Because of the rapid expansion of the fleet to counter the escalation of conflicts along the Federation-Cardassian border, promotions were rapid; Melset, together with a number of others, was promoted to Gul Ninth Order after having served only two years as Glinn of the Third Order. To her joy, she was immediately assigned a cruiser of her own, the Orissà, within six months instead of serving on someone else's for the period of time required prior to promotion to Eighth Order as normally was custom. She had returned to Cardassia Prime for a period of four months during which she had taken intensive training and courses followed by rigorous testing so that the provisional promotion had been formalized.

It was but one year after taking over command of her cruiser - the crew had adjusted quickly enough to her style which was unfailingly calm and restrained, but, if she was provoked, could switch over immediately to viciously, even brutally aggressive. They had remarked within a short period that Melset's methods were unpredictable, different at each encounter.

The leader of the fleet in which she was serving was Gul Parn, a division commander who had made a name for himself in devising strategies which had proven highly effective against enemy forces. From him she had learned to make use of the slightest anomaly in space to conceal a ship or even a fleet to make attacks even more devastating and demoralizing for opponents.

"Division – lay in course for Surya'Nor – establish duty rosters for layover, shifts R&R. ETA, 5 C-standard days." All of the bridge crews expectantly looked at Gul Parn who appeared on the screen as he added, "Central Command wishes to commend us for successful completion of the current mission. All of the Guls in the division have been accorded one shift off-duty. They can accord their crews the same privilege at their discretion."

Melset heard suppressed, excited comments from the vars and glinns on duty and barely kept from smiling in anticipation. Usually Guls were always considered on call, thus downtime constituted an inestimable luxury. It is one of the newer stations close to the border; so it should provide everything my crew enjoys – and I.

At the end of her shift, she left the bridge; at passing two personnel who were just coming on duty, she did not reprimand the officers at hearing them discussing plans for recreation rather than duties. Everyone was looking forward to what the Promenade and gaming areas had to offer, especially as Cardassian cruisers were never equipped with any form of entertainment facilities, Central Command considering such elements a risk for combat readiness.

Glinn Arik reported to her ready room within barely an hour. "Gul Melset, Shifts for downtime and onboard duty have been established. A skeleton crew should suffice." He handed her the padd.

The gul briefly scanned the information and nodded. "I see you have included yourself for onboard duty first shift."

"Indeed. As it is to me to determine the schedules of the others, they should see that I also have my chance of downtime, but no priority over them," her officer explained. "It is better for morale, especially after the past conflicts."

Melset nodded her approval. "Glinn Arik, may I call your attention to the fact that I do not wish to see you around here anymore afterwards. Unless… wait just a minute." she quickly input a code. "There. You can speak to your wife from your quarters. I take it Elessa Farun has given you your first child?"

The Glinn inclined his head. "A daughter. We have chosen the name Ilema."

"Then congratulations are in order. Before going on duty, by all means contact your home. This occasion is special."

Glinn Arik was astonished at this privilege and only said, "This is most kind, Gul Melset," saluted, and left to obey the order.

Pensively, she watched him quickly walk along the corridor before the door slid shut. Melset closed down the communit then rose to leave as well. As soon as Devrin has been promoted, it will be my turn. She touched her right wrist – under the sleeve, she was wearing the bracelet Kovar had given her, and knew that he, too, was wearing an exact copy in accordance with Kelani custom. For a moment, she found herself wishing that she could spend her downtime in his company as she had before receiving command of the Orissà.

She was pleased and surprised at the privilege of being assigned some hours of downtime and, after seeing to some last details of organization, went to the transporter bay. As soon as she had materialized on the station her communicator activated.

"Gul Melset here?"

"This is Gul Parn, report immediately to Gul Sadren's office. Parn out."

"On my way. Melset out." She wondered about being called to the office of the Gul commanding the station; for the most part, such an order meant that some kind of disciplinary action was waiting for the one concerned. I cannot recall any dereliction of duty. Well, I shall learn what is wrong soon enough.

She entered to see that her commanding officer was already there. "Gul Sadren, this is Gul Melset." Parn gave her a nod of acknowledgement, his glance friendly.

Sadren inclined his head in greeting. "We have been discussing you, Gul Melset."

No, doesn't seem like there is any trouble in store... Her initial apprehension was only normal, especially as it was very easy to run afoul of the numerous regulations. In spite of the rigour of her command style, and intolerance of the slightest sign of insubordination, she often bent some of the more obscure rules for the sake of efficiency; under circumstances this could be grounds for at least a reprimand. Whatever the reaction depended on her own commander's principles, but especially on the success of the mission at hand. She stood at attention, waiting.

"At ease, Gul Melset," the station commander stated with the barest hint of a smile. "Gul Parn has given me a detailed description of your command methods, your including some select vars in discussions of strategy; you have also made the quite unusual request that a member of the Obsidian Order be assigned to your ship immediately after your taking command of the Orissà. This procedure has so far provided us with a remarkable amount of supplementary information. An entry in your files further states that you attended a year of courses with the Order parallel to your studies at the Military Academy. May I inquire why?"

"It appeared essential to possess training in certain methods of the Order as to interrogative procedures, linguistic skills, electronics, as well as installation of surveillance devices. I have used these elements, respectively offered my own crew supplementary training that will be of service to them." Melset's reply was matter-of-fact.

Sadren nodded. "In addition, your abilities in dealing with offworlders have already become apparent. Due to these circumstances, both Gul Parn and I feel you should be accorded the responsibility of mentoring a Var who has just graduated from the Military Academy and is in the final phase of command training."

Their system was highly complex with six temporary assignments at the end of which increasingly rigorous tests in all areas of command were scheduled. Certainly, advancement also depended on merit, recognizing strategic advantages, showing initiative and successfully completing missions - as well as a certain amount of intrigue, too, though it was never openly admitted. Normally, it was the most experienced who were entrusted with Vars' and Glinns' training.

The young Gul remained silent, waiting for more information, not showing by the slightest shift in posture or expression that this assignment was a totally unexpected development.

This is most unusual, especially as I myself am still being evaluated at intervals by the division's commander, Gul Parn. It is only at third Order that mentoring duties begin. I know I am due for promotion to Gul Eighth Order in a year, as yet, I am but Ninth. I wonder if this is a trap to catch me in error.

Her thoughts were interrupted when Gul Sadren met her eyes and continued, "Var Traglor will be assigned to you for training for a period of six months before transferring to another cruiser. I maintain exposure to and observation of contrasting styles of command is most useful in establishing one's own future methods. For you, it should be an interesting situation as well. You know all requirements of mentoring procedures so feel free to supplement the training as you deem necessary."

The only reply was a barely perceptible nod of agreement, followed by the evenly pronounced comment, "Yes, I shall, and will transmit recordings to you at seven-day intervals." After a moment, she added, as if to herself, "To judge by the name, Var Traglor is from the Gerschechi region; I have frequently cooperated with members of this group." And had to teach them that our ethnicity is not to be underestimated...

Gul Sadren agreed, "Your supposition is correct. Var Traglor has, as you, graduated with top marks, is an excellent strategist and should serve under as many different commanders as possible."

He waited for a reaction, but none was forthcoming. All he saw was the same vigilant attitude, the same respectful stance and unreadable expression. After having read her files, he knew about Melset's determination and discipline; as she belonged to an ethnic group which had preserved its own customs in spite of having been dispersed throughout Cardassia Prime, even spoke a variant of Cardassi, there had been some conflicts with fellow students, a good amount of hazing by upper level recruits. It was an uncontested fact that Cardassians were not exactly tolerant of differences even in an environment that reflected unity when seen from the outside.

She had established herself by excelling in hand-to-hand combat as well as her instinct for finding her opponent's weakness and zeroing in on it without scruples. Afterwards, though, the conflict resolved, the matter had always been considered closed. She did not denounce anyone as would have been her right; this fact earned her the respect of her erstwhile detractors. Later on, she had established teams when called upon to do so, selecting members according to the diversity of their abilities, not considering ethnicity or even friendship.

No use waiting for a reaction. "Dismissed. Var Traglor will beam aboard within ten hours, the time you have before departing on the next mission. You are welcome to make use of the Promenade - missions are to be extended, thus this amount of downtime may well become a luxury."

A salute, the call of 'Talsvar Kardassu!' followed by a perfect about-face before she walked out, self-assured and unhurried.

"Gul Parn, I still have some details to discuss with you," he stated, turning to the squadron's commander. "That one would make an excellent candidate for an offworld mission should the Order ever require a surgically-altered undercover agent on Vulcan," Gul Sadren stated with a shrug.

"My thought exactly. When she was assigned to my division, I read all the entries about her prior career on her datapadd and learned she belongs to a minority whose population is once again concentrated in Kelan Province. While her customs are not too much at variance with those of the others, there evidently were preconceptions, even though her father, Gul Losir Damar, is in Central Command, and her mother, Delhina Melset, an instructor at the Obsidian Order's Advanced Education Facilities."

Parn shook his head, remembering. "She is highly adaptable, however, due to the fact she has had a year of Obsidian Order training, with excellent instincts for manipulating offworlders' responses to suit her purpose. You should see her deal with prisoners ... In fact, I have a visual recording of the last interrogation she effected which I want to pass on to Central Command and the Order." He laughed, "Without laying one finger on the captive I let her interrogate, Melset extracted all the relevant facts. She only sat there, staring at him motionlessly, silently, whatever he did, just uttering a prolonged warning hiss whenever he made the slightest move towards her. In the end, he actually 'pleaded to be debriefed', as she put it."

Later that day, she was in the general security area with two of her officers to lock away items she had acquired for her family and herself along with some wins from gaming. Their conversation was interrupted when she was notified by Var Deron, "Gul Melset, Var Traglor has just beamed aboard to report for duty."

"Accompany her to the ready room. Gul Melset out." She went to her office which she had equipped so that it revealed nothing about its occupant - 6 chairs, a desk with a comm unit, the Cardassian insignia on the wall behind her chair, a holograph of Loo'Wess on the opposite wall. The less to be inferred, the better. Never offer anyone, neither prisoner nor fellow officer a point of reference by which to gauge your reactions, interests or preferences and thus try to influence you. This principle had always served her well.

The young officer who entered, preceded by Var Deron, was Gul Melset's junior by roughly eight years, and true Gerschechi type: very tall, solidly built without appearing heavy, thick black, glossy hair worn shorter than norm and green eyes which showed a brief flicker of disbelief at seeing her commanding officer. Apart from this lapse, the var's manner was confident, unhesitating, even arrogant. Melset evaluated her calmly before making eye contact, holding it for some moments. Gul Sadren, you may well have sent me an individual with great potential who could, however, endanger her career if not consequently instructed to adhere to regulations and procedures.

"Var Traglor reporting for duty." Melset took the padd Traglor held out to her.

"I take it you have recently graduated from first-level training. Which branch have you selected?"

"Command, defence systems, security."

Even intonation, prompt, concise answers... Melset gave a nod of approval. "Further areas of competence?"

"Oral and written use of Klingon, Bajoran, Federation Standard; decoding encryptions up to level 5."

"That should come in useful," Melset commented evenly, but did not specify, only input some notes on postings Traglor would be assigned while on her ship. "One more formality, Var Traglor, then you are free to go to quarters." She spoke into the intercomm. "Major Tepek, please report to the ready room. Var Traglor has arrived."

What is this? There's a member of the obsidian Order on this cruiser, and the gul treats him as though he were an equal, respectfully, even amicably! The young officer could not completely conceal her astonishment as the normal relationship between Order and Military was mainly determined by mutual contempt and suspicion, at times even open hostility; for the most part, both organizations had their own specific agendas, hardly interacting except when cooperating in the interest of ensuring security or prosecuting traitors that represented a common threat. This separation of the two groups was crucial to maintain Cardassia's security and to avoid any favouritism or conspiracies.

"Major Tepek, may I introduce you to Var Traglor who is serving on the Orissà as of today for a six-month introductory phase before transfer to her first permanent assignment." She seems surprised. It will be best to inform her of the problems we have been experiencing.

The major looked at the newcomer calmly, evaluatingly, his expression cold, as though inspecting a new specimen or an especially refractory prisoner, then, apparently satisfied with what he saw, wordlessly turned back to Gul Melset.

"My dear Major Tepek, I would be most grateful if you could find the time to instruct her in the following..." She handed him a list. "Feel free to add further elements you think may be essential."

Tepek quickly glanced at the various details, "Standard expectations, Gul Melset. Due to current developments, I suggest expanding the requirements to use of drugs in the course of interrogations and the installation of observation devices, visual and auditory," he stated, inputting the information and apparently establishing a preliminary schedule. "Establishing protective measures to preclude extraction of crucial information from databanks might be commendable as well."

The Gul read the information in turn, nodded her approval and after a brief exchange Var Traglor could not understand as it was in a Cardassi dialect unknown to her, Major Tepek left.

"As you know, we frequently take captives," Melset explained, "The Order has quite interesting methods of extracting information; be assured Major Tepek is excellent at them all. He will be prepared to advise you on various details should you have questions, so do not hesitate to address him. Furthermore, I have requested he give you a series of lessons: a compressed variant of those I took in the Order. You will be kept occupied with these supplementary details, but once you have a command of your own, interrogations and observation of crew will be within your jurisdiction, and unavoidable. It is always commendable to do interrogations yourself to assure you get exactly those details you want." As an afterthought, she added, "Of course, there is constant surveillance on this ship, in every area, without exceptions. You may be informed of the fact that there is a growing dissident movement that is working to establish a civilian government; I refuse to have any subversive elements destabilizing my crew, thus these precautionary measures."

Traglor gave a brief nod of agreement. Anything compromising Cardassia's security had to be eliminated mercilessly. The military had given their worlds the little prosperity they now had and, by means of annexing other systems and establishing alliances they could obtain the resources they so desperately needed. It was these alliances that made it possible to conceal troop build-up on the border that remained undiscovered until it was too late to effect countermeasures. Moreover, every home and every public place was equipped with surveillance devices - Cardassians did not think it unusual; much to the contrary, they felt protected at all times, confident that, come what might, justice would prevail and all crimes punished.

While preparing to copy Var Traglor's file onto the main computer, Gul Melset briefly looked up at her with a hint of a smile. "It shall be back in your quarters within the hour. The ship's quartermaster has already seen to whatever you will require as to uniform and hand weapons. In case you should require anything else, contact Glinn Geron."

"Thank you, Gul Melset."

There was no immediate reply. After a moment, Gul Melset addressed her. "Var Traglor, your initial reaction which, by the way, was so carefully disguised that I hardly noticed it, indicates you were taken unawares at recognizing that I am Kelani. This is the case, with all this implies. It would be strongly advisable to remember what I tell you: We all serve Cardassia, and do not permit our differences to jeopardize our common goal. In fact, diversity is our strength, even though Humans maintain we are all alike." Melset's voice was even.

Traglor was taken aback. She has actually noticed my reaction. Have to be careful with her; that gul's ethnicity is far more conservative than my own, preserving some views and customs considered 'backward' by the mainstream, and that even though our codes are anything but liberal.

Not reacting to Traglor's continued covert evaluation, Melset continued, "Observe everything; I periodically make the time for discussion of various aspects of command and strategy with my vars; the officers have also been instructed to give you information. The mission files, some of which date back to my predecessor, are at your disposal now that your access code has been entered."

Var Traglor met her superior's eyes, realizing that very little escaped this one's notice, "This is most kind. I shall avail myself of your offer," she answered in the same formal phrasing.

Melset pressed a button. "Glinn Masok, please report to my ready room."

He came in within minutes. "Glinn Masok reporting."

"Var Traglor's quarters are in section R-D 15. Please show her to them."

Glinn Masok saluted and waited for further orders.

"That is all. Dismissed. Glinn Arik will bring you your schedule within ten minutes."

This time the fleet of twelve ships, led by Gul Parn, remained well within the borders - there had been repeated incursions by Federation ships; to the Empire, it appeared they were trying to add territory that belonged to Cardassia to their own, or, as Melset suspected, attempting to irritate them so far as to have Cardassia build up a strong military presence along the contested borders, thus leaving those which could become the next target relatively unprotected. It was a customary tactic to attack various sectors at random, creating uncertainty and aggression that could lead to rash responses, even from her people.

One shipboard afternoon, Glinns Arik, Patra and Masok were discussing a topic that never failed to intrigue them.

Jal sat down at a table where his friends had already settled and, taking a bite of meat, said, "Who can understand the Federation's concept of command? Would you believe Starfleet regulations expect a commander to stay on board, out of harm's way? How can the crew's feeling of solidarity remain? A cruiser's commander is expected to fight side by side with his or her troops, guarded by three select crewmembers of course."

"There is no other way, believe me. We share all risks and, subsequently, the honour in case of a victory." Glinn Arik stated.

Gul Melset came over to join them, nodding at the Glinns to continue their meal as she began her own. "The Federation forces find our military system disquieting because they think the individual is not valued as highly as was the case in their own societies."

That was a surprise for Glinn Kovar who added, "It is true we rarely show shock or distress when a crewmember, friend or fellow officer is lost to non-Cardassians. They think our vaporizing our dead after removing all forms of identification is because we are 'brutes with no ethics or feelings.'"

A young Ubarit female, Glinn Patra, inclined her head. She had lost a close friend in the last battle and now added in a very low voice. "Spend time weeping for a lost comrade? No. Sorrow has to be vented in even fiercer attacks, to inflict the same loss on the enemy. Openly displayed grief in conflict implies a lack of resolve, such a troop or officer may well present a liability in crises; in contrast, our increased determination to win arouses fear and apprehension."

Gul Melset considered her briefly. "You and your vars took out the better part of the platoon that was keeping us pinned down. They paid dearly, that's for sure, I have seen to it that all of you have received commendations."

The Glinn looked up at the gul with surprise. "We were only doing our duty."

"Yes, I know. But you helped turn the battle in our favour."

"Very quietly, Glinn Jal added, "Never let yourself be taken captive, never surrender, but fight to the last man, taking as many of your enemies with you as possible. All of us have taken the Pledge to serve Cardassia to the last drop of blood, to our very last breath."

With concealed pride, Gul Melset considered the Glinns at table with her; young, deeply patriotic officers, they had no illusions about 'glorious battles.' All had been severely injured at least once, had seen friends and comrades fall, had survived battlefield conditions that could only be termed as horrendous, but – they had come through it all, and remained loyal Cardassians.

Kovar smiled, then nearly laughed when he brought up another topic, "And have you heard about the laws they have? They seem downright ineffective, easily subverted by anyone clever enough to pretend some form of insanity. You arrest a Federation member and the first thing you hear is, 'We have rights!'"

At his imitation of a thoroughly panicked captive, the entire group burst out in amused laughter.

Trying for a serious tone, Glinn Jal said, "Indeed. Their court procedures have the goal of proving innocence, not guilt, entailing the risk of criminals escaping their just punishment. Nor do they have proper interrogations. Ours never fail to reveal the truth, our criminals invariably admit their guilt and feel true remorse." Glinn Jal continued, "I saw a report on Federation methods once and was not impressed in the least."

"Possibly this treatment is used to entice individuals to request sanctuary in exchange for the information they possess. Especially Humans break easily if subjected to a standard interrogation, fear it. Obviously, they are unwilling to sacrifice themselves for the integrity of their worlds." Gul Melset shrugged. "When I was taken captive during my time as a var, I was even offered sanctuary in the Federation in exchange for information; they offered everything they thought I could desire – that was the extent of their attempts at coercion."

The other Glinn, Masok, had remained silent so far, but now joined in the discussion, "I have heard that, on Federation Starships, which are military vessels like ours, officers are accompanied on their cruisers by a wife and children; that does mean a serious risk to military readiness. This entire concept appears a sign of unparalleled arrogance, as though Starfleet considers its ships so invincible that they can be like small towns, safe, peaceful, with officers going 'home' to share downtime with their wife and children after a shift… Luxury and a benefit for officers? Hardly. It is rather imprudence of the worst kind imaginable."

Patra nodded in agreement, "How can an officer possibly concentrate on his duty during a serious conflict when, at the same time, he or she is concerned about family members living on the very same ship that might be destroyed at any second? I know that I would never be able to concentrate on duty alone were this the case."

"There is another consideration as well," Melset added, "A cruiser is, as you say, a military vessel with any non-essential personnel so much dead weight demanding resources and space with no returns as to providing supplementary personnel in a crisis; valuable energy has to be committed to non-essential passengers, additional installations such as schools, open areas, larger quarters are required – unthinkable."

All of the officers agreed that it was no wonder the Federation did not match Cardassians for fierceness and flexibility – everything they had was geared to comfort, to making things easier on the officers and their families: no sacrifices were made except for frequent transferrals from one luxurious base to another, generous quarters on board, hours of communications time every month…

A piercing whistle was transmitted through the intercom. As one, the group at the table rose, placed their trays into the recycling unit, then left to prepare for their shift.

For the first two months on board the Orissà, Var Traglor hardly saw her commander as she made the obligatory round of all stations throughout the ship to obtain an overview of shipboard functions and the areas of competence. In addition, she had, in accordance with her Gul's advice, been registered – or, as she termed it, press-ganged - by her commanding Glinn for supplementary courses after her shifts, among them instruction by Major Tepek, who, unbeknownst to her, regularly passed on evaluations to Gul Melset with whom he discussed them in detail together with recordings of onboard conversations. It seemed there would be no problems.

Some days later, however, Melset was contacted by Glinn Jedrol. "Gul Melset, there may be an issue of discipline that requires addressing."

"Ah? Let me see."

He went to the communit to activate a recording taken in the corridor of crew quarters.

Var Traglor, wearing leisure uniform – her right, being off-duty – was provocatively trying to begin an argument with Glinn Masok, standing closer to him than was necessary. Masok did not respond, avoided eye contact and, after a few moments, said something that apparently was to the point, before stepping sideways to leave the var staring after him in disbelief. With a shrug, Traglor returned to her quarters, obviously disappointed.

"Indeed. Calling your subordinate's comportment to my attention was necessary." Melset's expression was neutral. "This is a matter that has to be resolved. Dismissed."

Glinn Jedrol saluted and went back to duty under the command of Gul Boret who was chief of engineering until he got his own command and was giving his future personnel specialized instruction prior to selecting those who would follow him onto his own cruiser after his promotion to Eighth Order.

As soon as she had returned to her quarters, Melset contacted the var in question. "Var Traglor, report to my quarters immediately. Gul Melset out."

Moments later, the young officer entered to stand at attention, waiting.

In full uniform, all according to regulation, at least one element which need not be addressed at this time. "Var Traglor, I assume you have been informed on protocol and restrictions as pertains to interaction between the ranks?" Each word was delivered evenly, separately.

"Yes, Gul." The answer was prompt.

"What exactly are regulations as pertains to contact between members of different ranks?" The question was asked in a dangerously level voice.

"No relationship apart from that appropriate for superior and inferior. No mutual visits in quarters." The var obviously was not conscious of having committed a breach of regulations.

"If you are so clearly aware of this specific requirement, why were you seen overstepping it some hours ago in addressing Glinn Masok?" Melset's voice was low, but very clear. "He is your superior, thus to be treated with the respect and deference due his rank. This is in effect both on duty and during downtime. Moreover, I call your attention to the fact he is joined."

Traglor stared at Melset in surprise. "I meant no harm in trying to get to know him better."

Melset now gazed at her evenly for some moments, her eyes cold, distant, before she finally stated. "You meant no harm," She nearly drawled the words. "Var Traglor, what you were doing in that corridor was very obvious to the observer who called it to my attention or he would not have considered it worth mentioning. Nor would I now be wasting my time with such a basic element of protocol." The gul met Var Traglor's eyes, "Remember one thing, Var Traglor, and remember it well: these regulations have been established for a purpose. Intimate contacts between the ranks constitute factors that inevitably destabilize even the best of crews, leading to favouritism, extortion, intrigue, emotions that lead to dereliction of duty. This, in case you have not noticed, is a destroyer, not a facility for R&R." Her voice became harsh. "Perhaps you are not suited to military life if you consider yourself entitled to special privileges, such as blatantly disregarding regulations, Var Traglor?"

The var remained standing at attention but it was obvious that she was apprehensive and irritated at the same time. "It is my wish to serve the Empire in all things," she answered evenly.

"That statement is most positive, and, for your information, Central Command expects no less of those who serve. Apart from this lapse, Var Traglor, you have shown potential in your work thus far." Melset stated slowly, "If this sounds like a warning, it is meant as one: if you wish to continue in Central Command, I strongly advise you to avoid any further infractions in future. Should there be further incidents of the kind, be assured they will be entered in your records in full detail, and you will face the consequences. Do I make myself clear?" The last phrase was uttered in the volume and tone of voice Traglor recalled from the Glinns in field training.

Traglor, defiant but thoroughly disquieted, considered her commanding officer. What else can be expected from a Kelani? Others would not make such a fuss about looking for some harmless enjoyment. "I understand."

Melset smiled coldly, "Var Traglor, apparently you are under the mistaken impression my Kelani heritage is the unique reason for my enforcing this specific regulation." The smile grew threatening, "This is not the case. As I told you in the very beginning, on my ship, we are all Cardassians, bound to serve, each in his or her place. When you begin your next phase of training, see you avoid giving a repeat performance. Should a commanding officer be forced to resort to disciplinary measures, he contacts prior commanders. For now, you are confined to quarters for a week while not on duty and ordered to review the entire set of regulations. And – see to it you do not waste my time again!"

Gul Melset rose in dismissal and Traglor saluted before marching out. That gul must have surveillance devices all over the place! A week of confinement to quarters for such a minor infraction! Lecturing me on duty to Cardassia – does she expect us to give up all pleasures? She marched along the corridor, thoroughly annoyed by the turn of events.

Fate added insult to injury in the form of Glinn Masok who passed her in the corridor. Traglor saluted smartly, "Glinn Masok."

He just as formally replied, "As you were, Var Traglor." and went on without giving her a second glance. It was all too obvious that he considered her actions of a few hours ago a minor nuisance.

At returning to quarters, the var sat down heavily on her bunk, her expression angry and disgusted; cursing volubly, she removed her armour, nearly throwing it into her locker. Smirking, her cabin mates exchanged knowing glances.

"What's gotten into you, Traglor?" The speaker was a young var on his last assignment before taking exams for the promotion to Glinn.

"Nothing. There's nothing at all to say." Traglor's voice was a hiss.

Var Keldin laughed at the all too obvious lie. "Ah, now let me guess – Glinn gave you a hard time and extra assignments. What is it? Sanitation duty or cleaning up the cargo bays?"

Traglor did not reply immediately, only held up a data rod some moments later, saying, "Regulations, of all things! I studied the damn things long enough at the Academy!"

The var grinned amusedly, came around the bunk and looked over her shoulder to tell no one in particular. "Uh oh, she's been got by the gul." Turning back to the victim, he inquired hopefully, "You don't want to share the story, by any chance? I have a nice one, too, whenever you want to hear it."

Traglor did not show the slightest interest in his offer, only said, "You had better keep your distance, Keldin."

Seriously, he continued "Take my comrades' and my word for it: she's tough but good. The glinns say Melset always furthers those who have potential; those that do not are streamlined into an alternative career. You'll see that, disciplinary measures over, you will be given a chance to prove yourself; the infraction will be forgotten unless you make the same mistake again."

The answer he got was a low hiss of warning, to which Keldin reacted by lifting his hands and saying, "All right, all right, have it your way, but our opinion of this ship's commander stands as is. I'm off to my shift."

Traglor waited until he was gone to curse volubly under her breath about superiors in general and one gul in particular, ignoring the four others who were preparing for duty and glancing over at her repeatedly.

Her cabin mates busied themselves over their padds or at maintaining their equipment, studiously avoiding their comrade. They knew they would get the entire drama in full detail sooner or later.

I can only hope Var Keldin is right. With a sigh, she mechanically began reading the introduction to military regulations…

A few weeks later, after her shift had ended, Var Traglor went into the canteen at the end of a rest period; once she had secured her meal, she found herself invited over to sit at a table with Gul Melset and four other vars who were just finishing their own.

After a moment's hesitation she accepted, still nervous about the incident of three weeks before, unobtrusively glancing at her superior's hasn't taken what would be her right as a Gul...

Noticing the covert inspection, Melset explained, "As you see, the same rations as my crew - up to B-5. Rank offers privileges, but I only claim those that further our cause. Why, for example, select a C-7 meal if B-1 totally satisfies our physical requirements? None of us has chosen this career for the sake of luxuries or wealth. From recruit to legate, we all serve Cardassia, with all this implies." Her expression was proud and even happy. "On away missions, all differences, except for command status, become irrelevant anyway."

"That is true; but you ensure the other regulations are enforced as should be: there is no casual contact between the ranks, any dereliction of duty entails severest consequences, but otherwise everything is shared, the danger, the hardships and the honour of victory." Watching Melset, Traglor reiterated the basic facts as she had experienced them. That one has an odd style, keeps you waiting for some response other than quiet observation. The others already seem to be accustomed to her ways.

"Indeed." Was the reply. "In one battle we beamed down to drive out a contingent of Starfleet personnel before their reinforcements arrived. We blasted the trenches together, shared them for a number of days, made sorties together, fought side by side. We sustained a number of casualties, but in the end, secured that planet along with the system, liberated the equipment and the buildings left behind. Same goal, same risk. The strategy that time was established with Guls Parn and Jasad, then implemented. It is in such situations that you learn of your comrades' abilities and strengths as well as their weaknesses - and your own."

"That system creates trust and the knowledge of mutual support." Keldin hesitated, "There is one thing I would like to ask. Permission to speak freely?"

"Permission granted, Var Keldin."

"We all know that the detailed surveillance and the direct contact with Major Tepek protect us all. Yet on the cruiser where I served as recruit, there was no agent." The var seemed vaguely apprehensive at having addressed this query to his commanding officer.

His superior only commented, "I did tell you that the Order has personnel everywhere in the Empire. You should be aware of that even without my informing you."

"I did not expect that to be the case on a destroyer," replied Var Ekor.

"Everywhere, Var Ekor." She added, "especially on a cruiser."

Melset continued, addressing the group as a whole, "Have any of you made use of the combat training programme yet? It took some persuasion at the highest echelons, but I have been permitted to have a holodeck of sorts installed with various options, all updated periodically to give us the means of analysing techniques: Klingon, Federation, Romulan, all of those with whom we have had skirmishes, as the Federation chooses to phrase it."

"I did see the programme listed under combat simulations, but thought access to it was limited to higher-ranking officers alone, not to the crew in general," was Var Traglor's answer.

"It is open to all crew members serving on board the Orissà, as well as to the members of Guls Jasad's and Parn's cruisers who have signed up for training sessions. Vars Desan, Guron and Menat use it regularly."

The newcomers in the group nodded, pleased at the invitation and Var Desan offered, "Let's check the schedule, Var Traglor. Perhaps we can try it out during an off-shift tomorrow?"

"You see, it is open to all." Again that slight hint of a smile, "You want to know more about some detail or another? You are welcome to ask, and that applies to all of you. It is my prerogative to choose which questions I consider worthy of being answered. This one is."

The others got up and saluted, "We have to report for duty, Gul Melset. Talsvar Kardassu."

"Talsvar Kardassu." Melset returned the salute before turning to Traglor again.

She met the var's eyes and said in a low voice, "Var Traglor, it appears you are uncertain what responses I expect. Your desire to select them accordingly is understandable, as it is my duty to evaluate your performance at the end of your assignment. Off duty, I am a Kelan Province Cardassian with my own specific customs and behavioural patterns. On duty, however, I am a Cardassian who is a member of Central Command like any other member, subject to its rules and regulations. My expectations are simple: prompt execution of orders, no form of insubordination. It is your duty to inform me of any observation you make: at times, even the most negligible detail can be crucial."

Traglor felt her tension dissipate slightly, Melset was much different to the commanders under whom she had already served during basic training, but apparently interested in furthering her subordinates to secure the very best personnel for the good of Cardassia. If she did remember minor infractions, she did not permit them to influence her judgement in any way provided there was no recurrence after disciplinary measures.

In silence, they finished their meal. Var Traglor rose and said, "Gul Melset, request permission to leave for quarters."

"Just a moment. There is something that I wish to show you. Come with me; you may find it of interest."

Var Traglor gave her an apprehensive sideways glance.

"No cause for concern. Your performance and comportment have been in full accordance with regulations." Melset managed to suppress a smile at recognizing the var's discomfort.

Walking side by side through the corridors leading to crew quarters, they discussed the conflicts that had erupted on the Klingon border. In front of the door to the Gul's quarters, Melset ordered, "Var Traglor, you are permitted to enter." at seeing the var hesitate. "I have a test for you; each var is given one – each a different one, of course, but of the same degree of complexity."

Once inside Melset's quarters, Traglor covertly looked around. There was hardly any difference to the ready room; her superior had only the barest of necessities, nothing to show what kind of a person she was, no outward signs of her heritage and customs, but, prominently featured, a screen inset in a table. Melset activated the programme and waited for her screen to clear, displaying a standard projection of the area of the Denorios Belt closest to Bajor, with one planet marked as Federation territory.

"You have a fleet of nine ships. This planet is your goal. Deposits of trilithium, other essential resources. Federation forces present. Warning systems installed and active." She leaned back in her chair and watched Traglor analyse the situation, which she did calmly, without the slightest sign of haste.

"Are all options acceptable?" Traglor asked, not looking up from the screen.

"Yes. I take it you have already considered a strategy to disable the system and attack without alerting nearby starships?" She did not say that she, along with Guls Parn and Jasad, had annexed this world for Cardassia after a violent battle. "Register your strategy on this."

"Thank you, Gul." Traglor took the padd Melset pushed towards her, made a list of terrain that could offer possible cover and camouflage ... nine ships ... Fifteen minutes later she gave her a sketch of strategy and time frame of operations. "Split up fleet. Make use of meteor field distortion there. Larger meteor - explosives simulating meteor impact. Use fragments as additional camouflage - not enough for cruiser. Only lead ship visible to scanners. Contact, exchange of niceties. Cardassians always in a group of at least three, so attention drawn away from other sectors." Traglor hesitated, "Settlement only in one area of planet. Explosive to ionize atmosphere not commendable - detonation can be detected. Beam down personnel at various emplacements ..." she indicated them. "Establish defence posts in this terrain..." She pointed to the hilly area surrounding the settlement. "Set up transmitters programmed to simulate Cardassian life-signs to draw away forces. Lines thus thinned out. No choice but to engage enemy directly." With an angry hiss at forgetting one element, she added, "Communications must, of course, be disabled."

While her trainee was speaking, Melset modified the display to illustrate Traglor's strategy and, at mention of the sensor array, nodded approvingly. "Our own strategy exactly, except that we did not destroy communications. It would have alerted starships patrolling the sector. They are on constant alert, you know, and very quick to respond. Put the damn reptiles in their place..." She got up. "Our next mission will take place at the other side of the Empire. I have spoken to Guls Parn and Jasad; they have agreed for you to be included in the strategic development of the mission and permitted input. I can see your instincts are good."

With that, Traglor was free to leave. Melset waited for the door to slide shut, then contacted Major Tepek. "Register this conversation in my and Traglor's files for later reference."

The situational analysis had obviously been a first test to be passed. A few days later, Gul Parn received further information on their objective, a Federation settlement just on the border of Cardassian territory. The details given in the transmission demonstrated annexing it would be an excellent move and, in addition, further the careers of those participating in the action. This mission had one more great advantage: the planet's system was relatively isolated without any larger Starbase in the immediate vicinity.

True to her word, Melset had Var Traglor accompany her to Gul Parn's cruiser, and, in the course of the discussion, they decided to vary their strategy by one element. This time it would not be to Jasad to open negotiations, but Melset.

This change became clear when Jasad inquired, his intonation decidedly unpleasant, "Gul Melset, by which details do Humans and Klingons judge the aggression and damage potential of an individual?" He pointedly looked down at her, his expression nearly sneering.

"Sex to a degree, and size most definitely," was the immediate reaction. Melset then proposed, "I should like to add one more detail, if permitted. Federation Standard used by the commander, not translated."

"Agreed." Parn looked over at the Var accompanying Melset and said, "Now, Var Traglor, let's see what you would suggest; your commanding officer is of the opinion you may have some excellent suggestions to make." Together they went over to his display screen which was exactly the same as Melset's.

"Three ships following the orbit of the planet's moons. Shuttle holding small asteroid in a narrow tractor beam as camouflage..." She described the entire procedure as she had developed it under Melset's supervision.

Parn nodded, briefly discussed it with Jasad before giving his orders. "Include this detail..." he indicated the asteroid nearby - let's try its effectiveness. Traglor, you, Masok and Desan prepare weapons and sensor arrays for emplacement as your commander has planned. Melset, you will be the 'distraction'. As soon as Glinn Masok as well as Vars Traglor and Desan have finished, they will flank you on the bridge. Attack will be initiated just before you close communications. Troops to be beamed down in groups of fifteen, at intervals of thirty seconds, at 100 metres distance." The four Cardassians once more considered the terrain displayed on the screen. In contrast to their settlements, where valley emplacements were but temporary, humans tended to stick to them, or at least keep crucial installations protected in those areas, even though they gave an attacker a definite advantage.

Before establishing visual contact, the four of them put on their helmets; Traglor could not quite suppress her amusement when she heard the next command, "Glinn Nauren, reduce lighting just a little more prior to initiating contact..." She had frequently heard the expression of 'Cardassians having crawled out from under a rock someplace.' The insult was familiar to Cardassians and they deeply resented it, but Melset apparently consciously used it in a form of humour particular to her.

Glancing over at Traglor, Melset said very seriously, "Exactly, Var Traglor," and turned to Glinn Kovar, "Open communications. Visual. Let's let them see us crawl out from under our rock, shall we?"

For some moments, the Gul and the human organizer of the colony stared at each other, not showing their mutual loathing, respectively contempt. Melset only gazed at the screen patiently, motionless, with just the slightest hint of a slouch, knowing this posture unfailingly provoked humans. Usually, it was the Cardassian who began formalities, but this time procedure was different. After some minutes of evaluating each other, it was the Human who spoke with a slight hint of irritation. "Who is the commander of this cruiser? We have registered this system as our territory along with the settlement. This was effected four years ago. It is not advisable to attack. Our defences are at the ready." It became obvious he was addressing Glinn Masok, and the short sentences he used were an insult in themselves as they implied the others were not able to understand anything more complicated.

Without hesitation, Melset replied, her voice slightly softer than normal, fractionally higher in pitch. "I am Gul Melset, Commander of the Orissà. Did you register the settlement with Central Command? If so, transmit the official authorization code and I shall withdraw immediately." Not using her translator implant, she spoke to him in Standard, her speech slightly accented, but correct. The fact seemed to take him slightly off-balance.

"This system is well within Federation space, and non-contested territory at that. You have no right whatsoever to demand authorization of any kind," he then sneered slightly. "You have only one cruiser as far as I can see, not enough to even begin to penetrate our defences. Could it be you are trying to be a hero?" His manner had shifted to patronizing.

If you see only the one, our strategy has paid off. When her ship vibrated under the impact of a phaser blast from one of the orbital defences, she uttered a startled hiss and her expression shifted from arrogance to shocked surprise.

"Is this enough, or do you want some more evidence of our defence potential, Cardassian?" He asked contemptuously, stressing the name in a way Melset recognized as insulting.

She looked to the side as if considering her answer and saw Glinn Nauren signal. All cruisers in position, beamdown initiated, Phase 2 implemented.

Simultaneously, she heard the human call out, "What? Cardassians? Where did they come from? Evacuation pattern Þ. Assume defence positions! Secure centre!"

Before Melset cut communications, she still heard the sound of phaser fire, frantic commands called out against screams of sheer panic followed by the roar of detonations. The little change in routine 'negotiations' had fulfilled its purpose. The settlers had been taken totally unawares, without the chance of laying out a plan of defence, thus making the takeover far easier for the Cardassians.

"Var Desan, Glinn Nauren, take out defenses. Glinn Masok, Major Tepek, you have the bridge. Traglor and Patra, come with me." On the transporter pads, they stood backs to each other, in a crouch, weapons at the ready to permit them to dive for cover immediately on beamdown and begin firing.

As decided, they materialized half a kilometre outside the settlement and were contacted by Guls Parn and Jasad. "In position." No further commands were necessary. They overran the outskirts of the settlement in minutes, firing as they went, reacting to the slightest movement in the windows or passages. Resistance became more desperate as they approached the centre, forcing them to fight for every metre of ground. "Captives. No matter which ones. Get organizers if possible."

In the course of the skirmish, she saw two of her troops fall while attempting a sortie with ten others to cut through one of the side alleys. Enraged, their fellows pressed on, trying to spare as many of the buildings as possible while taking out nests of fighters. Some hours later, everything was over, the survivors cornered in the centre of the town and surrounded by their troops. To judge by the humans' attitude, no one had expected such a development.

As soon as the troops had herded together the civilians in the town centre, Parn, Jasad and Melset went over, all three of them accompanied by their guards. One of the troops guarding the humans, Var Kassim, informed them, "All weapons confiscated," as he indicated a selection of hand phasers and diverse other weapons ready to be beamed up.

"Now let's see what we have here," Parn ordered, "Separate the males from the females," and, to Melset, "Which was the individual to whom you spoke?" He had recognized the man at once, but pretended ignorance to increase his apprehension.

"Ah, Gul Parn," she replied in Standard, "That may be difficult as they all look the same. Here he is." She approached a human male and gestured at him to step forward. "This one appears to be the head of the settlement." Addressing the human again, she ordered, "You - come with us."

Turning to Jasad, she laughed and commented at seeing the human's pallor and the fear in his eyes. "Not so arrogant now, is he?" She now gave one of her guards a command. "Var Traglor, take him in charge." She did so with alacrity, manacled him, then held him at phaserpoint until further captives had been chosen.

From a pile of building materials nearby, Melset heard a very slight sound and decided to check what it was; she exchanged glances with Parn who nodded.

"Accompany me, Glinn Patra! There may be someone there priming an explosive to eliminate us, thinking we may have become overconfident because of this success." Melset had recognized the sound as the voice of a child. All the better. This should make it a little more interesting for our captives.

To her satisfaction, she caught a suppressed cry of "No! Not that!" from one of the men. At rounding the seemingly haphazard arrangement of boards and material, she discovered a concealed shelter and, inside, a child of roughly six and a baby, held close by a woman who stared at them in wide-eyed fear, frozen with terror. Evidently they had contrived to hide there, hoping to escape what they expected to be a wholesale slaughter of all settlers.

Ignoring the people, the Cardassian leaned against the wall and looked around inquisitively, then, with caution, inspected some of the objects stored there, picked them up, handled them wonderingly. These articles are still fully functional! Why aren't they in a technician's office waiting to be repaired? Ah, yes, the members of the Federation are so well-off, can afford to dispose of electronics that have the slightest defect. If we had but a fraction of their wealth, there would be no stopping us!She took her time, knowing the delay would unnerve those who had seen her head to that area.

"Now, Glinn Patra, what shall we do with these?" she asked with exaggerated indifference, gesturing at the humans, implying the three were of no more importance than the objects she had examined earlier. There was no answer, only a predatory grin, as Patra was used to her superior's little games. Melset shrugged slightly, "You know, I would suggest turning them over to the husband, provided he has survived. They are useless to us, but I would like to get the humans unawares. Most likely the others are expecting us either to kill them or use them to exert pressure. Now you can observe their reactions first-hand. They are quite fascinating."

She turned to the woman, gestured with her phaser, "Get out. We follow. No abrupt movements."

Eyes wide, afraid of turning her back to the two, the woman shook her head, too terrified to react. Melset waited briefly before going over to say, now in Standard, "The settlement will be destroyed as it is unauthorized, but we do not massacre women and children, believe me. We are not Klingons or Federation members!"

Patra saw the woman wordlessly stare at the Gul in fear and revulsion, then get up slowly, keeping her children close.

"Out!" The Gul's voice and demeanour suddenly changed to viciously threatening when she stated, "I have only so much patience, so get moving!"

The two Cardassians followed, phasers at the ready, grimly expressionless as if prepared to commit one of the atrocities for which their militaries were infamous.

Traglor herself watched Melset very carefully as she accompanied the woman to the males and asked, the sibilant undertone to her voice very pronounced, "To whom do these belong?" Silence. She repeated, "Whose are these? I certainly did not imagine that protest I heard a few moments ago." She briefly exchanged glances with Parn and Jasad before stating, "This colony will be destroyed, but we do not commit atrocities such as murdering innocent women and children. We are Cardassians, not humans."

Finally one of the men stepped forward, tense, his expression defiant, close to rage as he said, trying to disguise his concern for his wife and children, "That's my family."

Melset smiled coldly, "I can see Federation propaganda has created a rather negative image of our people in an effort to draw attention away from the misdeeds of its own members." And, to the woman, "Go to him at once."

Parn then shouted in Cardassi, "Depart immediately before we decide to execute each last one of you for trespassing on our territory. Remember that we have been merciful for once, but will not be thus again."

Jasad nodded to Traglor and Patra who beamed up to the Orissà with the captives. He then fired his phaser close to the humans who turned and ran for the shuttles they had hidden in an artificially enlarged cavern. Of a population of a little over five hundred, there were perhaps 130 survivors... When one of his troops took aim, Parn ordered contemptuously, "Let them run, Glan Fenat. As far as I have seen, you are not in need of any additional target practice. Give them the chance to spread a few more accounts about us."

The runabouts had barely left than a contingent of troops was called in to systematically comb the buildings for equipment before destroying a few of those that could be spared. Let the refugees believe the entire settlement was being leveled. In the meantime, the injured Cardassians had been beamed to the sickbays of their respective cruisers, the dead vaporized along with the Federation victims after removal of their identification chips.

As soon as they had returned to their respective cruisers, Jasad transmitted the news of their success to Central Command before the Guls met on his ship, Melset again accompanied by Traglor.

"I take it the prisoners are experiencing Cardassian hospitality," Jasad inquired in feigned concern. "It would be most negative for our reputation were they not treated on a par with captives of our own people. After all, Humans are so concerned about equality in multicultural settings."

"I assure you that I have seen to their comfort, Gul Jasad. General issue prisoner's overall, separate cells, constant observation. They will be left in the dark - literally - to make them remember everything they have ever heard we do to prisoners and fear it will be done to them," Melset reported. "Later on, they will even be given Cardassian-standard field rations."

"I have requested a garrison to be posted on this planet and as soon as it has been secured, a group of 400 civilian families can be settled here as a start. The buildings can shelter them until more have been erected. The humans were exceedingly kind and generous. They have even started mining operations and left us the equipment," Parn commented with a laugh before turning to Melset wordlessly, waiting for an explanation.

It was given immediately. "Gul Parn, I have seen Federation reports on wholesale slaughter of entire populations, including children, reports of 'unbelievably barbaric treatment' of prisoners. I consider it commendable to, at times, act in direct contrast to this propaganda to confuse them. There were enough witnesses of this rather unusual procedure to spread news about this incident and the fact that family was reunited with no harm done to any of its members. As you were immediately recognizable as my superior, this procedure was even more astonishing - remember our strict hierarchy in which only senior officers decide with no allowances made for input from lower-ranking individuals? My ... kindness did not endanger our project, either." She added with a sneer, "Federation members! Always ready to denounce our methods. Yet they are subversive beyond belief, using their prosperity to lure unsuspecting peoples into their Federation! The equipment stored in that shelter where I found that female will be very useful to us once repaired." She briefly waited before stating her request, "Guls Parn and Jasad, I request permission to let Var Traglor extract information from Mr ...," she tried to approximate the sounds, some Human names were nearly unpronounceable! "Kallutzke. She requires further training."

The two others briefly conferred. Parn said, "Permission granted. But you are responsible for his life. We need him and the others in negotiations for a prisoner exchange."

In the end, they agreed to leave behind fifty troops each along with supplies. When the garrison arrived, they would be free to return to their posts.

Orders came to re-deploy to the border with the Federation itself. After such actions, it was their pattern to lie low, yet wait for any occurrence that could be considered a provocation. Their squadron was replaced by another one at once.

In the meantime, Traglor had begun the interrogation. The prisoner, in spite of being thoroughly terrified, said nothing, only at times cried out in pain. With increasing impatience, Melset followed the process via a screen. The Gul repeatedly shook her head. The Var used the methods taught her, but her way of using them was ineffective. The questions were too direct, nor did she resort to apparently irrelevant queries to put the victim off—guard before choosing another tack. With suppressed disgust, Melset recognized that Traglor apparently was enjoying what she was doing and frowned. Wrong again! Interrogations have to be conducted neutrally, with no feelings whatsoever on the side of the interrogator, only total efficiency, no reaction, only patient waiting for the correct time to begin asking the relevant questions. This interrogation could go on for hours. It is best I take over before too much time is wasted and the prisoners become so dulled by fear that there will be no information to extract at all.

After six hours, she contacted the detention area as though she knew of nothing. "Results?"

"Some few, but nothing truly relevant, only scraps of information that do not help much," Traglor reported disgustedly.

"I am coming, Var Traglor. A last question: Did you let the others watch?"

"Yes, and they are now totally panicked. One abrupt move and they jump like voles," the Var seemed amused at the fact.

Melset's eyes narrowed with irritation at seeing Traglor make a quick motion that had the prisoners flinch. You had better learn how to interrogate prisoners effectively, and quickly, too.

The gul entered moments later to briefly confer with Traglor before turning to the prisoner who had been thoroughly roughed up. Her eyes widened briefly in undisguised annoyance, then she brusquely faced Traglor with a sibilant hiss and tensed neck membranes, an attitude that conveyed pure anger.

Adopting an outraged tone of voice while explaining in Cardassi, she said, "Observe me, Var Traglor. It may prove useful to you later on." She went to the prisoner, again stared at him with an expression of shock, confronted Traglor with another hiss of anger, her neck membranes still tensed. "What is this? Is this the way you follow my orders, Var Traglor? I expressly stated no physical violence was to be used! A truly effective interrogator does not require those methods."

Traglor stood at attention, inclined her head, accepting the reprimand, but watched the human prisoners very carefully. They kept their eyes fixed apprehensively on the two Cardassians. Evidently, they had thought Traglor was the other's superior.

Gul Melset went over to the Human, gently touched his face. He tried to avoid her fingers, fearing more violence. Seeing his apprehension, the Cardassian said in Standard, her voice apologetic, "I do regret what has happened. This one..." she gestured at Traglor, "...will be disciplined for mistreating a prisoner. I had expressly ordered her not to abuse any of you in any way. Insubordination cannot be tolerated."

She went over to a drawer and returned with a dermal regenerator, held it up for him to see. "Do not move, human, I will not abuse you," and proceeded to treat his injuries, ignoring his surprised glance. After some time, she straightened and said, "There. I think you will experience no more discomfort." And to the four others. "I assure you, you have nothing to fear. This was unauthorized. I fear this one,..." she nodded at Traglor, "... is rather impulsive. She is very young and enthusiastic; she will have to learn to curb herself."

Behind her, she heard a sudden intake of breath from the var. Thought you merited praise for this bit of work? Assuredly not. You are excellent at strategy, but otherwise, you still have much to learn – as do all at your level.

The next procedure was to ask them just why the colony had been established there and Melset even produced evidence that it was on the wrong side of the border. "No doubt you all were to be used as buffers to absorb the response to an allegedly legitimised attack on Cardassian space - sacrificing you would have meant justification for a renewed attack on us. Why is this being done? All my people desires is to be left in peace. Why can't the Federation finally understand and accept that?" Her voice was nearly pleading.

A cry of outrage from one of the prisoners, "You damn cold-blooded reptile! We don't use those methods! We aren't Cardassians who have no respect for life!"

His fellow captives silenced him, then wide-eyed, stared out at the two Cardassians in terrified anticipation of what would certainly follow. Seemingly the man was so frightened, he had lost all caution. Melset did not react to the insult. It would appear you are becoming

At the same time, she heard Traglor draw a breath, could sense her anger. She called her to order with a warning hiss, then stated, "Var Traglor, why waste energy uselessly? Watch carefully. They are now so frightened that it should be easy to manipulate them into unknowingly answering all the questions we have. After this session, we will know everything we need. Remember the word games and mock interrogations all of us played as children? They were enjoyable and, of course, trained us for education and discussions. This is little different, but much more productive, of course."

Once again facing her prisoners, she shook her head, seemed genuinely hurt at the allegations, "Ah no, those are not our methods. All we do is defend what we have, as does everyone, even you. We never would victimize innocent civilians. Intelligence gave us reports on clandestine Federation weapons depots on that planet you annexed, of undercover military agents preparing to launch an attack on several of our worlds, even operations to turn that world you claim is a simple colony into a military operations centre whose potential could place an entire sector of our Empire in danger. At least that is what our agents discovered. Would you stand by and watch your own Empire be invaded, its integrity put at risk?"

The 'conversation' lasted another three hours, and at the end of that time, some quite interesting details had been discovered and recorded. Immediately afterwards, Melset, Traglor and Tepek met to analyse the recordings, Tepek explaining variations in word stress, intonation, speed of enunciation, all of which served to determine concealed facts and obfuscation, even outright lies. For Traglor, this was a totally new method, and she was surprised at the results, even though, in essence, not all that much had been said. Seemingly the system was only in the beginning stages of development, plans for a military installation in the first phases. Now, with the removal of the humans, Cardassia could annex it. The captives themselves would be transferred to Parn's ship, accompanied by Traglor and Masok. He would negotiate the prisoner exchange, permitting the two to observe his methods of negotiation.

As soon as the fact-finding process was concluded, results transmitted to Central Command and the Order, Tepek left without another word.

"As you see, most representatives of the Federation apart from Vulcans, of course, can be manipulated quite easily. We actually never had any agents on that planet, but have made these people very suspicious, which means they will be watching each other closely, and not trust newcomers to their own colonies so quickly. As to the interrogation, your more violent methods were offset by mine, thus making the captives less cautious. The factor of size is another important detail - if you want to use this method, find someone who is in contrast to you in stature. Use your voice as well to lead them into the path you want. Yet, always recall one very important factor. Never, under no circumstances whatsoever, form a close connection to any non-Cardassian lest you present a dangerous weakness. Prolonged contact with their ways may lead to a feeling you understand them, you may even consider this procedure of adopting some of their mannerisms sheer calculation in the beginning, for the sake of gaining information. It will, however, undermine your purpose in the long run, make you little better than them, perhaps even a traitor to our ways. A number of us have fallen into that trap. In interrogations, always have a witness, a Var, a Glinn or better yet, an Order operative." Melset briefly hesitated, "Should you be captured or forced to turn to offworlders for help, pretend fear, helplessness or the sincere desire to learn of their ways - the choice is yours. Your captor or benefactor will inevitably let down his or her guard - after all, humans are so superior to all, their precious Federation the salvation of the entire Alpha Quadrant - and subsequently offer you a route of escape when the time has come. This pretence takes a great effort, may even be humiliating, but is ultimately useful."

"Have youdone this?" Traglor looked at her in open astonishment, not quite believing what she had just heard. It totally contradicted the impression she had of her commanding officer. Manipulative, yes, definitely, combative, too, but surely not imitating other people's ways, even if it gave her an advantage.

The answer was a smile and the account itself. "Six years ago, when I was a Var Third Order, I was stunned by phaser fire, subsequently taken captive during a conflict. I was held for a week. During the first two days, I refused to eat, ostensibly for fear of being drugged; not even their doctor could get within reach without my becoming 'panicked'. I simulated aphasia and a degree of neurological damage to my legs. Remember how little they know about our physiology." With a mocking expression, she added, "They were so concerned it was amusing. They wanted to help me, tried to allay my fears, were so self-assured they did not seem to know a Cardassian would never behave like that! The captain, afraid I would kill myself to avoid committing treason, even sent me a counsellor. After five days we arrived at a Starbase where my captors transferred me to their medical facilities for treatment and questioning ... after recuperation, of course." She smiled, remembering. "We had operatives planted on that station who traced me as soon as I was beamed over. At my specific request, I had been equipped with a transponder well before being taken captive; it seemed the best course of action at the time..." She pushed up her sleeve to show a barely noticeable ridge under one of the scales just above her wrist. "We had to pass the docking bay. This operative had passed me a miniaturised phaser, so we put the medics and the guard out of action, escaped to a pod in the bay - automatically deactivated the doors which had been 'prepared' accordingly..."

She laughed, remembering, "As you can see, we were successful. It was worth seeing their shock when they were stunned. Of course, there are more details, but we are still at war. Be assured of one thing: get into Federation hands, and you have the most luxurious captivity you can imagine: you are treated with relative kindness, get all the food you can eat, warmth, comfortable clothing, even a measure of privacy, access to reading materials of all kinds, even conversations with your guards, provided you are careful to pretend curiosity," she said with a renewed sneer. "They demonstrate their prosperity and so-called moral superiority in every single aspect of their lives and are very quick to denounce cultures or political systems that do not reflect their ideals." She got up and shut down the listening devices. "No use leaving them on. Only Tepek and I have access to this room."

They left together. Outside, Melset held up a data rod. "This may be of interest to you, Var Traglor. We shall discuss the details tomorrow with Tepek, Jasad and Parn. You are entitled to an intermediate review."

Traglor was not all too uneasy about the prospect. In the meantime, she had realized that Melset was just, helping her trainees and troops on their way provided their actions were according to duty. It was also her principle to help them develop talents that could be used, even if these abilities were not her own strong points – what Traglor had heard from her peers was no exaggeration

Barely a month later, Var Desan turned to Gul Melset, "Incoming message from Central Command, branch Bajoran Sector."

"Put it through to my ready room." As Melset walked off the bridge, she called out, "Glinn Masok, you have the conn."

The gul waited for the door to slide shut before opening communications. Bad news whenever Legate Geldar contacts a cruiser. She felt a brief surge of apprehension. "Gul Melset of the Orissà reporting."

"Gul Melset, this is Legate Geldar. A message from Gul Dukat, Prefect of Bajor has come in. A terrorist attack has claimed the lives of thirty-nine Cardassian civilians, among them the family of Glinn Kovar who is presently serving on board the Orissà. He is to be notified immediately and, if possible, granted leave to spend his Seclusion on Cardassia with his relatives. It may be of comfort to him to know that the Prefect has ordered the public execution of thirty-nine suspected terrorists in retaliation. Legate Geldar out."

Suppressing her outrage and distress, Melset motionlessly gazed at the now-dark screen. Forty years of Occupation, and they still have learned nothing! In spite of massacres, labour camps, publicly transmitted executions, they fight back, pray in their shrines for deliverance, then go out to commit more acts of terror... and that against us - we only want to help them emerge from their benightedness and, once Bajor has advanced enough, integrate them into the Empire.

She suppressed an old recollection – that of a village being reduced to ashes, its occupants hunted down like so much vermin, all of them killed regardless of age or gender. She had been a var first level at the time …. Kovar had met her eyes and they had recognized each other's carefully concealed horror at the scenes and their unspoken question whether such methods were truly necessary, if there was no alternative. That was before we ever realized what a danger these primitives pose for our people…. They had remained silent about what they had seen, about their emotions, lest someone overhear their comments, but that moment of sharing had been the beginning.

Every Cardassian's death ascribed to this terror was a heinous crime, and now the terror had reached one of her crew; what made it even worse was the fact her fiancé was the officer concerned. Giving such news was the only element of duty she truly disliked. Cardassians did not break down or make a scene at receiving such notifications, but their quiet acceptance was difficult to witness. With a sigh, she contacted the bridge. "Glinn Kovar, report to the ready room."

He entered moments later, standing at attention while Melset gazed at him, recalling his files. Glinn Kovar was the second son of the Kovar-Rossaw family to enter Central Command. His family did not have a tradition of military service, but his records were exemplary; he was due for promotion to Gul Ninth order within another three months, a time he was awaiting as impatiently as she.

Melset looked up at her officer, desperately wanting to offer comfort, but knowing all too well that any overstepping the regulations governing interaction between the ranks would see her penalized. Kovar was tall, slender, with pale grey eyes, black hair, a member of the dominant ethnicity. She valued him highly for his dedication, his unwavering patriotism and, on a more personal level, deeply loved him for himself, for his total acceptance of her as she was.

"Sit down, Glinn Kovar." After a pause to gather her thoughts, she continued in a low voice, avoiding his glance. "You must be strong. I have just received a notification from Central Command, Bajoran Section. There was a terrorist attack on the civilian enclave just outside the capital yesterday. There are no survivors." She added in a whisper, "Devrin, I wish I was not the one to tell you this news."

He took a deep breath when he understood, but quickly had himself under control again, only saying in a barely audible voice, "All killed by that murderous vermin ... including the Kovar-Rossaw family," his reply was toneless with shock. He met her eyes only to see that they reflected his own sorrow and rage. Defiantly, he added, "I prefer receiving the news from you as you feel with me even though your rank precludes you from joining me in mourning my loss."

Melset nodded mutely, sensing just how hard this news had hit him, and said, her voice low, gentle, "If you wish, Glinn Kovar, I will activate Legate Geldar's authorization to grant you compassionate leave as of this hour, to let you depart for Cardassia Prime and stay with your surviving relatives. Legate Geldar has authorized me to propose this option." He seemed to withdraw. "Listen to me, Glinn Kovar, we may be strong, but at such times, it is best to be with our own. I was to inform you the Prefect has ordered retaliatory measures. Each and every one of those civilians has already been avenged. In public. This may not negate your, our, losses, but gives the knowledge this atrocity has not remained unpunished."

The young Cardassian's voice reflected his struggle for control as he replied, "You are most kind, Gul Melset, but this offer is unnecessary. I wish to remain on duty. Now, more than ever, it is requisite to demonstrate our superior strength of purpose, whatever the circumstances, show that those who would destroy us have no hope of making us cede." He again made eye contact, "Showing a response to this incident could present an advantage to our opponents. We are not Bajorans to hide in a corner, hoping to avoid fate."

I hope you are not underestimating the trauma of this news, but I cannot force you to accept. Aloud, Melset said, "If you wish. Your argument is valid. You are truly a son of our people." Getting up, she added, "Should you have the need to cede to your grief, notify Glinn Arik who will free you and any close friends for the necessary time. You should not be alone in this." These empty phrases – if only…. She suppressed her wish to offer comfort, saw that he had also recognized her brief struggle.

"I thank you for your generosity and shall avail myself of your offer." He rose in turn, saluted, and returned to his post, followed by his commander.

Glinn Jal went back to his own post after a covert glance at Gul Melset - he could read nothing from his superior's attitude which only seemed a little more distant than usual, even cold. It was obvious, though, that she was watching Glinn Kovar very carefully.

The next morning, Glinn Kovar was not at his post, nor were Var Desan and Glinn Jal. By then, the news about his family had become common knowledge; no questions were asked, however. What could be heard, though, were comments about Bajoran terrorists and very drastic ways of crushing their resistance.

A few days later, however, they were patrolling the border in formation, under total communications blackout to keep from alerting possible Federation forces - the mission was to locate a weakness in the Federation's defences and attempt another incursion along a relatively unprotected area. The only exchanges were effected by pulses of static devised by the three Guls, which conveyed position, information on enemy emplacements, yet seemed an element of the usual background noise of space.

It was when they were closest to the border, near a cluster of settlements, that a loud burst of static was transmitted. An angry hiss and it ended. Melset had seen Glinn Kovar's back stiffen with shock as he hastened to rectify his mistake. It was obvious that he was deeply perturbed at his error, feared having compromised their mission and Cardassia's interests.

"No cause for concern, Glinn Kovar. Carry on." Her voice was even, carried no threat or anger.

Suddenly a message from Gul Parn came in, "Starship entering sensor range. Withdraw. Avoid detection." The entire squadron disappeared into space, maintaining silence. That burst of static had, however, aroused the attention of the starship's captain who transmitted his observation to the nearest Starbase, subsequently to the colonies nearby. That did not change much - the squadron would only shift position by some light years, then, at the end of the alert, return.

Melset kept her eyes on Glinn Kovar; when he left the bridge at the end of his shift, she quickly rose to join him in the turbolift, stopped it. "Glinn Kovar, I can see you are disturbed at that error. I assure you no harm has been done. We shall return to this area in roughly sixteen days. There will be no entry in your file." She looked up at him until he met her eyes. "You do not doubt my word, I hope?"

"No, Gul, but my error is inexcusable." He again stared at the wall, his face expressionless, but his agitation immediately recognizable by his tensed neck membranes. "I have permitted personal feelings to interfere with the execution of my duties. I should have followed your advice, Gul." His voice was rough, indistinct.

"There are mitigating circumstances." At seeing the expression in Kovar's eyes, Melset, thoroughly disquieted, grasped his arm, forcing him to face her. "Glinn Kovar, please listen. Major Tepek has agreed to let the matter drop. Guls Jasad and Parn have been informed as well; they have also agreed to this do so without expressing the slightest reservations. Your service record remains as is: flawless. We do expect perfect execution of duty under all circumstances, but errors can happen when nerves are frayed. See that you get enough rest. We have the next shift together. Remember: Legate Geldar's offer stands. Should you wish to accept it, I will expect you to return to the Orissà. You are an irreplaceable member of my crew." She looked up at him, eyes pleading as she desperately wished to tell him how she felt.

The young officer quickly met her glance, his own bleak, distant, as though he had lost all hope for himself and resigned himself to the fate he obviously considered inevitable after his error in spite of Gul Melset's assurances.

She hesitated, all too conscious of the fact she was committing a serious breach of regulations, before adding, her voice a whisper, "Devrin, I … do not wish to lose you, our future together …" Melset fell silent. Please Devrin, listen to me, understand … Aloud she continued, "The matter is closed, you have nothing to fear. Get the rest you need. I shall see you at your shift tomorrow."

"Thank you, Gul Melset." He did not say more, only met and held her glance for a few more moments than necessary before touching her hands fleetingly, affectionately. For some reason, this simple gesture had Melset feeling strangely chilled.

Before the door of the turbolift slid shut, she watched the Glinn make his way to the quarters which he shared with Glinn Arik whereas she returned to her seat, exchanged glances with Tepek who nodded in agreement before transmitting her decision to the other two Guls' ships. The rest of the shift remained uneventful.

End of shift …. All that remains are some final duties. After a meal, Melset went to her own quarters to register and read the reports of the day before the usual series of transmissions. Moments before she finally settled down for a few hours of sleep, Gul Parn contacted her. "Both Gul Jasad and I support your decision pertaining to Glinn Kovar. The incident will entail no repercussions."

"I thank you for your forbearance and will attempt to convince Glinn Kovar to accept the month of compassionate leave offered him. Melset out."

The following day she had just taken over from Glinn Masok and exchanged information with the two lead ships when the door to the bridge opened to admit Glinn Arik.

"Gul Melset," His voice was strained.

"Glinn Arik?" Melset turned to him only to see the tension in his features; with a sudden sense of foreboding she asked. "Is something wrong?"

He nodded once, then met her eyes, his own dark with anger as he stated, his voice even, but revealing suppressed outrage. "Glinn Jal wanted to invite Kovar to a session of hand-to-hand combat training. I let him enter to awaken Kovar who was still in his bunk, asleep, as we both thought. Gul Melset, it was too late, even though we immediately notified Dr Kedra … Glinn Kovar... he is dead, he must have committed suicide at some point during his downtime."

"No!" she whispered. Her eyes wide with horrified disbelief, Melset stared at her officer, shocked into speechlessness, before lifting a hand to her lips.

Surprised at her superior's reaction which was far too marked for Kovar to have been but a crew member for her, Traglor pretended to notice nothing unusual, continued inputting data on a padd, yet incredulously watched the scene out of the corner of her eyes. She all too clearly recalled the dressing-down she had received at Melset's hands for trying to fraternize with an officer above her in rank. Hypocritical Kelani – I wonder whether your relation with Kovar was according to regulations

After a moment, Tepek came over to speak to Melset in a Cardassi dialect Traglor did not understand, and grasped her wrist. The slight touch sufficed, the lapse was over as if it had never been; the gul's announcement was given in a steady but angry voice. "Those crewmembers of the Orissà who have downtime will attend Glinn Devrin Kovar's memorial service at 8:00 tomorrow. That will be all."

For a moment, Melset stared unseeingly at the display on the armrest. Another four hours on the bridge when all she wanted to do was to retire to her quarters, to be alone to cope with her loss. We are Cardassians – transform sorrow into rage, even greater determination to emerge victorious…. Suddenly, the phrases seemed to mock her. She did not notice Tepek give her an evaluating stare before leaving the bridge.

"Gul Melset, report to ready room. Urgent message."

"Glinn Masok, you have the conn," was her command before she left. At entering the room, she found Medic Jeskor waiting for her, holding a hypospray.

"Is there something you wish to tell me?" Melset's voice was icy. "I do not appreciate being called away for nothing."

Jeskor's dark eyes reflected compassion as he said, "No, but Dr. Kedra and I know of your and Glinn Kovar's engagement, that you were waiting for his promotion to come through so that you could join. The doctor decided that the trauma of this incident could under circumstances be too severe to support without some … slight help. There is this shift and the memorial service …. You have consistently kept to the rules, but combat readiness. …" The medic lowered his eyes.

"I know what you wish to say," Melset said resignedly, "… and for once, I am grateful for your and Dr, Kedra's initiative. You meant to say 'You must be strong now, show no weakness.'"

The answer was a mute nod.

The gul turned away then said, her voice no more than a whisper. "Jeskor, you have been a friend to me throughout these years on the Orissà. You tell me this: how to show strength and resolve when I feel helpless to cope with the pain of this loss?" She covered her face with her hands, weeping silently as her grief for Kovar submerged all other thoughts.

The medic came over to her and pressed the hypospray against her neck. "Gul Melset, this will deaden the emotions, help you cope. You need not be concerned that it will keep you from fulfilling your duties in any way. Even should you need this assistance repeatedly, you need not be concerned." Jeskor stood back, watching her. "Others have had recourse to this as well – you are not the first and certainly not the last."

With a sense of relief, Melset felt her emotions gradually become distant, less harrowing and turned to face him. "I shall return to the bridge. Tell the doctor that his assistance is valued."

Jeskor left. As soon as the door had closed, she quickly passed a moist cloth over her face, looked at herself critically in the mirror before leaving the room.

When she retook the centre seat after Glinn Masok had taken his own station again, it was as though nothing had happened. At looking at her superior more closely, Traglor felt apprehensive – Melset's attitude and expression now seemed more like that of an Order operative than a military: cold, distant, unmoved …..

The remaining shift was uneventful. Melset found herself desperately hoping for some Federation ship, no matter what other interloper to fight; her tension was nearly unbearable but all remained hopelessly routine. Reports from the other vessels came in at intervals, but revealed nothing extraordinary either. At the end of her shift, Glinn Yadrin arrived to take over.

"Gul Melset. Glinn Yadrin reporting for duty."

"You have the conn." She rose in one smooth motion, saluted, and marched off the bridge without another word.

Her feelings still dulled by the sedative, Melset assembled Glinn Kovar's files to subsequently transmit them to Central Command along with a detailed report on the incident. In the meantime, his cabinmate packed his personal belongings for transport to Locarian City on Cardassia Prime, where his relatives lived.

"Glinn Arik here." The young officer's voice was subdued.

"Yes, Glinn?"

"I have completed packing. Glinn Kovar's property is ready for transfer."

"Effect transferral immediately. Gul Melset out."

All has been finished now, bar the service; I know that Glinn Arik is distressed. He and Glinn Kovar were friends from early childhood on. Melset sighed, briefly leaning back in her chair before getting up to look out of the viewport. I have to keep my feelings at bay at all costs. Never show a subordinate a weakness or will lose respect for you as well as trust in your command decisions. And – I have just made that error. She remained where she was, mentally reviewing the phrases customary at a memorial service. The entire act was but a formality … the body would be kept in stasis then beamed to the family residence on Cardassia Prime for the ceremony proper. If only I could attend – it would be comfort to share the grief with Devrin's and my family; I can't even spend some minutes in the storage department to part from him. For a moment, the emotions threatened to resurface….

An hour later, after she had been notified of the files' arrival, Melset left for the officer's mess to force down a meal before returning to her quarters where she stretched out on her bunk, exhausted, concentrating on shipboard decisions until she finally fell asleep.

"One of most difficult elements in a gul's duties is taking leave of a fellow crewmember who has given his life for the Empire. Glinn Kovar did not die in combat, nonetheless is a casualty. He died believing he had harmed Cardassia, thus wished to redeem himself by anticipating what he thought was the inevitable." Melset looked at the attendees, her glance distant, cold with anger. "Glinn Kovar was a good Cardassian who served with true dedication, who shied none of the sacrifices demanded of him. This son of Cardassia was killed by Bajoran terrorists! His death, all deaths of Cardassians ascribable to this terror must be avenged at all costs. This we promise you, Glinn Devrin Kovar, your family, all other victims. We may be attacked, forced to fall back even, but we shall regroup, respond and, finally, emerge victorious. We are Cardassians!" Her voice rose with passion before she fell silent, saluting the coffin draped with the flag of the Empire. Once again, her voice rang out, "Talsvar Kardassu! We shall prevail! Cardassia shall prevail!"

Her call was taken up by those present, then, after a moment of silence, they all filed out, preceded by their gul; behind them, the officer's remains were beamed into a stasis chamber …..

At entering her quarters, she found herself facing Dr. Kedra. "Gul, I have seen to it that you have the next two shifts off, your replacements have already been contacted. Dr. Nysson and I considered it the best option under these circumstances. In case you need someone with whom to share your grief, I suggest Medic Jeskor. With him, there are no considerations of rank; he is, as you yourself have repeatedly said, discreet and trustworthy."

She nodded mutely, then said, "I am thankful to you for taking the initiative and shall follow your advice as regards Jeskor, if necessary." With a slight smile that belied the formality of her words, she said, "Dismissed, Dr. Kedra."

A few hours later, the chime activated and Jeskor entered. Melset's reaction was an enraged gesture at this breach of her privacy, as she saw it. The medic calmly addressed her, "Gul Melset, I am here as a friend. Come, let us talk, let us share." He inclined his head, but kept eye contact.

He programmed a very simple meal, something to drink. "This is our own custom at such times, at home, in Ubari Province."

Kovar and Melset shared it as though they were equals, talking desultorily, until Jeskor slowly directed the subject to Kovar.

"We have lost an excellent officer," was the tentative phrasing, "I remember how he always came to check on the injured – he was concerned about his troops' well-being, made a fine commanding officer. Dr. Kedra always became rather irritated."

A nod and a whisper of, "Yes, always. He was far more than that – took the time to observe his own subordinates, and when he recognized potential called it to my attention."

"Could hardly keep him out of the infirmary that time, when you were injured in an explosion." Jeskor's voice was low.

Melset nodded, "I remember his complaining about not having been allowed in. He gave me this when I returned to quarters." Melset pushed back the sleeve of her uniform to show Jeskor an ornate bracelet. "Arik … removed the one he had been wearing and gave it to me."

She did not see the astonished glance Jeskor gave her as he commented, "He respected your customs – respect for his fellows was one of the elements that made him stand out. Ambitious, but not ruthless, unless in combat."

There was no reply. Jeskor noticed the gul was holding off all feelings and decided against forcing trust. "Let me tell you one thing, he had no enemies on board, and that is the best sign."

"Only those we have in common, Romulans, Klingons, all those wishing to harm the Empire." Melset's glance strayed over to the hologram of Loo'Wess.

"Bajorans … all seeking to destroy us." He met her eyes, challenging the pain and outrage in her own.

"And they will pay. Gul Dukat assured us of that. But those who have been lost will not return with these executions." Her voice was steady, only her eyes were too bright. "Jeskor, perhaps you know…." She could not continue.

"Yes, I now know. You were engaged, waiting for his promotion to come through." He added, "Those few among us who knew about your plans respected the fact you never overstepped the regulations that you enforced yourself. It cannot have been easy."

"No, it was not." the gul admitted. "However, anything else would have compromised unity within the crew." Her voice was very low. "Had I done differently, my own demands would have appeared a lie."

They still sat together for some time, then Melset addressed Jeskor, "Medic Jeskor, I am grateful to you for offering to share with me according to your own customs. Should I feel the need for further assistance, I will march straight into that infirmary of yours."

The medic considered Melset carefully; meeting his eyes, she submitted to his evaluation. "I think you will be all right." With a nod, Jeskor left. There was nothing else to say.

A day later, Melset returned to duty. After the first shift, she went to the officers' mess where she chose her usual place, listening unobtrusively while reading a padd, relaxing after her meal.

The prevalent emotions the crew expressed were hate and anger towards the terrorists who had precipitated this development. Melset heard the Bajorans - "shrinecrawling vermin" or "scum" as they were often called - reviled, cursed, their culture viciously derided. Melset found herself wondering why Central Command did not crush them totally as they would have long since deserved. They had already committed enough acts of terrorism to warrant such measures. Why permit them to continue their resistance? A weak, contemplative, superstitious race which had been suffocating in its isolation and had not one property worthy of respect! It should be thankful to Cardassia for showing it the way to power, to rational thought! But no! Those Bajorans refuse to change, reject all the glory our people offer, fight back unceasingly... For each cell that is eradicated, another, even deadlier one, is created to take its place.

It was a few days later that she and Traglor met outside of duty. "What do you know about the Bajora?" was Melset's inquiry as she fell into step beside her subordinate.

The var was momentarily taken aback by the question. "We occupied their world forty-five years ago. Once we began establishing settlements, used the Bajoran natives for labour to extract resources, we became the enemy. Those primitives actually expected us to respect them! Originally, we had come to help them, civilize them... They were and are incredibly backward and superstitious, even have a caste system, the D'jarra, that is the ultimate in primitiveness! They should thank us for showing them a way out of their benighted existence! They spend hours in their shrines, praying to spirits. Their Vedeks keep them ignorant of all facts, promise them eternal life if they respect and live according to their rules. Nor do they exploit the resources they have, saying they refuse to strip mine an area to extract what they do not need anyway. They are a contemptible people," was Traglor's reaction. "They refuse to accept our inherent superiority and their role as servants, presume to desire acceptance as equals."

"And yet, both of us have learned and can use their language." Melset commented.

Traglor gave the customary explanation, "Of course. We have to be able to pick up chance comments, understand transmissions, comprehend their thought patterns to use their weaknesses against them."

"Now, to come to the point." Melset turned to face Var Traglor. "You may have wondered about my reaction on the bridge." She hesitated, then continued, "Glinn Kovar was a very promising officer, would have advanced to the top echelons and served the Empire well. His error was not all that serious; he had no disciplinary measures to fear, no loss of rank or dishonourable discharge, thus his reaction took us all by surprise; unfortunately, such actions can neither be foreseen nor avoided." Melset's expression became distant as she continued, "I knew him well as we had first studied, then served together under Gul Dukat; he was due for promotion within another three months and to be assigned a cruiser the very day of his promotion. Would finally have been my equal," She took a deep breath, "… with all consequences."

There were some moments of silence and Var Traglor quickly glanced sideways, not quite understanding what Melset had just implied, but Melset was as always, calm, distant in her bearing, perhaps even more so now than before Kovar's death.

The gul's voice shifted from pensive to stern as she stated, "I advise you never to let a fellow officer or subordinate see you react to negative information in public lest you lose their respect and subsequently their confidence in your command decisions. Do not forget your own instinctive reaction at seeing my shock at the news of Glinn Kovar's suicide. It was contempt."

You are hiding something, Gul Melset. I still wonder – are you guilty of the very breach of conduct for which you gave me that dressing down a month ago? Traglor replied calmly, "I would not exactly describe it as contempt, but discomfort, even embarrassment." Suddenly, she had the feeling her superior was testing her, thus risked a comment. "Yet you did react, the bridge crew could not miss it. In spite of this, nothing has changed. You are respected, implicitly trusted, and your crew forms a cohesive unit."

"That is because we have shared much together within a short time. Once you have attained command status, always consider each member of your crew, even to the lowest-ranking troop, essential. Discover and further everyone's strengths and help crewmembers eliminate weaknesses. Keep apart as befits your rank, do not make friends with or confide in subordinates, yet remain open to suggestions. That, together with foregoing privileges that fulfil no practical use apart from pulling rank or humiliating a crewmember, is important. But - you already know this."

They walked on in silence before Melset said, "Next week at this time, report to my ready room. You will be informed on your evaluation." A slight shrug, "Ah, yes, Major Tepek will be present as he has some input himself." At the door to her quarters, Melset added, "Your time here is nearly over. We have suggested your next posting. It should be under a commander who is as different to me as possible."

She considered Traglor calmly, then said, as if coming to a decision, "This is a critical period for us all who serve Cardassia, with some presuming to question the ways which have served us well for centuries. Your family consists of civilians?"

"Yes. My family is active in sciences, education, the full range of positions open to non-military personnel."

"Ah! Most interesting!" The gul smiled. "I did notice that you were surprised at seeing Major Tepek on the Orissà."

"Admittedly, especially as he spends hours on the bridge and obviously has your trust. Permission to speak freely?"

"Yes."

"The Order is an integral part of our society, but usually kept apart from military operations, certainly not requested on ships. You have explained your reasons to me, yet…" Traglor fell silent.

"Yet, seeing him there makes you uncomfortable," Melset completed the sentence for her. "All of the other personnel initially had the same reactions."

"It does, no offence meant."

"None taken. He is additional assurance for me and my crew. There are some forms of intrigue that ascribe traitorous tendencies to an innocent crewmember, could ruin this officer's career. Tepek protects us from dangers from outside - dissidents, saboteurs - and from the inside. There is not one area on this ship without listening devices, many of them installed by me after discussing their emplacement with Major Tepek."

With amusement, she saw the var's expression betray vague discomfort.

Melset hesitated, went to a corner, looked up, then, satisfied, continued. "Do you recall Var Ketos? His father was the closest friend of Procal Dukat, Prefect Dukat's father. Your father took the minutes during Procal Dukat's trial. Var Ketos decided that he wanted to compromise you in revenge, a pathetic revenge, it is true, but revenge nonetheless. It is best you are informed, especially as he had already begun developing his nefarious little plan."

Traglor stared at Melset, who continued as is giving a normal resport, "I can see you understand all of the implications. But for the constant surveillance instituted on the Orissà, you would have found yourself answering to an accusation of fraternizing with one Glinn Masok. Certainly, you had attempted to do so in the beginning, but since then, your contact with him has been within acceptable parameters. Of course, we must consider the instruction you were getting in learning to construct explosives to sabotage equipment, and passing on classified information. That taken out of context would have presented quite a problem wouldn't it? After all, you did work with Glinn Masok and Var Desan in a separate, allegedly unsupervised area. Why, evenI might have been involved in this plan after that unfortunate incident which found you confined to quarters.

Var Traglor was now staring at her commanding officer in open shock and horror.

"Ketos had planted false evidence, manipulated voice recordings. Luckily Tepek had recorded our conversation shortly after your arrival, the counseling I gave you, the reproaches so we easily found out the provenance of these forgeries. At being confronted with the facts during interrogation, he made a full confession. We, in turn, generously offered him a transfer which he accepted most gratefully after having expected to be subjected to court martial procedures. Unbeknownst to him, of course, his new commander has been informed of his error in judgement. In essence, his career has come to a permanent standstill. Your own name eventually would have been cleared, but suspicion would have remained, leading to increased observation, thus a far greater chance of disaster."

"I thank you for protecting me, and for giving me the information," was Traglor's calmly formal answer, but her voice conveyed rage, her eyes glittered with cold anger.

"You are, of course, free to repay him the favour whenever you wish, but, unfortunately, you may have to wait for some time. He has already departed." Melset activated the door to her quarters, "Remember this incident as well when you have assumed command. You are the others' superior, thus responsible for your crew's well-being and morale, even their personal integrity in case of allegations. If you consider this detail, it will assure you unconditional loyalty and the total support of your crew even under the worst circumstances. As far as I can see, you may not have to wait long for your promotion to Glinn, Var Traglor."

With that, she entered and the door slid shut, leaving the young officer to go into her own quarters. All of her people were raised to suspicion, even to paranoid distrust, yet this one time she had barely escaped even though she could have produced enough witnesses to prove her innocence. Watch your crew members, see to their interests and have surveillance devices everywhere. She smiled briefly, Sorry, Gul Melset. No Order member on my cruiser in spite of the fact Major Tepek saved my hide.

At returning to duty after her off-shift, she glanced at her superior's door. Perhaps, later, I can tell you how my career develops.

As she went to her own area, Var Traglor realized that, even on a cruiser with a crew of 650, duty could only marginally compensate for the requirement to avoid any close contact with lower-ranking officers that could provoke accusations of favouritism. No doubt a Gul could, at times, feel the need of a person he or she could trust implicitly, someone with whom it was possible to discuss decisions or conflicts, thus Melset's contact with Major Tepek which both apparently enjoyed in spite of their formal way of interacting with each other; apparently this was compensation enough. Serving Cardassia is an honour that offsets all sacrifices and difficulties...

A month later, she was called into the office and found herself facing Gul Melset and Major Tepek. It was Melset who addressed her. "Var Traglor, you are to transfer to Gul Ranok's cruiser, the Planzet, when we rendezvous in a week's time. He will continue your formation, offer you further training. Central Command has already agreed."

Tepek added, giving her the padd with her service records, "You are welcome to read this at your leisure. I assure you, there are no encoded messages." For once, he smiled very slightly. "Gul Ranok and Central Command have already received copies. It is not customary procedure for you to have immediate access to your files, but Gul Melset was very insistent. Success in your career, Var Traglor." He left without a backward glance.

His manner is a good sign. Traglor said very quietly, uncertain of the response she would get, "Gul Melset, I shall not disappoint your trust in my abilities."

The reaction was an open smile, "That is what I expect of you, Var Traglor, no less. Cardassia deserves our dedication and our love."

A salute, an about-face, and Var Traglor left.

At rendezvous, Traglor shouldered her duffle, took position on the transporter pad, then disappeared in the shimmer of the beaming effect. When she materialized on Gul Ranok's cruiser, she was determined to advance as rapidly as possible, by all means at her disposal.