Initiations

The past few months had meant various postings for the Glinns as well as for vars and recruits. Half a year a the Academy, half a year serving under various commanders was meant to weed out those who were unable to adapt rapidly to the demands of the commanders to whose ships they were assigned. The usual ritual was that the newcomers turned in their datapadds to their immediate superiors – their performance ratings, new qualifications and general performance were entered then, at the end of their tour of duty, they got their pads back to read, then countersign them by imprint. By means of this method, favouritism was avoided. At the same time, the Guls knew exactly what they needed to know about their temporary personnel.

After 18 months, the notification from Central Command's Department of Education came in as expected. Gul Jorad immediately called her into his ready room. "Glinn Melset, I have been notified that you are slated for recall to the Academy to attend intensive courses prior to taking your tests for Glinn Third Level. The Planzet will be meeting us in another day, so you can transfer to Cardassia Prime without further delay. That will be all."

Glinn Melset did not reply, only waited motionlessly, still standing at attention, for Gul Jorad to hand over her padd as the official sign of termination.

The gul rose, came around his desk and gave Melset the device containing her data and her superiors' evaluations. Looking down at her for a moment to meet her eyes, he said, "Succeed, Glinn Melset."

She gave a salute, then left. With that, her assignment to this posting had ended. She well knew her year of Order training had disquieted him in spite of her other commanders' commendations as only very few militaries ever opted for this area of education; Gul Jorad himself had concealed his reaction to the fact during her posting aboard his cruiser, but it was very obvious he was relieved the 'agent' as he had insisted on calling her, was due to leave his ship.

While she was packing, the door slid open and her cabin mate came in. The glinn watched her curiously for some minutes, then inquired, "A transfer already? To whom have you been assigned?"

"This is no reassignment, Glinn Marik. My recall to the Academy for further courses and interrogations came in this morning." Not turning to face him, she finished putting in the last articles.

Glinn Marik stared at her. "After but eighteen months? How did you do that?" he asked, surprised, before he could stop himself then, realising that what he had said could be considered an insult added. "Glinn Melset – I meant no offense!"

"None taken, Glinn Marik. This is probably due to my results during training, supplementary courses with the Order, the courses I have given selected crew members on this ship." She sat down on her bunk, undid her armour and stretched with a sigh of relief when she laid it aside. "Glinn Marik, you have been here for over two years – your own recall should come in soon."

He shrugged, then said, avoiding her eyes, "It will be my second – and last – attempt. I have to succeed when I retake it, thus have opted to present myself for the exams the session after."

Melset briefly hesitated; Glinn Marik had become nearly a friend – together, they had guarded each other's backs in the trenches, given each other support in numerous situations that had seemed hopeless, and, in better times, often beamed down together for shore leave as they shared the same interests. No, he definitely was an ally – and would possibly be a grateful member of her rapidly expanding network …

"Before I leave, there is something I wish to give you that may prove useful."

The other glinn quickly looked over at her wordlessly.

She briefly met his eyes before going to her locker to gather up a handful of data rods and said, still not sure how he would react as this was a sensitive subject, "These are yours, Glinn Marik, in exchange for past assistance. I have copies of my own with the exact same data. You will find useful information on strategies, mission reports, analyses of the same, technology, troop leadership, provided with comments and evaluations. This is permitted, you know." She held them out to him.

The Glinn took them, stood motionlessly for some instants, momentarily at a loss for words, surprised as he was at the generosity of the gesture; he rose to carefully place them into his own locker, "Glinn Melset, if I succeed, I owe you not one, but as many favours as you have given me rods."

At arriving in the Registration Bureau at the Military Academy to pick up her pads and security codes, she saw that Glinns from all over the Empire had been recalled to submit to this renewed series of examinations. She quickly, surreptitiously, looked around whether Glinn Kovar, her close friend and future fiancé, was anywhere nearby; they had not seen each other for months as they had been posted on different destroyers and had only been permitted to exchange some few short messages. As far as she had been able to find out, he was also on the list for the next phase of training. Even though their days would be filled with exams and interrogations, there was always the possibility of making some few moments between courses to exchange at least a few words, a quick glance.

"Report to main hall for assignment of quarters."

The lists had already been established so that it took but some minutes before the Glinns were free to unpack and get their bearings. Six to a room, mixed accommodations in accordance with Cardassian military norms ... no one was bothered by the fact.

A stocky young officer came into the room and briefly, evaluatingly, looked around at his room mates before introducing himself, "I am your group leader, Glinn Derasi – I take it you are Melset, Nabros, Budren, Joldek and Ceryl?" He met their eyes in turn.

After that, the Glinns dropped the formalities and soon began discussing their previous postings, their experiences and their superiors; outwardly they seemed no different to Starfleet personnel, but there was an undercurrent of strong, unremitting rivalry in spite of their being expected to cooperate at any time. The courses would not start before late afternoon, so that they had enough downtime to get to know one another.

All the candidates were well aware of the fact these tests would be far more rigorous as Glinn Third Level was a relatively high rank with a marked increase in responsibility, with the rank of Gul being the next step in the hierarchy; in essence, a Glinn 3rd level was expected to take over command immediately if the commanding officer was killed or incapacitated.

For now, they would follow two months of compressed courses that would demand unceasing work, both individually and in groups; all skills they had acquired would be needed to cope with the demands placed on them. During that time, they were assigned quarters within the Academy's area, the rooms were austere but serviceable, offering everyone sufficient place for work and rest.

When she input her code in her communit, Melset found a message waiting for her. It was audio only, consisted of one sentence. "Iníki, you are invited – you have but to accept."

To herself, she said quietly, "Thank you, Tain, perhaps I shall, someday …." After passing her exams at the end of her year of Order training, she had been contacted more than once to inquire whether she would be interested in transferring to that specific institution. It was very tempting indeed, with all the possibilities offered …. Melset pensively walked back to her bunk and began putting away the few things she would need. Tain's frequently reiterated 'invitations' did not disquiet her as he had taken an interest in her work from childhood on up, had often visited her family.

The exams following the intensive courses took over a month, consisting as they did of three weeks of interrogations on all areas of administration, security protocols, organization, leadership, weapons and general technology and strategy, navigation, followed by one week of rigorous physical evaluations which meant day after day of hours-long combat simulations, hand-to-hand combat drill at unexpected times, under all conditions they could possibly encounter, in all forms of dress, and finally, a series of endurance tests which came at the end of the entire series, each of these tests followed by a medical exam.

The element that was the most dreaded was the final test: transporting a pack of equipment weighing 65 kilograms over unmarked terrain for a stretch of at least 19 kilometres within an arbitrarily determined time, and that in spite of simulated attacks and obstacles, followed by setting up the weaponry within a set time limit, repacking, subsequently returning to the Academy via a different route. No one knew just how long his or her stretch would be. The command to stop came over communicator, thus there was no way of managing one's strength. While shouldering her pack, Melset considered the first obstacle: a wall nearly three metres high. That wall was not totally sheer, however, offering some rough spots of which she could make use, as well as a hint of a crack just below the rim, and, even better, roughly two metres before that wall, she discovered a small elevation which could be used to get some impetus.

At being given the command to start, she made a dash for the hump, leapt onto it and up against the wall with a running jump, kicking down hard against the surface at just the angle required to gain additional height. It sufficed for her to get her hands on the edge. Arching her back, the Cardassian pushed off again with a massive effort to get her legs over the top before letting herself drop. She landed on her feet on the other side ready to take on the 100 metres timed run.

A flash of light just at the very edge of visual range had her hit the dust, crawl over and under various obstacles, squirming under a low passage, pushing the load ahead, respectively dragging it after her. Another rule was that everything had to be done with a minimum of sound. Silence during all combat or reconnaissance missions was critical, and Cardassians were skilled at moving virtually noiselessly in most areas. In cooperation with her mentor, Kalem, Melset had begun developing a system of barely noticeable gestures that could convey the most important details and could come in useful later. For now, other things were more important.

"Begin!"

On command, Melset set off at a trot, orienting herself in the half-darkness of early morning by sensing the radiation, the direction of the little light there was through the nerve endings concentrated in the slightly concave surface of her central scale. At least ten kilometres one way – I've done far more and under incomparably worse conditions during my time as a Var and up to now.She kept up a steady pace until the command came through. "Halt!"

There was no real need for her to look around for potential shelter as she had automatically registered details of her surroundings in the course of the run, recognized and analysed the possibilities offered by cover that would permit her to see but not to be seen. Quickly unfastening and laying down the pack, she set up the equipment; suddenly, a slight rustling alerted the Glinn. Reaching for the phaser rifle slung over her shoulder, she hit the ground and, on her stomach, crawled to a place from where she would have an unobstructed view of the terrain to find the source of the sound. At seeing a slight movement to her left, Melset activated her phaser and shouted, "I have you covered! Drop weapons, hands behind your head – on your knees, legs apart. No rapid movements!"

The person adopted the posture demanded then, slowly, turned towards her voice, looked around before calling, "At ease, Glinn Melset!" It was obvious she had hidden too well for her quarry to spot her.

There was no reaction, only silence, followed by her reiteration of the previous command followed by the demonstratively loud release of the safety, the hum of the "ready" signal.

"Code J-P-OXZ – red." This code was the expected phrase which showed her that the officer was who he claimed to be; the Glinn jumped to her feet to walk over to her 'station.'

The interrogator, Gul Franios, first considered her before turning to inspect the equipment in detail, its condition, the set-up, and afterwards only commented, "Off the record, Glinn. Well done."

She remained standing at attention to receive his next order, "Repack. Return."

Within minutes, the procedure had been reversed, and she was on her way. Half-way through, a civilian glider matched its pace to hers. "Glinn, I have a son in the service. For his sake, I offer you a short lift – win you some time."

She looked to the side; the speaker was a civilian, an older female she did not know, yet who admittedly seemed friendly. Melset shook her head and gave her a brief wave and nod as acknowledgement of the offer. The oldest trick in the book. Never accept unsolicited aid from strangers, Cardassians or no, in battle or field training: it could be a trap – never leave your equipment out of sight for even a minute or you may find it being used against you. Towards the end of an endurance test like this such an offer was a great temptation, but one which, in real time, could be disastrous if indulged. This person could also be an observer sent out to check on progress together with the candidates' adherence to the rules of the last endurance test – to accept would mean failing the entire interrogation and being derided as incapable of ever defending Cardassia.

After eight hours, this final phase of the exams was over as well when she arrived at the Academy's grounds, setting up her equipment once again and standing next to it, at attention. Melset could not quite conceal her accelerated breathing rate; she had kept up a brisk pace, not once stopping for a breather.

The interrogator gave the equipment a final inspection, then input some more data into a padd before stating, "At ease, Glinn Melset, You are dismissed. Return to quarters. Notification of results at 10:00 tomorrow." With a slight smile, he added, "Some downtime would be in order."

Accept praise or criticism with equanimity. Both are only given when deserved – the one to encourage, the other to correct. She did not react to the approval in his voice, only saluted, did a perfectly executed about–face and left for quarters at a steady pace, as though the exertions of the past days had been negligible; it would have been inconceivable to openly show any signs of the sustained efforts of the past weeks. Anyone who did would be judged weak, without the necessary resolve. It would inevitably mean losing points off ratings. In combat, endurance combined with mental resilience were essential; a weak link in the team could potentially endanger the whole.

At arriving in the room which she shared with five other Glinns, one of whom had departed a week ago, she took off her armour and uniform, then offered herself the pleasure of a vigorous rubdown with a cloth first soaked in warm oil, then wrung out. The Cardassian appreciated this simple luxury which would have constituted true indulgence in the field – yet the entire final interrogation as such was nothing compared to what really was expected on duty, what she had already experienced in the course of the past seven years.

With a shrug, she thought, Eight hours … combat takes hours, days, even weeks … Filthy trenches, only very basic rations, hardly any rest, no privacy worth mentioning, often climatic conditions paramount to torment for a Cardassian, but … everything is well worth enduring if it means serving the Empire. After redressing, she sat down, then, luxuriating in the feeling, slowly let herself fall back onto her bunk with a low sigh of pleasure - the very act of lying on that bunk felt good. My comrades should be back soon as well… Three Varagasi, one Kelani, one Gerschechi and a South Continent Cardassian – it admittedly could be a volatile combination, but at their level ethnic conflicts had become a thing of the past. They had never meant any form of enmity – they all were Cardassians, yet the reputation of Kelani for conservative values in many areas had provoked jokes comparable to those told about the Bajoran kava farmer, the Klingon Ketta Lowlands population on their respective worlds.

Glinns Derasi, Budren, Joldek and Nabros entered barely half an hour later, "Ah, you are back already, Glinn Melset." With a sigh, one of them let himself collapse onto his bunk before stating, "The last one of those four interrogations was incredible."

"It was an endurance test – or did your interrogator trot along beside you and see if you are as voluble while running as you are otherwise?" Nabros said, grinning.

Joldek stated with a wry grin of his own, "No, luckily not. But it seemed like an interrogation – all my muscles are complaining." He hissed in disgust. "And yet, in the field, I have experienced worse!"

The others nodded in silent agreement, there apparently was some factor or another which made these tests of endurance more difficult than normal combat situations. Melset strongly suspected that the candidates were given drugs before reporting to the tests, but kept this suspicion to herself.

The young officers gave no further comments on the questions posed, nor on the physical demands exacted; there was no need to ask, it was that obvious: they all looked as though they had been through an especially gruelling session of endurance training, which, in fact, had been the case. Yet, all had experienced far worse on active duty; had they proven incapable of supporting the mental and physical demands of military life they would have been forced to demission as potential risks to military readiness.

Some minutes after the last had arrived, Derasi looked around at his comrades in mock exasperation as they lay on their bunks or slumped on their chairs; true to military ways, every moment of downtime that came up unexpectedly was frequently used to get some rest in between periods of exertion.

"Ah, don't fall asleep just yet! We'll be called to the mess hall in an hour, and should be in full uniform, or be considered incapable of pulling our weight – as weak as humans or Bajorans. Look at yourselves – a disgrace to the name Cardassian!" With a mocking grin, he stood at attention, ignoring the irritated muttering of his comrades, "Formation – march! Next test – survival of sonics. We attack at once! Take no prisoners!"

His 'order' raised some laughter and dubious gestures, but was obeyed promptly enough; the sonics massaged the tension and soreness out of their bodies so that, once they were back in uniform, refreshed and relaxed, the Glinns' mood had lightened markedly.

"Section D-24, proceed to mess hall." The notification was given via intercom.

All students and militaries who were taking their exams at a given time were kept separate from regular students and even from those taking lower-level exams. This was no precaution to preclude an exchange of information – there were enough options at the disposal of the interrogators - but rather a form of downtime to permit undivided attention to the demands set upon them.

The five Glinns covertly looked around upon entering the mess hall, then exchanged glances. Some of the tables that were assigned their rank were now empty, a few occupied by one, two or three candidates. There was no exchange of information, only total quiet, nor did any of the others join a comrade who was not of his group. After receiving their rations – more generous than those accorded during the past weeks – they settled down to eat, and soon were engrossed in a sporadic discussion of strategies, of developments along the border, and the odds of being assigned to a given cruiser. Every Gul had his supporters among the students at the Academy, especially as all Glinns had served under at least five different commanders in the course of their careers. These frequent shifts in posting were considered necessary to further flexibility, ensure immediate recognition of a superior's methods and the ability to anticipate orders which guaranteed smooth operations in crises. Only at becoming a commander in his or her own right did the privilege of decision-making enter into a junior officer's area of competence. A Glinn 3rd level had the prerogative of suggesting strategies after the first six weeks of observing procedure on board and that only after having proven him- or herself. If the strategy failed, decision-making privileges would be revoked for two weeks, an entry made into his or her files, accompanied by the Glinn's personal detailed analysis of the weaknesses of these plans. In the fleet itself, it was the Gul of highest level who had the final say, of course with input from the others in his fleet.

Guls systematically honed the decision-making abilities of their Glinns from Second Level onwards by assigning them groups of Vars and Recruits to lead into combat, troops for whose training they alone were responsible. That, however, was the limit of their command authority unless the Gul commanding the cruiser was exceedingly tolerant.

"Clear mess hall – Dismissed." As one, the Glinns rose, disposed of their trays in the cleaning units before filing out.

This command meant that they now had the liberty of doing whatever they wanted, even going off-base until lights-out; as of common accord, however, Derasi and his fellow Glinns headed towards their quarters to sleep off the exertions of the past weeks, a luxury in itself, too. On a cruiser, there was downtime, but everyone knew that he or she could be ordered to replace another officer at a minute's notice. As a result, many active duty personnel had adopted the habit of sleeping in uniform so as to only have to put on the regulation armour at reporting to their post. Their respective areas in the rooms of the Academy's dormitory complex were separated by weighted curtains to ensure a measure of privacy, in the same way as was the case on a cruiser; furnishings consisted of a bunk, a locker and a chest, at the other end of the room, communits and computer annexes.

A low whisper that was meant to be heard came from Glinn Joldek's compartment, "After all these interrogations, I think a nice Kelani Cardassian would make such a comforting companion."

There was no verbal reaction from Melset's area, only a protracted, malevolent hiss combined with an undertone of derision. There were always these phases of joking to relieve tension and she enjoyed them as much as any of the others.

Nabros commented with suppressed laughter, "Did you hear that? Give up, Joldek. You've been shot down – literally – each time; our ranks may have changed, but not some people's ways. They're said to be hot-blooded, all right, those Kelani females, but as standoffish as Romulans."

A laugh from Derasi, "No chance at all, Melset? You've heard Joldek, he likes Kelani. He is an admirable strategist, too. Pull back – regroup – attack from another sector."

The retort was not long in coming. "If he wants to spend the night manacled, with the floor as his mattress, he's welcome to try for some companionship." She was silent for a moment. "Perhaps you should suggest another series of tests devised just for him, Glinn Nabros: undercover operations. I understand the Order is always looking for highly-motivated candidates and am sure Joldek would make an excellent recruit."

The very thought was unnerving for the others. "Never," Joldek said carefully, feeling his way very carefully to avoid any phrasing that could be seen as critical of the Obsidian Order of which it was said it heard and saw everything that happened on Cardassia. "I want to find a good Cardassi woman, have a family and thus serve Cardassia on both fronts. Order operatives are, of necessity, obliged to make far more sacrifices for the common good than anyone else, and not all of us are suited to make them. I know I am not."

There was a murmur of agreement from all those present. Duty, Family, Cardassia, they were the most important elements for their people. They transcended differences in custom, could defuse various conflicts. The deadliest enemy was the one whose family had been harmed by a fellow Cardassian or an offworlder – that could never be forgiven. Conversely, help was never forgotten, either, and that gratitude likewise could transcend heritage. No family ties … for a member of their people, it was the hardest sacrifice conceivable. For that reason, Order members often mentored young operatives who appeared promising candidates – this offered them the semblance of a family.

There was a moment of silence until Derasi said, "Glinn Melset, you attended some courses with the Order as far as I have heard."

Her answer was immediate, honest. "Yes, and I assure you it was most interesting. Let me tell you that the agents I have met are all good Cardassians, totally dedicated to our Empire. They told me that not many have the resolve requisite to serve in that capacity but that all of us can do so in our respective duties, whether as civilians, or as militaries, or, for a female, in bearing and raising good Cardassian citizens. Should I be offered the privilege of becoming a liaison officer after my time of active duty, I have been informed that I will not be obliged to renounce to having a family of my own."

Renewed silence, then a low murmur from Joldek's cubicle, "… and raise our children to be true Cardassians who, in turn, will serve the greater glory of Cardassia." His voice reflected pride and hope. "All of us will have to choose our priorities carefully."

"For now, I'll serve my own interests and priorities alone. Sleep!" called Budren.

The comments and counter comments, now reduced to whispers, went on for a little while longer before they too faded into silence.

For all the joking and insinuations, intimate relationships among students and students who were completing their studies at the Academy were strictly discouraged. The higher ranks already had fiancés or were married, those who didn't adhered to the regulations. Surveillance was instituted in all areas of the buildings and the grounds. The goal during these years was to become soldiers and officers of the Cardassian Empire, strong, prepared to make even the most wrenching sacrifices, determined to see to Cardassia's affairs at all costs… Indulgence of any kind was seen as a sign of weakness; especially at times of physical closeness or even during celebrations with generous amounts of food and drink at the disposal of those present, more than one officer had become too communicative, with direst consequences. Such cases were publicised, the officers involved exposed to public censure, then demoted. They obviously were a high-risk factor for Cardassia's security that had to remain in non-essential areas of work only; their careers ground to a permanent standstill from the moment of discovery on.

Downtime as such was virtually non-existent – from lights-out to reveille, seven hours at most, was the time at their disposal for rest and recreation. These hours were kept irregular, subject to unexpected shifts, to ensure the candidates' flexibility under shipboard conditions.

Melset still lay awake for some time, staring up at the ceiling; she was all too aware that her year of Order training – listed on her personnel data padd - inevitably made her stand apart from the other militaries, and yet, her superior officers had invariably welcomed her skills after a more or less lengthy period of covert observation. Each Gul under whom she had served so far had assigned her duties which again had been useful in furthering her own abilities. With a sigh, she settled down. It was just another element to be dealt with.

When they were called to receive their results the next morning, Melset quickly glanced around the hall at entering and realized the group of candidates to which she belonged had become substantially smaller, by at least two thirds. Apparently the physical exams had weeded out even more individuals. Seventy-two of 250 had passed all of the required tests. Just the day before, one of her four remaining room mates had packed and left while she was out attending the last series of tests. He would no doubt return to his posting for another two years as Glinn second level, then retake the exams a second time – there was no disgrace in that - but if success did not materialize during the second series of interrogations, there would be no more possibility of advancement within the service proper – the remaining option was administration.

All personnel accepted that only a very few openings were available for higher positions within Central Command, leading to merciless selection procedures that made no allowances for any factors whatsoever, in the same way as combat made no allowances for errors in strategy or reactions. Only the very best were destined to lead, a detail that paralleled the principles of all other societies.

In contrast to human graduates, the young Cardassians waited in silence, ranks of Glinns in full uniform standing at attention, ready for service. Their relatives did not have the authorization to attend - graduation from the Academy was a strictly internal affair, the success of each graduate solely ascribable to the candidate's efforts. If there was any kind of celebration, it would take place within the family alone. Most Cardassians, though, thought celebrating success meant that it had been unexpected, and thus would give an opening for doubts as to the individual's true level of competence.

At the back of the hall, the doors slid open to admit the interrogators who walked along the aisle in silence to line up at the back of the hall, expressions neutral. The Supreme Administrator, a Gul First Level, of whom there were but nine in all of Central Command, marched forward, followed by the interrogators who formed ranks, then took their seats on the podium, not meeting the eyes of any of those present.

In spite of the graduate's discipline, the tension rose when a table was beamed in with their padds, arranged according to rank and area of duty. The results were registered on them, complete with each Glinn's evaluations, his achievements, experience in areas connected with command and leadership… all of it important information for the Guls to whom these officers would be assigned.

The whole process was completed quickly, so that Melset found herself called up within moments. She was given her padd, accepted it with a salute and the call of "Talsvar Kardassu." Marching back to her place, she surreptitiously glanced around … to her relief and pleasure, Glinn Kovar was present, too … then gave the padd a quick glance – sixth in rank. She suppressed a brief surge of disappointment, but 6 of 72 was excellent, considering the demands.

A speech followed, then they were authorized to activate their pads for information on their postings. This, too, was effected in silence, with only the sound of a muted intake of breath or a triumphant hiss when someone or another discovered that a hoped-for posting had materialized.

With a surge of pleased surprise, Melset saw she was assigned to the Orissà under the command of Gul Dukat. There was no vocal or physical indication of her pleasure at the news as the Glinn calmly deactivated her padd, waiting, but her eyes were bright. Those Glinns 3rd level to serve on the same ships would depart together after having been given the chance to notify their families.

The Gul in charge proceeded to inform the Glinns on when to report for duty. Finally, her posting was mentioned. "Orissà personnel, you are to report to the Likura at 4 hours standard time tomorrow. You are free to leave."

Melset belonged to a group of five; at seeing Glinn Kovar walk over to join them, she could not keep from staring at him disbelievingly for a second. Disguising her happiness beneath her military stance, Melset went to stand next to him, overjoyed at this unexpected development. The two of them had frequently cooperated, had been posted together twice; he was a standard Cardassian of Gerschechi stock, tall, slender, with pale grey eyes and fine features. After some conflicts in the beginning and increasingly amicable discussions together with discovering each other's interests, they had ended up realizing that they had much in common in spite of their different heritages. Later they had spent shore leave and downtime together in the company of their peers. Finally, Melset and Kovar had decided to apply for permission to make their commitment after receiving their promotions to Glinn 3rd level and completing the obligatory waiting period during which the Order would check their respective family histories.

She was briefly drawn out of her thoughts when his hand brushed against hers as though by chance, and he whispered, "This is fortunate, Iníki. I was afraid we would be posted in totally different areas of the Empire."

"I would never have expected this either. It would appear that we will be spending the next years together on the Orissa." She smiled very slightly, and risked touching his hand in turn, in spite of constant observation.

Melset was aware that there would hardly be any other Kelani serving with her, but this was irrelevant. It made no difference to which ethnic group a given member of personnel belonged. The only elements that did count were the Cardassian virtues of perseverance, dedication, hard work and determination. Otherwise, those with whom she had studied had learned, sometimes at a price, that her ethnicity was as Cardassian as the predominant ethnic groups as pertained to viciousness of retaliation if challenged.

At the very beginning of studies at the Military Academy, conflicting parties were expected to resolve their differences on their own. Anyone who requested a mediator was considered contemptible and weak. Melset had refused to consider this option for even a moment, vastly preferring effective and quick retaliation, seeing to it that there were no witnesses, but that the target knew exactly why the attack or sabotage had taken place. Afterwards, the matter was considered closed and the former opponents openly cooperated.

The administrator called out: "Speak the Pledge and never forget it as long as you are in the service of the Empire, as long as you live."

The hall resounded with the voices of the Glinns who called out the three stanzas with firm voices, each word pronounced separately, the rhythm a surge of sound, like an immense heartbeat. The last words were followed by the salute and "Talsvar Kardassu!"

"Remember this Pledge always, bring honour to our people, to your families and leaders and always be prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice. You are Cardassians, destined to rule the Alpha Quadrant if you do not cede. Dismissed!"

In formation, they left to return to quarters where they put on the armour of Glinn 3rd level, clipped the insignia of rank on their left sleeve, took their duffels and departed the Academy for good, everyone to his or her home or to the communications centre prior to departing for their respective assignments.

This time, wanting time to think, she slowly walked part of the way home before taking the public transport system's shuttle service. Deep in thought, she overlooked the glances given her, curious, or cursory with eyes quickly averted. That posting given her had been one of the most coveted. Gul Dukat was well-known as a gifted strategist, a deeply patriotic officer who furthered those under his command provided they were dedicated, devoted to serving Cardassia in all things no matter the price exacted. From what she had heard so far, he was also just in his decisions. In one case, as a Var she had met during her last posting had told her, he had insisted on giving a Glinn 1st Level the chance to redeem himself after having made a nearly disastrous error, and that in spite of the fact he could have had him court-martialled and dismissed from the service in disgrace. The young officer in question had never forgotten Dukat's act of generosity and, wanting to prove himself, had become one of the most promising candidates for later promotion.

At returning home, Melset saw Losir Damar was already waiting for her – he had been given some hours off while his ship was being repaired after Ghemor's fleet had fought against an overly curious and stubborn set of Starfleet captains. No ships had been lost on either side, the skirmish had served as a warning only.

"Gul Damar," was her greeting, followed by a salute. In uniform he was her superior and thus expected the formality.

His response was "At ease, Glinn Melset," before he dropped the formality and inquired, "Which rank did you attain and – which is your posting?"

"Rank six, my posting is on the Orissà, under the command of Gul Dukat.," she handed her father the padd. "I am to report to the Likura at 4:00 standard tomorrow."

Losir quickly read the evaluations, his expression neutral. "Tain will be gratified when he obtains these details; he does take a measure of interest in your career and has already inquired about you. As far as I know, he has already sent you a message."

Melset nodded and smiled briefly. She liked Tain as well as the operative he was presently mentoring; in spite of his crowded schedule, he had frequently taken the time to demonstrate some detail or another, such as how to modify carrier waves or disguise surveillance devices, reroute signals, or had challenged her to get her signals past him. The only ones who fear the Order are those who are guilty. Both she and Tain had agreed on that point. "He suggests I consider becoming an operative, Attàmi Damar." She hesitated a moment before admitting, "His proposal is tempting – I have never seen so much information or imagined such postings … Yet, I do want to stay with Central Command for a minimum of three decades."

Losir Damar nodded. "You are on his list of potential candidates. Remember that he has demanded copies of all your evaluations in the course of the past years." The Cardassian changed the subject, "Attávi Melset and Åvron are due back shortly."

Together, they went into the main room where they discussed the situation on the border, new colonies in the planning stages, impending expansion of the fleet in response to provocations by the Klingons and the Federation. Melset became very pensive; This development could mean early promotions to Gul for some of us, provided we prove ourselves. For now, though, it was none of her concern. She had chosen Central Command and the standard fifty-five years of service would offer many possibilities of advancement for officers who served well.

Afterwards, they set about preparing dinner; the food was simple but there was enough for all as the renewed shortages had ended two years ago after the annexation of a number of colonies along the border. The Cardassian population still did not have overly much at their disposal as to food and consumer goods, but what they had sufficed for at least a sense of well-being; that was already enough for the general population to consider itself privileged and wholeheartedly support the work of Central Command together with that of the Obsidian Order and Detapa.

Delhina and Åvron arrived together; it was a rare privilege for all four of them to be at home, in spite of allowances made for families at important occasions. Officers' families often were separated for four or five years at a time; this life style was undeniably hard for family-oriented people like Cardassians, but joining Central Command as active-duty personnel was a consciously made decision, with the consequences of this decision known to all well in advance; anyone, be it family member or officer, who complained about the fact became an object of ridicule and even censure. Duty superseded personal desires and, this was an important fact, families of military members were assured of support at all times.

The Orissà was just outside the Cardassian central system when the Likura arrived with the new personnel. They beamed over in a group to be met by one of the Glinns due to transfer off. The newcomers would later be assigned at various stations until they had made the rounds as it were, after which they would be posted according to their studies. For now, during their first two shifts, they had the option of observing and participating in various duties as required, in decision making if asked.

Together, they were accompanied to the ready room where their commanding officer was already waiting. Kovar had already given Gul Dukat the Glinns' datapadds He already had entered the data on the personnel list which he was reading before routing their files onto the ship's main computer, where he would subsequently add comments and evaluations.

"Glinn Kovar of Locarian City, rank 11 – navigation, shift II tomorrow."

"Glinn Jelad of Rodinian City, rank 9 – engineering, shift I, tomorrow."

"Glinn Melset of Perali City, rank 6, weapons, shift III tomorrow."

He went through the list, making and sustaining eye contact with each officer in turn. "For now, you are welcome to familiarize yourselves with the cruiser, come to the bridge, meet your fellow officers. There are no foreseeable emergencies, so I can put this time at your disposal for orientation. On the communits in your quarters you will find the layout of this cruiser together with a compressed form of mission files which you are welcome to read at your discretion. Should you require further information, Glinn Terpak will assist you."

Gul Dukat turned to his adjutant, "Glinn Terpak, show the new personnel to their quarters and give them their access codes."

The new officers had been assigned rooms on separate decks - it was always considered advisable to distribute newcomers throughout a ship to facilitate integration. At entering her code, Melset went into her cabin and looked around: standard quarters, a living area and a separate bedroom, sonics … it was austere, yet would serve well; there was even a replicator, deactivated, but installed. Glinns second level still shared quarters, so having an area of her own offering more than five square metres and with 'real walls' at that was an unfamiliar but pleasing novelty. She quickly unpacked her duffle, then requested a diagram of the ship to memorize the most important areas. Conduits, tubes, would come later, once she had cleared the question of gaining access to all areas of the ship via these passages with the Security Officers.

At reporting to the bridge the following day Melset's first impression was the prevalent atmosphere of unity. The Orissà was a military vessel, there was no unnecessary talk, everything ran at peak efficiency, but she could recognize a sense of unity and loyalty to the commanding officer, true loyalty, not just that due his rank. She took her place at weapons, quickly checked all the displays before adjusting her seat. Melset well knew that, at some point during her shift, there would be a combat simulation, but she was accustomed to that from other postings; at times, these simulations could present unheard-of, highly critical situations to gauge reactions and stability of the officers in question; they always constituted a challenge, at times even confronting the bridge crew with a no-win situation.

When all was completed, she saw to her duties, but repeatedly found herself wondering about Gul Dukat, what his methods would be. Her previous commanders, Guls Previn, Jorad and Jasad, they had been vastly different to one another: Dukat had the reputation of being one of the finest officers in the fleet. All of the Guls were directed and duty-bound to assist their subordinates in reaching their full potential. Gul Jasad had been her last commander. She had feared him, as had most of the others. He was one of the best strategists, gave his Glinns and Vars an excellent basis as to operations and strategy, but his temper was by far too volatile; even a minor error usually meant a massive, often humiliating dressing down in front of the other bridge crew. It was a Gul's right, there were no rules against these actions, yet only very few ever did thus except in the most extreme of cases. Once, just some days after she had transferred to his cruiser, Melset had witnessed such a scene: a Var just missed being hit by a padd which Jasad had thrown at a Glinn who had disturbed him at the wrong moment, then had found himself the target of Jasad's rage at catching the padd just before it had impacted with the communications array.

Conflicts along the border were escalating; for the eighth time in as many days, Gul Dukat's fleet had been alerted. Shift had just changed when the notification came in. The officers going off-duty briefly remained on the bridge, wanting to know what had happened.

"Five Federation starships located within the borders, Colandra system. Are scanning planets for resources and have not responded to warning hails." The Gul looking out at them from the screen seemed calm, yet the inflection in his voice and the glitter in his eyes reflected the anger he felt. "Gul Dukat, you are closest to that area. Proceed."

Dukat, outraged at the renewed incursion, struck the armrest of his seat a resounding blow. "Move to intercept." To the officers who were still waiting, he only said, "This should be over quickly. You have down-time. Make use of it."

There was but one thought in the minds of the entire crew: One of the planets in that system had newly established Cardassian colonies, all emplaced there to lay a claim on desperately needed resources that had been discovered on those worlds. They knew their civilians had nothing to fear: the Federation generously protected even enemy populations from harm, did nothing that could endanger them. The safety of the colonists was not the problem, it was the desperately-needed resources that were at risk.

Some hours later the fleet had arrived within sensor range prior to selecting a more circuitous path permitting them to see before they were discovered. There were the starships, scanning the first planet of the Colandra system as though they had every right to be there…

"Communications – transmit message."

Var Laset opened hailing frequencies.

"You have penetrated Cardassian space. Cease operations at once. I am Gul Dukat of the Second Order, and it is I who invite you to leave this sector. To remain here constitutes an act of war."

He waited for some minutes, staring at the central screen. It remained blank, nor did the captain respond to the hail with even an audiomessage. The Captain of the lead ship apparently did not consider a Cardassian worth a reply.

"I repeat: leave this area immediately. We shall otherwise be forced to render your ships defenceless, subsequently take you prisoner to see exactly what your purpose is in committing this breach of territory." Gul Dukat's voice was calm but the threat undeniable.

Finally, an answer. "Captain Fendrichs here. We are within Federation territory to conduct scanning operations prior to colonizing this planet. I am transmitting the details of our claim now."

Dukat's expression did not change as he read the information that scrolled down his screen. His voice low, just short of sneering, he responded, "This is a forgery. You passed Endok'Nor, an Outpost dating back 10 years, on your way here. It is a quite large station, recognizably Cardassian and, to my knowledge at least, it has not been shifted from its former position, nor has it been cloaked. You cannot have failed to see it – or were your external sensors off-line? …. Regrettably, I do not have the time to indulge in unnecessary verbiage, although it could be entertainment for both of us. I have issued a ultimatum and strongly suggest you comply with my demands or face the consequences for yourself and your crew." He leaned back, his blue eyes cold, unblinking as he stared at the human. "You have ten seconds."

The image suddenly faded and, simultaneously, the Var at sensors called out, "Phasers fully charged! Shields up on Federation vessel!"

No explicit command from Gul Dukat was necessary – all bridge crew reacted as though they were one organism. Within seconds, all stations were at the ready, the cruiser's entire complement of personnel waiting to man stations, respectively serve as backups in case of injuries, the harsh blare of the signal 'red alert' resounded throughout the quarters and corridors.

All waited in tense silence – possibly it was the human captain's purpose to save face with a show of defiance – at least that was the method used by Klingons or Cardassians – at times it did made their opponents back down.

It was not thus this time. The Federation vessels came around in standard battle formation, facing off against the Cardassians. The main screen activated briefly to show the human Captain and his bridge. "You want a fight, Gul Dukat? You can have one. We are not ceding this system – or any system to your Empire. We have claimed this world, it is within Federation borders and we will not withdraw." The image faded.

"Engage!"

With that the battle began. The bulky-looking Cardassian cruisers were surprisingly manoeuvrable, and the shuttles deployed when 'skirmishes' had to be terminated quickly were provided with very effective, though miniaturized weaponry. It was obvious that both groups were well-matched, with no one possessing a decisive advantage over the other that would quickly determine the winner of this encounter; it would be a question of tactics and endurance alone. Fire was exchanged for half an hour with no results that would have determined who would win.

"Glinn Melset, reroute section 24 of the main weapons station; Var Kailas, take over secondary systems." He briefly looked over at Melset. "You have given him training in that arrangement to achieve marginally greater firepower and quicker responses."

The Glinn was taken by surprise at Gul Dukat's remembering this fact in such a situation. He really does track and evaluate everyone's work and initiative… She met Var Kailas' eyes and inclined her head slightly in encouragement. He was a Var 1st level, very determined, very motivated to serve the Empire.

There was a brief lull in the exchange of fire, then, apparently, the Federation captains decided to concentrate on the lead ship, only doing enough to keep the others in Gul Dukat's fleet busy. A fleet commander would be a fine prize indeed.

There was a blinding flash of light followed by the impact of a phaser blast that had hit the body of the Cruiser, but luckily had not breached the hull. They seem to know that bright light is unpleasant for us, even incapacitates us for seconds The ship lurched so heavily that four of the bridge personnel were thrown to the floor, while the others clutched at any support they could find. After the impact, Gul Dukat shouted a series of orders in response to the reports that were coming in from the various areas of the cruiser; damage was minimal – evidently, the Federation captains were trying to incapacitate the Orissà without destroying it so as to take a Cardassian cruiser – a nice trophy that would be….

On the viewscreen, they saw the Starship come around for another run.

"Ready phasers!"

Melset got no response from her array and reported, "Gul Dukat, I have to fire manually." Quickly inputting the coordinates while speaking, she managed to hit one of the ship's nacelles, gave a hiss of triumph, but then saw that damage was minimal.

The Orissà once again shook under the impact of a phaser beam – damage reports came in, but none of the details meant greater danger to ship or crew, making everyone draw a surreptitious breath of relief.

"What are you waiting for, Glinn? Return fire! I repeat: 'Fire!'" His voice was harsh, irritated.

Var Kailas looked over at Melset, shrugged, then quickly tapped his display, choosing a series of surfaces that made his neighbour look away apprehensively.

"Ready, Glinn Melset." Var Kailas waited – three torpedoes at one shot…

"Phasers offline. Launching torpedoes." She fired the three missiles Kailas had activated for close sequence without waiting for the direct command of her superior, determined to put the ship out of commission. In combat there was some leeway for Glinns to make autonomous decisions.

This time, finally, the damage was severe enough to force its captain to call for withdrawal. One of the nacelles had been severed from the body, another torpedo had penetrated the central disk, leaving a gaping hole. In the message they intercepted via their communications, however, it became clear that the Federation captain had managed to get out a distress call to request reinforcements while his own fleet was regrouping to reengage the Cardassians

In the meantime, rescue pods began literally pouring out of the ship. When he saw that, Gul Dukat commanded, "Beam in as many as possible!"

At the very same moment, the report came in, "Two more Federation ships entering sensor range." There would be no captives this time…

"Reform battle line, prepare to engage." The fleet of six ships under Gul Dukat's command smoothly came about in standard formation; on each one, though, crews were hurrying to repair damage as quickly as possible.

"Weapons?" His voice hinted at impatience.

"Phasers still off-line, Gul Dukat." She spoke into the intercom, "Engineering - We need those phasers!"

The answer came at once, "Circuits fused. Replacing them. Only torpedoes."

When Melset turned to give the report, she saw Dukat coming to her station and bristled inwardly as he reached across her console, thinking he considered her incapable of interpreting the readouts, that he suspected the phasers were on-line after all.

The Gul had recognized the Glinn's slight reaction and only said, "If you permit, Glinn Melset," input a code she did not know but memorized with some satisfaction, then shook his head in disgust before notifying the other Guls in his fleet, "Gul Dukat of the Orissà – weapons are severely damaged, repairs being affected. Situation?"

The responses came at once, all with lists of damage sustained - it seemed one of the other cruisers had been taken out. Gul Lessan had barely managed to reach the border under cover of the fighting and was now concentrating on the most essential repairs, supported by a team from a nearby colony.

Gul Dukat was still standing next to her so, in a very low voice, Melset inquired, "Gul Dukat, request permission to suggest an alternative."

The very act of openly addressing her superior officer in this connection was a risk as the hierarchy was strictly respected and enforced. She waited with no sign of impatience, did not look up at Gul Dukat as he seemingly inspected her station's readouts. If he ignored her query, that was her commanding officer's right; if not, she would perhaps get her chance later. Gul Dukat considered the Glinn for a moment, then nodded, and stooped as though to examine her displays more closely; her lowered voice had implied the proposal was something she did not know would be acceptable.

"Proceed, Glinn Melset." He looked over at her.

The reply was immediate, given in a very low murmur so that only he could hear the words, yet clear enough that the surveillance device she knew had to be there would record it. "Gul Dukat - Orissà withdraw as if forced to. Simulate severest damage, plasma leaks, hull breach. Next: debris – eject with mines. Detritus carry them out of range of cruiser if our departure speed matched to scrap. Mines from cruiser about to explode unexpected. Other priorities." She hesitated, "Others – move off now, as though withdrawing. Re-engage after detonation."

To her surprise, his response was a low hiss; he straightened, rubbing his hands, his expression pleased, "My thought exactly." Gul Dukat relayed the order to engineering, then again turned to Melset who explained, looking up at him, " We fight and withdraw, regroup, come in again, but this is a different pattern. We are said to keep to patterns, thus a change of method will take them by surprise."

His response was to quickly grasp her shoulder in approval before returning to his seat. Confused, Melset concentrated on her station – she had only done her duty in suggesting this procedure – why had Gul Dukat responded as though she was deserving of the highest praise? The gesture was totally unfamiliar to her, made it seem as though he doubted her knowledge.

The command that came next resulted in some muted mutters of frustration from the bridge crew. "Withdraw!"

Severely damaged, under impulse power only, the Orissà limped away towards the Federation-Cardassian border, leaving a trail of drifting debris in her wake. The lights that usually flashed along her hull were dark, at irregular intervals energy discharges coated the hull in flickers of bluish light … severest damage…

"Open frequencies. Let's listen in on their little discussion," Dukat suggested with a hint of a smile.

The bridge crew listened to the exchange of news among the Starships, satisfied by what was being said.

"Best to attack while the Cardies are effecting repairs. Can get captives. To judge by the detritus, that cruiser has sustained heavy damage to its hull… weapons are out, plasma leaks on various decks... loss of atmosphere …"

"Structural damage, no disintegration of hull so far, but possibly imminent. They'll be lucky if they even reach their first outpost."

"Disable further, but not destroy – attempt to take prisoners or gain access to ship's computers."

On the Orissà Engineering notified the bridge crew, "Provisional repairs effected. Phasers back on line. Enough power provided no larger impact destabilizes the jury-rigged systems."

While listening, Melset stared at the screen, eyes slightly widened, as did the others, felt the commander come to stand at her side. "Get ready."

Quickly, Dukat nodded over at Glinn Bogdan who briefly activated impulse to give the cruiser a slight spin to the side, effectively angling the weapons array to have a clear aim just over the debris to strike the starship after it had sustained damage by the mines.

Turning to communications, Dukat ordered the var to transmit messages couched in static to the other cruisers. "Battle formation. Converge at my signal." To the Federation starships, the random bursts of static would make it seem communications had gone down as well.

Every detail was now prepared, strategy implemented…. Any time now…. For a moment, Melset felt slightly apprehensive – if this ploy did not meet with success, she would have failed her first critical test, a test her superior had granted her, trusting her instincts. She felt someone come to stand next to her, slightly touch her arm, then say in a low, nearly comforting murmur, "Steady now, Glinn, steady…" as the starship slowly drew closer. She shifted in her seat as though getting ready for an attack, tensed her neck membranes to full spread, didn't notice him glance down at her in a combination of curiosity and interest in spite of the situation.

Dukat's shout of "Fire!" was virtually simultaneous with the detonation of four mines and Melset's lunging forward to strike the phaser section to release a barrage of blasts.

"Yes!" was his sibilant exclamation when the force of the detonation marginally impacted the Orissà at explosion of the starship's nacelles. The captain had still managed to separate the disk to get the crew and other personnel to safety, but the Orissà was well out of range of the main shock wave. At the same time, the other cruisers in Dukat's fleet, which had been 'withdrawing' and were now just outside of visual range, reappeared to converge on the remaining starships in a surprise move, thus implementing the last phase of the strategy. After a brief but violent encounter, the Federation starships were beaten into retreat.

"Well done," was his comment to no one in particular as he returned to his station, exchanging a few words with some of his bridge crew.

"Withdraw to just within border. Effect repairs. Orders to transfer to Suyyok'Nor for redeployment."

Once the fleet had crossed the border and was well within the territory of the Empire, Gul Dukat rose to go into his ready room. On his way, he passed by Melset's station to address her, "A word with you, Glinn Melset."

She followed him, matching his pace, and, when her commanding officer had taken his seat behind his desk, stood at attention, eyes straight ahead, nearly unblinking.

He considered his new Glinn quietly, his expression neutral. Impeccable dress as expected of even the lowest ranks, good instincts, combative, committed to duty, yet rarely showing much reaction to occurrences except for, as during the skirmish that had just taken place, a hiss or 'positioning' herself as before a direct attack. In the month since arriving on his ship, Glinn Melset had spent most of her downtime in the company of only a few peers; listening devices revealed her interactions with them to be on a friendly but neutral basis alone, restricted to that of comrades-in-arms. However, she very often was in the company of one of the other new personnel, Glinn Kovar….

Via an audiovisual monitor, he had listened to and observed a meeting she had called with the six recruits and twelve vars she had been assigned on her first team. The seemingly innocuous questions she had posed them, her responses to their replies had shown her skill in Order techniques of acquiring information about individuals, judging their abilities and mentality without the fact becoming immediately obvious. She subsequently had assigned them positions to further develop those very abilities she had found, thus ensuring effectiveness of later operations.

"Your proposal was not standard practice," he began, "… but effective. Who instructed you in that form of response in combat? Not many Glinns would have even considered this slightly unconventional procedure."

Her voice and expression remained neutral, matter-of-fact, with no hint of pride or satisfaction as she stated. "Gul Dukat, my instructors at the Academy as well as Guls Parn, Jasad and Previn strongly advised us to make it a rule to analyse every situation down to its slightest details, which, no matter how irrelevant they may initially appear, as to their potential usefulness in predetermining an enemy's probable response, to recognize any weakness in strategy or defence. In this specific case, Federation captains will inevitably try to rescue survivors, will not break Federation patterns, thus you can count on having two enemies engaged in rescue operations. In our case, their fleet was reduced to three, thus markedly shifting the odds in our favour." She then added with distaste, "As to those mines, it is Federation settler technique, but also that of Bajoran terrorists who attack our enclaves; a common method is to attach explosives under gliders or suborbital transports carrying Cardassian settlers or goods for an enclave; one such act of terrorism was perpetrated only two years ago, in Dahkur Province. In comparison, our own methods are quite straightforward."

"Very commendable, Glinn Melset. You appear to keep track of specifics as to relevant occurrences and…" He hesitated, or at least seemed to do so, "… even adopt enemy methods on occasion. The latter is rather unusual, don't you think so yourself?"

"Gul Dukat, I realize that, under circumstances, this may be considered a shortcoming," she said honestly, "Yet even enemy methods, provided they ensure success, should be an option if they further the interests of the Empire." For a moment, her eyes grew hard. "All of the Empires and Unions around us, Klingon, Romulan, Federation, Breen, are trying to take us into a stranglehold, annex our outlying systems one after the other, or even penetrate our borders in an effort to force us back into our central system, leading to total economic collapse, a loss of most of our population to starvation and disease, reducing us to an impoverished people dependent on outside assistance." After a deep breath, she added, "Central Command is the front line of defence, thus the goal justifies all methods employed to preclude such a future."

The Gul nodded his agreement. "The unsolvable dilemma of the past four centuries, my dear Glinn Melset. Alliances bring trade, goods we cannot obtain otherwise, but that is already the limit, unless you consider smuggling trade of sorts. Negotiations with other groups as equals bring even less: deliveries are always manipulated, or goods hoarded to drive up prices for the most necessary commodities. Fight, annex, expand, this is our only choice if we want to keep the level we have attained and not regress." He rose, commenting with a slight smile, "You realize, of course, that this conversation has been recorded?"

Her expression did not change, her voice remaining even as she replied, "I expected as much. With all due respect, Gul Dukat, even if this had not been the case, or this a room without recording devices, my responses would have been the same." Her reply was unsmiling, even, her stance respectful, yet he had seen a brief flicker of some undefined emotion, was it anger or disappointment, in her eyes.

"This comment was not meant to express any doubt as to your integrity, Glinn Melset. Your sincerity and dedication is evident in your attitude and in your words to your troops," was his response. Gul Dukat again waited for some reply, but none was forthcoming, nothing but the same respectful attitude, the attentive waiting for orders he had come to expect from her. "Dismissed. Return to station."

The Glinn saluted, "Gul Dukat," and turned to leave. Her commander waited for some moments, listened to the recording again before returning to the bridge. Every now and then, as he walked around the bridge, his glance strayed over to her. She did not mention her courses at the Order's facilities. Of course, that would be quite unwise as it would raise some suspicions. Normally, members of the military have no contact with the Order unless in case of security breaches or exchange of information. Her stance and manner would indicate intensive training with this specific institution as well… An operative? Hardly. For a liaison she is far too young. Furthermore, her reactions in combat are too typical of officers.

Back in his commander's seat, he could not refrain from repeatedly glancing over at Glinn Melset, who was occupied with her duties. Seen up close, she appears fragile, but is physically and mentally highly resilient; that Glinn anticipates commands – she adapted to my command style within barely two days; excellent instincts, a quick grasp of situations and possibilities. He recalled one of the comments in her personnel file. 'Glinn Melset's dedication to Cardassia and her motivation to further the Empire's interests have been revealed equal to those of the very best of previous graduates. Her abilities, strategic and otherwise, are not to be underestimated and should be furthered together with her creativity in dealing with various situations. Her strategies may at times appear unconventional, but have met with success more often than not. I therefore recommend her transferral to Gul Dukat's command.'

Shortly before picking up his new personnel, he had met Guls Jasad and Previn on Outpost 47. At speaking about crew, he had mentioned the new Glinns he was to get. The reactions had been unanimous, corroborating the evaluations he had read shortly after in every point. Even Jasad had shown grudging approval as to Melset, albeit with the words, "You will be in for a few surprises with that one; she served on my cruiser as Glinn 1st level." then he added, "Unusual. In all, you are receiving good personnel."

Some months later, a message which had the crews and their commanders outraged reached the fleet that was under Gul Dukat's command.

Gul Shengir stated, "The Federation has annexed a system within our borders for itself, has deployed beacons to legalize its claim and sent a notification to Starfleet headquarters to have it registered as Federation territory. Proceed there immediately. If the settlement is not abandoned voluntarily, take whatever measures are necessary, and if it means eliminating all inhabitants and levelling the settlement proper."

For a Gul 1st level to give a command directly was a sign that the situation was far more serious than a mere attempt at annexing one system. His presence could be indicative of possible troop buildup in preparation for a massive offensive against the Federation. If Gul Dukat's findings hinted at a parallel Federation buildup along the border, 'skirmishes' would definitely evolve into a localized war.

The response was immediate. "Commence battle drills at once – two each shift with random changes in personnel." Gul Dukat nodded at Glinn Jelan who had called up information on the system that they were assigned, transmitted it to all communits on the cruiser to bring the crew up to date.

Gul Dukat then addressed the entire crew via intercom. "The Glinns in command of troops commence intensive training as of now. They are the following: Glinns Kovar, Jelad, Melset, Prenar, Yadir and Mossa. Those concerned are freed from regular duty effective immediately."

At once, the teams and their leaders met in what passed for a lounge on the cruiser: an empty storage bay that, at times, was converted to provisional quarters when used to ferry either prisoners to their 'work assignments' or settlers to their colonies along with their equipment.

Glinn Kovar activated the screen to display the terrain they would be entering, gave all present time to consider details and subsequently analyse them prior to the discussion.

"Suggestions." This order was meant for the Glinns alone. The Vars and recruits who were present were relegated to watching and seeing whether their own plans coincided with those of their superiors.

Not much was said at first while the Glinns discussed procedures in a group. Jelad, then Melset came forward to present an analysis of the terrain around the illegal settlement: flat, not much cover, trenches would be essential, in spite of some slight depressions in the surface – only possibility to operate singly, spread out, possibly surround before attacking from all sides at once to destabilize the population psychologically by submitting them to the stress of constant readaptation, thus finally rendering them incapable of prompt responses at least during the first crucial moments. This would also serve to make the Cardassian liberators appear far more numerous than they were. Counting the teams from the other cruisers, they would have sufficient manpower, roughly 600 troops in all with 700 others waiting to be deployed at a moment's notice, thus not risk having their forces spread too thin, making them easy to pick off. This initial simultaneous attack from all sides could throw the settlers and the protecting forces off balance, permitting the sixth group to breach defences, distract the defenders thus allowing for some few captives, and making annihilation of the entire settlement possible. To judge by the circumstances, the settlements could not yet be all that advanced as to development and defence systems as they were in the beginning stages.

Melset heard a subdued argument from her group and went over. "You were saying?"

Recruit Varko met her eyes unwaveringly, "Cut off their energy and water supply from orbit, no explosion as that would alert the settlers, but produce destabilization of current and electronics components. A narrow-beam, low-frequency signal could effect that, even set off some 'inexplicable' explosions of sensitive equipment such as communications arrays, sensors. Beamdown of forces immediately after. The distraction will win us additional time." He added, "The terrain is the problem. Contrary to Federation custom, they have their settlement on a hill…"

"Glinn Mossa, what is the composition of the top layers?" Glinn Jelad inquired.

"The usual. Topsoil covering igneous rock over a layer of mudstone, followed by sandstone, shale … Nothing potentially useful." His expression was disgusted. All of them had been hoping for some even marginally volatile substance in order to save explosives and cause unexpected – for the settlers – widespread damage.

"Then we work as agreed. The other ships will be sending in their teams as well, but that you know."

After the short discussion, the Glinns outlined their plans to the very last details, then under the supervision of Gul Dukat's second-in-command, attended a joint discussion of strategy before their plan was approved in parts and subsequently relayed to the other cruisers, to be combined with those approved there. A final plan would be presented within the next hours and automatically transmitted to the communits of all the crewmembers involved.

In the meantime, all those troops and Glinns to be deployed went to quarters to check their equipment, then reported to Shelan's office for supplements – phaser packs, medikits and rations. That done, they returned to their respective areas and waited for the go-ahead.

Two days later they were called; the troops went to the transporter area in silence. There was no need for detailed orders. Everyone knew his or her role within the team and what was required. To speed up the beamdown process, the cargo transporter would be used – the teams assembled in the bay, waiting in silence, mentally reviewing procedures, considering alternatives to strategy.

A telltale vibration showed the battle had been engaged and, at the same time, the groups rushed for the pads where they dematerialised and appeared on the planet's surface in a crouch, facing in all directions to oversee the entire area. At once they hit the ground to blast shallow trenches which would be deepened, if need be.

The plan initially worked as expected, but it soon became evident that the Federation had either moved with unusual speed or that the settlement was one of longer standing. Within two hours at most, the original defenders had received reinforcements, a mass of personnel, both Starfleet and civilian, apparently from other regions on the planet as there was no way ships could have beamed them down unnoticed. Where have they come from? No doubt clandestine activity has been going on for months already. Who was the officer responsible for this part of the border? This negligence was inexcusable. To judge by the expressions of the troops and her fellow Glinns, their thoughts paralleled hers. The traitor must be found and submitted to disciplinary actionlest this set a precedent. Melset compressed her lips in anger. All of the teams were effectively pinned down, unable to advance, unwilling to retreat even a metre.

The next order was relayed throughout the various Cardassian groups. "Deepen trenches – allow for overhang facing the defenders."

A smell of burning earth and rock promised better cover in an hour's time.

Glinn Yadir contacted the others, "Concentrate fire in southwest after trenches completed. They will try to take out the 'nest.' When detonations begin, stop fire, no sound, nothing. They'll think you've been neutralized, thus either come within easy range to inspect the situation or concentrate on the remaining areas, permitting us to strike a massive blow against them from the other, less protected side. Leave sensor-triggered charges behind in empty trenches to create some distraction, then close again. Begin forcing Federation personnel in that direction. Prenar – begin!"

In the distance, the troops could hear - and feel – the vibrations of phaser fire issuing from the cruisers which were in orbit. Melset exchanged glances with Yadir, saw he had the same idea – if they did not manage to obtain a quick and decisive victory, even the cruisers who had joined the attack would be of no use … It had become obvious installations had been established underground, thus effectively concealing them in direct imitation of Cardassian methods.

The battle was reengaged, but now with rapidly shifting concentrations of fire from Prenar's area, sporadic from the others, then shifting in intensity yet again in a random pattern.

The Cardassians waited, fought, prepared for whatever would happen, imperceptibly moved their trenches forward by blasting the forward wall and letting the overhang collapse in on itself.

"Mossa here. Movement towards Prenar."

A nod to her neighbour, then, cautiously, they looked over the rims of their trenches. Not all the defenders had joined the movement – they were not as naïve as all that – but even the slight shift could make a difference. All could visualize Prenar's men getting ready.

In about two kilometres' distance the troops from Gul Turrell's ship were engaged in battle – the situation there would be much the same – monitoring progress from the cruisers themselves while selecting targets to destroy or disable communications, infrastructure and level non-essential buildings while simultaneously beaming down additional troops at intervals, in unexpected locations to wear down the defenders by constantly forcing them to revise and change their own strategies.

"Glinn Ulašin here. Massive reflux of Federation forces. I am trying to hold them off. Notify …." His message was cut short by heavy fire followed by a violent detonation.

In the far distance, a cloud of smoke and soil rose, then collapsed in on itself with a rumble. Little later, the force of the explosion was felt through the ground. No one could have survived such a massive detonation …

From the other end of the trench, Yadir met her eyes. A moment later, a message came in.

"Glinn Kovar here. No signs of life from Glinn Ulašin or his men. All indications are they have been eliminated to the very last man. Shift forces to take his place." The officer's voice was icy with the anger he felt.

In helpless rage, Melset struck the side of the trench with her fist. Unnecessary loss! These men were, all of us are, being sacrificed in a battle of attrition to rectify the outcome of one officer's lack of vigilance and dedication to duty! So many unnecessary casualties! The Federation and that infernal traitor will pay double and triple price for each Cardassian who dies today!

Two days later, they still remained stuck where they were; nearly each one of them had sustained injuries, but no one requested beamup or even thought of suggesting to leave – two of the more severely injured literally had to be forced at phaserpoint to return to their cruisers. Through the clouds of earth and smoke detached by phaser blasts, the Cardassians saw the mixed group of Starfleet officers and civilians draw closer, ever closer, making use of every element of cover, at times systematically blasting the upper layer of soil to form ridges of earth for shelter. Their voices were already audible, as were some of the words. How many are there anyway? That however did not matter: the Cardassian combatants were sure the planet would be reclaimed, the invaders eliminated, the entire system returned to the hands of those who legally owned it. Worrying about odds was an exercise in futility – the only thing they could do was to even out the balance by whatever means at their disposal.

With a violent surge of outrage, they saw how one of the advancing Federation men stopped next to a dead Cardassian to remove his insignia, badge of rank and communicator then turn him over with the butt of his phaser rifle to see whether there was more to be had before stuffing his finds into his pocket like a Ferengi would latinum. With a smug grin, he slung the dead Cardassian's phaser rifle over his shoulder. The human then shouted to one of his comrades, a Bolian, to check two others, a Glinn and a Var, lying a little further off. Admittedly, Cardassians did not hesitate to search the bodies of their victims either, trying to acquire data rods, pads or weapons, all of which could contain important information or offer ways of creating effective defences to counter Federation weapons. At times even elements of warm clothing or protective gear to supplement what they had were liberated, especially when troops were deployed on planets with a cool climate; temperatures of below 20°C could seriously incapacitate and even kill a Cardassian. The act of searching a casualty as such disturbed neither Melset nor the others, it was tacitly accepted custom in combat situations. What wasoffensive for her and her troops was the knowledge this specific search was not being done for the sake of information or gear, but to obtain souvenirs to show off at home, to support claims of 'having picked off some Cardies'. No doubt these objects would be prominently displayed on some shelf for a time, to be gloated over, shown to curious neighbours or traded for other souvenirs, later to serve as entertainment for this man's children when he told them stories of great, incredible battles against the 'scaly bastards'. Too bad he is out of range… He would pay for this.

Suddenly, she felt someone touch her wrist just as she was taking aim and quickly glanced over to see Var Sanjol next to her, "Found depression there, crater opened by initial attack – far less exposed - can see better to fire too, Glinn Melset."

She immediately relayed the detail to the nearby personnel before beginning to move out. Melset looked over at her neighbour whom Gul Dukat had assigned to her group; he was a recruit going through his first taste of combat, not quite seventeen years old, but determined to serve Cardassia. To her pride, he looked totally unshaken, not firing at random but systematically picking his targets with the greatest of calm and efficiency as if on a training range; recruit Varko passed on the information without missing a shot so that, within seconds, the entire group began moving towards the depression. Increasingly, however, the battle shifted in favour of the Federation forces in spite of the Cardassians' efforts. Some 500 metres away, the situation was no better. The way it looked, the Guls would be obliged to recall their forces within a matter of hours. The very thought of retreat made her feel chilled – to give up, withdraw, leave this system to the Federation when it was on the very border of the Empire, already had a colony that was on the verge of becoming productive …. Their first battle as Glinns 3rd level – lost. And yet, their strategy had been approved by all of the Guls, had met with success in the beginning … She suppressed her apprehension, drew on the cold anger she felt.

This must not end in defeat! was her thought. Detaching a small but powerful explosive from her belt, she quickly held it up for recruit Varko to see. He nodded in understanding, keeping up his fire while waiting until she had cautiously crawled to the lip of the trench then raised herself up on one elbow to throw the grenade with all her strength. He fired, the beam passing just below the projectile, the detonation giving the grenade added impetus, propelling it towards the enemy in a cloud of dust and soil that served as camouflage. With a triumphant hiss, they saw it explode on impact, in the middle of the forces, saw a number of Federation personnel fall. The Cardassians pressed themselves against the ground to ward off the pieces of soil interspersed with shreds of tissue raining down on them. The loss of personnel on the other side did not make much of a difference, only decreased the intensity of fire for a short time, allowing the Cardassians to shift their positions very slightly.

Hours of unrelenting battle dragged on, defenders and attackers engaging, retreating, retreating and advancing in turn, in a mind-numbing ritual; slowly, however, it seemed the Cardassians were finally driving the others into the defensive. The Cardassians showed no signs of exhaustion; the high-energy field rations kept them alert as did the hope of victory. Encouraged, they again began pressing forward, some shouting "Talsvar Kardassu!" as a rallying call.

Suddenly the news spread that Starfleet reinforcements were arriving, news corroborated by the message from the Guls that came in via their communicators. "Starfleet reinforcements, three starships on their way, ETA in under ninety minutes. Prepare to beam up."

Encouraged by the news that had reached the civilians and the Federation forces at the same time, but in their case evoking triumph and renewed determination, both the settlers and the Starfleet personnel present shouted the information to each other as soon as it came in, then pressed forward in spite of the determined resistance of the Cardassians. Suddenly, with an ear-splitting explosion, the ground beneath the group seemed to heave, then burst outwards. Melset felt a surge of incredible pain. Within seconds, everything around her became a blur filled with urgent activity, as if in trance, she was shouting orders, trying to pull the wounded to safety, saw with apprehension that recruit Varko was unnaturally still when she took hold of him …, heard Glinn Jelad order her to beam up … every motion was a struggle against increasing physical weakness before she lost consciousness upon feeling a strange, numbing sensation.

When Melset opened her eyes again, she realized she was in sickbay, immobilized. She fought for full awareness and, that accomplished, tried to move her lips, feeling she had to know just one essential detail before ceding to numbing weakness again. A hoarse whisper, "My troops – saved?" Someone she could not see as her view was obscured by a sterilight, came to stand by her bed. With an effort she repeated, her voice slightly stronger, "My troops,…?" She fought for breath.

"Sanjol, Adral, Vardran and Kadrai are here, too. The others sustained minor injuries; they are already back on duty." She recognized Medic Jeskor's voice.

"Varko?" She struggled to pronounce the name – trying to overcome the exhaustion she sensed overwhelming her.

"Lost him, Ledro and Kemikor." In a gesture of comfort, he briefly grasped her left hand which was free of sensors and packs.

Her reaction was a low moan of distress and to her humiliation, she felt her eyes burn with tears. They were all good Cardassians; they died defending the Empire, but what potential lost…. She felt Jeskor arrange the thermal cover a little more tightly around her for warmth and tried to suppress her shivering.

Her thoughts were interrupted by Doctor Kedra's words, "You will be able to retake your post in eight days. For now, rest, Glinn Melset. You will be kept sedated for a few more days. You have sustained severe injuries to your right leg and arm, concussion as well as lacerations, internal injuries, broken ribs and damaged gastralia." Bending down so that only she could hear, he added, "Your reaction is forgotten – the sedative is destabilizing at times. You and the other Glinns did what you could, thus need not make yourself any reproach. Nor does Gul Dukat see any reason for a reprimand as you feared. He has authorized me to tell you that much." He made a minor adjustment to an aggregate in the side of the bed, "I shall increase the heating to body temperature to encourage the healing process. Ah, yes, and before I forget, Glinn Kovar has come out of the battle safely and has repeatedly inquired about you."

She nodded weakly in thanks, then heard the hiss of a hypospray and felt awareness fade again.

Five days later, renewed consciousness. Melset tentatively tensed her muscles in turn, felt some slight discomfort but it was evident healing was already well advanced. At opening her eyes, she saw Gul Dukat standing next to her bed, looking down at her, smiling, his eyes friendly.

"Ah, Glinn Melset, you are with us again." The concern in his glance showed his phrasing was an attempt to lighten the mood after he had heard from Jelad and Dr Kedra about her reaction to the loss of some of 'her' troops, her fear that she and her fellow Glinns had failed, thus compromising Cardassia's advance. "You and the other Glinns performed well considering the circumstances. You are to be commended. We expected to lose far more personnel – all of the forces deployed had a very narrow escape from being taken captive or killed. I have already notified Central Command – the one responsible for this sector was arrested and tried five days after. If it provides any comfort, his execution has already taken place – in public. I shall put a recording at your disposal so that you can witness it as well." After a moment, he added, "Your initiative was truly commendable, as was your sense of solidarity with and responsibility for even the lowest ranking."

"Gul Dukat, what do you mean? Which initiative?" Her pulse accelerated painfully as she said, "Why don't I remember of what you are speaking?" Briefly forgetting he was her superior, she tried to touch his arm, apprehensive about what he could say. At seeing her unease, her commander grasped her hand in a gesture of reassurance.

Melset heard someone come over quickly, but was unable to move her head to see just who it was.

Just outside her line of sight, Dr. Kedra had hurried over and held up his hands in a gesture of caution that Gul Dukat not say anything that could disturb his patient. "Gul Dukat, Glinn Melset will be in condition to give you a preliminary report in a few days, but for now I would strongly advise you not to exhaust her either mentally or physically – in another three days she will be released to recuperate in her quarters. You can speak to her in detail then."

"Understood, Dr. Kedra. I only wanted to see how they were doing and to assure this one," Gul Dukat gestured at Glinn Melset, "that she and her fellow Glinns are not considered responsible for the defeat." He drew Kedra aside and quickly gave him some information. The doctor nodded in agreement, obviously pleased.

The other four left in the course of the following two days; on the third, Dr. Kedra came over to her, detached the last of the sensors and supports then waved over Medic Jeskor. "I have to file some reports – you know what to do. There should be no problems."

The medic directed her to sit on the edge of the bed and waited. "How is it?"

Pushing herself up on her elbows, Melset got into a sitting position, inhaled deeply several times, waiting before she swung her legs over the side. "Slight vertigo, but fading rapidly." Her intonation showed clearly that she resented the residual weakness, wanted nothing more than to report for duty at once.

He saw her impatience and explained, "Only to be expected – you were sedated for roughly nine days in all to accelerate regeneration." Some moments later, he said, "Now, Glinn, try to stand." Jeskor held out his arm which she grasped tightly, easing herself over the side, gradually putting her weight on her legs before taking some tentative steps. Melset looked down at her body and saw that her legs and left arm were still slightly swollen and discoloured, her side and abdomen bruised even beneath the thicker scales that were reinforced by bony plates.

Jeskor followed her gaze and commented, "The swelling will subside within another day or two, as will the discoloration. That entire area looked far more … interesting … when you were beamed in. Dr. Kedra has requested you be granted three more days of recuperation in your quarters; report here on the third day for a final physical, and he will decide." Not responding to her suppressed exclamation of annoyance at the delay, he went over to the storage room to return with clothing.

Melset grinned amusedly while he was helping her dress and, when she noticed his curious expression, explained, "Just remembering when I was taken prisoner; it was during my time as a Var on Gul Previn's ship. This," She indicated herself – she was still half-naked, "… would have been unthinkable. That was an experience: separate cells, rooms and facilities for males and females, a 'chaperone' as they called it when a male medical officer of no matter which race treated a female prisoner or patient, or if he had to go into her cell, respectively to her bed. …There were even privacy screens installed in all of the cells." She shook her head, "Crew quarters as we have them? They considered them primitive beyond belief; 'demeaning' was the term they used."

The medic held the leisure uniform top closed while Melset hooked the fastenings together, then gave it a slight tug to adjust the tight-fitting garment.

Fascinated by what she had told him, Jeskor wondered about those concepts which were so very alien to them both. Cardassians were highly-disciplined, geared to duty. If the presence of a fellow troop of the opposite gender proved distracting, that was to the discredit of the distracted. All served Cardassia – there was time for service, there was time for other elements, but never on duty, never in crew quarters, but only within their families and homes in the Empire. Apparently a few Humans tended to transpose their own norms to all other aliens, especially those they considered either a threat or, conversely, attractive.

With a gesture of respect, Jeskor said, "Provided you feel safe enough with me, Glinn Melset, I am to accompany you to your quarters." When she wanted to protest, his expression became serious, "It is some distance, and a fall could have severe effects at this time."

Melset shrugged in unwilling resignation; Cardassian ships' corridors with their elevated elements that were part of the inner support of the vessels made no allowances for any form of disability. With a wry grin, she stated, "Wouldn't want more downtime in that sickbay of Dr Kedra's."

They were nearly at the door when Dr Kedra entered to give Jeskor a data chip. "Just a moment! The commander has authorized her replicator to be activated for those three days to produce level 7A to 7C foods with supplements."

Not believing that she had understood him correctly, Glinn Melset could not help staring at the medical officer incredulously. Level 7 rations! She had never even seen, let alone had this unheard-of luxury. 'Legate's rations', they were called by the lower ranks.

"Gul Dukat insisted on this, stating that you and your comrades have to regain your strength quickly. He was quite concerned." Anyone could recognize that the doctor was pleased about the fact.

"This is most kind." The Glinn's gratitude was unmistakable.

"Ah, yes, one more thing: he will come to your quarters to debrief you in roughly six hours; he needs the remaining information for his reports and says that he will keep the session as short as possible as he has already obtained many of the details from your comrades."

The way to her quarters went smoothly, but very slowly, much to her disgust. In one of the corridors, they met Var Kadrai who saluted, then asked, "Glinn Melset? I trust you are well?"

She returned the salute with a friendly nod and replied, "Yes, Var Kadrai. Three more days and I can finally retake my post. And you?"

"On duty since five days ago. I only sustained some fractures and lacerations. The Gul was most generous with our rations – I have never before experienced that." Var Kadrai added, "Gul Dukat said that this is the least he can do for us."

"It would appear he is concerned about all his subordinates' well-being. The reports I have heard about his actions towards his crew are an understatement." She smiled at the var. That is one thing to always keep in mind – show concern for your subordinates, see to their interests; it will create loyalty and trust.

Kadrai looked at her, strangely hesitant, before saying in a very low voice, "I am in your debt, too, Glinn Melset." He saluted once again then went to rejoin the bridge crew, leaving Melset staring after him wonderingly.

Once they had entered Melset's quarters, Jeskor helped her to the table, quickly programmed the replicator and brought her the meal. "Enjoy. In the meantime I'll get the replacement uniform from quartermaster Shelan. He could do nothing with the other one – irreparable. You should have seen his face when he saw what was left over of the thing." He laughed briefly, commenting as he went out, "He parts with material as hard as does a Ferengi with latinum!" Half an hour … Kedra said this one will not touch those rations in front of anyone not entitled to them as they are far beyond standard fare. Jeskor hoped that his manner had put her a little more at ease about this luxury which she was so reluctant to accept.

Once she had finished and replaced the dishes in the replicator, Jeskor was back with the new uniform and armour; he held them up for her to inspect for flaws before laying them in her storage compartment.

"Standard Glinn's Issue." He commented with an exaggerated look of disappointment.

"Third level, I presume?" She inquired with a sigh of mock resignation.

The reply was a low, amused hiss, "Only issue he was willing to part with, I fear. He was quite firm about that little detail. I know. I tried." He turned to leave. "The commander will come to debrief you in roughly five hours."

Outside of duty, there seldom was time for relaxation, some joking, discussions, interrogation games, or games of strategy; considering the fact that, in principle, everyone was on duty even during downtime, periods of total relaxation were a luxury deeply appreciated by all. The medic, provided he had downtime as well, often joined the officers. Sickbay staff, while not necessarily military personnel, was always welcome – they were essential to the efforts of Central Command, at times had access to unexpected information. Medic Jeskor was popular among the troops on Gul Dukat's ship; he was competent, concerned, yet kept his distance; Jeskor was no Kelani, but his South Continent ethnicity had virtually the same principles as did Melset's; he often spent some time together with the others, and every now and then, Jeskor joined in practice sessions, specialized as he was in Romulan techniques in hand-to-hand combat; his father had been with the Order and had once taken him along for a year's stay on the main world. Everyone knew Jeskor had desperately wanted admittance to the Academy, but a medical condition had precluded his selecting an officer's career. True to Cardassian mentality, he had wasted no time regretting the fact, immediately opting for duty in a capacity that would support Central Command's efforts just as effectively.

"So," he had told her during her first physical, his expression serious. "I decided I could just as well help our personnel get back on their feet, respectively keep them there. Everyone can serve the Empire, no matter what the task."

As soon as she was alone, Melset lay down; the effort of walking to her quarters and the relatively large, very rich meal had her deeply asleep within moments. Four hours later, she rose, cleansed herself, then dressed in uniform, complete with the armour. In no way was she about to submit to a debriefing in leisure attire or even basic uniform. That done, the Glinn waited quietly, reading a data rod one of her comrades had brought by during her absence.

The door chime activated.

"Enter."

It was Gul Dukat. Melset rose to stand at attention and saluted him with the words, "Talsvar Kardassu!"

Her commanding officer answered in like, then said, "Ah, Glinn Melset, I wish to say that Dr. Kedra has informed me that you should be back at your post in three days. For now, all I want to do is to ask you for an account of the combat, together with an evaluation of your troops' actions under fire."

Still standing at attention, the Glinn began her report. "Operations Stardate…"

He gestured to interrupt her after considering her for a moment. "At ease, Glinn Melset. Sit down – I shall do so myself. You may still be feeling some residual weakness." At seeing her hesitate, he took a seat first, indicated she take the other chair.

She reluctantly followed suit and gave each detail of the situation of which they had been apprised, subsequently had encountered, the strategies used, defence tactics up to the point of the detonation, followed by troop evacuations. Gul Dukat still asked some questions to clarify a few aspects, then nodded, satisfied.

"A most comprehensive report – it corroborates the statements given by your troops in their entirety." He took a separate padd before asking, his voice very low, "One last duty to perform: about Recruit Varko… Glinn Jelad has already seen to Vars Ledro's and Kemikor's files."

She drew a deep breath and recounted her observations, concluding with, "According to his files, he had no prior combat experience whatsoever apart from basic training and combat simulations at the Academy, yet remained calm under fire even when the situation became critical. There was no panicked shooting, as is often the case with first-time combatants. Recruit Varko chose his targets quickly, efficiently, showed excellent reactions, fine aim. Not one blast was wasted. He was very quick, too, at anticipating moves. When I held up the grenade, he understood my plan at once, firing at precisely the right angle underneath so that the explosive would not be prematurely detonated, but rather gain added distance and impetus." With a hiss of satisfaction, she added, "It fell into the middle of that nest of Federation forces, eliminated a fair number of them, I should hope." Her voice became very low in her attempt to keep it even, "He died like a true Cardassian, fighting to the end, even though the situation was hopeless." The Glinn bit her lips, slightly inclined her head. "They were good troops, all of them who were lost in that battle."

At noticing her surreptitious struggle for control, Gul Dukat looked at her quietly, recognized the pain in her eyes, and said, his voice distant, recalling his own experiences in the course of his career, friends lost, fine officers all of them, even a fiancée a long time ago when he was a Glinn 2nd level. "I know the feelings you are presently experiencing, have experienced them repeatedly myself. Whoever doesn't is not suited for command as he would sacrifice lives far too lightly and thus lose the loyalty of his men. The loss of personnel is never easy, nor does it become easier with time. These events are an integral part of command. You are responsible for the troops and, as such, feel commitment to ensure their well-being, take them into battle, bring them back safely; they become nearly like family; as a Glinn you will soon be leading up to 120 men into battle. As a Gul, you have up to 650 lives in your hands. When we sustain such traumatizing losses, all that can be done is to channel grief and anger into even greater determination, to exact retaliation for each single Cardassian, be it civilian, troop or officer, who has given his life for The Empire."

The answer was a barely perceptible nod as she said, "Gul Dukat, I also grieve for the potential that has been lost due to recruit Varko's and the other men's death; they are irreplaceable, all of them would have had so much to contribute to our efforts - you assigned me excellent troops - but Varko …" She hesitated briefly, choosing her words, "…would have had the potential to rise through the ranks to the top echelons. When Glinn Terpak gave me the list of troops, I requested my personnel assemble in one of the empty storage bays so that I could speak to and evaluate them. I thought it essential to have some preliminary impression of those I was to lead. It was obvious from the very beginning that he had potential."

"How did you recognize that?" Gul Dukat met her eyes, his own reflecting curiosity.

"He was always looking to gain more knowledge, studied everything he could find about strategy, weapons systems, analysed previous conflicts and the tactics used by our enemies, our countermeasures, transferred them to analyse present conflicts, creatively working with strategies; had he lived, I would have proposed him for early promotion to Var … Rarely have I seen such dedication. During the establishment of strategy for this past conflict, my fellow Glinns and I discussed the situation, before I asked for input from the Vars and recruits." She hesitated briefly. "I realize they are the lowest echelons, thus normally excluded from planning, but at times the rank and file have excellent instincts – with your permission, I should like to help my troops develop them."

"You have it without asking, Glinn Melset. Those troops are your responsibility; by the way, my second in command and I have decided to expand your own team to sixty men." When she met his eyes at absorbing this unexpected development, he added, "You have deserved this advancement."

"Gul Dukat, permission to ask a question." Her voice was even.

"Proceed, Glinn Melset."

"Gul Dukat, what did I do after that explosion? Var Kadrai addressed it, you did when you came to Sickbay the first time." She sighed slightly, "It seems I am the only one who does not recall the matter."

"First of all, you eliminated a group of combatants who were about to take out Glinn Mossa's troops, in the end, you tried to get as many of the injured out of harm's way as you could; together with Glinn Jelad, you must have pulled seven or eight of them to safety so that they could be beamed out simultaneously, which most likely kept them alive as fire was increasing to such a degree we were already considering strategic withdrawal. Jelad finally stunned you when he realized that you were seriously injured yourself, but not before you had thrown yourself to the ground to fire some more phaser blasts towards some Federation forces who were attempting to take prisoners." He waited a moment, "Even unconscious, you refused to let go of Varko. They had to cut off the piece of uniform you were clutching in your attempt to drag him away before they could get you onto that biobed, and even then, you were demanding to be debriefed, although you were in no condition to hear any questions, let alone respond. You obviously were under the impression that you had failed the Empire."

A nod of acknowledgement was the only reaction. "Thank you, Gul Dukat. You are most kind. But I recall nothing of this." He saw a brief flicker of apprehension in her eyes.

"There is no cause for concern; you have a mild form of shell shock that will wear off in another day or so. You may have experienced combat more than once, but this was … different, far more intensive. Let me assure you that short-term memory loss can happen to anyone and constitutes no sign of weakness, it is only a form of mental self-defence; even we occasionally need some time to process traumatic memories." Gul Dukat considered her while remembering his own time as a Glinn: the conflicts, the questions …

Pensively, Melset looked at her hands; obviously Jeskor had tried to take care of her nails – the edges were slightly jagged in places where they had been split to the quick. For some reason, the fact annoyed her. She shook her head, muttering disgustedly to herself, "Not regulation…"

"Your uniform is, Glinn Melset," was Gul Dukat's comment. "Your troops were exactly the same – exemplary. Not one came to his debriefing in leisure attire or basic uniform, even though they had just been released from sickbay."

Her response was immediate. "It is but our duty. A superior is due respect."

All the while, her commanding officer had been looking around her quarters as if in thought while listening to her reports. Now, with the debriefing at its end, he commented, shifting position on his chair to fully take in the living area. "Glinn Melset, I have noticed there is nothing here at all to show anyone occupies these rooms, apart from that spare uniform in the closet." His voice had shifted to Varagasi mode, with slightly greater differences in pitch. His attitude was now relaxed, even friendly.

She looked up at him in surprise. Why is he asking this? Melset decided to answer honestly. "I consider it best to have nothing on display that would show my interests, heritage or preferences. Quarters should be a neutral setting. In case a subordinate has to be counselled, it prevents his trying to ingratiate himself in the hopes of avoiding disciplinary action by creating a bond of common interest."

"And, conversely, this permits you to see where security might have installed listening devices, so as to try and deactivate them for a brief time? Or perhaps discourage an undercover Order operative?" His intonation was very serious, unsmiling, belying the glint in his eyes.

Startled at what she considered an implied accusation, she answered, "No, Gul Dukat, the very idea is inconceivable! Those devices are essential to ensure our safety. To attempt to sabotage them would be irresponsible, a court-martial offence! Quarters are the most likely place for indiscretions to occur. As to the Order, it is one of the three pillars of our society."

There was a moment of silence as he absorbed the words. "You do appear to very much appreciate the Order," was the half-sneering, drawled reply as his eyes, so intensive a shade of blue, became cold, evaluating.

She did not react to the abrupt shift in his manner, realizing at once that he was one of the Militaries who resented the Order. "Yes, Gul Dukat. It is the first line of defence within the borders of the Empire, uncovering dissident movements or agents from offworld who could destabilize all we have gained over the past five hundred years. Detapa administrates civilian affairs in all their complexity, and Central Command ensures the integrity of Cardassia's borders at all times, in conjunction with securing resources in other systems, helping us expand our territory, without which we would be lost, regress to a third-rate power open to invasion." She met his eyes, her own unwavering, their expression open. "They all three serve Cardassia in equal measure." I do not understand – this is common knowledge already taught in the first year of education. Have I made such a serious error that my commander feels compelled to make me reconsider these basic facts?

He did not answer at once, considering the Glinn sitting across from him. Unusual colour of eyes and very attractive features. For all her control, there seems to be quite a temperament and passion under that calm surface, to judge by what the troops said about her actions in battle. "Well, my dear Glinn Melset," he said, leaning back and looking at her over the tips of his steepled fingers, "I have taken the time to read your complete file and seen you took a year of courses with the Order. In spite of this unusually extensive workload, you graduated Glinn 3rd level a few weeks ago, 6th in rank, at barely age 24, which is quite an accomplishment in itself." With a mocking smile, he asked, "The Order was helpful, wasn't it? It is said to further and protect its own."

Her answer was immediate, even, without the slightest hint of the resentment she felt at the insinuation. "With all due respect, Gul Dukat, my success was not … suggested … to the Military Academy by the Order. It was with the Order's express permission that I attended that year of courses parallel to the Academy's specific curriculum and, during exams, was offered individual Order training when the workload threatened to become unmanageable. I received no favours, nor would I have accepted them or even considered requesting any. Every month I had to submit a comprehensive evaluation by my instructors at the Academy to the administrator of the Obsidian Order's educational center and vice versa. If there had been even the slightest doubt of my ability to sustain this accelerated course of instruction, the privilege of Order training would have been revoked at once. The head of the Institute was very clear on that specific detail when he granted me this privilege." Her voice hinted at slight irritation – the query was just short of insulting, making her wonder about the purpose of this train of inquiry.

He kept on eying her, "Most clever, my dear Glinn Melset, don't you think? To hedge your bets, as it were. In case you did not manage one area of competence, you would have the other to fall back on and still pursue a prestigious career in one of our key organizations … one of the 'pillars of Cardassian society' as you choose to call them." His amusement was barely hidden while he waited for her to rise to the bait he had thrown; a Gerschechi or Varagasi female would already have recognized what he was doing, begun to fight back verbally.

She decided to ignore the amusement, although it made her feel he was playing some sort of game with her, a game in which she was not willing to participate as it involved her professional reputation, and replied, "Gul Dukat, I took those courses precisely because I wanted a career with Central Command. I simultaneously inscribed in the Order's courses because it has developed highly efficient techniques in interrogative procedures, offers intensive language instruction, courses on behavioural patterns of offworld humanoids, methods of manipulating them into complying with one's expectations, and – this is the most important element: installation of surveillance and security devices, diverse codes, weapons modifications… all valuable skills of which I may have need at some time, skills I am willing to share with my fellow officers whenever requested provided there is interest in or need of them. This in itself should be sufficient evidence of my intentions in accepting the option to which Tain gave me access."

Gul Dukat did not answer at once, only shifted position, while considering Melset quietly, his expression curious. "Well, well, well, you are most generous, my dear Glinn Melset. Tell me: should I also request an Order agent to ensure greater security on the Orissà?"

There was a moment of renewed silence before she replied, "I would never presume to make any such suggestion, Gul Dukat. Determining the scope of on-board security arrangements is the prerogative of the commanding officer alone." It was obvious the Glinn was disturbed at the questions, not knowing what to make of them. Moreover, it was a never mentioned fact that there were agents on board all destroyers, with or without the Guls' knowledge.

Gul Dukat nearly smiled at hearing the intonation of surprise, the marked variations in tonality that fascinated him as they were so different to those used in Standard Cardassian. I would like to hear her converse in her own form of Kardassi.

"Ah, most regrettable – no suggestions from you then. I was hoping for input, you know. After all, you are Glinn 3rd level, thus entitled to submitting proposals concerning shipboard affairs." Gul Dukat's voice hinted at disappointment, but he was now smiling openly, his eyes glinting with renewed amusement. It was obvious he, at least, was greatly enjoying the exchange.

The Glinn most certainly was not… With sudden, chilling apprehension, Melset remembered her Varagasi room mate at the Academy, realized what her commanding officer was doing, albeit in a far more sophisticated way. After a moment, though, the apprehension yielded to the challenge in itself. She had put Jedrol in his place directly, quickly, yet in a way that left him with his pride intact, making for continued friendly relations, but a superior? That was another matter altogether. He has a reputation for selecting companions during missions … Gul Dukat is interesting, highly intelligent, admittedly a very attractive male, but this is not regulation, especially as he has joined. As to myself, Glinn Kovar and I will speak to our families when we next stay on Cardassia Prime thus making our agreement official … Inwardly, she relaxed, now anticipating what would – Counterattack – Shields upShe replied evenly, "This is not the case as to shipboard arrangements, Gul Dukat. This prerogative is restricted to questions of strategy and, in some rare cases, posting of personnel."

He ignored the last sentences to pounce on the Order's techniques, "So you mean to imply that Central Command is incapable of safeguarding Cardassia's interests without the sustained support of the Order?" His expression had shifted to cold again, yet a smile seemed to be hidden in the depths of his eyes as he awaited the Glinn's response.

Purposely ignoring the flicker of humour she had seen, Melset countered, "No, Gul Dukat. The Order shares the information it obtains from its networks of agents and operatives with Central Command and places all new developments made in its laboratories, all innovations regarding arms and defence systems at the disposal of the military, thus giving Central Command its full support, in the same way as we have our personal networks of information, cooperate for the greater good. That ultimately results in better protection for all of us, not only for one segment of the population. We are all Cardassians, regardless of status and duties."

He sat there for some moments, waiting, then, very slowly, inquired. "Glinn Melset, I am most curious to know: a short time ago, you described recruit Varko as a true Cardassian. Now tell me: How would you evaluate yourself? Would you designate yourself as one?" He leaned back, head slightly to the side, with the barest hint of a smile. It will be interesting indeed to see how she solves this problem .

This query seemed to momentarily shock the Glinn into speechlessness as she stared up at him, eyes bewildered, lips slightly parted before she answered. "I would never presume to do that, Gul Dukat! It would be presumption of the most reprehensible kind – undeniably a sign that the individual evaluating himself thus is in potential danger of committing treason in the long run. Whoever is so overbearing as to call himself a true Cardassian is so arrogantly convinced of his own dedication, qualities and importance that he disregards the accomplishments of those who have come before, those who are now and those who are yet to be. It is to Cardassia as a whole and to Cardassia alone to pronounce judgement on who is and who is not a true Cardassian. Only deeds and history will speak." Her voice was passionate, vibrant with the intensity of her emotions.

Gul Dukat stared at her in surprise. There are very strong feelings in that Glinn, a deeply ingrained sense of patriotism. She takes everything at face value, however, does not recognize this exchange as a challenge and the wish to get to know her better. He did not reply, watching her curiously, trying to evaluate her.

To his discomfort, she inquired in a very subdued though even tone of voice, her eyes nearly pleading, "Gul Dukat, I ask permission to voice a question in face of this inquiry."

This should be intriguing. "Permission granted, Glinn Melset."

She hesitated briefly, "You are my commanding officer, Gul Dukat, and have observed me, as is regulation, have read the files on my data padd. Have I done something that might place my patriotism and execution of my duties in doubt? If so, I respectfully entreat you to inform me of my error so as to enable me to rectify it."

When no reply came apart from his calm, unmoving gaze, she continued, her voice barely audible, her posture subtly different, so that her shoulders now seemed to slump marginally, as if she was in severe emotional distress. With a surge of conscience, he suddenly noticed she had clasped her hands together as though struggling for control when she said, "Gul Dukat, I have been raised to always consider Cardassia, Family and Duty first and foremost, as have my parents, and their parents before them. Cardassia is our family, our very existence, our life, has the greatest culture in the Quadrant, the most glorious history. What would we be without her and all she offers? We must keep on fighting, at home and on the borders, expand our sphere of influence whatever the cost. For us, Cardassia is everything. I for one would sooner die than to see her integrity damaged by my acts or ideas." She said the last with such devotion, her eyes lowered, her voice barely audible, that Gul Dukat got the discomforting impression he had deeply injured her by posing that last question and found himself wishing to make amends.

After a moment, he said gently, trying to reassure her, "Glinn Melset, I assure you I never meant to question your loyalties or put your integrity in doubt, certainly have not doubted your patriotism for one moment; your files display what you have accomplished so far. I should hope you have not won the impression I am the kind of Commander to make a pastime of humiliating a subordinate whose best interests and talents it is my duty to further. I ask you to forgive me should you think this is the case. It was never my intention." To his relief, he saw her tension dissipate marginally, her hands relax.

"Gul Dukat, it is your right as the commander of this cruiser to question and analyse any subordinate's ideas and concepts. The unwavering dedication of the entire crew is of critical value for our cause. If dissent and treachery gain a foothold in Central Command, defeat and ultimate collapse will follow. Your questions are necessary, give impetus for due consideration, and I will, once I am back on duty, also discuss them with my troops in one of the orientation sessions I have instituted." With a hesitant smile, she offered, "Gul Dukat, if you wish," she did not end the sentence, apparently thinking her suggestion might have been too presumptuous. Her voice was firm again, as if the distress of only seconds ago had never been.

"You are all right?" He asked when she looked at him uncertainly; at the same time, he recalled her file. Perali City, Kelan Province. What did they assign to my ship? A Kelani Cardassian, of all things! … He sighed inwardly at realizing the implications. No wonder there was no response to my challenges. They have far different customs and are rather conservative. It may be for the best. Sarika – when I had the contact with Siyetani …Decidedly unpleasant reaction indeed

"I have kept you too long already, for over two hours. Dr Kedra cautioned me to avoid overtiring you." With those words, he rose and she followed suit.

Again coming to stand at attention, Melset saluted and called out "Talsvar Kardassu!" to which he answered in like.

Just before going out, he quickly glanced back into her quarters only to see her suddenly grasp the back of the chair and remain standing there quietly. Concerned, he went to Melset's side, slipped an arm around her for support.

"Glinn Melset, you can barely remain on your feet. Allow me." Gul Dukat felt her tense up against the physical contact. "This is no sign of innate weakness. You were seriously injured." He helped her over to her bunk. Hardly reaches my shoulder – and yet put up a fierce fight, dragged those recruits into safety before Glinn Jelad stunned her, even though she must have realized recruit Varko was dead, in spite of being half unconscious and seriously injured herself, only running on sheer determination and adrenaline. 'Don't underestimate her' – a fitting comment. Melset did not yet recall what she had done, thus he had told her, but the others well remembered it… and, more importantly, it was included in her file.

She sat down and met his eyes, her own reflecting the gratitude she felt. "You are most kind, Gul Dukat. There is one more thing: I thank you in the name of my troops and in my own for your generosity in according us those supplementary rations." Nearly shyly, she inquired, "Gul Dukat, is there any possibility of placing records of the events of the past 10 days at my disposal? I fear I have been unable to keep up with developments due to circumstances."

He nearly laughed at her phrasing which he recognized as humour, the first hint of which she had shown in his presence so far. "Of course, Glinn Melset. I shall direct Glinn Terpak to see to it at once."

Once in the corridor, he shook his head, amused in spite of himself by the turn the whole latter part of the conversation had ended up taking. Strategy misfired due to subversive tactics instituted by one Kelani Cardassian. Too bad I can't get into the Order's Academy filesThey would be well worth reading.

A young officer came towards him and passed after giving the regulation salute before heading directly for Glinn Melset's door.

"Var Tepek," Gul Dukat appreciated the young military for his efficiency and knowledge, but there was something about his demeanour that made him suspect this Var was an agent. Yet, up to this point, he had never been able to pin anything down. No transmissions, no encoded messages… Oddly enough, Glinn Melset appeared to trust him implicitly. Dukat had heard some of their conversations – strategy, developments along the border, family, studies, methods of intelligence and interrogation … nothing that would have hinted at a more intensive connection between the two outside of work. Friends…

Now, however, he saw Tepek stop to touch the access panel of Glinn Melset's door, then wait.

He felt strangely defensive while considering the young officer. "She has just been debriefed and is no doubt resting as the inquiry took longer than expected. Glinn Melset was just released from sickbay a few hours ago."

"My comrades and I were waiting for her to return to quarters before giving her this, Gul Dukat; we had promised her one of her own." He held up a data rod. "I shall be back at once."

From where he stood, Dukat heard a short conversation, a pleased exclamation from his Glinn, then Var Tepek came out again. At seeing his superior's curious expression, he explained, "Gul Dukat, we had a copy of a captured data rod containing Federation codes. The files have been recorded in the central computer, and I have obtained the authorization to give her a copy. My immediate superior, Glinn Chedrol, gave me permission to do so as it contains no classified data. Glinn Melset said she wanted the practice. I did owe her a favour."

In spite of the friendliness of the officer's words, Dukat had a strange feeling about Tepek. Yet, there is nothing except for his detachment, his total neutrality and constant watchfulness…. Perhaps I am overreacting due to what happened to my father. With a shrug, he turned away – it was, after all, not his concern with whom Melset associated on his cruiser.

Var Tepek saluted, then walked off briskly. Gul Dukat turned away, lost in thought; it was possible new information had come in, new orders…. In retrospect, he felt slightly guilty about the latter part of the interview with Melset; in spite of her words, he had the impression he had deeply injured her by interrogating her as to her loyalties even though he had meant no harm, having only made suggestions that would have had a Gerschechi or Varagasi respond in kind. I have to make things right – she is an excellent officer, totally committed to the common goal. She has not deserved this humiliation as she no doubt considers the contents of our conversation.

Back in her own quarters, Melset drew a deep breath of relief before switching on her reading device. Gul Dukat admittedly was a fine officer, a superior under whom she appreciated being assigned to serve, but his reputation as a 'connoisseur of fine specimens' as Nabros had once said in the course of a conversation, made her uneasy. The norms of her people were conservative even by Cardassian standards; in the general Cardassian population, an extramarital affair was considered a disgrace for the entire family; those that had them ran the risk of being disowned by their families and, if they were military, given a dishonourable discharge from the service.

After his shift had ended, Glinn Kovar left the bridge only to meet Glinn Jelad who was just going on-duty. The two officers exchanged salutes then, after a moment's hesitation as the relationship between his two comrades was none of his concern, Jelad informed him, "Glinn Kovar, this should be of interest to you: Glinn Melset has been released from sickbay. She's in her quarters now after being debriefed."

"Thank you." Finally! Glinn Kovar walked off as though unconcerned, but hurried the moment he had rounded the corner. Arriving at crew quarters, he nearly requested access to her quarters before remembering he had forgotten something; annoyed, Kovar returned to his own room, then again went to Melset's, where he activated the door chime.

"Enter" The reaction was immediate, her voice firm. Melset had taken off her armour after Dukat's departure and was now relaxing, reading the rod Tepek had brought her.

"I have decided to see for myself that you are all right." Kovar stood in the door, smiling at her.

"Devrin! Enter! I did not expect you!" She lowered her voice, "I nearly thought it was Gul Dukat again."

"Glinn Jelad told me that you had been released to recuperate in quarters, so I wanted to see how you are doing, Iniki." Kovar gazed at her evaluatingly, then smiled with obvious relief at seeing she was fully recovered from her injuries. "I tried to see you in Sickbay, but Dr. Kedra refused to let anyone visit his patients. 'I have enough to do patching up casualties without visitors blocking my way and keeping my patients from getting the rest they need.' There was nothing at all I could do."

She laughed about the typical reaction of the shipboard doctors she had met so far. "Considering the sameness of their replies, we could replace our medical officers with holograms and save funds. However, Dr. Kedra is excellent. He did his best for all of us, even encouraged the Gul to see we got extra rations. Jeskor said he even tried to re-animate one or two of the casualties who he thought could still have a chance of survival, but …" She could not continue, then managed to say, "I hope we have occasion to make the Federation suffer for each single loss we have sustained."

Kovar did not react to her words, only said, "Iniki, I can promise you that that will happen, but as for myself, I was afraid of losing you." Kovar said in a very low voice, "I beamed up just after your group, only to be told that you had been seriously injured. The officer in the transporter bay said that, in spite of your condition, you were demanding immediate debriefing to take responsibility for what had gone wrong."

"This is an element I fear we will be facing over and over again, a part of the life we have chosen. We are fortunate that we got the same posting, though." Melset said the words very quietly, leaning her head against his shoulder, enjoying his presence. "But after combat, you always are forced to wait whether your companion will return and in what condition." With a sigh, she added, "I always tell myself that we are Cardassians, prepared to cope with all, but sometimes …"

"I know. I, for myself, plan to survive – especially now." Kovar stated.

"What do you mean? Did your father get that posting for which he applied last year?"

"Yes, he did. The move to Bajor will be effected next month. He will be responsible for creating a new colony, in Dahkur Province; father has begun drawing up the plans and negotiating for material and construction companies. Of course, costs will be somewhat lower as Bajoran labour is cheap."

"As long as those labourers do not take hours off to pray to the Prophets to please do their work for them." was Melset's comment.

"Their labour would be free of cost, actually. Imagine, they would need no food, no quarters, no clothing allowance, an excellent deal! Perhaps we should make this proposal official and receive a commendation for our initiative and creativity?" The two laughed at the thought.

"Now to more serious matters, matters that concern only the two of us." Kovar smiled down at Melset as they walked over to the window of the main room.

The woman remained silent, suspecting what was to follow. Their entire relationship had been gradually developing to this point even though it had always been restrained, very discreet in accordance with Kelani norms which Kovar had accepted without any problems.

"I notified my parents about my wish to join with you well before our exams at the Academy; they agreed with my choice after I told them all I know about you. When we next have downtime on Cardassia Prime, our engagement will be made official, then, as soon as all security checks have been made, we can join after the prescribed waiting period."

He added, "My parents had no reservations, they even contacted your own immediately and have already met them. Both our families are in accord."

For a moment, Melset stared up at him in surprise, "Devrin, that is good news! I expected that there would be concerns about your joining with a Kelani as we have slightly different customs and values – you know the jokes about our ways."

"And I especially remember how you fixed me up that time for having made some of the more dubious ones in your and some other troops' presence. I'll never laugh at a challenge from you ever again, Iniki, nor underestimate you as did Suvion when you were a recruit." He grinned broadly, then winced at the recollection. "The medic certainly looked rather surprised when the two of us came limping into his office." He pitched his voice higher, "'Medic Yattar, Var Kovar tripped over a container in the study room of his dormitory, then fell against the table, and I fear I was not much more dexterous – missed a step and measured my length down the stairs.' I do not think he believed you for even one moment."

"We were not put on report, so he let it pass." Melset grinned, remembering. "You did ask for it though, remember, Devrin? 'Squadron of fighters passes overhead, moving towards the south, and the Kelani farmer plants his fields because he thinks the migrations have started, then tries to begin the harvest when they fly in the other direction some days later.' That is the only one I care to repeat."

"Well, you did warn me after the fourth one…"

There was no reply to his words, nor, after having known Melset for a longer time, did he expect any. He took her silence as agreement. And you have the same reactions as I do, so I need not fear yielding to them in the privacy of our future home.

"I can tell you one thing, Iniki: my parents are very pleased – they have notified me in their message that they are in total agreement, nor do they have no problems with your ways, in fact they value them and the implications highly." He stepped back to take a small object out of his pocket, then said. "I have been keeping this for you. This is as good a time as any – given our parents' accord and your recovery."

"What is it?" She met his eyes, curious, then opened the box, "A data rod on Federation cultures and …" she shook her head in disbelief when she had unwrapped a small packet wrapped in velvety material before exclaiming, "An evlik bracelet! Where in all of the Empire did you get it? They are only made in Kelan Province; the jewellers produce them but on order, too! How did you even know about this custom? We hardly ever speak about our ways to others for fear of ridicule."

Pleased at the success of his surprise, Kovar explained, fastening it around her right wrist, "Let's say I also have reliable sources in the form of a Kelani friend whom I informed of my plans some time ago. It arrived here with the latest group of reinforcements. One of them is an old friend we have in common." With a shrug, Kovar added, "It did take some doing, though – he said he needed all of his talents of persuasion to finally convince the artisan in Aigela City that he was not attempting to trivialize Kelani customs. The man finally ceded when told that a member of his ethnicity was involved in the matter."

He looked down at Melset, recognizing that she still looked tired and said, "Come, let's sit down and just talk a little, relax. I don't want to leave just yet ..." He was silent for a moment. "The one time I managed to sneak in, I saw you, immobilized, lifeless, your scales without any lustre at all – I feared the worst; Medic Jeskor went out with me to give me the update without Dr. Kedra's knowledge and assured me you would recover."

"He's one of the best medics I know; he has, as we would say, fayach." Melset leaned against Kovar in a gesture of trust, and together they sat down to exchange news.

"That rod – where did you get it anyway?" She held it up, considering it closely.

"Liberated it in the battle two weeks ago. You are interested in alien cultures, their art and customs. I discussed it with Gul Dukat who saw no reason not to keep it and give it to you as a present." Kovar shrugged, "He commented: 'That one's resolve will not be weakened by such a small thing. She knows how to use everything to her advantage. Knowing her, she will not keep its possession a secret, either.' You are lucky to have the Gul's confidence."

"It is a slightly dangerous interest, for sure, as it can be misconstrued. Under circumstances, however, it can be most useful – that knowledge has helped me more than once." She sighed. "You do realize that once we have joined, we will no longer be allowed to serve on the same ship."

"Yes." He gazed out of the window for some seconds. "It will be difficult, but when we join, we will be accorded a month of leave. What happens later on, we shall see."

"That question of 'later on' is easy enough for me to answer, "I want a family as soon as possible. Four or five children. When the youngest is ten, I can retake my position, either planetside or on a cruiser. There is the option of keeping track of developments from home, and of taking courses, so that there will be no serious hiatus."

Kovar agreed, "We have a family house in Locarian City with place for more than two generations; you know, my father's posting on Bajor is only a ten-year tour. Goran and Saynor are still studying, but have already registered to settle on a colony world with their future mates. My older brother and I will remain on world. I could never leave Cardassia."

"Nor could I." She moved her head slightly to look over at the hologram of Loo'Wess on the wall, then settled back again, content to be just where she was, with Kovar.

He fell silent at feeling her relax against him in sleep. You hid your true being so well; it was literally an uphill battle getting to know you, working slowly through layer after layer of defences, but it was worth it – I know I have made the right choice. At times it was so easy to forget the hazards of military life, and now, with the prospect of a family of his own, he was determined to find as much time as possible for Iniki and himself.

Three days later, Melset heard her door chime activate; she was to return to duty that day and was already in uniform, anticipating it. "Enter!"

"Glinn Melset? My shift is beginning now as well, so we can walk together." Glinn Jelad continued, "Gul Dukat still has you posted at weapons."

Her reaction to the information was a slight smile. Melset was pleased as this meant the defeat had not discredited her after all. In spite of Gul Dukat's words, she had been apprehensive.

The bridge crew was silent as always with everyone concentrating on his or her station or checking systems, realigning elements for more efficiency. The Gul looked over her and gave her a nod of welcome. "You know your station, Glinn Melset."

"Yes, Gul Dukat." The Glinn settled at her place, and took over as though she had never been away.

The following two weeks were very quiet,–unusually so; all they met was one small Federation shuttle poking around a minor system. Its commander had all too willingly accepted the Cardassians' invitation to depart, much to Glinn Melset's disappointment and that of the others. Those people taken from shuttles were often quite good entertainment by Cardassian standards.

Towards the end of that day's shift, a message came in. "Fleet – Section D-84; Deploy to Argolis Sector." The Var at Navigation, Tepek, laid in the course so that, within moments, they had altered course. These changes were usually anticipated as they meant a change of pace, new challenges they all appreciated.

After her shift had ended, Melset went into the canteen where she joined Glinn Kovar and Medic Jeskor at table. "Listen to this, Glinn Melset: there is a new development that has serious implications for Cardassian security along the border. It appears that the Federation outpost near the border, only some light years away from the Colandra system, received a warning that Cardassian forces had been deployed: to make the situation even more ominous, that warning came from deep within Cardassian space."

Melset stared at the other two in shock. "A traitor, or an entire network of them. The leak has to be found and neutralized as quickly as possible or engender the risk of having Cardassia's integrity worn away progressively, leaving her wide open to a massive influx of Federation elements. We will lose all in that case."

Kovar added, "I wonder whether the suspected Dissident Movement is truly willing to go so far as to commit treason of the worst kind? Open the Empire to whoever wants to claim a piece of it?"

Jeskor shrugged, "Once an individual becomes a traitor, he will sacrifice everything, everyone, to attain his goal, and in this case, Cardassia would be the sacrifice." He added in a very low voice, "One of our neighbours was taken away and evidence found that he had attempted to pass on information to a dissident. The evidence was there. We never would have expected him to be capable of such treachery."

Disquieted, the three finished their meal in silence and left, either for duty or for downtime. After that news, no one felt like discussing the matter any further, it was that unnerving to even consider such actions.

It is best Tepek knows at once, if he does not already – the Order is always a step ahead of everyone else…

Melset made her way to Var Tepek's quarters, spoke into the communit. "This is Glinn Melset. Are you free, Var Tepek?"

The door slid open to reveal Var Tepek who was already standing there waiting; he stepped aside to let her in. "Come in, Glinn Melset. I was expecting you."

She smiled at the phrasing. Tepek was indeed an Order operative; just before she had left for the Orissà, Tain had informed her on that detail. The Order took care of its own by putting them into contact with other operatives in the same area to ensure growth of its networks of informants. She considered being considered a future member of this system an honour.

As soon as she had entered, he said, "No doubt you have come because of the Colandra incident." It was a statement that left no alternatives.

"Yes. There are … disquieting rumours which I suspect may be true, though I would not say as much to anyone until we have the evidence." Melset recapitulated, "Leaks in the Fleet, on outposts, settlements … operatives have to narrow down the possibilities as quickly as possible before even more damage is done. This is also necessary to avoid a loss of confidence in our structures. Now that the news has spread, there is growing anxiety in the rank and file."

Tepek nodded. "And the first suspicions have been corroborated. The perpetrator must have been assigned to this very fleet, in Gul Dukat's division. The operatives on the Outpost who monitor all outgoing and incoming messages, especially private ones, have found nothing – even the static was clean. Just a moment, Glinn Melset." Var Tepek pressed a button on his communicator, and explained. "You should appreciate this: at this very moment my communicator is transmitting a conversation about that battle which landed you in Sickbay for nearly two weeks. This gives us the time for an interesting discussion on another subject."

He sat down next to Melset, "Now, to get to the problem at hand. I have contacted the other operatives stationed on the ships in this division. They are presently evaluating all communications and expanding the network of surveillance devices to leave no area unobserved. While you were recuperating, I took the liberty of installing supplementary units in various critical areas." He went to his locker and took out a small pouch which Melset slipped into her uniform, then pressed the button on his communicator again, waited for the all-clear on the monitor. "It was kind of you to place these rods at my disposal. There were some codes that were totally new to me."

"Any other supplements you need, you have but to ask. You did give me one series which proved invaluable. Without constant practice you lose your edge…" She shrugged imperceptibly, then nodded at Tepek to acknowledge she knew exactly what the pouch contained, and left.

The next day the Fleet made sensor contact with a Starship just outside the system, but undeniably in Cardassian space. For a moment, Gul Dukat looked around at the Glinns who were present, then made his choice. "Glinn Melset?"

She rose to stand next to her station, waiting, at attention.

"I am planning to begin negotiations with the captain of that Starship, but have decided on a little change." With that, he got up to take the place next to the centre seat.

Glinn Melset stared at him, waiting for orders, not understanding, until he said, "Glinn Melset, if you please," and gestured at the place he had just vacated. "You will do so."

It was a normal part of training; each Glinn was called upon to try his or her hand at negotiations, beginning with simpler situations and proceeding to complex, volatile negotiations that could cause a prolonged conflict.

She quickly considered the situation at hand. One Starship, non-military in spite of its configuration, which was that of a Galaxy-class ship – most likely a decommissioned cruiser sold to a mining consortium as surplus goods. No doubt it was manned by a Federation survey team with a former officer captaining it, a mixed bridge crew, probably carrying a number of civilian specialists to initiate operations on arrival together with potential settlers to make laying a claim to a planet or system a foregone conclusion. "Status?"

Var Kadrai's answer came at once. "Non-military, a survey ship according to sensor readings, scanning planet just within border." His voice became sibilant with irritation when he added, "That planet is listed as one of those slated for colonisation within the next year."

Melset exchanged glances with Gul Dukat, her own serious, unsmiling. She first made some subtle changes to the hair at her temples; as that of some Kelani, hers had slight reddish highlights and tended to curl at the sides. That done, she took the helmet from under the seat, put it on. Gul Dukat followed suit as did the others.

"Var Kadrai, reduce lighting by 15%, shift towards red by 6%," This command was unexpected, but followed at once.

"In visual range," was Var Gaffal's report.

"Open hailing frequencies, visual."

"Federation Starship, you are violating Cardassian space in direct contravention of the terms stipulated by the Empire. You are invited to withdraw or prepare to engage." Glinn Melset's voice, to Gul Dukat's surprise, was slightly higher in pitch than usual, without the sibilant undertone. Her stance was not military, but more that of a civilian.

The bridge crew remained totally silent, all of them staring at the screen, expressions cold, unmoved, eyes unblinking, even more so than usual as a few of them had realized just what the Glinn was attempting to do.

The screen cleared after some moments to show the other bridge. As expected, the captain was obviously a former Starfleet officer who had made a second career of piloting for mining companies or accompanying survey missions into hazardous areas. He gazed out at Glinn Melset from the screen before stating, "Captain Hoffmann here. This system is two light years within Federation Space, nowhere near Cardassian territory. If you think we will withdraw from our own space, leave this system to you, you are mistaken." His intonation and phrasing were contemptuous, obviously associating the Cardassian female's aspect with a marked lack of experience and a good deal of insecurity, especially as she repeatedly, covertly, looked over at the tall officer next to her.

"Ah, but you have no other option, you know," At that moment, Gul Dukat noticed Var Kadrai surreptitiously glance at Melset's hands, rapidly input a message to transmit it to the other ships in the division. At the same time he could see its contents scroll down his screen. Disperse, keep out of immediate sensor range and await further orders. "We have claimed this system together with the entire sector and have a settlement in the planning stages …."

The captain interrupted her, "But there is none there as yet, not one single incipient mine or foundations of buildings, at least that is what our scan has revealed, thus your claim is unsubstantiated." As soon as he had closed communications, Melset gave the order to advance within weapons range and power up phasers.

Again the screen cleared. "I repeat: We shall not withdraw. Your trumped-up claim is nothing more than an attempt at a show of power without the backing to follow up your threat. Your one cruiser is not all that impressive." Looking at Melset amusedly, he stated, "Tell me, have you by any chance lost the rest of your division someplace? Or have you even become lost yourself? There should be more than one ship in your group, come to think of it." The next comment was openly sneering. "Perhaps you should at first go back home to complete what you call Military training before presuming to give orders, then come back again to try and impress us." Dismissively turning his back to the screen, he ordered, "We go into standard orbit. Prepare to engage sensors."

This time, Melset's voice and manner shifted to hard, aggressive, when she stated, "Starship Captain Hoffmann, you have received ample warning. You will depart at once or bear the consequences and responsibility for all ensuing results for and procedures effected as to your crew and yourself personally. I am quite convinced you would dislike observing them facing their end like true members of the Federation." She struck a section of the communications array on the armrest, then settled back, once again smiling, expression open, even friendly.

Within moments, the other cruisers had joined them. Melset slouched ever so slightly in her seat, now arrogant, overbearing, neck membranes fully tensed before stating with a contemptuous undertone in her voice, her eyes cold, her whole bearing confident, "As you can see, my dear Captain, I have the firepower to encourage you on your way and have even brought along some friends who will gladly give you added impetus. Use your sensors, provided you are capable of operating them, to see whether you can find my friends. I have!" Her voice had become playful, at least by Cardassian standards, "Now, what shall it be? I give you a choice: Immediate withdrawal or a battle you cannot win."

Next to her, Gul Dukat stared at the screen, avoiding observing Melset even peripherally. I was warned

This time Var Gaffal quickly looked over and immediately fired a volley that just missed the other ship.

"It should be a most interesting experience to be the focal point of a phaser barrage, an unimaginably splendid pyrotechnical display, actually, but I shall spare you this specific sample of our highly-developed sense of aesthetics, provided you finally come to your senses." The sneer in her voice was very pronounced as was the contempt in her attitude.

On the other ship, the captain quickly deliberated with his navigator who stated, "No Federation or Cardassian ships within the immediate area."

Captain Hoffmann was about to speak again, but at glancing at Navigator Schmidt's sensor display seconds after the report, he nearly jumped, asking no one in particular, "What the … ? Just how many of them are there anyway? Where did they come from?"

Stunned by what he saw on the screen, his navigator replied, "Six in all, sir. The one in front with that Cardassian female in command, five others just within sensor range, weapons fully charged, ready to come in firing. With all due respect, sir, we do not stand a chance against that lot."

"Those damn spoonhead bastards! I, for one would like to get my hands on that female. That little reptile actually seems to think she can play with us." He looked up at the screen and saw her look at them quietly in turn, very obviously enjoying what she was seeing and what – unbeknownst to the personnel of the starship – she was hearing. "Register this world with all details. We will be back, with the personnel and military support we need." He turned to communications. "We withdraw."

The solicitude in her voice was coloured by just a hint of mockery, the sibilant undertone very marked. "You are free to do so. We shall be generous for once in the interest of furthering amicable Cardassian-Federation relations and escort you to the border to assure you do not meet with any unfortunate incidents." Her manner had now become friendly and concerned, as if speaking to a frightened child. "This is a most dangerous area of Cardassian territory, Captain Hoffmann. Too many," she lowered her voice to a clearly audible whisper of horrified warning at pronouncing the racial slur, "… far too many spoonhead bastards around. You cannot be too careful these days, you know. And their females … better not even think of what those snakes are capable. Ah, they are such a horrible race, those bloody Cardis…"

Without another word, realizing each of his comments had been registered, the human closed the channel.

The escort detail as she chose to call it, was uneventful and, with a parting shot for good measure, the starship was left to withdraw. Melset turned to Gul Dukat, "If I may presume to make a suggestion, Gul Dukat?"

"By all means, Glinn Melset. I am quite curious." He watched her.

"This world does possess important resources, thus I would suggest contacting Central Command, section Civilian Deployment to place an urgent request that a population of approximately 6000 individuals be transferred here as quickly as possible; the official schedule has to be disregarded in this case. They should be accompanied by a supporting contingent of more than the usual complement of 900 troops, I would suggest roughly 1200, these under the command of two Guls. Prior to departure I heard that some were waiting for postings and pushing temporary duty on outposts. Mining equipment is stored on Outpost 36 - it should be feasible to have it delivered here within five days at most. Admittedly, this may lead to a short-term strain on available resources, but would be well worth the effort." She had given her suggestion quickly, without hesitation. "We do need these worlds."

"Before you begin your downtime, I ask you to come to my ready room after your shift." He was watching her very carefully, trying to analyse her with a marked lack of success.

All too conscious of his scrutiny, Melset retook her station, leaving Var Gaffal free to return to his monitoring array. There was a quick exchange between the two, one brief hiss of amusement, then the usual silence.

"That performance you gave while 'negotiating' with that human, I was wondering about it. Then, too, the shift in lighting you requested, your rearranging your hair. Rather unusual procedures in preparing for negotiations, don't you think?" He put his head to the side, a gesture Melset found strangely disarming.

"Gul Dukat, the shift in lighting was in direct response to the human phrase of our having crawled out from under a rock, that is, a warm, moist dark place where you will find all kinds of unsavoury creatures only a Ferengi could possibly appreciate. Our helmets, though revealing, provoke a certain unease as well, perhaps because they stress our 'alien' features. As to my manner and hairstyle, look at me as a stranger would, Gul Dukat – I am Kelani, slightly smaller than your average Cardassian female; next to you and the others I appear rather inoffensive. This…" She smoothed her hair back into sleek regulation style, "…added to the impression. These seemingly minor details inevitably make them underestimate me. My change in intonation and voice underlined the fact, putting the human off-guard, subsequently leading him to become overconfident, less observant of the immediate area, thus the ease with which our ships could take their defensive positions and surround him. The other abrupt shifts in manner were meant to keep him off-balance, as it were. That method, however, cannot be used in more than a very few encounters, as Federation personnel probably share information to the same extent we do. Perhaps some other time, in a few years, but not in the near future."

"Next time, however, I should appreciate a warning." He was openly smiling with amusement now, "I would not have recognized you as the Glinn I know – your 'insecure Cardassian officer on her very first command' was most … outrageous, to put it mildly." He hesitated a moment, then asked, "One more thing. Those two Vars, they glanced at you, you said nothing, yet once a message was transmitted, in the other an order to fire a phaser volley relayed to weapons. Explain."

"Verbal communications can be overheard in battle situations, much as we overheard the conversation on that starship. That will permit the enemy to launch a pre-emptive strike. Together with my contacts I devised a system of gestures, some of them conveying an entire sentence, which means communication is more rapid, nothing can be overheard and responses are immediate, thus take the enemy by surprise." Melset added in a very low voice, "Gul Dukat, it is your prerogative… Should you consider this method an element that would compromise security in any way, I shall refrain from its further use."

"No, Glinn Melset, by all means, continue, it is effective. There is but one condition: I should appreciate at least being able to understand what you are 'saying.' Your two decisions came as quite a surprise to me and to the other crew. This detail alone proves its value." He rose and, with a nod, said, "This will make a good entry in your file. Tell me – was this method taught you by the Order?"

"No, Gul Dukat, I devised it myself, with my comrades when I was a Var on Gul Previn's ship, and have instructed my troops here as well – we agreed it could be useful in combat, under the right circumstances. We found it invaluable when we were taken captive." She briefly hesitated, "Report 237-F – OTK has details on the incident."

"I shall avail myself of your offer." was the reply. "Glinn Melset. I think your downtime is to begin in another hour? There will be no calls. It is yours to enjoy."

He considered her, slightly suspicious, yet with growing respect: everything she did, be it work or the little act she had just played out on the bridge, to her suggestion of a few minutes ago, all was done for Cardassia. He could recognize that, for all her sense of duty, she was enjoying these actions, made a game out of planning, deception and obfuscation. Tain and Garak were among her instructors – I have managed to find out that much in the meantime, he thought with resentment, yet she is nothing like them. Of course, appearances can be deceiving… He thought of the Federation Captain who had been taken in by the 'inexperienced young Gul,' as if Central Command would ever allow a person of such an abysmal level of incompetence onto the bridge of a cruiser, let alone admit this individual into the Military Academy.

Melset calmtly submitted to his evaluating stare, showed neither impatience nor irritation, fully understanding what was going through his mind. Tain and Garak – there was some unfortunate history there, to judge by the way he had reacted to their names; it had been a moment of cold withdrawal, as if he were shutting a part of himself away.

"Glinn Melset, as to your proposal, I shall do just that and underline the urgency of the plan. We shall deploy troops to prepare housing and first elements of infrastructure within a week at most. Outpost 39 is closest and has manpower stationed there for just such an eventuality. "You are dismissed." And I have another entry for your file

Just before leaving, Melset turned to say, "Gul Dukat, we may have some information for you within a few more days." At the door, she called "Talsvar Kardassu!" The intonation of her salute reflected pleasure at his acceptance of her proposal, then, expressionlessly, unhurriedly, she went to her quarters.

In the next months, she increasingly pushed some of her fellow Glinns forward, meeting with them, cooperating intensively, even requesting authorization to offer supplementary courses in Order techniques and strategies, obviously furthering them in every way at her disposal. That, too, was a method of creating networks of favours owed, an invaluable resource for Cardassians that gave access to often scarce goods, critical information, assistance. Interdependence was the key to success and security…

Dukat observed it all with interest, as he did the actions of all his higher-ranking subordinates. He estimated Glinn Melset to be ambitious, with an insatiable desire for information. She had, as far as he could judge, a remarkably extensive, constantly growing network of contacts within Central Command and the Order. Usually Var Tepek was included in the courses, taking over some details. All went smoothly, to judge by the recordings which she unfailingly gave to Gul Dukat, Glinns Chedrol and Terpak to ensure security and proper surveillance.

It was only a week after they had been deployed to yet another sector that a smaller cruiser intercepted the Orissà; within moments, its Captain contacted Gul Dukat. Without any formalities, he stated, "There is a matter that must be resolved without delay. Colonel Rajin and Corporal Mardal will beam over at once."

No time was lost; two Cardassians came onto the bridge uninvited, accompanied by Var Tepek. What drew attention to them at once was the fact that they wore civilian attire and showed no expression at all.

Irritated at what he perceived as an intrusion, Gul Dukat rose, turned to them and inquired coldly, "May I inquire as to the reason for your presence on the bridge? This area is off-limits to non military personnel."

Unimpressed, the higher-ranking officer stated the purpose of their presence, "I am Colonel Rajin of the Obsidian Order. I regret the intrusion, as you choose to phrase it, Gul Dukat, but we have traced the source of the security breach. The traitor is on your bridge at this very moment. We have been directed to arrest this individual immediately."

There was a silence that was unlike the usual one: it was the silence of tense waiting, the bridge officers refrained from the slightest movement, as if everyone was holding his breath apprehensively.

"Proceed. I do not want that … on my bridge or cruiser any longer than necessary." Gul Dukat's voice was filled with loathing and anger. The leak had cost the division he led nearly two hundred troops and hundreds of injured.

To everyone's carefully-disguised surprise, the senior Order officer who had come in with Tepek went directly to Glinn Melset's station, took her by the shoulder, roughly pulled her around to face him, then backhanded her with all his strength, nearly throwing the Glinn off the seat. Startled, she raised a hand to her cheek, then became totally expressionless at hearing what Colonel Rajin said.

"You thought you would remain undetected, it appears, my much respected 'true Cardassian'. We have traced the informational leak to this ship, more precisely, to your quarters. Your sentence has already been pronounced – it is public execution in Loo'Wess. The trial is scheduled to start the moment we arrive on Cardassia Prime. You have already been dishonourably discharged from Central Command and the Order, your family has disassociated itself from you because of the disgrace. Your young brother's reaction should prove gratifying. I quote, 'A traitor can no longer be my sister. Enemies of Cardassia stand alone.'"

Caught in a feeling of unreality, as if all of this were a nightmare, Melset said nothing, her eyes did not even widen, she was as expressionless as the operatives who had come for her even though her pulse was febrile with reaction. In an automatic response, she got up, then held out her wrists to be manacled before they led her off the bridge at phaser point, Tepek and Mardal at her sides, Colonel Rajin following. She looked neither to the right nor left, only walked out calmly, confidently, as if unmoved by developments. Melset was in shock, however, frantically reconsidering the past months. She had put additional surveillance devices in place herself, processed recordings together with Var Tepek, had copied and sent them to the various operatives involved in the search. What had happened to bring her under suspicion? There was nothing, absolutely nothing which could present an explanation for these procedures.

"You will remain in the brig, under guard." With a gesture of contempt, Rajin gestured at her to enter and when she went past him, he gave her a heavy blow to the shoulders that had her stagger to the side. Melset did not react to this either. The element of physical violence was a normal part of routine in Cardassian treatment of prisoners or criminals to demonstrate their total loss of status as Cardassian citizens. It was this rather than anything else that made her feel all of a sudden that this was no nightmare but reality. An inconceivable reality that she had never expected to materialize for her.

She was left to herself for some days, only periodically a guard checked to ensure that she was not attempting to commit suicide as many officers did in that situation. Her guard stated, "Any attempt at self-termination will see you sedated and immobilized until you are delivered into the hands of the Obsidian Order. You will not escape justice."

She got her rations once a day from that same guard, but he did not address her, nor did she attempt to speak to him even though she knew the officer well; he was a member of Glinn Kovar's team. As a suspect, she was considered a non-person.

Her reply was only, "To try to escape justice would be an act of cowardice and prove my guilt beyond a doubt. I want the truth to be found whatever the consequences, that is all."

After a week, she heard via intercom, "Entering standard orbit around Cardassia Prime."

Little later, Var Tepek and Corporal Mardal, again accompanied by Rajin came to transfer her to Order Headquarters. "We will go by Order Shuttle. It has arrived in the docking bay."

Melset rose in silence, followed them out. On the way to the docking bay, they met various personnel, none of whom dignified the group with even a glance – it was as though they had never seen Melset or Tepek before. Melset caught sight of Dukat as he came out of quarters. Her erstwhile superior glared at her for some moments, his eyes cold, contemptuous. "You traitor. It was you who cost us the lives of those men, of your highly-esteemed recruit Varko; and you presumed to speak about the glory of Cardassia, your love for the Empire. All of this but lies to cover your back, to conceal your duplicity. Be assured your trial and execution will be transmitted throughout the Empire and on this cruiser." With those words, he turned his back to the group, and strode off through the corridor. Numbed, Melset stared after him until Colonel Rajin gave her a shove. "Move. No one will help you, traitor, and certainly not Gul Dukat."

Transferral took but a matter of minutes; once they had arrived, she was taken to the interrogation area of the subterranean complex. It was the usual routine. Guards shoved her into a darkened room where blinding lights were aimed directly into her eyes.

"Remove your clothes," was the order that came from an Order operative who sat in the shadows.

She complied immediately, then put on the prisoner's overall issued to all accused which another guard threw at her contemptuously. Only at execution or during the trial were the accused permitted normal clothing.

The guard led her into the cell, then waited outside, but did not activate the screen. Melset remained standing, expecting interrogative procedures to begin at once. They will be thorough, that is for sure – a traitorous officer is a serious affair … At least I will know what has happened.

Strangely enough, Rajin entered and briefly stayed behind after waving away the guard. "Glinn Melset, Tain has been notified of the matter, and has requested we gather all the evidence we have, thanks to you: recordings from surveillance devices, your transponder. There are some serious doubts as to the evidence that has led to pronouncement of your sentence. It may well lead to a renewed examination of your case. The procedure as such would be unusual, but nor unheard-of." He hesitated. "Do you know a Glinn Sefral?"

"Yes, he attended two of the six-week courses Var Tepek and I gave on the Orissà and was one of the best." Melset was puzzled. What did this question have to do with her situation? Why did Colonel Rajin address her by name? Normally, a suspect was only addressed by the designation of his crime. Apparently, there was more to this, but she did not permit herself to hope, because that was a time-honoured way of undermining a prisoner's resistance and she had successfully used this method herself on more than one occasion.

"There is far more to him than any of us would have expected. His grandfather was interrogated by a certain Delhina Melset twenty years ago, found guilty and sentenced to hard labour for a period of fifteen years. He did not survive."

Melset gripped the edge of the bunk so tightly that the scales on her knuckles became nearly translucent. "I didn't know," she whispered. "He was very interested in voice modification, programming of listening devices, clandestine data transferral." A wave of nausea left her trembling when she finally understood: she had fallen into a trap she could only describe as of her own making …

In a gesture unusual for an Order member, Colonel Rajin went over to her, clasped her arm. "That was all I had to know," he said in a low voice. "You will be spending some days here until everything – and another matter, too – has been resolved. Your captivity and subsequent disappearance are necessary to ensure the success of our mission."

She nodded, then said in a low voice, ignoring what Rajin had just told her, not trusting his words or placing confidence in the kindness of his gesture, "I am aware that all traitors maintain this, but – I have never done anything against the interests of Cardassia and her people, or I would never have taken courses with the Order." When she looked up again, he had already left. All I can do now is preserve my pride as a Cardassian. If the truth is brought to light, and I am proven innocent, I will be freed; if the truth turns out to be my guilt, I will face the consequences as is my duty.

Hours later, the guard came in with her rations, placed them on the floor just inside her cell. Melset stayed where she was, staring at them, hungry, yet nauseated at the very idea of eating. The guard watched her for some time, then addressed her with a sneer, "I warn you, traitor: if you refuse to eat, you will be kept alive by force, not a very pleasant experience. Cardassia will not be deprived of witnessing your trial and immediate execution."

She did not waste any time on protesting the allegations or acknowledging the threat, only shook her head, whispering to herself, "No, never a traitor to Cardassia, never that…" With an effort, she forced down the rations. When the lights were dimmed for the night, she lay down face to the wall, and fell asleep, exhausted.

The next days were no different – constant observation, insults, threats, no contact at all with anyone but order guards and, once only, an interrogator who had briefly stood at the entrance to her cell, looking at her evaluatingly while she met his eyes directly, with no indication of fear, then leaving again. Only Tepek came by nearly every day, accompanied by Rajin who asked various questions, spoke to her in Cardassi standard, Federation Standard, Bajoran, even in Kelani Cardassian, invariably recording the responses. What made her wonder was that she was not interrogated – that would have been standard procedure – it was a prospect everyone considered with dread as Cardassian interrogations were horrific by anyone's standards, leaving the victim with no dignity, no pride, no right to personal integrity, be it mental or physical. Yet, if it preserved Cardassia's integrity, the choice was obvious … Nor were any other suspects' interrogations conducted in the open area, either – this was normally considered essential to demonstrate to prisoners what would happen to them in good time – Tain had impressed this necessity on her as an excellent, even essential way of undermining a prisoner's resistance, to abbreviate the process which could be quite lengthy at times, all depending on the prisoner's stubbornness and determination.

Roughly a month after the accusation, she was addressed from outside her cell by a familiar voice, "Ah, my dear Glinn Melset! I am pleased to see you, but not in these circumstances!"

Startled, Melset rose and went over to the screen to find Tain himself standing there. Then it is more serious than I would have expected if he is to be my interrogator. "I am ready, Enabran Tain, and have only the wish to take responsibility for what has happened should you find me guilty. May it be a warning to others and comfort to those who have suffered the consequences of my treason."

He shook his head, "You do not understand, Iníki, do you. We have found the person responsible for the transmissions. After your alleged arrest for treason, we intensified Order presence in Gul Dukat's division, added more surveillance devices, and finally found our treacherous friend. Var Tepek and Colonel Rajin compared the voice recordings with the help of those they made of your statements in this cell: the recordings presented as evidence were definitely manipulations, it was your voice, certainly, but the sounds recomposed to give the impression that it was you who was passing on the information. A most clever ploy, don't you think?" He was smiling in amusement, knowing that, in spite of her situation, Melset also could fully appreciate the irony of it all. "Just imagine! Turning Order methods against an Order-educated officer!"

Stunned by what Tain had just said, Melset did not react at once, then only whispered, "Tain, what happened? I was incapable of finding any reasons for my arrest."

"Listen carefully, Glinn Melset. You never even came close to that area from which the transmissions allegedly took place; that fact was established thanks to the multifunction transponder with which you so persistently demanded we equip you at the beginning of your career. It was a wise precaution indeed. Finally, you gave your commanding officer, Glinn Chedrol and Var Tepek all recordings, even those of surveillance devices you had personally installed, another excellent decision." Tain briefly laughed in amusement. "Gul Dukat was rather … surprised when he saw us removing those specific ones for detailed analyses." He added, "The perpetrator confessed willingly enough when we took him into custody some hours ago."

"And the leak, Tain? Thatis my main concern. There must have been more than one individual involved. The process would be far too complex and too much of a risk to effect alone." Melset had nearly forgotten her own situation in her concern for the Empire's safety. "If even one of those traitors escapes, he can recruit new fellows."

"Indeed. We found them all – fifteen on various ships and outposts. Be assured their fate is sealed. As to yours," he deactivated the screen, went in to sit next to her on the bunk, half-turned to her. "You, my dear Iníki, are free to return to the Orissà. Your duties are waiting for you, and you, no doubt, are impatient to reassume your posting. Transferral will be no problem. The Orissà is in standard orbit, is presently transporting troops and settlers to that planet you had taken in charge as it were, and will take on new personnel upon its return within the next five days."

"Gul Dukat said he wanted me off his ship," she said in a low voice, not quite believing what she was being told. "And even if he can be convinced to reinstate me, Enabran Tain, my career will be over – an officer who has been a suspect once will remain under permanent suspicion. In effect, this person's career is over." With a sigh, Melset repeated, "My career will be over."

"Your superior officer knows the truth now – It was part of our plan to give the traitors the feeling they were safe; we had the best decoy imaginable; you, an Order-trained Glinn 3rd level of all personnel. With you out of the way those stationed on the Orissà thought they could operate just a little more freely. Even Var Tepek let himself be recruited. Now who would have expected such a thing from him?" He again smiled broadly, "It would seem you have made quite an impression on Gul Dukat. He was outraged at the Order's way of 'using' personnel, even though he did agree that the end justifies the means. I fear, however, that he may still be rather suspicious because of your installing those supplementary devices."

"And with reason. His concern is for the security of his personnel, his cruiser and our collective duties to Cardassia. Any incident of treason on one ship weakens the entire unit." She looked up at him, expressionless, hiding her joy at being free, her honour untouched.

"You doenjoy this game of taking everything at face value, don't you." He rose, gestured at her to follow suit, "Come. Unfortunately, I cannot arrange for any downtime to compensate for this most unpleasant experience, but I think the knowledge of your innocence and the fact that the real traitors have been brought to justice should prove reward in itself. The details of this entire affair must of course remain our secret."

A silent nod was the answer as Melset fell into step at his side. She felt no resentment, no anger at having been used. Much to the contrary, her faith in Cardassian justice had been reinforced once again and she parted from Tain with sincere affection.

After two months in all, Melset was now officially free to return to the Orissà; it was Entek who was to escort her there as he was assigned a tour of duty on Soukhara. His duty was to restructure the branch of the Order established on that planet. During transit, he spent most of the time in the lounge together with Melset, concentrating on various details, addressing methodology, possibilities of implementing intensified surveillance, all of it disguised as plans for settling on a colony planet.

Outside of the Cardassian enclave established on Soukhara, the environment of that planet presented a definite challenge in more than one respect. This world was lush, densely vegetated; its immense jungle offered any amount of potential places of concealment for dissidents.

The other personnel of the cruiser observed the couple with a certain amount of suspicion, but did not dare voice their concerns – Melset and Entek could have been Order members, yet they interacted like any other Cardassian couple, showing a sense of togetherness without the need of demonstrativeness, at times exchanging covert glances, a slight smile. Only once did a young Cardassian woman, a Glinn 1st level, come to join them.

"Yasidok Pares, Jevarra Monar, I found this in the corridor, just outside the entrance to your quarters. Is this yours by any chance?" She held out a small container with a set of data rods.

"Thank you, Glinn. This is indeed inexcusable." He smiled then, "I shall mention your attentiveness to your superior. You have saved me from some … annoyances.""

Thus dismissed, she left. The two went over the details once more, then Entek suggested, "Let's return to quarters, Jevarra. We are due to arrive tomorrow." They had adopted the role of a young couple travelling to a colony planet.

Once back in quarters, Entek explained, "There is a new development. Terok'Nor is to be established as an iridium-refining plant. The requisite facilities have been installed, are ready to take up operations, and Bajoran labourers are being recruited at this very moment. You may remember that this station is in orbit around Bajor. The prefect there is to be promoted to Legate within the month and transferred to the main planet of the Olmerak System. His replacement has already been determined, which means," he gave Melset a slight smile, "The Orissà will be in need of a new commander."

Melset's expression did not change. Personnel turnover was high at the upper echelons of command. She said pensively, "It will be difficult to replace Gul Dukat. His abilities in the area of troop leadership and warfare as well as negotiation are remarkable, if I may presume to say as much."

"Indeed." Entek then stated, "He is due to put forward his own proposals for personnel – roughly 70 members of the present staff will follow him to Terok'Nor, and the Guls of his fleet as well as he himself will suggest a Glinn to take his place after promotion. The proposals will be transmitted in a month, the transferrals to be effected two weeks later. The choice should prove most interesting."

Melset agreed. "The Orissà has a number of personnel who would merit early promotion: Glinn Terpak is excellent at all levels, as are Glinn Chedrol or Glinn Shelan. We have cooperated repeatedly, shared information … they are respected leaders, have the devotion of their troops." The praise was honest. Melset obviously did not even think of promotion, not after but two years of service as Glinn 3rd level. Her hope was to be one of those personnel selected to accompany Gul Dukat to Terok'Nor. Outpost duty was hazardous, but would mean new challenges, becoming familiar with a further aspect of Empire activities.

The next day they were notified that they were cleared to beam over to the Orissà. Melset, on the advice of Entek, arrived in her own quarters, Entek directly in the ready room. Gul Dukat, notified by the commander of the other cruiser, marched in, barely disguising his irritation at this, as he considered it, renewed intrusion by the Order.

"Welcome, Commander Entek. I trust that your arrival is due to a matter of some importance?" His intonation and phrasing were barely civil.

"Yes, Gul Dukat, or I would not have been sent here. The matter concerns your Glinn, Iníki Melset." Entek raised a hand when Dukat opened his mouth to speak. "She is already waiting in her quarters." He spoke into his communicator. "Glinn Melset? Please report to the ready room at once."

"On my way, Commander Entek."

Gul Dukat's eyes narrowed, glittering with suspicion when he heard the Glinn's voice. "What is the purpose of this? I clearly stated I refuse to have a former suspect on my ship!"

Entek saw the shift in Gul Dukat's expression and commented, "I take it you are surprised about this development."

"Indeed, but the Order, or if I may quote a certain Glinn 'the second pillar of Cardassia' never fails to have surprises in store," was his reply which came very close to a sneer. Normally he would have had any intruder taken to the brig, processed, then left at the next outpost, but Order members were, as he chose to phrase it, 'long-term hazards.'

At that moment Glinn Melset entered, stood at attention and saluted, her manner unchanged by the experiences of the past two months. "Glinn Melset reporting for duty."

Gul Dukat responded to her salute, but as curtly as he could without it being insulting. So, an Order operative after all…

"An explanation is in order," Entek began, "You will recall the informational leaks in this fleet. Var Tepek and Glinn Melset had already narrowed the list of suspects to roughly twenty-five, but required much-needed final evidence, thus notified Tain as to the problem. Without Melset's knowledge, we agreed to trace and arrest a traitor of our own making to give the true traitors a feeling of false security, flush them out of hiding when they thought that suspicion was no longer concentrated on them. This one," he nodded at Melset, "was a decoy, a convenient victim. She was never, and I underline the word, never a suspect. I say this as a Cardassian and as a member of the Obsidian Order. As she had studied with us for a time, we knew that, even if she had found out the truth about her arrest before she was meant to, she would have kept up appearances. This amply demonstrates she can be relied on to serve with true dedication and preparedness to bring whatever sacrifices are required to further our common goal." The operative added, "She is not Order, Glinn Melset is one of the very few who have had the foresight to consider our methods essential for the demands of her own career."

Gul Dukat inclined his head, remembering the conversations he had had with Melset. No more suspicion, so, back to normalcy. There was not one moment of hesitation when he ordered, "Glinn Terpak, Report to ready room."

Terpak came in at once, saluted and gave Entek a quick but curious glance.

"Inscribe Glinn Melset into the duty roster as of the second shift tomorrow." Gul Dukat commanded. "All suspicions have fortunately been revealed insubstantial; they were a ploy to discredit her."

Terpak nodded, and at passing in front of Melset, whispered, "Positive news," to which she responded with a barely perceptible smile, thinking only that it addressed the fact that she was cleared of all suspicion.

With that everything returned to normalcy. There were no questions, no comments when she retook her station. Whoever was freed by the Order was officially considered innocent, fully reintegrated, and Entek's accompanying Melset had amply demonstrated that she had the Order's support.

Three weeks later, Gul Dukat received a message that he read with growing resentment. "Gul Dukat of the Second Order, in the course of screening the candidates proposed for the next round of promotions, it has come to our attention that you have suggested Glinns Terpak and Shelan for promotion to Gul. All considered, we are certain, for obvious reasons, that it would be a wise decision to instead propose Glinn Melset as a candidate for one of said promotions.

The officer in charge of selective procedures has already, at our advice, taken the appropriate steps. If you so wish, you are invited to register a protest, and I assure you, it will be given the consideration it deserves. Commander Orid Kalem out."

For some minutes, Gul Dukat sat in front of the screen, enraged at the Order's intervention. The other two officers had seniority over Melset, were excellent in whatever they did, highly experienced. He had recognized Melset's potential, but two years was far too short a time as Glinn 3rd level to gain the necessary experience for command, nor had she, as far as he knew, even expected any such development. The Order does look out for its own… The old suspicion resurfaced.

"Then Shelan and Terpak will accompany me to Terok'Nor. In another six months they will get their reward for their work." Gul Dukat said to himself as he rose to leave for the bridge, where he spent most of the shift staring at Glinn Melset's back as she tracked developments along the sector they were assigned to guard.

It was but six weeks later that Gul Dukat ordered his Glinns and two members of their assigned troops to report to the meeting area of the cruiser. When they filed in, they exchanged surreptitious glances; evidently some event of which they had obtained no prior information was due. The banners showing the Cardassian emblem and that of the Second Order were displayed on the walls. Once all officers had taken their places according to rank, Gul Dukat entered, accompanied by his adjutant, Glinn Terpak.

The commander walked up to a lectern that had been placed there, raised a hand for attention, then said, "This is a glorious time for Cardassia. Thanks to new resources we have secured for our Empire, Central Command has initiated a massive expansion of our fleet; within the next two years, numerous Glinns who have proven themselves worthy of advancement will be honoured with commands of their own. The Orissà has been selected to be first in this project of renewal.

I have called you to witness a change of Command. Central Command has entrusted me with the administration of Terok'Nor, development of the ore extraction and -processing facilities on Bajor, a project to be developed concurrently with preparing the planet for full-scale colonization. This task of making Bajor's rich and invaluable resources accessible to the Empire will further Cardassia's quest to claim her rightful place in the Quadrant, to achieve true supremacy. The scope of these new responsibilities effectively preclude my further presence as commander of the Orissà.

Central Command's top echelons have evaluated the files of all eligible Glinns and transmitted the decision to me late yesterday evening." He turned to Glinn Terpak who activated the padd before handing it to him with a gesture of respect.

"Central Command has designated the following Glinn 3rd level to be promoted to Gul 9th level and, due to the afore-mentioned expansion, this officer will be granted immediate command of a cruiser, notably the Orissà, not serving two more years under the Command of a superior officer." He went to the side of the lectern, facing his staff.

"Glinn Melset, after due consideration of all factors such as performance ratings, given by the commanders under whom you have served in the past nine years, your results in external and internal examinations, Central Command's and the Order's, past and recent actions in the course of combat, preparedness to serve in all capacities, your willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice for Cardassia, it is my honour to notify you of your promotion to Gul 9th level. After this mission, you will report to Central Command for a phase of exams and tests for this position, but I have no doubt but that you will succeed."

Too stunned by what she had just heard, Glinn Melset remained sitting next to Glinn Jelad, motionless. This is impossible! Glinn Terpak had seniority, as did Glinns Chedrol and Shelan …. Still in a state of absolute disbelief, she finally rose and walked forward to salute Gul Dukat.

At the same time, Glinn Shelan came over from the side of the hall, carrying the armour of a Gul 9th level, the insignia on the right was edged in silvery-gold. Melset removed the armour she was wearing with the words, "I accept the responsibilities connected with my new position."

Shelan helped her put on the new armour and whispered so that only she could hear, "Not long to wait for this uniform after all, Gul." He was referring to the joking discussion he had had with Medic Jeskor some months previously. She smiled in response, remembering.

She turned to face Gul Dukat. "I am prepared."

"Then, Gul Melset, take the Pledge to Cardassia and never forget it for as long as there is an Empire and you are alive to serve."

Her voice clear and steady, she pronounced the words which, to her and to all the others in the service, meant life, existence, and embodied all they valued and in which they unwaveringly believed. She did not avert her eyes from Gul Dukat's for one minute.

When she had finished, he opened a flat case and presented her with the insignia of command. "With the acceptance of this insignia, you take command of the Orissà. Wear it, command her with dedication and pride."

"It shall always serve to remind me of my – our - duty to Cardassia. She is our life, our future, our very existence. Whoever would endanger her integrity both from within her borders and outside of them is to be crushed, all traitors brought to justice – this until and beyond the day when we have taken our destined place in the Quadrant to the greater glory of Cardassia!" Impulsively, she turned to the others, saluted and called out with fervour and love, "Talsvar Kardassu – for all time!"

The witnesses, including Gul Dukat, responded in like.

With that brief formality, transferral was completed. In another hour, Melset and Dukat would meet in his ready room to discuss shifts in personnel as he would be taking along 78 of the staff to fill places on Terok'Nor, a station which, for some time, had come close to being abandoned. He would bring it back to life, make it an invaluable element of Cardassia's future … On that very outpost, her new personnel was already waiting to be taken on board.

Suddenly, from across the room, she met Glinn Kovar's eyes, saw his pleasure in her success, but also disappointment. Our commitment and joining have to be deferred until you are promoted as well. Now we are once again bound to respect the rules governing interactions between the ranks.

The young male's expression reflected the same realization. Kovar saluted her from across the room and followed the others out. From now on, contact would be on an official basis only, with their relationship on hold – tempting though it was to continue their off-duty contact, an accusation of fraternization could have serious consequences.

Terok'Nor finally came into visual range, a fragile-looking, strangely beautiful structure orbiting Bajor, a lush, green planet scheduled for full-scale colonization within a matter of years. Some few Cardassian enclaves had already been established, but were under constant threat by the résistance that had sprung up twenty years ago when the occupying forces' purpose had become clear to the Bajoran people. Suppressing this very resistance movement that apparently was gaining in impetus and establishing posts all over Bajor would constitute Gul Dukat's most critical task. As yet, Cardassians could not risk leaving an enclave without escort, and, at night, security forces guarded the perimeters. Yet again and again devastating attacks, some of which claimed up to eighty lives, were perpetrated on these very enclaves. Gul Dukat was expected and determined to set an end to these acts of terrorism by whatever means necessary,

In a gesture that took Gul Dukat by surprise, she accompanied him and the others to the transporter area. Noticing her, he lagged a little behind, then stopped to look at Melset. "You wish to say something, Gul Melset?"

"Yes, Gul Dukat. I am in your debt for your instruction and the lessons in leadership you have given me– you have demonstrated all that must be considered when in command. It was a privilege serving under you." She met his eyes directly, her expression serious, before giving him a brief smile of thanks. He caught sight of her hands – the quick motion she made was the sign denoting gratitude.

He responded with a nod and smile of his own in acknowledgement of her words and the gesture, "You will be successful, Gul Melset. I put your name forward because I recognized your abilities. Enjoy the challenges of your new duties – as will I!" He nodded at the two Glinns accompanying him to move off, then added in a barely audible voice, "I have put Glinn Kovar's name forward as well as this fleet is to be expanded in another two years. You two should not have long to wait …" he added with a slight smile. With this friendly comment, he got on the transporter padd, saluted and beamed down to begin a new phase of his career.

The new Division Commander, Gul Jasad, contacted her immediately after Gul Dukat's departure. "We proceed to Algira Sector, Unefra Prime."

Taking the centre seat, she looked around at her bridge crew, "Engage. Course for Algira Sector." New missions for all of us – in the name of Cardassia.

54