, though, that you will be successful and serve honourably." Delhina embraced her daughter, pleased at her results.

Happily, Iniki returned the embrace. "Tomorrow notification will arrive on whether I am permitted to sit the exams for admission; as far as I know, they are slated to take place in roughly three weeks." The young woman was obviously suppressing her excitement.

"Yes, I have already inquired." Her mother added, "Actually, Iniki, there is nothing more you can do to prepare, as you have kept yourself up-to-date on various procedures, consistently studying the unclassified data rods given you by your father. Your physical training should also more than suffice for that section of the tests."

"Hopefully, yes. It does help that I have been participating in supplementary endurance as well as in basic hand-to-hand combat training for the past year and have won a number of competitive events at the centre or in inter-city meetings, remember?." Melset shrugged, "My second option is sciences. As the admission tests for that are to be in two weeks, I can make my final decision once both series of exams have been concluded. Results are to be published on the same day."

"Make use of these three weeks - you deserve the recreation. Two hours of reviews a day are more than sufficient."

Iniki thought of the schedule of the past three months – the days had seemed far too short for all that had to be done. "Certainly, but there are still some details …."

"Details that can wait for now." Delhina indicated a young Cardassian child who had stopped playing a game to gaze over at his mother and sister longingly, very aware that they were not to be disturbed while they were still talking. "Well, it looks like someone is waiting for you."

With an affectionate smile, Iniki held out her arms to the small boy whose patience, considering he was a child of little over two, would have been unusual for any but Cardassian norms, "Åvron, come to me! I am sorry I have had so little time for you lately!"

With a happy call, the child scrambled to his feet and ran towards his sister who hugged him, then sat down on the rug to spend the next two hours playing with her brother. There has been so much to do in the past weeks that this seems like pure luxury.

Every now and then, Delhina looked into the room to watch them interact, proud of the two children the Order had permitted her to bear – it had come as a surprise to her that she, an operative in training, had immediately been granted special dispensation to marry a member of Central Command and obtained a transfer to the Order's educational facilities. Certainly, the background checks had been exceedingly detailed, but not more so than expected, considering the circumstances.

Delhina strongly suspected that Enabran Tain had used his already considerable influence to make it possible, especially as he had owed her a never-verbalized favour which she would always keep a secret even to her own husband. Twenty years before, she had seen Enabran's facade weaken for once after his having made a serious error, an error with the potential to render him open to attack if anyone discovered it. She had put her own reputation on the line to assist him in the subsequent cover-up and little later received the transferral for which she had applied – a favour for a favour.

In essence, Tain had become a family friend as a result, as far as any high-ranking member of the Order could be considered thus. Conversely, though, the very fact Tain owed a member of the Damar-Melset family a favour constituted a risk in itself, thus had become a constant source of disquiet in spite of the friendly interaction.

There had been an earlier incident, too, a matter of a data rod which an operative had laid on Delhina Melset's desk – she strongly suspected this "error" of having been an effort to shake her badly enough to commit a disastrous error; to put it mildly, the contents had proven a shock for her revealing as it did totally unexpected details on her and her husband's specific ethnicity. She had immediately taken the rod to the agent's supervisor, stating where it had been found as well as her suspicions about the motives of the person who had placed the object there. No doubt Tain knew that, inevitably, she had quickly viewed some elements. Hopefully the segments read remained her own carefully-hidden secret.

Later on that evening, Tain 'happened to pass by' to call on the family.

"Ah, Delhina Melset, I trust that the interrogation of your finalists went well?" His manner was relaxed and friendly.

"Indeed, Enabran, very much so. As you will see, each one of them had excellent results." Delhina was quite content. It was not all that unusual for an instructor to find himself or herself interrogated if results were not as expected.

Tain, a tall, slender male, nodded his approval. "I expected no less. You selected the most talented individuals." The Order was very exacting in its demands on candidates; those who failed were invariably subjected to a process that erased every memory of their Order education, subsequently sent to public universities where they would embark on civilian careers. As Order facilities were carefully disguised as elite universities, no one ever found out the truth about these specific newcomers who, according to their documents, were residents of distant provinces. They were even conditioned to believe they came from these regions and had the correct accent, the knowledge of all details…..

On Cardassia such procedures were considered normal: For the Obsidian Order it was a question of securing the best minds and the most flexible individuals; only a very few individuals could manage the intensive mental training, the requirements that were high even by Cardassian standards, the sacrifices personnel was inevitably called upon to make. Marriage was not allowed to avoid having operatives who could be pressured by threats to their families, or distracted by any kind of family crisis. The Order demanded total control of every aspect of its members' minds and emotions, leaving place for nothing else but constant unremitting, unhesitating service.

After the usual formalities, he turned to Melset. "Now tell me, Iniki: what profession have you selected?"

"A career in Central Command, Atta Tain." She answered, affectionately holding her young brother in her arms as she came over to sit down next to the visitor who gently touched the child's cheek.

Tain smiled at Iniki, pleased at her mode of address. "You may be aware you have abilities that would be invaluable for the Order as well. We could also offer you a most rewarding career, Iniki, one in which you could develop your full potential."

Delhina was thankful for the fact her back was turned to the two of them as she felt her breath catch with the dread that suddenly overwhelmed her. Could this be the price of the dispensation to marry that Losir and I were given? Coercing one of my children to commit to the Order in compensation for the loss of one agent? Not Iniki – she should not be forced into that career – unfortunately Tain knows Kelani heritage makes for a higher level of adaptability, useful in off-world operations! Child, do not let yourself be influenced ….. The knowledge that she could not risk advising her daughter against a career in the Order was even worse for Delhina; the very act would be considered subversion and lead to the direst of consequences. She listened anxiously to the rest of the conversation.

Iniki answered slowly, thoughtfully, "Indeed. Actually, I have been considering the option of taking a series of courses with the Order parallel to my studies at the Academy. It may be difficult to study two such divergent areas simultaneously, but the Order can give me access to skills as to linguistics and interrogative procedures in addition to detailed knowledge of security measures which, in turn, would serve me well in future," She evenly gazed up at Tain, "… and permit me to transmit information to your offices whenever needed."

Amused at her audacity, Tain considered her in silence, evaluating the young woman. Melset was slightly smaller than Cardassian standard, slender, attractive, with dark-brown hair and greyish-green eyes, in brief, a typical Kelani; she was very intensive and determined in everything she did, yet highly flexible, using even small details to her advantage. Tain knew that she had already established a sizable network of contacts. These details pleased him, though he did not show it.

Exactly as planned – it could not have worked any better – perhaps she can someday be … encouraged to transfer from Central Command to the Order; she obviously trusts me, so will not be excessively suspicious of certain 'coincidences'. The investment made in the past by maintaining friendly relations with this family should reveal itself to be quite useful.

He laid a hand on her shoulder in a fatherly gesture, "It can be arranged, Iníki, if that is what you really want. In the Academy you will first have three months of pre-admission training followed by six months of studies, the same time of active duty. If you do well, your promotion to var first level should come through without delay; another half year of studies and further active duty before the next level. Those purely theoretic periods will run parallel to your studies with the Order. You do realize that you will be working unceasingly. I strongly suggest you begin with courses in Bajoran, Klingon and Federation Standard so that our own training will supplement that of the Academy, permitting you to establish an optimal pattern of work. Your interrogators and I will be in constant contact with those at the military academy. Of course, should your results not meet expectations, the privilege will be revoked at once. Is that clear?"

The reply was immediate. "I understand and feel honoured at your acceding to my request, Atta Tain."

The three still sat together with Tain for some minutes while he gave details about a lecture he had heard; after a long discourse on the merits of said lecture during which Åvron fell asleep in his sister's arms, he asked about their impression of what had been said. The ensuing discussion ended, Tain left with an apology for intruding. For Delhina, though, it took most of the evening to shake off the disquiet she felt.

He has already decided my daughter's future – I could see how he was constantly observing Iniki as though considering her for a specific function within the Order. Sensing that she would be unable to dissimulate her disquiet, she left for her office. If only I had not seen that one detail on that rod … It has changed everything. Yet, what has been done, cannot be undone. Delina turned to her communit to finish some last-minute preparations.

The applicants had spent the past three days subjected to a veritable barrage of examinations. Iniki had already been successful in the physical exams, with most of the timed events above average and excellent performance ratings in hand-to-hand combat. Gul Damar clearly remembered his own entrance exams – he was certain his daughter would pass them all, but could not suppress his own unease about her choice.

Iniki Melset – she had chosen to take her mother's surname – was just completing her last exam for acceptance by the Military Academy. While waiting for his daughter in the lounge of Central Command's Admissions Centre, Gul Damar watched the candidates come out one by one and leave. A few had failed – they departed without looking around. No doubt better suited for civilian careers….. For a moment, he hoped she had not passed …. But at seeing her come out of the hall, his feelings vacillated between fatherly pride, resigned acceptance and discomfort. Iniki was very controlled, yet he knew his daughter well enough to recognize her satisfaction with the results.

She has definitely passed. Gul Damar put his reservations aside in favour of honest pride in her success. The decision has obviously been made – Iníki has invested a good amount of hard work, so she deserves both the success and my approval.

With a smile, he went to meet her, saying, "I assume the forces of the Empire will soon welcome a new recruit in their midst."

"In two days I am to report to the Loo'Wess Recruitment Centre for induction. As Tain said, there will be nine months of physical and academic training, followed by six months on board a cruiser, afterwards another six months of intensive studies." Iniki informed her father.

"That has not changed since my own time," The officer looked around.

They turned to read the details that scrolled down the screen of the Intercomm outlet.

"Nine months of basic training, that is three months of combat training to be followed by six months of academic courses, together with your first four supplementary courses. Gul Damar stressed the name as he continued, "Kydar has informed me that arrangements have already been made." He hesitated for a moment, then drew his daughter away from the communit to say in a very low voice, "Iníki, you still have the option of reconsidering your choice. It is obvious you have the potential to bring honour to Cardassia and your family in Central Command, but that could also be effected in another capacity. For Kelani, there are some … difficulties." And there may especially be for you.

"Father, it is my wish to join Central Command, to continue our family's tradition of service. The Empire is surrounded by enemies who would destroy us; it is important for me to do my part in preserving Cardassia and contributing to its greater glory and avoiding a repeat of what happened to our own people three hundred years ago during the Lissepian Conflict. I request your permission to select this career." Her voice was firm, her expression sincere, very determined.

Gul Damar realized there was no changing her mind. Indeed, it would be dangerous to even make the attempt …. I could forbid any other choice, but not this one – it would be considered treason. "How could I refuse you this justified desire, my daughter?" He responded formally before speaking on. "There is only one element that must never be mentioned, under no circumstances: the fact that we know Tain and many of his associates via your mother could, under circumstances, entail attacks by enemies, leave you open to sabotage of your studies or even attempts at damaging your reputation."

Melset nodded. "Tain has already cautioned me about this detail. Rest assured that this is an error I plan to avoid at all costs. The supplementary courses will not be a secret for long, but they will arouse no suspicions."

The Cardassian male looked at the young woman for some moments before saying, "Then all I can do at this point is wish you success, my daughter." Gul Damar briefly held her close, "Always remember that the Order and Central Command are two of the pillars of Cardassian society. Serve them well, with dedication, be prepared for painful sacrifices and unremitting, hard work. As your father, I say that I am proud of you. Serve with pride and honour."

She returned his embrace and stepped back, "I shall. I owe it to you and to all Cardassia."

In the afternoon of the following day, the intercom activated and Melset ran through the hall to open the door. To her delight, her close friends were waiting at the door, obviously anxious to share their own good news.

"Come in Meraika and Taya, so good to see you!"

While walking to the main room, Meraika and Taya said, "We were hoping to meet you before either you or we left. Seems we were lucky after all. So many of us are already on their way to their universities or have begun preliminary training."

Together they went into the family area on their way to Iníki's room.

"Meraika, Taya, welcome!" Smiling, Delhina embraced the two young women whom she had known when they were still small children. At the time, she had been in charge of scholarships offered by sponsors and had considered the two young girls promising candidates. She was pleased that a few more young Cardassians would escape the grinding poverty of the outer city.

Each urban area had roughly a hundred openings a year; it sounded like much, but even so, not all the talented were reached. Still, it was better than nothing.

"I wish I could hear your news, but I have to leave for work. " She turned to Iniki. "I'll be back in four hours and bring Åvron home with me. You'll tell me about your friends, won't you?"

"Of course. Afterwards I will get dinner started."

After her mother had left, Iniki and her friends settled in Iniki's room.

Taya began, "We had not heard from you in weeks, and were wondering what you were doing." Laughing with happiness, she added, "I passed my placement exams at the Academy of Law; yesterday the results came in and the admission form states I have been accepted for higher-level studies. My courses begin in two weeks!"

"Oh, Taya! I'm so pleased for you! You had been doing so much, even before our finals at the Centre, you just had to succeed." Iniki was excited and overjoyed for her sake – Taya's admission to the Centre had been a once-in-a-lifetime chance for her friend to escape the circumstances in which her family was forced to live.

"Ah, not judging by how nervous I was about it all; I had just the one chance, remember?" For a moment, the young Cardassian woman's face became very pensive. "But once I got started, everything fell into place so that I finished well before the deadline."

Melset nodded, serious. Taya, a native of Ubari Province was one of the scholarship students at her school, together with Meraika, a Saranji Province Cardassian. It had been liking at first sight … Serkan, Eyrem and Jenesa of Loo'Wess City had complemented their group.

Taya impulsively took her friend's hands and urged, "Please, Meraika, tell her!"

"Medical Academy in Rodinian City – the leading university! My acceptance forms were transmitted this morning, along with the notification to register in four weeks. I have been accorded free room and board on campus, too." The young woman was radiant with happiness, knowing that there would be that much more for her family now that she was provided for. "I have already been placed on the list for part-time employment at Rodinian Medical Centre, so that I can earn the part of the tuition not covered by the scholarship and even have some funds left to send to my family if I use them sparingly."

Melset knew Meraika Tevran had been assigned to the centre by the supervisor of Locarian IV's educational institution; he had recognized her potential within half a year. Impoverished since her father's death in a mining accident, Meraika's family had been forced to move to the outskirts of that city. The monthly compensation the family received barely sufficed to pay for the dingy two-room flat the widow shared with her five children, let alone obtain sufficient food and clothing.

In a very low voice, Meraika added, "Without my upkeep, my family is slightly better off. Still, in spite of knowing this, it was hard in the beginning – I only wanted to return home. All of you helped me through it."

She laughed. "Well, we have made it! Now, Iniki, what about you? Taya insists you have been accepted at the Academy of Sciences in Loo'Wess and will not be convinced otherwise."

"No, wrong on all counts. This morning I passed the last exams for acceptance into the Military Academy. In three weeks I have to report for duty." In her joy she did not notice the quickly-suppressed shock in her friends' faces.

"Central Command," Taya was, as usual, the first to get her voice back. "Oh, Iníki, you never told us anything about that! You were so good at sciences, xenobiology, for example, that all of us would have placed our bets ..."

"…had we had the funds to do so," was Meraika's rejoinder.

"…on sciences …" Taya ended her sentence, undisturbed by the interruption.

"No, I was not quite sure; but after the latest reports on Federation incursions on our territory, and the attack by the Zenkethi, I decided it was my duty to do my part in ensuring Cardassia's integrity." She quickly touched Taya's hand, "and I will still have the chance to do research; even if I cannot participate actively, I shall still see the results."

"To serve Cardassia is one of the most rewarding careers imaginable," Taya said, well-knowing that it was safest to voice approval, "… but you will be gone so much."

"Yes, I know, but that is one of the sacrifices that have to be taken in stride." For a moment Iniki realized that her friends would perhaps be lost to her because of distance and different careers. "I will keep in touch. There is such a thing as home leave from time to time."

For a few moments, the young women were silent, realizing that this was most likely their last meeting. Their other friends had already left immediately after their finals.

"Here is more good news: Erdem is trying to get a posting on a colony planet after his professional training and studies. The Bureau of Operations are looking for engineers to set up infrastructure there, and he has been offered the option of on-the-spot training, followed by intensive courses in the School of Engineering and the option of studying if he does well. It is not far from the Medical Academy," said Taya. "We can meet after work, respectively courses."

Meraika added, "You should tell Iniki."

"It is yet to be decided by our respective parents, but Erdem and I want to make our commitment as soon as we have finished our studies." Her dark eyes were bright with happiness. "If everything works out, we will register to settle on a colony planet after the ceremony – my family is planning to join us, together with some members of his own." No one there will know of our former status, and we can make a new life for ourselves….

Some hours later, the young women parted, and Melset stood in the doorway for some minutes, following her friends with her glance until they rounded the corner …. There was a moment of brief regret for something that was no doubt over – Meraika and Taya, as well as Jenesa and Eyrem, they had shared good times together, cooperated in an invaluable, purely emotion-based network she would miss. Her future comrades would be determined by rank alone.

The day she had awaited with impatience had finally come. Those accepted for the second phase of testing prior to final admission to the Academy assembled in the main hall before being called into the registry. Melset looked around – she knew no one and indeed had not expected otherwise. Every recruit was expected to find new allies from among his or her comrades and form, respectively expand networks of information and mutual assistance.

A Glinn shouted, "Recruits Andron, Ceklan, Danro, Eratran, Joldek, Melset, Nabros, Nebor, Sekor, Suvion, Tercel, Yadren, report to quartermaster's office for gear."

As they marched to the office, the Glinn stated, "I am Glinn Turek and will be one of your instructors for basic training as well as your mentor during this time."

After they had been issued their uniforms, weapons and standard equipment Glinn Turek showed them their quarters: each group of twelve shared a dormitory – male and female personnel together as was custom among Cardassians. The rationale was simple: Whoever chose to serve was one of a unit, yet a discrete personality, after all, they were not Borg; males and females were fully equal in Cardassian society; to imply a Cardassian woman could not select any profession she desired would have been a severe offence.

"Procedures are simple. Always be prepared to be called for training. Report within five minutes of notification. For now, make your bunks according to regulation, store your property in the lockers and chests provided, input your codes into the computers placed at your disposal for studies, then put on your uniform. Sonics are at the end of the room. When I return within twenty minutes, I expect these basic details to have been accomplished."

The recruits covertly exchanged glances and did everything that was required without a word, covertly glancing at each other with slight incertitude, waiting for what would happen next.

When they came out of the sonics to dress in uniform, Melset noticed a female var first level eying her. She turned to face the observer, one of the prior occupants who were packing before departing on their first onboard assignments.

"Recruit, your hairstyle does not comply with regulation. This is not a civilian institution." There was the barest hint of derision in her voice.

"Yes, Var."

"My name is Var Kellet."

"I understand, Var Kellet."

The var came over. "Undo your hair, recruit."

Melset immediately complied – Kelani hairstyle was an elaborate combination of interwoven braids, far different to the general fashion.

With a bored intonation, the var directed, "Back braid first …. the other two as far back as possible, passed through the base of the first one. See to it that your hair is smooth." She had not failed to notice the hair at Melset's temples had a slight wave.

Melset did not react to the implied sneer even though it annoyed her; it was common knowledge derogatory comments and even outright attacks were a given in the beginning of any troop's or officer's career. Any form of sensitivity was a serious flaw, offering as it did an opening for further attacks.

"It was most kind of you to advise me, Var Kellet." She saluted.

The other went back to her packing without another word, then departed after an indifferent glance around at the newcomers. Recruits were at the very bottom of the hierarchy. Their duty and purpose was to become effective combatants; they would only gain respect after having proven their worth. Before that point, most of the higher-ranking covertly referred to them as maggots or bottom feeders.

Within twenty minutes, the intercom activated. "All recruits report to training field."

The recruits marched out after their mentor to join the ranks which were already forming.

"It is my privilege to welcome you, a new generation of future officers and troops, to the ranks of Cardassia's forces. You have chosen to become members of Central Command, to join the ranks of those dedicated to the defence of the Cardassian Empire. You will experience combat in space and onworld, experience triumph but also defeat, see fellow combatants injured or killed in the line of duty, face the same risk yourselves. When defeated, always remember: Every setback is but temporary. We are Cardassians whose sorrow at losses is transformed into even greater determination. A defeat only serves to reassert and reinforce our people's indomitable will to persevere in face of even overwhelming odds. Your duty is to fight to your last breath, sacrifice everything, even your own life, to support the Empire which offers us so much. Cardassia is our life, our family; it is the embodiment of all that is worthy of love and devotion.

"Once your training has begun, there will be no respite from duty – you will become the most effective fighters in the Quadrant; your decision to serve amply demonstrates your courage and patriotism. Take pride in what you are destined to become: members of Central Command, a military organization whose members' very reputation strikes fear in the hearts and souls of those who hear the word 'Cardassia'. You will now take the oath of allegiance to the Empire. Repeat after me…"

All three verses of the Pledge were spoken, ending with, "… and with my life's blood, to my very last breath, I shall fight to ward off all enemies and attacks from within and from without the Empire, I swear to keep Cardassia's Glory alive forever. Talsvar Kardassu – for all time!"

Recruits, no matter whether potential officers or foot soldiers, had to go through basic training in preparation for being assigned their future careers after a series of tests. Sessions were scheduled at random, sometimes at night, the middle of the day, or within an hour of each other. The recruits were subjected to hours of mind-numbing drill on the parade field, marching in formation, relentlessly trained to react reflexively to each command, submitted to a humiliating dressing-down at each error until, within barely a week, the recruits in each division reacted as one to commands. One of the hardest elements was learning not to flinch or react in any way when shouted at by the Glinn in command except to rectify whatever error had been made. Whoever did react was literally bombarded with further insults and curses uttered in a bellow that resounded across the training ground, making the trainee's error obvious to all within hearing.

After theoretical instruction on weapons systems, their maintenance and repair, the firing range became yet another area of training. Target practice was not a matter of lying in one place while shooting at holographic images; reflexes were sharpened by means of targets of vaguely humanoid form, indeterminable as to race, which appeared at random from trenches, from behind obstacles while the recruits were racing across the field or working their way across the obstacle course.

During these periods, the division as a whole shouted in cadence with the firing, "Kill – Kill without mercy! No one stands against us!" at the appearance of each target.

It was impossible to disguise unwillingness to fire: each weapon was connected to the instructor's datapadd which traced the phaser beam's trajectory, automatically registering and evaluating the hits and misses. At times, targets looked disquietingly Cardassian …. Yet even that was necessary. Everyone knew traitors had to be eliminated unhesitatingly.

As an element of further information, Glinn Turek told them during a short break, "Many peoples have responses resembling our own. Never permit this detail to influence you. Those who oppose us are enemies whose unique goal is Cardassia's downfall. If you permit yourselves to have empathy for any representative of a different people, be it enemy or ally; your resolve will inevitably be undermined, finally making you traitors to the Empire. You are Cardassians. No enemy must be permitted to live unless …," the glinn smiled grimly, "...that offworlder has valuable information to be extracted by all means at your disposal. Afterwards, you can choose procedure at your own discretion – either execute him or send him back to his own people after you have finished with him to spread fear with his reports about us. Is this understood?"

"Yes, Glinn Turek!"

He looked at the recruits in front of him, saw Melset's eyes fixed on him. "Recruit Melset, there is one more element."

Surprised, she hesitated for a moment before adding, "Establish no form of personal or professional relationship that could lead to familiarity with an offworlder. No matter which position requiring prolonged contact will inevitably be misused to gain information, commit sabotage or destroy material. Keep apart and never accept any form of interaction but that of superior and inferior."

"Always keep this in mind, each last one of you, no matter what you may see." His manner again shifted from that of a lecturer to that of a taskmaster. "In formation to obstacle course – get a move on – move! Don't crawl like half-dead voles!" As they moved off at a brisk trot, he again shouted, "In cadence!"

"For the glory of the Empire ….." the recruits' voices rang out as one.

"We march into battle …" Melset heard her neighbour quickly address her, "And close contact among equals?"

She glanced to the side to recognize Glan Joldek who was running next to her, now chanting in cadence with the others. "…unafraid, to fight for our Empire…" Just as quickly, she replied, "Not either, not at the Academy – only outside. This is combat training."

"Ah, there are different kinds of combat." He continued, "…and crush those who will oppose us…"

"And the kind you mention would have the participants expelled in disgrace." Not losing a beat, she called out, "The victory shall be ours, we will prevail! ..."

"….against all odds, the battle will be won!" Again a whisper, "… careless ones, perhaps."

"…for the Glory of Cardassia, forever…." Melset replied, "Risk unwise. You - too valuable to lose. Ally, Joldek? That is better for both of us."

"Ah? How so? …. We shall triumph over all who oppose us!"

She quickly smiled at him, "Unfamiliar ground, harsh training … make anyone look for closeness."

"… until the end of our lives we call as one…." Joldek grinned ruefully, glanced over.

"Talsvar Kardassu!" Glinn Turek called.

Over the shouted salute, another retort from Joldek, "Ally. I agree."

"Obstacle course – on the double!" was Turek's next command.

A muted groan from Recruit Joldek and a few others, a reaction with which the other participants could sympathize. The Glinn did not react to the barely audible vocalizations of reluctance. That was an accepted part of military life – as long as complaints did not attack the Empire or military leaders, troops could complain as much as they wanted about whatever they wanted. If the complaints were too loud, the only reaction a Glinn would have in that case was to prolong the time spent on that course while concentrating on especially popular sections.

The obstacle course was hated with a vengeance by everyone, equipped as it was with wide mud pits that had light sensors adjusted so low to the ground that the recruits had to literally hug the mud and water, barely able to keep mouth and nose above the surface of the muck. Conversely, there was another variant with wires slung over its expanse that snagged the incautious. The constant tension, lack of rest and, often enough, pure exhaustion often strained their nerves, so tempers flared at times, for very minor reasons, as they did in the case of two recruits who had not kept the prescribed distance.

Those who were not involved in the incipient fight smirked to themselves in anticipation while working their way through the pit, listening avidly to the argument, knowing exactly what would happen unless the two kept their tempers in check.

"Are you trying to sabotage my equipment, vole bait? Mind where you shove that blasted filth or I'll stuff it down your throat!" The heavily accented snarl came from Ceklan, one of the recruits in Melset's group.

"Then you see you keep from splashing that mud my way, Ceklan, or are Ubarit too clumsy to see what they're doing? Your lousy province is made of mud wallows! You feel at home in them, like domize." yelled Nabros. "Who was such an idiot to grub you out of the one you were born in?"

The reply to that was that the offended recruit made to attack his opponent.

It was with genuine regret that the other troops saw the evolution of a potential mud-wrestling match mercilessly ended by their glinn.

"Recruits Ceklan and Nabros, out!" Glinn Turek's order was cold, measured.

The two of them marched over to him and stood in front of him, dripping mud, covertly glaring at each other.

"You have enough energy to waste it by fighting in the mud pit? You are invited to run five rounds to burn it off before repeating the entire exercise. We are a unit. Anything that happens, suck it up and move on. You'll have more than your share of filth when you're stuck in trenches, so get used to it now or get out before you endanger a mission for sheer stupidity! Out in the field, you will wish you were here!"

A brisk salute and the delinquents were off, surreptitiously observed by the other recruits who immediately concentrated on completing the first part of the obstacle course at Turek's turning to them once again.

"Whoever cares to join them need only follow their example!"

Every now and then there was a yelp of pain from a crawler who had tripped a sensor only to be rewarded by a light phaser beam that, even though it caused no physical harm, packed an extremely painful sting, even by Cardassian standards.

"Keep your butt down, if you want to keep it – your head, too, unless you have no brains in it worth blasting out. What makes you think you are destined for a great career in Central Command if you are incapable of executing an order even a shrinecrawler would understand? Anyone who gets hit by that beam here will be shreds spread across the field within milliseconds in battle. You, recruit Sekor! A half-blind Ferengi could use you for target practice! Don't waste my time! Go to the registration office and volunteer for permanent sanitation duty – unless even that is too great a challenge for the likes of you idiots!"

He uttered a wordless bellow of irritation and shouted at yet another, "I said: Down! You call that down? Your head is sticking up like the dome of Central Command!" Turek's orders became louder and more exasperated with every error made by the recruits.

Some of them muttered to themselves, glaring at his back, but he ignored them. "Eyes front! Not on one spot. I'm not the one aiming at you!" Another yell. "Don't stick that phaser rifle up like a blinking periscope! 'Here I am – shoot me please!'" he called in a nasal whine.

The harshness was justified. Every glinn working at the Academy had seen more than his or her share of combat, thus knew that no mistake ever went unpunished in a real time combat situation.

"Over to the beams. Joldek, begin, Ceklan next …."

Carefully, Melset watched her comrades race over one by one – or at least try to race across a beam that was at most ten centimetres wide; normally that would not have presented too much of a problem as Cardassians' coordination was excellent, but the heavy boots and the gear made it difficult. Beneath the beam was yet another area of mud. At least falls are padded by the muck …..

In the first round, everyone completed the run before the next recruit was called up; later on, they would be running over the beams at two metres distance, exactly as they would in the field.

"Melset, get going!"

She yanked at the straps of her pack, then leapt onto the beam and began running over. Suddenly she hit a slippery patch, nearly lost her footing and, fighting for balance, barely managed to regain equilibrium. That was meant to throw one of us off! The next beam was set at a strong slant, so that the footing was even worse, along the edge…. This cannot be! was her thought when Melset felt it sway slightly under her feet forcing her to slow down, go into a crouch.

"Get a move on Melset! You aren't supposed to rest there. Move! Do you think beams in contested areas are nice and secure?" Turek's voice was enraged. "To keep you amused, you have the privilege of doing the entire lot twice, Kelani!"

Stung by the comment, she straightened, then, with a leap forwards, reached the next beam which swayed disquietingly, again obliging her to advance very slowly One more to go….

That one was over three meters off the ground and when she had reached its end, she looked down apprehensively, her pulse suddenly racing.

"Waiting to grow wings or what?" Again Turek's yell.

She shook her head, trying to suppress her fear of the height; instinctively, she backed away fractionally, still struggling against her panic.

One of her fellow recruits, Glan Tercel, sniggered before commenting loudly enough for her to hear every word. "Kelani are close to the earth, you know – half a meter is already more than enough to make them space sick, let alone four." The derisive laughter which followed rankled.

If I give in now, I will never manage. Melset jumped, landed safely enough, softening the impact by going into a crouch before straightening quickly, covertly trying to pinpoint the recruit who had made the verbal attack, then redid the entire set of beams twice in sequence without hesitation.

Turek gave her a nod before calling, "All of you now – keep distance from the one ahead of you - steady pace!"

Scaling walls, rappelling down buildings and towers, jumping trenches with increasingly heavy loads to carry, swimming in full gear, subsequently negotiating slippery inclines, dodging from cover to cover while under simulated fire, followed by combat simulations, transporting 'injured' fellow troops, were further demands which saw the ranks of the recruits thin out. At times the physical challenges were overwhelming, but after a month of merciless training both on the obstacle course and in sessions of hand-to-hand combat, Melset and her comrades noticed that what had seemed nearly impossible in the beginning now revealed itself to be but a simple exercise.

Increasingly, the recruits were obliged to work in teams while negotiating the course, and do whatever had to be done to ensure their team reached the end of the run as quickly as possible. Inevitably, and totally in accordance with Cardassian ways, teams tried to hinder each other surreptitiously – that meant not only the risk of unexpected pitfalls on the terrain, but also of traps laid by fellow recruits. Rivalry among Cardassians was anything but harmless … In the field, however, this rivalry would be replaced by an indomitable will to sabotage the enemy's positions and installations as well as to ensure unwavering attention to possible booby traps laid out for them.

Training often went on for hours on end; this and further demands were geared towards weeding out those who could not cope with the mental and physical requirements. In essence, they were being trained to become unrelenting fighters who literally killed in reflex, only sparing fellow Cardassians – providing they were not traitors.

The recruits' highly irregular downtime made constant attention to detail a challenge. Often enough, the troops had barely cleaned up and collapsed on their bunks to snatch some moments of rest than they were ordered to assemble on the parade field for more drill or report to their respective lecture halls for courses within minutes. After some time, even this constant readiness had become automatic so that exhaustion became wholly irrelevant. Snatches of sleep or rest were grabbed whenever possible: while waiting to be called up for target practice or for the next run through the obstacle course or session of endurance training. In the end, the drills no longer required active thought unless while avoiding or tackling the obstacles which were randomly shifted in position from one day to the next in order to keep the recruits from memorizing details.

At the end of these three months, the ranks had thinned by about a fifth. Those who remained had a realistic chance of being admitted to the Academy. Sekor and Tercel had left, Sekor due to a medical condition, Tercel because he had been offered a position in his father's company. A female recruit, Alosa Merat, replaced Tercel.

The evening before notification, the recruits were in their dormitory; in contrast to normal times they were anything but communicative, wondering as they were who among their number would be accepted, and in which capacity. Most were hoping for admission to the Academy; this would lead to an officer's career which carried great prestige and hopes of prosperity, but this specific consideration was never mentioned openly. The only official reason given when asked was "to serve Cardassia."

From outside, they heard shouted orders from the training grounds.

"Troops recruited from the outskirts of the city," Eratran commented derisively. "Not one true Cardassian in that sorry lot. Get them fired up with patriotic phrases, promise them permission to loot, then ply them with cheap kanaar and they'll sign up for anything."

Chavas countered, vaguely irritated at Eratran's attitude, "Those men serve well, often taking risks considered unacceptably high by the officers. I have heard those who show valour and potential are accorded the privilege of trying for the Academy."

Nabor joined the discussion. "Sure, if they don't end up spilling their guts first." He hesitated briefly, "The pay they receive appears like riches to them after the handouts for their former menial jobs, if they have ever had any – many of these people waste their income gaming, they know no better. And how should they?"

"Ah, but a few send every single groat home to their families," was Suvion's contribution. "Our family knew one such former troop. He was sponsored by his former commander, attended this very academy, was rapidly promoted: He advanced so far as to be able to repay the help once offered him by one of our neighbours. Later on, he married into this family, became an excellent husband and father. The entire family group, including his own relatives, later settled on a colony planet."

"A rare case, no doubt." Eratran was unrelenting.

Melset remained silent, only listening. Apparently some of her comrades had first-hand experiences as to the poorer population groups. When her family travelled beyond Loo'Wess to visit family in Kelan province for their three-yearly celebrations, they always flew directly across the city. "I was told that those hovels are only temporary shelters slated to be demolished as soon as we have annexed enough systems to create sustainable wealth."

"No, they are a permanent fixture, Melset. Volunteers for ground-breaking work in the colonies are recruited from among the inhabitants of these areas, but no matter how many people leave, there are still masses of the impoverished; it seems to make no difference." He lowered his voice. "Extreme poverty and homelessness are a problem of large cities all over Cardassia Prime."

"That is why we need those contested systems – the situation cannot remain as it is, with so much potential going to waste," was her reply. A plant – listening to us to find out whether any of us has subversive ideas.

"Potential?" Nabros exclaimed derisively, not believing what he had heard. "If those elements had any potential at all, they would not be stuck where they are."

"I had a fellow student who was from a poor area. Her results were so good she was transferred to Loo'Wess Central. Now, she has been accepted at a leading academy after coming out in the top percentile of the year," Melset said calmly. "She once told me that survival was a constant struggle for her and her family. In every way."

Melset happened to look in Ceklan's direction, met his eyes. He seemed to withdraw the moment the subject turned to foot soldiers. I wonder … he is older than any of us by about four or five years.

Ceklan held her glance briefly, then turned away. He leaned back, lost in thought, hearing, yet not hearing what the others were saying. Those preconceptions were something he had become accustomed to, the same as the carefully-hidden contempt many officers had for the quickly recruited mass of foot soldiers. Kadeya, his fiancee, his daughter Aresha … His parents had taken them in once he had acknowledged his daughter as he could not get permission to marry, being as destitute as Kadeya. He had joined Central Command to be able to offer them a decent future.

No one deserves to live the way they are forced to! He suppressed the thought. I have fought as well as any officer, saved my gul's life at risk of my own, and this chance is my reward. He quickly looked over at the others again. We did not have the same privilege of being born into a prosperous family, do not deserve contempt… Those recruitss were admitted for their academic achievements, have had all possibilities handed to them by sheer hazard of birth, while my neighbours and I … fighting for rare offers of menial work, or liberating what we could to eat at least one meal a day. The male looked across the room, again met Melset's eyes but saw no contempt. That Kelani suspects what I am. Apparently, her family has shielded her from the poverty so close to home, so that she honestly believes that something is being done for the poor.

His thoughts were interrupted when Atosa Merat entered. "Still up? I thought you would be flat out after those exams."

"Where were you?" Andros called. "We've already been here for two hours."

"Made an error in setting up a launcher," she shrugged. "Turek made me repeat the process six times, then clean the damn thing. You all know how many parts those things have."

"Ask Ceklan next time. I've watched him. Bet he could do it blindfolded," commented Chavas. "What about it, Ceklan?"

Ceklan's reply was prompt, angry. "No great skill. Do it often enough, you know each piece by feel alone." His voice became harsh. "Better do it until each gesture becomes automatic. Your life will depend on it, Merat."

The others looked at him, startled at hearing the edge in his voice. He gave no explanation, only drew the curtains around his bed, and turned off his light.

"Wonder what's eating him?"

"Bad day, that's all."

In the final three weeks of the basic training period, the recruits were given practice sessions in developing independent strategies in holodeck simulations, four times a week, at random times of the day. The situations were combat, the outcome restricted to either total disaster or victory. Scenarios showed the full range of horrors to be encountered in the field and on board. The recruits were well aware that, after this phase, their careers would be decided – either a return to civilian life, or to training as foot soldiers, respectively attendance at Central Command's Academy.

The decisive test? No one knew how or when it would be, nor did the older students speak about their own experiences; they consistently kept to themselves as befitted their rank.

Melset was leaving one of the halls where she had attended a lecture on command strategies when she felt the ground vibrate, the sound of deafening explosions followed seconds later. Without hesitating or looking to higher-ranking personnel, she shouted to those nearby to take cover, positioning themselves so as to leave not one corner unobserved. A sudden flash of impossibly bright light nearly blinded her; another violent detonation proved massive enough to collapse one of the walls bringing down the roof, crushing a number of recruits and vars.

Melset suppressed her instinctive reactions to the sight, the sounds, the smell of dust and charred bodies; ensuring survival and forming a coherently organized whole for defence had total priority, as well as submerging feelings and responses that could lead to errors.

In the meantime, enemy fire had shifted from heavy artillery to a barrage from small arms. Rallying the few remaining survivors she could find, the troops cautiously but rapidly exited the ruined building in groups or singly, firing as they went, cursing under their breaths at an enemy that remained frustratingly invisible. Shadowy figures moving around, always too indistinct to present targets could be seen from time to time through the billowing dust and smoke.

Outside too, the ground was littered with bodies and the severely injured; offworlders, Cardassians, lay in a jumble of building components, shards of exploded ordnance, blood and body parts. The sight was a nightmare, and that nightmare was taking place on Cardassia.

Advance under all circumstances – stopping to render assistance could be a deadly error. That thought was foremost in the minds of all of the recruits involved as they rapidly moved past casualties, picking up weapons that were lying on the ground.

Accompanied by a few fellow recruits, Melset, together with a var who remained at her side, advanced to a relatively safe vantage point, a ruined wall. They surveyed the area, comparing observations in terse whispered comments until they had finally pinpointed the origin of the fire.

"If we close in from both sides – but insufficient information …" she held up a scanner, "Impossible to tell how many attackers there are…" she murmured.

"Three platoons at least, to judge by the extent of the damage done and the intensity of the fire," whispered a recruit she did not recognize. "The others are ready to move. Awaiting your orders."

A hiss of triumph, then the words, "Have them pinpointed! Concentrated in section 12/89." The voice sounded familiar, Var Derasi, what is he doing here? He had downtime … Could it be that even quarters have been destroyed? And why is he not giving the orders? That, however was of no importance at the moment.

"Recruit Nebon, cover Var Derasi and myself – place explosive, lure attackers to area, detonate charges."

The two at once made their way across the open area, using even the slightest cover.

"Wait!" Var Derasi raised his head very slightly. "Movement to your left."

Melset followed his gaze and saw not only one, but an entire platoon. Theirs or ours? Everything depends on that information. They listened for any sound of voices, but there was none. Total silence apart from the whine of phaser fire.

"Theirs." Melset and Derasi exchanged glances and, taking a slight detour, continued their advance.

"Var Derasi! Down!"

Barely within vision, Melset had seen a figure make a throwing motion; in a reflexive motion, she threw herself to the side at the same time as the Var, simultaneously detaching a charge of her own, arming it and throwing it with all her strength before pressing herself against the ground, hoping a pile of rubble would suffice to grant her and Derasi marginal protection.

The explosion rained earth, small bits of rubble and other elements she did not care to analyse on the two of them. Once the danger of being hit by stray shrapnel had ended, they made a dash towards an incline at the base of the wall behind which they suspected the main body of enemy forces were ensconced.

Melset looked round – Good, the others who have survived have followed us. May be better to spread out. With a quick gesture, she indicated three sections of the wall, made a sign that these were to be mined for detonation.

One of the recruits crawled over. "Melset, Danro and I will see to that site." He had selected the more hazardous, but crucial portion.

"Proceed." She knew he was specialized in weapons.

Var Derasi again moved over to her; together, they quickly excavated a hole under their area of the wall and, that done, tamped in the charge.

Shouts erupted from above them.

With a loud curse, Derasi grabbed his subordinate who had already taken shelter to pull her further under an overhang created by a section of the collapsed roof – it was not much, but offered at least a modicum of protection. From the side, Melset and Derasi could see that the others who had better concealment were hurrying with their own preparations for sapping the wall.

Phaser fire began erupting around the two as they tried to fire back without exposing themselves more than necessary. Suddenly, a loud whine of phaser fire, an explosion.

"Recruit Melset, get under …!" Derasi did not have the chance to complete his sentence.

Melset shrieked with horror when she saw Derasi literally burst apart, struck from above by a phaser bolt.

Only one way to survive long enough to take along some of them. Suppressing revulsion, she let herself fall forward limply, directly onto her fellow combatant, there to lie motionlessly, as though lifeless, trying not to think of the surface which she had of necessity chosen, nor of the fluid she felt seeping through her uniform and onto her skin, nor of the stench of burned flesh and armour. Hopefully my scream has made the attackers think I have sustained deadly injuries. Derasi, I shall see to it you have not died in vain.

She had 'fallen' so that one arm was positioned under her body; grasping her phaser, she freed it, then, inch by inch, pulled it along her body until it was at eye level. The recruit went limp, rolled over onto her back, as though she had lost the struggle for life and, her eyes open just a slit, tried to recognize exactly where the attackers were. There … cautiously, she opened her eyes a little more in an attempt to see the other troops, but there was no movement anywhere. They cannot have been picked off to the last man – they were far better protected than we! I have to hit the charge in the wall….

Apparently, resistance in the area had been eradicated, so that the attackers felt confident enough to leave their cover.

Finally, Melset could hear what they were saying and was astonished at recognizing the language was Federation Standard, but the voices definitely not human. "See you get the equipment of those Cardassians, comb the building for survivors, equipment and data carriers – don't waste your time with prisoners! Those spoonheads are not worth the effort. Execute the lot." The voice had a strange, grating quality to it.

It is over – have to take as many with me as I can. What has happened to the other troops? To our officers? They cannot all have been eliminated! was her recurrent thought. It is of no relevance …

As soon as the enemy had advanced within range, she got to her knees to fire at the explosive Derasi had planted, then at the advancing forces; with grim satisfaction the recruit heard the other explosives detonate as well due to the vibrations of the first, she shouted in triumph … renewed phaser fire erupted around her, the world faded in a cloud of dense smoke and she felt the sensation of rubble impacting on her body ….

"Recruit Melset, it is over. The simulation has ended." The voice was that of Glinn Harek, one of her instructors.

The recruit, dazed, quickly got to her feet to stand at attention, It was a simulation – a worst-case scenario. With relief she saw that the building was intact, the corridor into which she had been transported populated with fellow troops going about their business.

"Melset, you are free to return to quarters; you will get your results within the hour." Glinn Harek stated. "Dismissed."

"Talsvar Kardassu!" She saluted smartly, executed a perfect about-face and marched off.

She had no sooner rounded the corner than she felt herself hit by a wave of nausea and just managed to reach the head.

When she came out of the cubicle, Melset saw a var first level grinning at her amusedly. "Obviously, you have just gone through the simulation. Interesting, wasn't it?" His grin became broader. "My name is Var Kovar, after all, you will want to address me according to regulations when you are ready."

Under her breath, she viciously cursed the simulation while washing her face, then turned to the young male officer, her eyes glittering with anger at her perceived weakness, and saluted.

He responded in like. "A word with you, recruit."

She stood at attention, waiting.

"At ease." He continued, "You are not the first to take this specific detour before rejoining your room mates, nor the last, either; there is no humiliation in that."

When no answer came apart from still-spread neck membranes, he added. "The scenes were unpleasant by any standards, there is not one of us who did not react after going through the last test of this programme. What was it anyway?" Kovar inquired, curious. "The destruction of the Academy or the attack on Loo'Wess?"

"The Academy." Melset stated flatly, attitude one of suppressed anger.

"You have the correct attitude, recruit."

He met her eyes as they left the room to stand outside in the corridor. Remaining inside would have presented too much of a risk. Every form of interaction between superiors and subordinates had to be public unless a reprimand was given, and that entire procedure had to be registered in the delinquent's file.

"Channel horror, grief, terror, all emotions that could undermine your resolve into unrelenting hatred for your enemies and the unremitting desire for revenge. This will focus you, assist you in recognizing strategic errors from which you can benefit. Remember – we are destined to greatness and shall dominate the entire quadrant." His voice was proud and confident.

Melset nodded and looked up to meet his eyes. "Permission to speak openly?"

"Permission granted."

"Why are you telling me this? I did not … react in public."

"No, and that definitely counts in your favour. Those that do are considered unacceptable as they obviously lack resilience." For a moment, he hesitated, "We are to select six recruits each to include on our teams, thus were given permission to watch the simulations together with the instructors. I have placed you on my list." His even voice became mocking, "Moreover, I want to see for myself how a Kelani fights."

He is my superior, but when I have advanced, he will learn to avoid such comments. "You shall see, and in real time too, Var Kovar."

"I am sure I shall." The young officer again briefly hesitated. "In another two days, you shall begin theoretical training prior to reporting for the first half year of service aboard a cruiser. As to the advice I gave you, recruit, it is the same that was given me when I started." He smirked, "I had a closer call than you."

"Looked too closely at the bodies, no doubt." Melset offered, beginning to relax.

"The one at the edge of the trench," was his reply.

"Oh, I saw that one, too, except it was in the trench so that we had to crawl over it to place the charges," she added, her eyes innocent.

"Yes, that very one. You find it all over the place - literally." The Var could not suppress a short laugh which did not sound very convincing.

"At the end I lay on, or rather in one, playing forest vole to trick the enemies; I managed to bring down part of the wall onto them." Melset shrugged, "To the end, it was impossible to find out just who they were."

"Their identity is always kept undefined. Anyone who opposes or challenges us is an enemy. The important element is to either force them into retreat or to take as many with you as you can. You had the no-win simulation." He stated off-handedly, "I happened to overhear some talk before coming here. It would seem you are getting a high rating, as are a few of your comrades."

Together, they walked along the corridor and formally parted in front of the quarters Melset shared with eleven other recruits.

Still caught up in the simulation and the conversation, she did not notice Var Kovar look back at her before entering the turbolift.

Melset went into the dormitory. At reaching her area, she wordlessly took off her armour and boots to polish them, then went through the same procedure with her weapons.

"Well, Melset, how was the glorious battle?" Recruit Nabros called over.

"Interesting." was the curt reply.

"Was it you who left that holosimulator as sick as a vole?" was the suggestion from Berak. "I think someone will be called to perform cleaning duties for the next two weeks."

"No, later, perfectly timed ejection." Apparently she had been the last member of her group to be tested and had come in while the others were working off their tension by joking about their respective experiences.

There was a burst of laughter. "That's a good one. Whoever created that programme left out nothing."

"Something gives me the feeling the mess hall will be serving chopped gettle and bourdik with yamok sauce," offered Ceklan. "Test our systems' stability just a little more."

His words raised suppressed amusement. There was no reason for complaint as their rations were satisfying, but the appearance and taste of the meals admittedly left much to be desired.

"More of that sort of training and we'll be lean enough to fit through a drainage pipe." Suvion's rueful comment met with derisive sniggers because he had a slight tendency to fleshiness. The Sazechesi male's response to the others' laughter was only, "I am not complaining, but do you want to always be the target of choice?"

"Get used to it, Suvion," Andron called over. "By the way, Melset, I saw you coming out of the head with Kovar. Sure didn't know he was interested in taking up contact with a recruit."

"Watch your words, Andron. He is our superior." Melset's expression became cold and distant, outraged as she felt at the insinuation. "Are you questioning my compliance with regulations?"

"No," the offender quickly replied. Unwarranted accusations of fraternization, even joking ones, could lead to unpleasant results for the one who made them if the butt of the jokes took offence.

"He advised me on techniques to counter the sick vole syndrome." She explained in a more relaxed intonation.

"Falsify results?" Nabor's inflection was hopeful.

"No. Cope like a Cardassian, not like a human or a Bajoran."

"… or a Bolian!" called Suvion in an exaggerated whine meant to imitate a frightened representative of that people.

"Nah. I prefer Ferengi-style coping provided I am at the right end of a phaser – they offer bribes if you're lucky enough." Atosa added. "But remember to pocket the latinum first, then lower the phaser!"

They continued their discussion, letting off steam by joking and arguing until they heard the command for which they had been waiting. "Recruits Division 3 - Report to Hall 10, Level 4 immediately."

The notifications were quickly distributed – the recruits advanced single file to be handed padds on which their results were registered. Each of them read the latest entry and gave his or her thumbprint before returning the padd to the officer in charge. Those who had failed would leave at some point before the introductory course which was to begin within a quarter of an hour.

They did not discuss their results in the corridor, but waited until back in their quarters. Four of them, Melset included, had been accepted into officer's training. Of the other eight, five had made the grade as soldiers with the option of being accepted for officer's training at a later date, and three were out of the race permanently for various reasons. These had already departed and would be replaced by three other successful candidates. That very afternoon, the groups would be reorganized, with future troops and officers quartered among their respective peers.

For once, Ceklan was less grim than usual, readily joining in the conversations, relaxed, even participating in the mutual razzing as they walked back. He had been successful and, to his pride, among the best.

I wonder which courses the Order has selected for me… Melset marched to her quarters with the others in her group, vaguely apprehensive about the next six months – the workload for officers in training was remarkable, and Order courses in addition … Hard work, dedication and sacrifice – downtime and a minimum of sleep, five hours can be won easily enough.

The next day, the recruits reported to the main office where they were given padds detailing their evaluations and new schedules.

10 courses at three hours each. Melset read the list: History of Central Command, Administration, Strategy, Engineering I, Regulations, Federation Standard, weapons, Combat Training, Basic Medical Training, , hand-to-hand combat ….

When she left together with Joldek, Ceklan and Nabros, a Glinn approached her group.

"A word with you, Glan Melset."

She stood at attention. "Talsvar Kardassu!"

He replied in kind before continuing. "I am Glinn Tamiz. Report to my office on the double." He turned and left without another word.

No doubt to give me Tain's list. When she followed him, she saw the surreptitious glances of her fellows. No doubt you are hoping I am in for a dressing down and an entry in my files was her sarcastic thought.

It was a fact that competition within the ranks was merciless in spite of the necessity to cooperate so that an entry in a rival's file meant this rival eliminated in favour of someone more fortunate, ideally oneself.

Upon entering the office, Tamiz' demeanour became less stern. "At ease, Recruit Melset." He motioned her over to a display. "Remember this code." He input it rapidly, moved aside then, at Melset's nod, activated the programme.

The emblem of the Order appeared on the screen, to be replaced by a file which opened automatically. "These are the courses the Order has selected for you."

Klingon, Bajoran, Federation Standard, Surveillance Devices I … To her covert relief Melset noticed that most of these elements meshed with her regular courses, supplemented them and thus made the workload less overwhelming.

"I have arranged for you to have unlimited access to the entire array of the Academy's terminals," Glinn Temiz informed her. "Have you taken appropriate measures?"

She nodded. "Four subroutines, each activated only after a series of questions and codes to establish legitimization of user. The third is reserved for Academy work, the fourth for Order studies. Any errors will see user directed to innocuous files that are of no use to anyone, including myself."

"That should suffice. Officially, you are my assistant with unrestricted access to this office."

"Understood."

"No doubt you will find the schedule more than slightly challenging. This semester stands as is; after your first half year of onboard duty, the second six-month academic period will consist of parallel courses as well with exams scheduled so as not to conflict with regular courses."

Recruit Melset did not reply. There was no need to do so.

"Report to my office this evening at 8:00. Dismissed."

That means that I will have to study constantly. Mentally planning her schedule, Melset walked along the corridor. She shrugged with feigned indifference. The outcome of this work will be more rewarding than the pleasure of joining my comrades for downtime activities. Nevertheless, she felt slight regret. The little downtime they were accorded was valued by all, thus plans for spending it made far in advance. That may well serve to set me apart from the others, which may be a disadvantage….

"Saw you called into Glinn Temiz' office – what did you get into, Melset?" Suvion asked, grinning broadly.

"Nothing. He has given me extra duties – as his assistant."

"What?" Danro exclaimed disbelievingly, "Can't they employ civilians for their infernal files and administrational duties?"

"The situation as is does not permit that luxury, and civilians cannot be permitted access to military files," Melset pretended resignation. "There are plenty of recruits, though. The good thing about it is that the income will help my family; I have already arranged for it to be sent directly to them."

"Without that programme at all levels of education, many good people would be lost to Cardassia," commented Ceklan.

There was no reply. Poverty was something nearly all of them had encountered at some time in the form of homeless people, groups of orphans …. The recruits knew nothing about each others' families and were discouraged from speaking about them. Here, individuals were addressed only by rank and name; making background irrelevant. Personal merit, not family status determined promotions; at least that was the official version.

"Are you coming with us this evening? Joldek suggested the Loo'Wess Entertainment Sector. Most of our year are going."

"My duties start at eight hundred this evening. You will, however, tell me about it?" Melset gave her voice a wistful intonation.

"Of course." Her comrade shook his head. "Take away the little downtime we have. I wonder whom else they will enlist."

They are not suspicious. Melset was relieved at recognizing the fact, but decided to establish a further subroutine at activation level just in case. I will have to ask Tamiz whether my measures suffice.

After the last meal of the day, it was with some envy that she watched her comrades file out the gate before she reported to Glinn Temiz' office.

"Take a seat at the monitor. Here is a device that can record every movement of your vocal cords and speech organs, thus permitting you to work on your language programmes without arousing attention. Results will be transmitted to my terminal for evaluation."

Once both were satisfied with the results of the trial run, they began working on Federation standard. At the end, Temiz explained. "Under circumstances, you will be authorized to take a placement exam after one year which, if you pass with marks above 95, will have you registered as fully competent in that language, subsequently freeing you from further courses apart from periodic maintenance sessions. The same applies to Klingon and Bajoran. This will permit you to attend additional courses."

Have to sacrifice more sleep and the last of my downtime to get through the languages and surveillance techniques … six full months of this routine…. For a moment she felt discouraged at the sheer volume of requirements, but in no way was she willing to surrender the privilege Tain had granted her to someone else.

As expected, the Academy and Order courses took up virtually every moment of her days, forcing her to cut even the small amount of downtime still at her disposition. Yet, after a few weeks, it no longer seemed that exhausting.

One evening five months later, Temiz shut off the annex and stated, "Recruit Melset, next week you are freed from duties at my office."

She waited quietly.

"I suggest you begin regular reviews in two days. Order exams are scheduled to take place within 10 days. You shall be given the schedule as soon as it has been determined."

Immediately after the Academy's exams. Still tomorrow is mine to do with as I want

Prior to the exams, the Academy always gave students five days off for studies and revisions, but it was an open secret that students used one or two of those days as respite from the demanding schedule and the remaining three for reviews.

That evening Melset entered the dormitory and saw the others preparing to leave.

"Coming?" Suvion asked her as a matter of course.

"Yes," was her reply. "Glinn Temiz has given me the week off because of the exams; of course, I do have to study, but tonight I can finally make the time to join you."

Nabros gripped her shoulder briefly and smiled at her. "Finally! We were beginning to think Kelani avoid amusements. The Centre has something very entertaining this time."

"If you think we are grim, you are in for a surprise." Melset smiled in turn. "Believe me, it is good to escape administrative work for some evenings. Give me a round on the obstacle course any time, including the beams and the mudpits!"

"Then you must be desperate to leave!" Ceklan called out, "Let's get going! Three hours is not all that much time. The transports are already waiting."

The platoon left the Academy grounds and, talking animatedly, piled into a troop transport that arrived at the Centre within minutes.

Their goal turned out to be an unbelievably huge complex on the outskirts of the city, and Melset, who had never been there, was astonished at the variety of events and pastimes offered, from live vole fights to every imaginable kind of gaming concession, data libraries crammed with information on allied worlds, Cardassia's history and present. A separate area was reserved for presentations of art and music, dance performances, lectures as well as a wide selection of shops, holosuites, restaurants and bars.

"Did I exaggerate?" Nabros gestured at the area expansively. "Whatever you want, you can find it here. There's not one single form of entertainment the organizers have forgotten."

"No, they really didn't. Now, there is one serious problem." She managed to look slightly dejected.

"What – don't tell me some of them are forbidden to your people?" Nabros' inquiry was unbelieving, just short of sneering. "I cannot believe you still keep to those outdated rules!"

Melset ignored his tone of voice and the comment. "No – the problem is far more complicated than that: what to enjoy first."

"Whatever attracts you first – it is a simple as that," advised Suvion. "Activate personal sensors!"

Their group split up, gradually dispersed, and Melset found herself in Nabros', Ceklan's and Merat's company.

When they were passing by one of the auditoriums, Melset heard a familiar voice.

"Ah, I see you have finally decided to join your platoon for a look around here, recruit Melset."

"Talsvaar Kardassu, Var Kovar." Melset stood at attention. "Yes, I have."

"At ease, Melset. We are off duty." The young var gestured at the group of recruits accompanying him. "I am here with some of the recruits who will be on my team. Melset, Ceklan, Nabros, Merat, join us and meet your future comrades. We will receive our orders within two weeks within the next two weeks."

The group that assembled was ethnically mixed, Gershechi, an Ubarit, two Saranji, and the rest Varagasi. One of the others commented, "We were just going to see a group of Bajoran performers brought here by Legate Setav. Should be quite amusing to see what those primitives call a performance."

A young soldier who introduced himself as Keryl added "Won't be as intriguing as that Orion slave girl they had here a week ago. The encore for the troops was …." He laughed crudely, "… quite an eye-opener."

There was a burst of raucous calls from the others; still discussing details of that specific performance, the group entered and quickly found seats in front. Apparently Bajorans were not nearly as popular as entertainment as the Orion girl had been….

For any other people, the dances would have been fascinating in their variability, in the intricacy of the steps, the sequence of figures created by the performers, but the Cardassians had no such reaction – their own cultural achievements, they agreed, were immeasurably superior to anything the other peoples of the Quadrant, especially the Bajorans, had to offer. The presentation only served to reinforce their sense of superiority.

"Little more than tribal dances of uncultured savages," Nabros whispered over to Keryl.

"Look, the Gul only sent those shrinecrawlers here as entertainment; say, take a look at that woman back there…." was Keryl's rejoinder. "In decent clothing she would be a beauty – for a Bajoran."

Conversely, for aliens, Cardassian dances appeared far too formalized, each gesture and step strictly prescribed, with hardly any leeway for individual expression. Only in the provinces did some of the original forms of dance and creative art survive, tolerated, albeit carefully observed, by the government and the Order as a harmless eccentricity of some few ethnic minorities. At the Samagaltayi Magtaal in Kelan Province just the year before, the presence of agents of the Order had been very obvious. Although their clothing and language had matched those of the Kelani, the agents had not managed to fully blend in with the rest. Needless to say, the Kelani had only discussed their affairs when the agents were well out of earshot.

In spite of all considerations, the performance had Melset spellbound, though she disguised the fact with a sneering attitude. Primitives …. Our dances are highly stylized, with the slightest gesture determined by the sequence of the whole, but this? The young woman was fascinated by what she saw. Admittedly, it is beautiful. At the same time, she disguised her interest, lest it become too obvious.

"They must have taken over some of our own forms of dance and adapted them to their own cultural norms. They could never have developed anything like this on their own." She whispered to recruit Merat.

"Well possible. These people do have contact to Cardassians on Bajor, working for families in the enclaves." Merat replied.

"Not a good idea, to permit those primitives into the enclaves, even into Cardassian homes. Too much of a risk," whispered Melset. "They can plant bombs, leave openings unlocked…."

Kovar joined the conversation. "Definitely. Enough of our own people would willingly take over those menial tasks."

The group again fell silent.

The final presentation found the young Bajoran woman addressing the audience in strongly accented Cardassi to give a brief summary of the contents of the song she was to present.

A young, dark-skinned male sat down on the stage and began the introduction on a clavion before the woman Nabros and Keryl had admired began singing. The melody's pattern and tonality was unfamiliar to Cardassian ears, seemed to spiral, at times to disassociate itself from the beat, with long passages, a highly intricate sequence of phrases …. Melset listened, fascinated. This is hauntingly familiar. Years ago…. I heard something very much like this, slightly different beat, different language, . Yet, I think I could accompany her, parallel the melody at a lower pitch. She shook off the feeling and the thought, putting it down to the atmosphere of the presentation. They even imitate our art.

Afterwards, following Kovar, the group left the auditorium to walk around a little, joking and discussing plans for the next sortie before reporting to the troop transports when they arrived. The next days would be reserved for intensive revisions and exams. Melset and her comrades had already established groups which would meet for reviews.

The last exam over, six days of downtime followed. Most of the recruits who had family nearby went home. Melset left with the others; at the gate, she was picked up by a young male civilian she recognized as one of Tain's trainees.

"Ah, my cousin Iniki! I am visiting your parents so offered to meet you to take you home. Surely you still remember me? I'm Elim, your cousin three times removed," he explained cheerfully before embracing her affectionately, while quickly whispering, "You have been assigned quarters in the Order's facilities and will remain there during your exams to preclude any form of distraction or, conversely awkward questions." They exchanged glances.

Holding her at arm's length, Elim said, "My dear Iníki, you have changed, every bit the soldier!"

Simultaneously, Melset whispered her reply, "I am most grateful for this assistance. It would indeed raise some queries were I to openly go to the Order building on a regular basis."

He nodded and took up the thread of the first conversation. "I have brought you the History of Central Command – I heard you were trying to get it, unsuccessfully."

"That is so kind of you." Melset seemed overjoyed." We have not met in so long! How is everything in Vedrayan Town?"

Elim took her duffel to place it in the glider, then opened the door for her to get in. "I can already fill you in on some of the news on the way."

"Indeed. I would very much enjoy that!"

On their way, he informed her, "Three days of testing in Order quarters. The remaining days are yours to spend with your family."

Once they had reached Loo'Wess, Garak switched to automatic and deactivated the viewscreen. "Security measures, you will understand."

"Yes. There are always some who would consider trying to penetrate into headquarters."

"Rather hopeless, actually." Garak grinned, "…the last one who tried fell a victim to spontaneous dematerialization."

"Messy, no doubt."

"No, my dear Melset – he was vaporized."

"What did he want anyway? He could have expected something like that." Melset was intrigued.

"Would you believe he wanted to gain access to our files on citizens? The visual records ended just in front of the entrance to the central archives, the rest showed the blast."

With that, they arrived in one of the underground areas. Melset got out, then. preceded by Garak, walked to a lift. He remained silent, only speaking into the intercom. "Iniki Melset is with me."

A disembodied voice replied, "Section 34, level 8."

When the turbolift stopped, the door slid open to reveal a man in civilian clothing who was already waiting. "Recruit Melset, I am Lieutenant Paran, and am to accompany you to your quarters; I shall accompany you to and from quarters; only members of the Order are permitted to move around freely."

Garak left without another word, taking the turbolift to resume whatever duties were waiting for him.

The room assigned her was small, bare, windowless, only equipped with a bunk, a chair, a locker and a sonics area. Quickly, Melset looked around before unpacking and immediately taking out her data padds to continue her reviews.

An hour later, Paran returned. "It is time. The first session will take five hours. Federation Standard."

The exams were every bit as difficult as she had expected, conversing and listening, translating, en- and decoding, recognizing variations in tonality that could point to deception on part of the speaker…. finally writing a report in Standard on Federation tactics on the border with suggestions to counter the measures taken.

At the end, Paran accompanied Melset back, stopping on the way for a meal in the canteen; she covertly looked around the hall. The six tables in the area were occupied by at most one or two individuals who ate, then left wordlessly.

"We are in the educational section. Everyone has his or her own individual schedule, works independently, shares information with no one but his immediate superior, thus the mutual avoidance patterns you may have noticed. You never know whether your neighbour is not an observer trying to sound you out."

Melset nodded. It fascinated her yet left her uneasy at the same time. Any friendship or trust may be misused to the detriment of security. Thus no family ties, no intensive contacts. She briefly looked up to meet Paran's eyes.

He returned her glance evenly, then said. "If you have finished, we shall leave. In three hours you will have the next session."

To her surprise, even subjects linked to Academy training were demanded, so that, in all, the entire three days saw her sitting ten exams. After the last one, Melset felt thoroughly drained while following Paran to her quarters.

"You will be taken home in half an hour." With those words, Paran left.

It was Garak who did so.

"Next time, we will visit Uncle Tadryk too. He'll be back in Loo'Wess!" With a smile and a wave, as though she was a close relative, he took leave of her.

For some moments, Melset stood outside the door of the residence, then entered, quickly inputting the code to shut down the alarm.

Obviously, her family had been informed of her return. "Come on in Iniki – you have arrived in time to have dinner with us."

Melset quickly ran to her room which, to her pleasure, had been left as she remembered it. She rushed to change into civilian clothing, do her hair in Kelani style, then went down to join her parents and young brother.

Certainly, everything was unchanged yet, during the meal, she covertly looked around. This old routine seemed new, as was the quiet, the fact she was not surrounded by masses of other recruits, that she had her privacy. It was good to be home … Melset knew very well that this would become a rare luxury.

"I am due to rejoin the squadron tomorrow, but at least I had the chance to see you, Inìki," Gul Damar said as they went into the living area. "I take it the first phase has gone well?"

"It appears so; I have been admitted to officers' training, and in a few more weeks, we will report for shipboard duty."

Delhina watched her daughter carefully, noting the changes since she had left. Far more guarded and observant … speech patterns shifting…"And your dual studies?"

"Difficult, as I expected, but manageable. I have been granted the privilege of earning part of my tuition by means of administrative work."

Delhina inclined her head, "That is positive. You should hear within the next two days whether the arrangement remains as is."

For a moment, Melset's eyes widened slightly. I cannot possibly have failed in those tests! Of course, the privilege has to be considered by more than one person. She stated neutrally, "It would be positive as there is so much to be learned from those courses."

Melset looked over at her brother who was watching her, listening to every word, and smiled.

It was roughly nine months after the recruits had entered the Academy for basic training and shortly before they were to be assigned to cruisers with their team leaders that they were informed that Gul Shengir, the Gul First Order responsible for personnel and education, was coming to the Academy and its various branches in the course of his yearly tour of inspection. The news spread like wildfire among the students, in part making the rounds on the Academy grapevine even before the instructors themselves had been notified of the event.

"Gul Shengir is coming for his yearly inspection of the Academy." Recruit Eratran stated when he came into the dormitory.

The others had been busy studying or cleaning their gear, or were making use of the downtime for some relaxation. Those present now stopped whatever they were doing.

"Bet we are in for even more drills." Yadren said, "After all, we have to impress the Gul with our knowledge and our unity."

"Watch out – that is dangerous talk. Do you want to imply that you are not here for that very reason? That you do not believe our goals will be attained by means of our superior unity and knowledge?" Chavas commented warningly, his voice low, nearly threatening. He was deeply enjoying this attempt to scare his comrade.

Yadren became pale at realizing that what he had just said could be construed as treason. "No, by no means. It is only that we are already being subjected to an extremely demanding schedule. Even now, after the exams." He could not suppress a sigh. "How to keep up…."

"Well, some of us seem to be coping so well, they have even accepted supplementary duties to fill their time." The comment came from Merta.

Melset, who had turned away from her annex to listen ignored the veiled attack. "Don't tell me the schedule has been changed already!" she murmured to herself while quickly checking the information. At reading the details, she could not suppress a sigh. "Of course it has … Listen to this: Additional drills, mornings before taking the Pledge, evenings just before lights out …." Leaning back in her chair and closing her eyes, she added, "And that in addition to intensive training sessions in preparation for shipboard life."

"Don't tell me you're folding, Melset?" Danro laughed.

"No, not quite yet. I only know I have to manage, no matter what the cost. And I shall. Too much depends on it." She turned to her comrade. "Ah, you requested whether we could revise that chapter on strategy together. I have the time now, if you wish."

Embarrassed, Merat went over to her. She quickly glanced at her screen which now only displayed an exercise in strategy. Melset had quickly hidden the file she had been processing to prevent any kind of sabotage – a tacitly tolerated element of Academy life – she had encoded her data and subsequently stored it in various areas of the computer. Moreover, it was equipped with an entire battalion of subroutines that made it virtually impossible for anyone to ever find what she had stored, yet permitted her easy access as she had devised a series of short cuts.

With that, the conversation broke up as the group split up into small units seated around annexes, revising….

A week later, Gul Shengir arrived. A podium had been erected on which the instructors and the organizers of the Academy were seated; above them, according to protocol, Shengir with his staff.

The exercises took the entire morning, from marching in formation and executing complex manoeuvres to mock combat, to performances of military music and songs; each aspect of Academy life was displayed to advantage. The participants took pride in the parades and their own skills, knowing that various phases of this occasion were being transmitted to public viewscreens throughout Cardassia. The population was to be shown firsthand that their finest were being educated to ensure Cardassia's glory forever, willing to accept whatever hardships faced them, and always be proud of their heritage. At the end, the dignitaries rose while the students marched past, saluting, ranked according to status.

For half an hour, there was a break of sorts, during which the soldiers and officers in training were free to return to quarters. There was hardly any conversation in the dormitory. Derasi's team had cleaned up and were redressing in parade uniform.

Some three weeks before, Var Derasi had passed his examinations and was now Glinn first level, in charge of this group of recruits. He now came in with good news.

"We are to report to the mess hall within an hour." Glinn Derasi looked around. "Be prepared that one or the other of you might find himself addressed by Gul Shengir. Those with essential skills or exceptionally high marks are to be honoured by joining the brass at table." With anticipation he could not hide, he added, "And this is the real reward for your sustained efforts: first of all, the rations will be higher level – for all ranks. Second, you will be served at table – no chow lines; today all are getting the brass treatment."

He was pleased that his recruits and vars did not openly express their joy about the facts. Normally, rations were very simple as a matter of course – the military had to set an example of frugality, foregoing superfluous luxuries for the greater good of Cardassia. Of course, it was no secret that the upper echelons had access to the very best of everything, as did officers stationed on occupied worlds who had reliable sources and the option of pressuring the natives into ceding extras in exchange for some slight advantages over their fellows, but this was never mentioned aloud.

All personnel used the time won by hurrying to relax and discuss the remainder of the day. After the Gul's departure following the midday meal, their studies would resume as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

When they had joined the other platoons in front of the hall, they stood at attention while the upper echelons marched past. The lower ranks gazed at the guls and legates with a combination of covert envy and admiration – everyone hoped to be among their number at some point, to have the same privileges, status and power.

At a gesture, the others followed their respective Glinns to the areas assigned them before taking their seats. No standing in line for rations this time around … to be served was an unheard-of luxury the recruits, vars and glinns thoroughly enjoyed.

The servants' presence was barely acknowledged. These civilian employees were recruited from among the lower classes of the general population, trained in military protocol, and paid wages that sufficed to make them feel privileged in comparison to their fellows living in the slums on the outskirts of the city.

"Before we begin, Gul Vercor will select those who are to have the honour of being invited to join our guests."

Two Glinns quickly went through the rows and addressed the 'victims' as the others called them. To her shock, Melset found herself among their number. She rose, glancing at her comrades in discomfort. It is an honour, but why single me out for this? Joldek, and especially Ceklan would have been every bit as deserving …

She was assigned her place next to a male recruit second level she did not know. To her astonishment, the atmosphere was not coldly formal. In the course of the meal, Gul Shengir spoke to each of the students in turn, apparently was well informed about their work, their motivations, and their families.

"Recruit Melset, I have been told about your taking additional courses."

Her answer was matter-of-fact. "Gul Shengir, my desire is to serve Cardassia to the best of my abilities and I thus considered it advisable to acquire additional skills which may be useful at some point."

The Gul considered her for some moments, and saw the reddish highlights in her hair. "It would appear you are Kelani. An interesting heritage indeed."

Melset momentarily stared at her superior, at a total loss. Kelani were a minority like the Ubari, and, until the Lissepian attack had kept to themselves. Even today, it had the reputation of being relatively conservative, a fact that often provoked rather dubious jokes.

"We have very few of your ethnicity among our ranks; I can see by your reaction that my words may have served to disquiet you as they admittedly are personal; there is no reason for that. Those Kelani I have met so far are highly dedicated, excellent personnel. I know an active duty officer, Gul Damar; some years ago we fought side by side during a Klingon surprise attack." He briefly smiled. "In Central Command, we are all Cardassians, no matter what our heritage, all dedicated to one goal, to serve Cardassia." He fell silent, then commented, "Supplementary courses in addition to regular studies – quite a workload."

Her answer was a nod. "Yes, Gul Shengir."

In her variant of Cardassi, he finished the conversation with, "Keep up the good work. Your performance ratings are impressive." and indicated a salute.

Melset reciprocated in kind.

When the servants began clearing the tables, all of those present filed out and, once the platoons were assembled on the parade ground before being dismissed, Gul Shengir addressed them.

"It is with pride that I take leave of Loo'Wess Military Academy. It is obvious, as has been the case multiple times before, that the recruits educated here to serve Cardassia are destined to become true soldiers and officers of the Empire, furthering our goals, fighting for the greater glory of Cardassia. What I have seen shows me that each and every one of you possesses the indomitable will of true Cardassians, a strong, determined people with the will to make all necessary sacrifices, to work incessantly to ensure the common good. Our enemies may attack us, attempt to take what is rightfully ours, but we will prevail, force them into shameful retreat and finally emerge victorious as is our destiny in the Quadrant."

His adjutant came to his side, whispered urgently before giving him a padd which Gul Shengir read. "As I spoke, our brave troops and their leaders on the front between the Empire and the Federation liberated a system with inestimable resources which will improve conditions on Cardassia for millions. The news of this fortuitous event is, I think, a fitting moment to end this speech. To all members of Central Command present this day, I call: Serve with pride and dedication, now and always!"

As one, those present shouted "Talsvar Kardassu!" with deep fervour, lifting their phaser rifles in salute, their eyes shining with pride and joy, their faces reflecting their triumph.

The students and officers once again stood at attention as Gul Shengir walked to his glider and, turning to view the ranks one more time, got in and departed.

"At ease! Report to quarters. Courses to resume in two hours!" was the announcement via loudspeaker.

The ranks broke up into groups as the troops and students slowly walked over to the dormitory complex.

"Well, Melset, what was that?"

"What was what?" Melset glanced over at Suvion who was walking to the dormitories with her.

The Gul spoke to you."

"As he did to each one of the others at table as well. About our work, our plans. Nothing really relevant." She shrugged, "I have absolutely no idea according to which criteria we were chosen."

"I can imagine. Lights out, and you are still at your annex. Downtime? You're there again. Are you trying to break some record?" The male's voice hinted at derision. "And Glinn Temiz calls you in for administrative work. A proper little brown-noser, aren't you?"

She stopped in her tracks to face the other recruit. "Suvion, I did not ask to be called up, nor am I trying to get any advantage over anyone else by talking on supplementary courses or doing that extra work. The one is for Cardassia, the other for my family." Melset kept her voice level, disguising her irritation.

"Yes, and to ensure quicker promotions. To escape the rank-and-file as quickly as possible, no doubt." was his sneering rejoinder. "The Ferengi have a little saying: 'It is never too early to suck up to the boss.' Shengir could not keep his eyes off you."

"You are becoming offensive, Suvion." Her voice was sibilant.

"Seems we have a Kelani from the very backwaters of Cardassia Prime who wants to excel. Fine, Melset, put the others in their place who may otherwise think you are as primitive and superstitious as the rest of the population in Kelan Province."

There was no reply to Suvion's remark, only icy silence as they walked back to their quarters. Hardly had they entered the dormitory, however, than Suvion felt a heavy impact against his shoulder and legs that had him sprawled on the ground between the rows of bunks, wondering what had hit him. The eyes of the other recruits were fixed on him and Melset.

She stood at his feet, neck membranes spread, eyes narrowed. "Do you care to repeat what you said outside before witnesses, Sazechesi?" Her pronunciation of his group's name was contemptuous. "Or don't you dare now?"

He jumped to his feet wordlessly, seething with anger and, quickly, the others moved the bunks nearest the two to the side to make room for what promised to be an interesting conflict.

The fight was initiated silently and continued the same, the only sounds those of accelerated breathing, the thud of footsteps as the recruits circled, each one looking for an opening of which to take advantage.

With a yell, Suvion jumped forward and managed to trip Melset so that she landed flat on her back with a thud. For a moment she lay dazed before twisting sideways and, straightening her legs, knocked him off his feet with a violent kick.

The next moves were so rapid and involved that it was hard to follow; only muffled hisses or grunts betrayed that one of the two had managed to land a telling blow or had locked onto a neck membrane. At one point, the two recruits lay motionless in a tense clinch neither was willing to break lest the advantage be lost before Suvion arched his back, forcing Melset to let go. Fighting in full uniform was a challenge – the armour weighed a full sixteen pounds and restricted mobility.

The others were fascinated by the conflict … there were various moves that they definitely would ask to be taught as soon as the combatants had calmed down.

When Suvion dug his right hand in one of her neck membranes, Melset did not cry out with pain, only reached backwards to clench her hand so tightly into the muscles at the top of his shoulder that his grip relaxed, permitting her to squirm free.

Obviously the two were well-matched. Nevertheless, their comrades did not fire them on, preferring exact observation, only every now and then commenting on the methods used. It was always risky to cheer on one party – it could turn out to be the losing one.

To everyone's regret, Glinn Derasi entered before it was over and, with a string of curses pulled the combatants apart.

Melset and Suvion, breathing heavily, came to stand at attention, covertly inspecting each other and an assortment of bruises.

"I should put you on report for this! Regulations expressly prohibit brawling in the dormitories or elsewhere on Academy grounds. Too much energy, Melset and Suvion? You are invited to work it off by running the obstacle course in full gear. Report to me tomorrow immediately after the last of the morning sessions. In addition, you are to review the entire set of regulations on comportment within the confines of the Academy."

He again eyed the two recruits who were still exchanging angry glares. "I do not know what brought this on, nor does it interest me, so just go to the infirmary and have yourselves checked."

They did not move.

At seeing them hesitate, he yelled, "Out! On the double!"

Melset and Suvion exchanged glances.

It was Suvion who spoke first. "Together?" He was massaging his lower back.

"May as well – I think I pulled a tendon in that last manoeuvre." Melset stretched her left leg with a wince.

Glinn Derasi watched them leave the dormitory, supporting each other. In spite of his words, this sort of incident was common in the course of Academy life – conflicts were resolved quickly and decisively; fights were by no means condoned, but these skirmishes permitted the recruits to establish territory as it were, as well as ranking within their respective groups. It was rare for such conflicts to result in permanent enmity.

Under Derasi's watchful eyes, the other recruits, deprived of their entertainment, pushed the bunks back to their old position and took up whatever they had been doing as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

"Think he'll put us on report?" Her anger gone, Melset was slightly worried.

"No, but we have to do that obstacle course. Derasi definitely won't forget. Be sure that whole terrain will be far worse than usual." Suvion shook his head with genuine regret, "And we'll miss the second meal, too."

"Our rations were very generous today, enough to keep us going for two days." Melset shrugged and regretted it at once. "Whenever you want a supplementary go at the course, you know what to do. Great practice for a real time battle."

"Not a chance."

When they entered Medic Essak's office, he gave the recruits one glance and inquired, "What happened?"

"Bunk collapsed under me; I fell against the wall." Suvion stated by way of explanation.

Melset followed with her report. "Tried to reach Suvion and tripped over one of its legs – someone had also left his gear lying around."

The medic did not reply, only entered the explanations with a sigh of resignation before treating the recruits' injuries. He got that kind of obvious lies all the time. Strange how many bunks collapse or people fall down slippery stairs, or doors have seconds-long breakdowns, only to work perfectly when the maintenance crew comes to effect repairs, , .…. and how the accidents inevitably involve two people.

After treatment, and on their way back to quarters, no apology was given, none expected. Upon entering the dormitory, Melset and Suvion reviewed their files as though nothing had happened.

"Troops under Var Kovar, assigned to the Khevra under Gul Prenar. Report to Beamup Station A at 5 hours tomorrow."

The day had come; only the night before, the recruits had received their marching orders and had packed, ready for departure. Even though there was still a day left, the dormitory was devoid of anything showing it had ever been occupied.

Finally. Suppressing excitement and apprehension the recruits quickly prepared their equipment. This would be everyone's first test in real-time combat and those who passed it promoted to Var first level, the first step in the hierarchy of command. Those destined to be simple troops had already been weeded out in the academic testing.

Glinn Nabor had been given command of Glinn Derasi's group as the latter had been selected to be an instructor for a year.

The platoons under Glinns Meras and Deyon beamed up before the others and at arrival were assigned their quarters; twelve personnel shared a room, the usual arrangement, the same conditions as at the academy. Cardassian cruisers were no-frills affairs, stark, functional, with nothing beyond the barest necessities.

"Personnel under the command of Glinns Meras, Nabor, Avol, Report to Cargo Bay 2 for briefing."

The cargo bay was soon filled with personnel waiting quietly for the briefing to begin. Melset glanced around – apart from the recruits and vars in her company, she knew no one else.

"Situation: System 489 is to be protected from Federation incursion. The enemy has been engaged. We shall beam directly into a combat zone. You have been informed on procedure. Necessary equipment will be distributed among the vars before beamdown."

"The situation is the following: Forces on the main planet of System 489 have been exchanging hostilities with Federation combatants during the past two weeks. Both sides have incurred severe losses. In essence, it is a stalemate with few possibilities for sorties. The only way the battle can be decided is by manpower alone." Glinn Meras looked around, meeting the eyes of those present. "We are that manpower."

"You shall be beamed into an active battle zone and report to your troop leaders who will take you to the designated areas. If you are cut off from you platoon, join the one nearest you. Remember: leave behind no one, whether dead or alive. Vaporize casualties after removal of data chips and equipment."

Glinn Avol added, "That is all you need to know. I order you to remember and act in accordance with the Pledge you have taken." He snapped to attention, shouting: "Talsvar Kardassu!" The call was taken up by all those present.

"Battalions under Glinns Gadren, Meras, Deyon, Ankas, Nabor, report to Tranporter Area 5."

Almost before the end of the sentence, Melset and her comrades were racing through the corridors, no longer feeling the weight of their equipment, stimulated as they were by the rush of adrenaline.

This will be your true test of determination and dedication. Remember – you are Cardassians, destined to rule the Quadrant! She recalled the words of the Glinn 3rd level who had informed them on the strategy established. With my life's blood, to my last breath, I pledge to fight for Cardassia! ….. this had been call taken up by everyone.

A quick glance around when they had assembled for beamdown revealed that everyone had the same thought and desperately wanted to prove himself worthy of the name "Cardassian," in spite of a certain amount of fear and apprehension now that the time had come.

"This is it, then," murmured Ceklan, who was standing next to her.

Melset nodded. "No simulation this time…"

"At least we know what to expect." His voice was strangely hesitant.

"As far as is possible, indeed." Melset inclined her head very slightly. She was aware that Ceklan was disguising the fact he had faced combat many times before as a simple troop, but had so far kept the fact a secret. Melset turned slightly, met his glance. Your secret is safe with me.

"Proceed to transporter pads."

The recruits and their troop leader positioned themselves so that they would materialize ready to enter combat on the spot if necessary.

Within moments, the transporter effect dissolved their shipboard surroundings into a shimmer that was replaced by the contested area.

Melset felt her breath catch at seeing the scenes around her, at hearing the sounds of pitched battle. They had materialized in a hellhole of smoke, detonations, phaser fire, loud commands, screams. Under her feet, the ground vibrated with shock waves. Momentarily disoriented, Melset raised her eyes to look around. In the distance, a smoky haze hid installations from view, nearly concealed enemy fortifications. She took a deep breath to calm herself only to regret it at once: the smell was overpowering, unidentifiable, sent a shudder through her body. Her pulse began to race wildly as she leaned against the wall of the trench.

"Don't stand there like a statue on the Avenue of Heroes! First time, recruit? Don't think – function. Kill those bastards out there! Kill without mercy!" The shouted order came from a var next to her. "We have to decide the battle here and now."

In a reflexive action, Melset wordlessly took position and began firing automatically, reacting to every movement from the other side. Her neighbour, another recruit, addressed her during a brief lull. He was injured, could barely use his left arm, but kept on firing. "Welcome to the battle, comrade. We've lost half our troops over the past week. Time reinforcements came."

With a shrill whine, phaser fire erupted from all quarters; the Cardassians ducked and were forced to stay under cover, cursing, before they decided the only thing that could be done for the moment was to wait. Even this time was not wasted: troops along with their commanders took it in turns to make use of this short period to insert fresh energy packs, check weapons or tend to minor injuries. When she saw her neighbour try to treat his injury, she immediately went to his side.

"Looks bad. You should beam up, comrade." she murmured, inspecting his wound.

"No time – not enough manpower down here. Just seal the skin, rewrap the bandage – that'll keep me going until beamup." He winced with pain while she worked, but made no sound.

"There, I hope this will be enough." She made a provisional sling out of a length of cloth that she had found lying in the trench. "Not the cleanest, I fear."

"Who cares? At any rate I'm no longer losing blood. Thanks." He settled back and closed his eyes, cradling his phaser rifle.

Melset finally had time to gaze over towards where the trench made a bend and closed her eyes briefly against the sight. Shreds of uniform and bodies – not Cardassian ones - littered the ground. That is where the material for the sling came from.

One of the men leaning against the wall facing her saw her shock and stated quietly, "These are enemies, Recruit. They leave their dead behind and return for them later if they can."

"But that makes no sense…."

"It does, to us." He grinned. "You can get equipment, rations."

Melset did not reply. That she understood perfectly well. Cardassians learned from childhood on up to let nothing go to waste.

His neighbour added, looking at the recruits. "Remember, one of our people is killed, take his identity chip and vaporize him. Same for those with mortal injuries. Leave no bodies behind. The chips are given the var in command who passes them on to the Glinn. That has to be an automatic reaction, recruits." The distant expression in his eyes along with the evenness of his voice showed that his calm was feigned.

There was no answer ... This detail had been impressed on them repeatedly by Glinns Turek and Derasi.

"There …" He indicated a patch of dark material and blackened ground, "… is what remains of one of my comrades. Phaser charge ripped him open …." He fell silent again as leaned his head back, staring up into the sky to hide his pain at the loss of his friend.

Melset looked around … there were many such patches, and, for a moment, she felt a slight surge of panic. Will we make it out of here alive?

The male who had spoken reached over to touch her arm. "Never forget, recruit – forge all your anger and sorrow into one single feeling – hatred for our enemies and the will to fight to the last. It has to be instinctive." The troop looked at the first-timers nearby in turn. "You will learn quickly enough."

She nodded mutely.

Loud curses from beyond the bend made everyone present gaze upwards apprehensively. "Fire bombs! Move out of range at once!"

"No!" Melset and the others nearly screamed with terror as a charge impacted just beyond the area towards which they were running. She felt the vibration of the explosion, then heard the roar of the detonation; its violence nearly threw her to the ground, and, together with the others, she covered her head as pieces of debris rained down around and onto her. When it was over, she lifted her head and felt sickened at looking at her fellow combatants. They were all coated in mud mixed with shreds of flesh. Everywhere around her, there was a muted clatter of gear as the combatants quickly assembled in a crowd.

The Cardassians exchanged glances, trying to disguise their apprehension at seeing the flames rapidly approaching their group; step by step, forcing each other back, the troops began to retreat from the fire.

There's no way out! We'll be incinerated where we stand! She looked around, eyes wide with fear.

"Get through to the trench to the west. Section abandoned two days ago." At the call of the commanding Glinn the troops automatically followed the collective movement of the crowd that had joined them.

Breathing unevenly with fright and exertion, the recruits and vars streamed back only to find themselves facing another wall of flame.

"Trying to eliminate us this way." The muttered words came from Var Kovar who was walking abreast of her. "And the Federation accuses us of atrocities."

"Whatever helps win a conflict," Melset replied. "Ethics ensure defeat."

The reply was a nod and a sarcastic laugh.

They found themselves facing a var – his face was smeared with soot and mud, his eyes blank as he met those of the troops arriving where he stood, at the junction of two trenches.

"Glinn Deyon." The var said, his voice toneless. Staring at the flames and a scrap of armour at the edge of the fire, Var Ressan held up his clenched fist and slid the data chips he held under his armour.

"He has not died in vain, Var Ressan. Each death will be repaid." replied Kovar.

For some moments those around him froze apprehensively at haring a new sound, a series of low, muffled explosions, then mutely looked up to watch the wall of debris that drifted closer and closer to combine with black, choking clouds that were billowing upwards and towards them, descending like fog ….

"We have to get away. Last time we saw this kind of thing, there was gas in the clouds …. Some of us died hours later, suffocated. The medical officer's report stated that their lungs had been burned. I thought the Federation did not condone this kind of warfare ….." Glinn Meras hissed, enraged.

Ressan muttered, "Only if used by others – but they do it to us without scruples."

He had hardly finished the sentence than there was a detonation nearby, followed by a fleshy impact. One of the soldiers next to Ressan collapsed in his tracks, his skull fractured by a piece of casing.

The recruit next to him gave a muted exclamation of dismay and bent over the man, shook his head; quickly, he reached for the data chip at the casualty's belt, stared at it for a moment before handing it to Ressan who, with a murmur of "Talsvaar Kardassu," aimed at and vaporized the troop.

The man had still showed signs of life, so that Melset uttered a suppressed cry and stretched out a hand in a gesture of protest.

The var who had heard her exclamation said, "Would have died anyway, recruit. Mortal injury. You will be called on to do this yourself, or even have it done for you, perhaps even today." He turned to Melset, "Get used to it or ship out." His last words were a yell of pure anger in response to the shock he saw reflected in the young recruit's eyes.

Melset, pulled out of her paralysis, felt her trembling subside, her breath become regular. "No." She met his eyes evenly. "It was … only unexpected."

Brushing past her the var quickly clasped her shoulder. "It is never easy, especially when there are still signs of life, but the Federation must obtain no bodies for analysis. We leave no one behind – ever."

Everyone knew what was meant…

In the meantime, more fighters had arrived and were now crowded in the thirty metres that were still relatively safe.

Glinn Ankas made his way forward to Var Ressan and ordered, "Do not leave trench. Most of my men have been eliminated; this fire sticks to your clothing, your skin, until it has burnt its way through …. We must get out of the way."

Without waiting for further orders, Ressan pointed at the face of the trench. "Fire here at every detonation from the other side."

"That parallel trench is secure?"

"Yes. I was in it just moments ago. No gas, no booby traps."

Within ten minutes the troops had broken through to the other length of trench and at once crawled through the tunnel, one after the other. The first to reach the other side suddenly yelled and fired his phaser.

"Hold fire, you idiot! Do you want to have those forces on our tails?" Nabor yelled, enraged.

In silence, the remaining Cardassians squirmed through the tunnel.

Melset, upon emerging, found herself facing the mutilated corpses of both off-worlders and her own people.

"Move your butt, dammit!" The var behind prodded her with his phaser. "Do you want us all incinerated?"

Melset realized she had frozen and, suppressing irritation at herself, slipped out of the tunnel to race after the others, doubled up to avoid being seen, jumping over the bodies of comrades and enemies as though they were inanimate obstacles. A hundred metres further, the troops assembled once again.

"You, Ceklan, Melset, Eratran, Devor, Chavas, go back and recuperate energy packs, rations, gear, identification chips, whatever is of use. Vaporize our dead if possible, the others if you have time to spare."

The group of glans exchanged glances. Testing us

Cautiously, they moved out. The scene that met their eyes was horrific by any standards, dismembered bodies, a stench defying description, mud mixed with blood and filth of all provenance …. The holosimulations had given but a hint of what they were now encountering in real time.

"Let's get going." Chavas took over the group, determined to see it through.

"Wait! Take this!" Melset jumped over a body to grab and hold up a compact bundle. "Those capes will come in useful. I have seen this protective clothing before; a neighbour had been given one by a friend in the military. Try and find more, if possible! It is still wrapped, so uncontaminated."

Suppressing the same nausea and revulsion she could see the others felt, Melset worked side by side with Chavas. She had never seen anything even remotely like this, but proceeded systematically from casualty to casualty, concentrating on obtaining power packs, weapons and protective gear. The "inevitable exploding Glinn" as the sequence in the Holosuite was called, was nothing in comparison to these very real results of combat.

She stumbled over a mud-covered leg. At seeing the obstacle up close, she thought distractedly, Blue … must have been a Bolian…. Wanting to push herself to her knees to move on, she felt her hands descend even further through the slippery mass she had thought was a heap of wet earth lying on Cardassian armour and barely choked back a scream of pure horror – she had fallen into the viscera of some troop or another, perhaps the owner of the leg. Convulsively, she gasped, feeling sick to her stomach, rubbed her hands against the muddy wall of the trench, then on her uniform trousers in a frantic effort to clean herself.

Ignoring her reaction, recruit Ceklan held out a hand to help her up. "The uniform pouch must be underneath … that." The young male, as she, was carrying a load of liberated phaser rifles, gear and energy packs as well as rations, and gestured at his haul. He lifted the edge of the armour, making a sound of disgust as the tissue slid onto the ground.

Melset nodded and, trying not to look too closely, quickly took out the identification chips; she gazed at them for some moments. Must have been a recruit or a glinn – 10 chips ….Lost nearly all his troops and finally his own life. A quick glance at the armour corroborated her idea.

"We'll eat well!" Ceklan laughed briefly, showing a bulging pouch slung over his shoulder.

"Indeed. And we can fight longer, too. I have quite a few Federation phasers and power packs!" Melset showed her own haul, smiling with an effort, disguising how she really felt. How can he even speak of eating?! Quickly, she controlled a sudden urge to run away, to hide, somewhere far away from the scenes, the smells, the bodies …. It is only so bad the first time ….

The other recognized what she felt. "We're alive – forget this; I, for one, plan to have a good meal off those rations and even better use of those weapons! You do realize their specific sound is camouflage of sorts? Who expects us to have Federation weapons?" Ceklan met her eyes, "I have seen it work more than once."

Chavas rejoined them and now shoved an energy pack each into his comrades' hands. "Let's vaporize these bodies. Each last one of them. Federation ones are as good at spreading illnesses as ours …."

Wordlessly, they began the task.

Some time later, from a short distance away, they heard the firing resume, far heavier this time.

"Better get back. Fast!"

They reached the main body where they collapsed to their knees, gasping for breath and at once began unloading their haul, arranging it in piles. The protective capes they laid to the side after putting on those that, according to finder's rights, belonged to them.

They looked at each other and, after putting them on, Chavas, Melset and Ceklan briefly laughed at realizing that, when wearing the hooded capes they did not appear that much different to Federation troops. Quickly, they clipped the redistributed equipment Glinn Ankas handed over to them onto their belts.

"Good camouflage." The Glinn quickly tossed the other bundles to those closest to him. "Most of the others also have Federation weapons and some of those capes. I suggest we use those weapons for the most part."

Glinn Ankas' communicator activated. They could not hear the incoming orders as the sounds of battle had picked up again and were drawing closer with every second.

He relayed the command. "Retake Section 12!"

There was a collective start as the troops stared at him, wondering whether they had misunderstood him.

"You heard the gul." The phrase was drawled but sibilant.

Was his tone resentful? Melset hardly dared think of that possibility. Everyone was doing his part.

Wordlessly, they moved back to their previous position; in the meantime the fire had gone out and when Glinn Ankas cautiously looked over the lip of the trench, he saw Federation troops cautiously advancing, scouting the trenches they passed and the area itself.

"Not many," Glinn Ankas said as if to himself, keeping his ear pressed to his commband. "All in position. Hold fire until order."

Melset and her comrades leaned back against the wall of the trench, holding their rifles at the ready.

It is becoming dark. How long have we been here anyway?

"Wish they came. I hate this waiting." Bevrak muttered to himself.

"Trying to get us so edgy that we'll begin firing before they are close enough, find out where we are and begin hammering at us with all they've got," was the irritable reply from recruit Eratran.

It had begun drizzling in a haze that moved with each breeze, the temperature had dropped, too. Troops and officers waited – the conditions were only another unpleasantness to bear.

Silence … it seemed the silence was a malevolent entity of its own, pressing in upon them unbearably, suffocatingly. Melset heard her heart beat, heard the breathing of her neighbours, someone clear his throat further down the trench, the rasping of a phaser rifle against armour ….

Night set in. Suddenly, a deafening explosion made the night become brighter than day, blinding the Cardassians. They remained where they were, motionless, even though their nerves were strained to the breaking point. Those who had taken the opportunity of dozing now risked looking over the edge of the trench. Again – an explosion and a flash.

"See anything?"

"Nothing, no one."

"And in the trench?"

"Cover me." Melset volunteered and rapidly crawled to the bend, rounded it, went on cautiously, listening, making use of the total dark. This cannot be - they have to be somewhere …. Grabbing a handful of the pebbles she felt under her hands, she rose to her knees to throw them so that they landed outside.

A burst of light followed, not from an explosion this time, but from a hand-held light. The area it lit to the back was negligible, but sufficed to reveal a body of Federation troops silently approaching the area where the Cardassians were ensconced.

Without a second thought, she ran back, and whispered to the Glinn, "Glinn Ankas – massed troops ahead, in trench and on either side. Large battalion. Moving towards us. Need reinforcements."

He gave her a warning glance and spoke into his commband. "Glinn Deyon, Meras, Section 12 – Federation movement in our direction …."

A barely perceptible nod to Melset who had rejoined the others, and was now waiting, back pressed against the wall of the trench, trying to control her breathing, slow down her pulse. Tension followed by panic rose unbearably, like a wave that threatened to overwhelm her. Melset swallowed against the tightness in her throat and looked up, eyes wide.

Just at the edge of vision, the Glinn in command made some subtle gestures – Enemy approaching. Hold fire until contact imminent.

All now depended on being as silent as possible.

There was a scraping just above them followed by the humming of a scanner. The Cardassians still waited for some moments, but at hearing speech and the sound of boots in the trench, all simultaneously released the safety catches of their phaser rifles.

Within a split second all hell seemed to break loose. Melset and her comrades opened fire at the forces that had appeared and were coming at them firing in rapid bursts; sheltered in part by a rock that was embedded in the wall, Melset shot upwards, heard a choked cry, and the thud of a body hitting the ground.

"All around us!" her neighbour, Glan Keilor whispered.

There was a piercing whine, a slight hissing … She saw him sag forward soundlessly, pierced by a phaser beam; anger immediately supplanted the shock and sorrow she felt. Keilor, I will see to it that as many of the enemy accompany you as possible. Quickly, she guided his fall so that his body would offer her shelter and, from behind it, fired without missing a beat. During a brief pause, she detached his identity chip to slip it into her own uniform.

Everything had become like a dream, a nightmare – responses were automatic, perception seemed heightened, reflexes quicker, all senses more acute …. A detonation in front of Melset threw up a mass of mud and debris which hit her full force, blinding her for some moments; eyes watering, she shook her head in an effort to blink away the thick coat of filth while rapidly crawling backwards and firing randomly, then brushed it away with her arm. Her vision blurred again and at passing a hand over her face she realized she was injured: it came away covered with blood. At closer examination she noticed lacerations to her forehead and right cheek. For a moment, she felt panic. Where are the others? What if I am taken captive? She resumed firing at random in an attempt to hold back the attackers, felt her comrades around her do the same.

Her commband activated.

"Retreat – move back, tunnel. Regroup."

As quickly as she could, firing continuously to cover her retreat, Melset moved backwards down the trench, taking the direction of the others. A troop held out a hand, touched her arm to guide her when she did not respond.

"You look like you've been in a fight, recruit. Come. This way."

"Of course I was in a fight. This is a battle, isn't it?" She was enraged at having been hit.

A low, amused chuckle was the troop's reply to her reaction. "Careful now. Here's the entrance. Keep your head down."

A nod of gratitude was Melset's reply before she rapidly made her way to the other side.

Another, louder whine of Federation fire.

An unfamiliar voice shouted from the trench they had just abandoned, "There it is – quick, move on and collapse the tunnel once the last of you is through!"

Within bare moments, it seemed, the last survivors had reached the other side and now dropped in their tracks, struggling to regain their breath before assessing injuries and making a head count.

"Let me have a look at you, recruit. I'm a medic." The male addressing her was obviously an Ubari Province Cardassian. "Lie back. First battle?"

"Yes." Melset could not void wincing with pain as the medic wiped the dirt and blood from her face.

His assessment was brief, "Not as bad as it looks. Only superficial lacerations – be done in a few minutes."

"There are others who are more severely injured than just this. Tend to them first please," Melset urged, remembering the condition of some comrades she had seen lying nearby. She had automatically settled a little to the side, to show she was giving them absolute precedence.

The male stated quietly, "They have been beamed up already."

Apprehensively, Melset stared at him, then whispered, her throat tightening unbearably, "No, not vaporized! Not like …. he was still alive!" She began weeping. "We've lost so many already …."

The medic gripped her shoulders to shake her roughly, shouting, "Snap out of it!" He watched her for some moments and, seeing she was calm again, added, "Settle back. The battle is over for an hour or two. When I'm done with you, you can enjoy some rations and relax, perhaps even grab some shuteye."

Melset closed her eyes and let him tend to her injuries.

Within some minutes, he nodded at her. "Done." As an afterthought, he added, "All of you first-timers have done well. Heard it from the Vars and Glinns back there." Before he went to the next casualty, he added with a smirk, "You maggots are doing fine."

"Thanks, medic." Disguising the stiffness left by the tension, Melset got to her feet and went to join her comrades.

"Glinn Turek would go ballistic if we passed parade review now." Chavas stated, widening his eyes in mock rage.

There was muted laughter from the entire group as they took in each other's appearance: blood and dirt coated their uniforms, their hair was matted with the same mess. Suddenly, they realized that they were famished and dug out their ration packs to eat in silence, at times trading some of those they had liberated from fallen Federation troops.

"Funny how, for all their love of luxury, their field rations are not much better than ours."

A grunt of agreement came from one of the troops, "More generous, though. With what we've scrounged, we could keep going for three, four weeks."

"Wonder how long we'll be here." A var voiced the question all of them had.

"Don't know," A recruit who had introduced himself as Yildim called out to his comrades a bit further on. "Anyone know how the battle's going?"

It was a var who answered. "Good so far. If the Feds don't get reinforcements before ours arrive, the system will be ours. Grapevine has it that they're off all but this outer planet."

After eating, all personnel saw to some basic maintenance work on their equipment, then, always a few at a time, dozed or even slept. It had begun raining slightly, which lowered the temperature even more, so that the Cardassians were anything but comfortable. Those who had found protective capes in the trenches huddled underneath them together with one or two others to share the warmth.

Five hours later, there was a triumphant shout from further away – a Cardassian voice; the call of "Talsvar Kardassu" was taken up by the others.

""Reinforcements have come in – the Federation cruisers have been beaten into retreat – no prisoners for us this time. They beamed their personnel up in a clandestine operation."

Smiling grimly, the vars and glinns in command assembled their troops and, one by one, were beamed up to their respective cruisers.

This cargo bay must be the most beautiful place I have ever seen! Melset looked around, still not daring to believe that they were really back on board, that the battle was over. It seemed her comrades were just as disoriented. There are quite a few missing.

When the returnees left the transporter bay, medical assistants scanned them, beaming all injured to one of the ship's three sickbays in groups of twenty.

Upon materializing, they were met by more staff. A glinn ordered, "Into sonics area – dispose of all clothing in cleansing unit, proceed to sonic showers, put on medical gown, line up for examination."

The females in the group, two besides Melset, exchanged glances before undoing their hair and racing to the sonics together with the males, anxious to cleanse the filth off their bodies.

"Finally – to be able to get that muck off …" called out Nerak, luxuriating in the pulse of the sonic waves.

"You can say that again," came the reply from one of the males.

Chavas was first out, slipped on one of the gowns and looked down at himself. "Exactly the latest fashion in Loo'Wess."

Melset, Avel and Nerak wore their hair in one braid when they came out to dress as well.

"Not regulation!" called Nabros, "Two rounds on the obstacle course!"

"You can only wish," retorted Avel. "You think this is?" she pointed at the short gown. This, on the bridge?"

"Would show totally new aspects of personnel," Ceklan commented innocently.

"All right, cut it out and enter," A young medic had opened the door and now waved the first five in.

"Routine broad spectrum antibiotic, immunization against on-world pathogens," he explained as he applied the hypospray to each personnel in turn as they passed through the door.

The personnel went over to the junior medical officers who scanned them for injuries. The severe cases had been beamed directly into the operation rooms.

"You stay, Melset." Medic Therac indicated a biobed. "Medical officer due in a moment."

She looked over at her neighbour who gave her a grin of recognition.

"Ah, you again. You guided me out of that trench."

He grinned, "Fine job you did, firing blindly – took out some more Feds."

"Didn't notice. All I thought of was to get out intact with the others, recruit …." Melset hesitated.

"Kaidal," he gave his name. "Didn't we all."

They were soon joined by three others.

Medical Officer Goran entered with an assistant to check the combatants. Var Kaidal found himself beamed into the operating area, whereas Melset and the others realized they had come off lightly.

"Hairline fracture of tibia, superficial lacerations … seen to already, some bruising, a cracked rib…." He handed his assistant two bone regenerators before quickly addressing Melset. "Otherwise fine. Off-duty for three days. No combat training for eight. Gul Previn will be notified accordingly. In two hours return to quarters."

Treatment had hardly begun than she fell asleep only to be roused within second, or so it seemed.

"Recruit, you can return to quarters."

He watched her as she sat up, then walked a few steps. "Good, all right. Go into the cubicle – there's a leisure uniform."

She nodded and went in then left, walking slowly through the corridors until she reached the dormitory.

"Look at this," called out Eratran as soon as she came in.

"At what?" she called back.

"You won't believe it, but we already have clean uniforms and armour."

"The way the lot looked and smelled, even a vole could not have stood being in the same room with 'em." Chavas commented from his area. "I can tell you, the sonic shower felt good!"

Nabor commented, "I swear that smell is still with me."

"Not only with you." Melset opened her hair to comb it, then entered the sonics, "It'll take hours to get the stench of that filth off my own body," she complained from the cubicle, "… and my hair – be good to appear according to regulations."

"That stench always seems to stick with you. I smelled nothing," Nabros called over.

There was suppressed amusement from the neighbouring cubicle. "I daresay there is no more mud in those trenches – it is on the cruisers now …. It was on us."

Ceklan was already at his locker when she came out and dressed in uniform again. "We wondered who else was missing. Two of our group did not make it."

Merat quickly looked around. "Andros and Keryl," she whispered the names, then, enraged, struck her bunk a resounding blow.

"We made them pay, Merat, and they will continue paying." Nerak said in a dangerously calm intonation.

For some moments, the people in the room fell silent.

There was a tentative knock at the door.

"Come on in!"

A few recruits stationed on the Khevra had come to join the others to discuss procedures. One, who introduced himself as Yarro, said, "You'll be debriefed within the next hour or so. Standard procedure." He lowered his voice, "Your descriptions of combat and strategy will be evaluated."

"A debriefing … All we saw was phaser fire, bodies – or shreds of them …" was Nabros' comment.

"And your reports will demonstrate whether you also recognized the decisive factors in that battle," added Ceklan. "You were sent in with a purpose – as fighters, certainly, but this was another test of your abilities. The real-time Exploding Glinn."

Nabor met the speaker's eyes, "It could well be that we'll get our performance ratings."

"You noticed? There was always a var or a glinn nearby, watching in spite of the battle." Sekor explained. "Whatever we did, we were observed," he added with annoyance.

"I daresay very little remained unobserved," Melset stated. "And I mean very little. "Hopefully my reaction at seeing that mortally wounded comrade vaporized will not count against me. She suppressed the scene that appeared before her eyes, every bit as vivid as the real occurrence had been.

Yarro lowered his voice, "You will also be called on to serve on the bridge. I have seen the duty roster." The gul said that "… it will be interesting to see what quality of people we are getting now." His voice was resentful as he stated, "He implied that recruiters are scraping the bottom of the barrel or even tipping it over to see what is underneath."

The next day Melset, Nabor and Chavas were assigned to Glinns at weapons, communications and sciences respectively to be shown procedures. Gul Prenar hardly acknowledged them – there were recruits like that every half year, too many for him to bother learning their names. Only some days before, he had commented to the commander of the Geron, "These people are sand in the works; all theory and little practice, in spite of what they learn at the Academy; you train them, six months later they are off again. You can only hope that they don't screw up while on board."

Melset looked around the bridge. Finally. She was glad that she had studied the rods given her by her father as the stations looked familiar. Still, she would be on real-time duty as of the next day.

The Glinn indicated she sit down at the annex to weapons, and showed her the adjustments to be made under various conditions. Within minutes, Melset was absorbed by the details….

Across the bridge, Chavas and Nabor were also being shown procedures. The next day they would be expected to work on their own, only supervised from time to time by the Glinn whose station it was. The young militaries were ready to serve …

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