Transition

"You will accept the background established, are fully informed of the risks. You accept the mission selected for you?" Entek looked at the former military who had volunteered for a mission.

"I accept." For an operative, which was what Melset wanted to become, it would have been terminally unwise to back out of any missions proposed.

"This is a final test of your skills; if you survive, you will be in a position to acquire valuable information on the resistance and Bajorans' sources of information for us. If not …" He shrugged then continued: "You will neither be surgically altered nor your mind influenced to make you believe you are Bajoran as is standard procedure; you will only react more openly."

There was no change in her attitude.

Her mentor replied, "Wait outside until I have conferred with the medical department."

Melset settled on a bench in the corridor to review details for the briefing until, two hours later, she was called back in and stood at attention in front of her superior. He briefly glanced her before stating, "Nothing in your personnel file precludes this assignment; your suggestion of five years ago is an asset; planting you on Bajor as is will seem a consequence of your proposal."

That suggestion had been to reconsider Bajoran policy to secure a possible ally in case the war with the Federation went disastrously wrong. The result had been immediate arrest, but during interrogation, her commitment to Cardassia's interests had become evident, she had retaken command, but not, as originally intended, stationed on Terok Nor.

"You will be informed in detail tomorrow at this time."

The next day she reported to Entek's office to face an extended staff of intelligence, among them Entek, her mentor. "You will be left near one of the villages in which we suspect resistance activity. The cover is that you have suggested changes in policies. Instead of executing you ourselves, we have left you to the Bajorans after excising useful information from your mind. For greater credibility, your first station is Terok Nor, in a cell with Bajoran captives awaiting extradition. You may act at your discretion to protect yourself if necessary. News of your alleged dissent will improve your chances of success. Thus, transition should be facilitated and you kept alive to access the information we require."

She nodded, indicating agreement. It was not necessary to enumerate just what she would have to register.

"Your files state you are fluent in Bajoran."

"Yes. I also understand the main dialects even though I cannot actively use them."

"Good, that is excellent."

She hesitated before stating, "If I am to gain their trust, I may have to pass on information useful for them, and be it minor details; if I know nothing at all, they might become suspicious, especially as I am an officer turned traitor." She added, "Selective amnesia, conditioning to tend to … indiscretions…"

"Acceptable."

Entek handed her a padd, "Here is what you need to know, along with some harmless secrets you can divulge in a slip-up without becoming a candidate for execution." He smiled faintly, nearly mockingly, "Remember the details well, especially Bajoran reaction patterns. To survive, you will have to adopt them. It should be interesting at times."

Gul Melset met his eyes, smiled in turn, "Of course. Everything must seem valid - otherwise the ploy would be all too transparent." She hesitated, then added, "I demand I be equipped with an easily detectable subcutaneous transponder of non-military provenance to distract from the one with which I have already been equipped at my own demand upon joining the Order. It seems transponders are removed when Bajorans do succeed in capturing one of us. They search for them where they routinely implant those used to keep track of their terrorists."

"That was to be one of my suggestions," was the reply. Tain had the right instincts…"It will be implanted shortly before your mission."

During transit to Terok Nor she concentrated on studying additional factors then, a few hours before arrival, reported to sickbay for preparation. After Dr. Nyson had finished, Melset limped over to a mirror, stared at her reflection in astonishment, then burst out laughing in spite of the discomfort. "Well, well, well, this makes for quite a change indeed!" She touched the massive bruise on one cheek, turned to look at the back of her neck, "The way the rest of my body feels, it must present evidence of an especially detailed interrogation."

"To ensure credibility." The doctor handed her a capsule, saying, "Take this just before leaving the shuttle. It will induce deep unconsciousness and lower your metabolic rate for roughly two and a half days before gradually wearing off."

"Leading whoever finds me to think the interrogation was exacting, even by our standards," she concluded. For a moment, Melset quickly suppressed apprehension. What happens will happen…. I knew of the risks when I agreed to this and accepted them.

The beamdown to Terok Nor found her manacled, guarded by two Cardassian soldiers chosen for their size and attitude. Melset covertly looked around as they walked towards the security area; the station had not changed since her last stay - the Bajoran ghetto was separated from the rest of the Promenade by high wire fences topped with energy fields, the gates manned by soldiers. The workers, who carefully avoided Cardassian troops, looked, for the most part, exhausted, half-starved. At one point, a small Bajoran child, frightened by something he had seen, ran into her, fell then stared up at the Cardassians, eyes wide with fear. "Little one, don't be afraid. You will not be harmed," Melset said gently, helping him up. Pointing at an older Bajoran who watched them worriedly, she added, "Look over there, that must be your father." The child ran off quickly, glancing back once.

Her captors roughly pulled her up, jabbing her viciously with their phaser rifles. Glinn Tevruk snarled contemptuously, "You will have enough time with that scum; in fact to the end of your life, traitor." The group noticed the incident had drawn the attention of some Bajorans who quickly turned away at the threatening glares of her guards. Glinn Masok whispered, "Excellent, Gul. That incident will be discussed."

At Security Odo took them to a holding cell, occupied by females only.

"We will come for her tomorrow. See she does not cause any trouble." Masok shoved his captive hard enough to send her sprawling on the floor before he activated the security field, saying, "That one already has enough to account for."

The soldiers gone, she dragged herself into a corner to sit there quietly, resignedly, knees drawn up to her chest, seeing the other occupants' stares of hate and fear. When they were given the one meal of the day, she turned her head away, refusing to touch her rations. One of the women said contemptuously, "Not good enough for you, Cardássian? Most of the time it is worse." Melset quickly glanced over at her before withdrawing into her apprehensions but listened to the whispered conversation of her cellmates who wondered at seeing an officer in such condition in their cell, and not isolated as was the custom. Have to remember the names they are mentioning – they may just come in useful.

The following day, two Cardassian militaries entered and briefly shut off the security field, keeping an eye on the other prisoners. "Ah, here is the traitor. Remove her." She shrank back at seeing Gul Torel who stared at her in disbelief before asking, "What is to be done with that?"

Glinn Masok's reply was a derisively sneering, "Leave her to the Bajora. She even behaves like one! Central Command has sentenced her to death for her proposal: Bajorans as allies! Such an idea can only be formed in the mind of a traitor. Too bad Gul Dukat isn't here. He would find the best way to make her serve as an example to others who would presume to question policy."

"Indeed," Torel replied. "So would I, but unfortunately ..." he shrugged in mock resignation, before turning to his captive with a threatening gesture of his phaser, "What are you waiting for? Get over here! Or do you expect an invitation, traitor?"

Melset complied, struggling to her feet, averting her eyes when she was manacled yet again. She felt the stares of her erstwhile companions nearly physically.

Once more the humiliation of being marched through the Promenade, her disgrace plain for all to see, followed by beam-up to a shuttle.

"Well done, Melset," Torel said as he removed the manacles. "I hardly recognized you, the way you were cowering in that holding cell. You acted exactly like a Bajoran; for a moment I thought you'd even begin pleading for mercy!"

She stretched and promptly regretted it, "Assuredly not, but the cover has to be perfectly convincing. This first mission will decide whether I can serve Cardassia in a new role. That prison cell... The Bajora with whom I was held were huddled in a corner, watching me as if I was going to shoot them at any moment."

"You have taken a very good look at yourself, haven't you?" Torel asked, his eyes reflecting his enjoyment of the whole deception. "Reminds me of the Federation officer you interrogated after Glinn Lemec had a trial run with him."

Another incautious gesture had her realize exactly how well Nyson had worked, "The way the rest of me feels, Dr. Nyson has made everything look convincing and, in addition, the effects of the capsule he has given me should give my alleged situation added credibility."

The intercom activated: "Arrived at destination. Gul Melset, mission initiated."

"I'll go to the shuttle with you and - I wish you success. Now for some acting."

When the door of the shuttle eased open upon arrival, Melset saw they were near a relatively small Bajoran village. She was forcibly removed, nearly rendered unconscious by a violent blow to her shoulders, received another one to her ribs, heard the soldiers laugh about what would probably happen as soon as they had left. Simultaneously, the drug hit her system; she fell heavily, lay gasping for breath, hardly able to move. Now to see what happens; everything now depended on her skills.

Soon after the shuttle had departed, she heard a whispered conversation that was rapidly becoming a loud argument. One of the villagers who had witnessed the scene from a safe vantage point approached her very cautiously together with a companion. Wanting to see them, she tried to move, but only managed a weak motion of one hand before she lost consciousness and heard no more.

"The viper is still alive!"

When the speaker made to touch the side of her throat, his friend called out, "No! Don't touch her, Kenin! I don't trust the situation, and neither should you. Who knows why they have left her here."

"Look," Kenin held up his hand to show fresh blood. "She's been injured."

They cautiously turned their find over; she lay limply on the ground, eyes closed, breathing shallowly, unevenly, as if in severe pain. Kenin took out a hand phaser of Cardassian design, briefly aimed it at the officer then, reconsidering, shoved it back into his belt after some seconds. "Looks like the spoonheads wanted to leave that one here to be found and killed by us. I want to know why."

The other Bajoran inquired disbelievingly, "Are you sure it was Cardassians?"

"I know their shuttles and I certainly recognize that lot."

"What now? If she's found like this, we'll be suspected of having attacked her, and you know what that means. Did you see whether any others stayed behind?"

"No. I tell you again, they forced her out, struck her with a phaser rifle when she moved too slowly because of her injuries, and laughed about what they were doing. She got all of the privileges usually reserved for us.

"I still say to get rid of her immediately. No doubt they'll be back to finish her off."

"We have to talk to the others first. Let's just get her out of sight. You'll have to help me - she's unable to walk." He added, "If they had wanted to eliminate her, they would already have done so."

Another brief deliberation, then the men agreed, "For now, she can be held in the outer room of the Arnas' house, guarded by one of the women; as members of the Healer D'jarra, they will know what to do. Arna Yokim has no plans at the moment, so he can watch to see whether there is more to this."

"I don't know whether this is wise."

"Perhaps not, but they never leave one of their own, let alone a military behind. They execute their traitors in public, on Cardassia, not here. We can always get rid of that viper later on." He added, "I want to know what happened."

Half-carrying her, they got to a house, laid her on a paillasse. The villagers who had seen them arrive with their find crowded in the doorway, staring curiously, commenting, most of them insisting the Cardassian be eliminated at once and offering suggestions as to how this could be done.

"Let me pass." A woman went into the room, stared at the Cardassian disbelievingly for some moments then, overcoming her revulsion, touched her cheek hesitantly, saying, "You say this was done to her by her own people?"

"Yes. She was left here and the troops that took her out of the shuttle struck her a few more times for good measure." Arna Kenin urged, "Careful, Sanye, she may not be as helpless as she looks."

Without another word, she began to clean the blood off the injury the woman had sustained at being struck by the soldier. "She's out cold," she replied, not looking up and said to her charge, "If you can hear and understand me, Cardassian, I am not going to harm you. We will find out what has happened, then decide what happens to you."

There was no reaction.

"We'll take care" she said.

Another nearly inaudible conversation, with the Bajoran named Yokim, then "This one is no danger, but that uniform could contain a transponder." He quickly felt under the armour, found the pouches. "Odd, no weapons, no communicator, not even an insignia. Everything has been removed."

"Take off her uniform, I'll destroy it," said Kenin, "And, Sanye, give me the bandage with which you cleaned that cut. It'll look as though we fried the reptile in its own shell."

There was suppressed laughter at the phrasing.

Handing over the piece of cloth, Sanye did not reply, only had another woman come over, "Malja, help me take it off; I don't want to hurt her even more. There may be further injuries."

"They certainly don't care about what they do to us," called one of the villagers. "Just pull it off." He laughed, "Let her have some discomfort all her own and see how she likes it. I'm willing to bet this one was in the thick of the latest massacres and, afterwards, bragged to her kind about how many shrine-crawlers she'd killed, or perhaps even worked in one of the labour camps, and everyone knows what is done there."

It was Malja who retorted, "No. We do not know what has really happened. This is a Cardassian, but to mistreat or injure someone who is wounded, helpless only because of race? The Prophets forbid it."

"Tell that one about this precept once she is conscious. You will get a fitting reaction, and you know that."

Sanye did not bother replying and helped Malja undo the fastenings of the armour to take both it and the uniform off before laying her back. While removing the Cardassian's underclothing, Malja whispered, horrified, "They must have beaten her to within an inch of her life!"

Sanye cautiously felt the victim's arms, legs and chest for fractures. When she had finished she sat back, shook her head. "I've never seen anything like that."

"Get out, you others." Suddenly embarrassed for the victim's sake, Yokim spread a cover over her, "Why are you surprised? They do the same – and worse - to us." Then he added with a grimace of disgust, "Looks like everyone has a right to that privilege, not only we."

Malja waited for her sister to return, briefly spoke to her and left.

Even though her charge was deeply unconscious, Sanye said, "For now, rest. I'm staying here with you."

Nearly two days later, Melset briefly regained awareness, felt warm and comfortable but extremely weak. Still alive, so part one of the plan has worked – she opened her eyes, tried unsuccessfully to turn her head but saw she was in a small room with pale ochre-coloured walls. She had a vague recollection of having briefly surfaced a few times, remembered gentle touches, someone talking to her, then of losing awareness again.

A Bajoran woman came over, made eye contact with her then briefly smiled.

"You've been unconscious for over two days," Sanye touched her arm at seeing she was awake, "but you seem to be recovering; the additional warmth must have helped."

"Anything new?" someone asked from outside.

Melset remembered that voice. Kenin had come over to join them.

"She's finally conscious, but very weak. You can try to speak to her."

A tall, dark-haired Bajoran male joined Sanye. "Do you understand us?" Kenin asked, pronouncing the words slowly, carefully, indicating what he meant.

"A little," she answered, hoping she had understood him correctly.

"Name?"

"Gul Melset."

Kenin gave a humourless laugh, "You no longer have that title. Your name, viper." His hand darted forward to grasp her arm tightly.

"Melset Iníki." She hesitated, trying to find the words, then, with difficulty, fighting for breath, "Expected to be on Cardassia Prime."

Kenin exchanged glances with the others, "You were left outside our village by Cardassians - your own people. Why?"

She struggled to answer, hardly able to pronounce the words. "Death sentence. You..." her voice faded.

"Very likely," he turned to the others, suspicious "Seems a trap to get us to take in an informant." He turned back to her, gripped the Cardassian's shoulders, "For what?"

"New policies...allies." Her voice trailed off as she lost consciousness again. He waited some moments, then said, seeing there would be no reply, "We will talk when you have recovered a little more." Turning to the two women, he directed, "You take turns observing her. If there's even the slightest trouble, you know what to do."

Malja turned away at seeing that her charge was unconscious again. Why are they so determined to destroy us that they even abuse their own for thinking otherwise?

Intelligence had definitely chosen the right place - When she woke up late the next morning, she heard loud voices outside the door, a brief argument. With an effort, she turned onto her side, noticing with relief that the drug was very slowly wearing off.

Malja looked in and called, "Faisol, she's awake. But remember, use our standard and speak slowly. I'll wait outside."

After asking the same questions Kenin had, he turned to the others, suspicious. "Seems a trap."

"Why were you left here?"

"Suggested making you allies. Accused of treason." Melset was relieved that she could finally speak normally.

"Ah, your people want us to do the dirty work for them?" was the sarcastic rejoinder. "Then, after we have done them the favour, accuse us of having killed you?"

He roughly turned her head to the side, "You've been abused," he stated. "Why?"

"Always done in interrogations." She fell silent, trying to catch her breath before adding, "Public trial. My sentence ..." Melset appeared to search for the words, "I was to be a warning to others."

"Why were you left here?" The Order had good reason to want an observer in this region the way this question was repeated.

"I do not know."

"You don't know!" He gripped her arms to shake her violently, shouting, "You damn vipers! You said you wanted to help us, cooperate with us when you first came! You did not wait long to show your true colours, did you? Exploiting our world, strip-mining entire areas, using our people as slave labour, taking women from their families for the enjoyment of your officers; our culture is treated with contempt! Even our children know you want to colonize Bajor, making us slave labour!" He briefly stared at her, then stated calmly. "If your friends are looking for resources here, in Rellaketh Province, you will find nothing." Another pause, "Only four years ago, a dam just on the other side of the border was destroyed because there were ores you needed under the lake! An entire village was swept away, all its inhabitants drowned! Lie to someone else." Thoroughly enraged, Faisol pushed her away as hard as he could.

Melset cried out when she fell heavily against the wall. The Bajoran contemptuously watched her try to sit up on her own, trembling with weakness.

Just remembered to react as expected...Have to be cautious. One wrong word and end of mission. "On border patrol, knew what is happening here and disagreed."

He leaned forward, "The résistance would enjoy trying their hand at interrogation to see whether that is true."

"Drugged me during interrogation to lower resistance – afterwards to erase recollections. Remember nothing." They should buy that - they do not know all of the Order's methods.

Using the local dialect, her interrogator spoke to Malja, who had just come in together with Sanye at hearing Melset's cry of pain, "Did she say anything?"

"Only what you have already heard." He turned to Malja, "While she was unconscious, did she speak?"

"Before she briefly surfaced the first morning, she said something about allies, an interrogation, seemed frightened." She shook her head, "I don't know what to think. Her reactions are much different to those of the Cardassians we have seen so far." Yet another dialect...

"One of our men is due to return from Terok Nor." Faisol turned to Melset, again using his dialect, "Were you there?"

She concentrated on the words, but after a moment looked to Malja for help.

"That one really does not understand our dialect. I know, I tried," said Malja, referring to a discussion about the Cardassian's fate - Melset had not reacted to any of the suggestions which paralleled her own people's methods most impressively.

He very slowly repeated his question, using the language she seemingly was familiar with, "Were you on Terok Nor?"

"Yes, in a cell..." She thought briefly, "with Arna Valdis, Sarun Narena and two."

He met Sanye's glance. "So that is what happened to them!" He turned back to Melset. "What did you hear?"

She leaned against the wall, feeling the weakness rapidly increase again. "Cardassia Prime - interrogation … in two days." She saw Malja's eyes briefly reflect horror and sorrow before she abruptly turned away.

"You spoke for us?"

The answer was a mute nod. This detail should make a difference, interpreting my proposal as compassion.

"For now, you will be kept alive, mainly because your people want you dead." Faisol stated, "We need to know more."

Melset said very quietly, "You have my gratitude for letting me live."

Faisol turned to the two women, "You and your family will take responsibility for this one, see to it that she does not escape."

"She can't even get up on her own, let alone reach a military installation."

Malja said hesitatingly, "This one can share our meals, her captors must have half-starved her," before saying, "We do not have much, but it should be suitable."

Melset had seen other prisoners' responses to unexpected kindness and turned away; she resented having to pretend to thankfulness. These people's compassion was contemptible, a weakness that made it relatively easy to extract information from prisoners when they saw one of their compatriots being tortured.

"You have helped us by giving us the names of the women who were with you." Sanye told her. "I'll bring the meal in and join you, but before, you may want to get dressed; that light gown is not enough."

It may be best to attach myself to her family group. This one seems slightly more willing to give me the benefit of the doubt in spite of her antipathy, so she and hers may speak more openly after some time. "You have my gratitude."

"We are not Cardassians to ignore another's need." When Malja came in with the articles, Melset suppressed disgust – to look like one of them….. But the warmth of the clothing admittedly was pleasant.

At hearing a call outside, her guard left, only to return after a quick exchange, "A contact saw you on Terok'Nor, under guard, manacled, yet you helped one of our children in spite of your own situation and were further abused for it."

As expected, the Bajora had established a network of information that was every bit as efficient as her own people's, registering even minor details even though they had no elaborate communications devices at their disposal. The challenge was using her knowledge of Bajoran mentality. Compassion had already worked in her favour, yet having to imitate their emotional responses was degrading. Entek would enjoy this. If she was successful the reward would be considerable, though: the full transferral to the Order she desperately wanted.

Sanye brought in a low table, placed bowls of vegetables and fruit on it, then, wordlessly, shared the food with the Cardassian who, she noticed, took care to imitate her gestures. At one point, she looked at a fruit carefully before tasting it.

"It won't harm you,"

"No, but…" Melset stared at it, turning it over and over, puzzled, "We have this kind on our world, have been growing it since the beginning. The same fruit on two worlds so far apart?"

The next day, the drug had lost most of its effects. Finally! Melset stretched, then in spite of slight weakness, got to her feet. At once, a Bajoran male came in, phaser at the ready. He held up his weapon in a threat. "Listen carefully: You try to escape, one Cardassian less won't matter to us. There are plenty more."

Malja had come in at hearing the threat and, at seeing the Cardassian nearly recovered, said sarcastically, "Now that you have recovered, you can watch how your inferiors live, something that should keep you amused for days on end. Backward, superstitious primitives whose rituals and customs are only fit to be destroyed make for fine watching. Only a vole fight is better." Her erstwhile kindness had been replaced by intensive hatred.

Melset replied quietly, not reacting to the hatred, "You were generous and took me in in spite of what I am, tended to my injuries, share the little you have instead of killing me outright as my superiors expected, have given me this clothing which is a disguise of sorts." Hesitating, she added, "I am indebted to you for this help."

Her gratitude had Malja answer less harshly, "There may be something that will not compromise our safety, but I repeat my neighbour's warning: try to escape and you will pay at once."

She inclined her head. "I would be shot on sight, were I to reach a Cardassian outpost." Suitably pathetic for them, I hope. But they are surprisingly well-organized and, in spite of their backwardness, no fools. For a moment she hoped the cover was good enough. Yet, Dr Nyson's work had been convincing - as much as these people despised Cardassians, they had been and still were horrified at her condition. It would take at least a week for the more impressive bruises to fade along with the residual weakness.

Outside, Yokim waved Yano over. "I have a task for you: make contact with her, pretend interest, speak to that one, tell her about the way we live and - watch her reactions very carefully."

Yano nodded in agreement, even though he resented having to associate with a Cardassian.

They seem to want information was her thought some days later, when Yano came over to her and asked, "Did they really do this to you because of your suggestion?"

She noticed that his voice hinted at curiosity, not suspicion - this was new - and met his glance openly, "Yes. The principle of interrogation is that extreme pain and abuse reveal the truth - we are trained to be very resistant to both, so when one of us breaks, nothing is hidden anymore." In a low voice, she added, "My interrogator did not accept my suggestion was meant to strengthen, not to harm Cardassia. Thus my sentence."

He looked at her, briefly met her eyes then turned to leave. How to do what Yokim wants? The very idea of associating with a Cardassian is revolting, it makes it seem as though I agreed with what they are doing… But if what she has told us so far is true…

About a week later, Malja accompanied her when they went into the main room of the house; it was the first time she had left the room in which she was held. Melset quickly looked around - it was spacious, with hand-carved furniture, a fireplace in the back, utensils for cooking and farming arranged along the walls; everything was simple, yet made for an atmosphere of comfort and security, underlined by the smell of wood, earth and herbs. The others were already gathered and stared at her with suspicion and resentment. "Sit here, with Yokim and myself," Malja placed a bowl in front of her, explaining, "and eat with us, as is custom." After thanking the Prophets, they did so in silence. There was no conversation, as they did not trust her to any degree.

At one point, Yano called out, "Try this fruit, it cannot possibly be harmful to one of you." He had cut its shell after having seen she still had problems using her right hand.

Malja passed it to her.

Melset only answered, "Very hard to poison a viper."

The reaction was suppressed amusement, then renewed silence.

Yano, who had offered her the fruit, looked over at her repeatedly; she did not know why, nor could she read his expression. As she knew was their custom, she avoided his glance only wondering whether he was the operative, but - no - his manner would certainly be different.

After the meal, she was told, "We destroyed your uniform. A Bajoran with Cardassian objects is always a suspect."

The answer was a shrug of indifference, "I understand, it is safer. We have transponders in the armour. I had to put it on again after interrogation – to make my loss of status clear to all." She looked away, saying very quietly, hopelessly, "My suggestion was not treasonous."

"It was, according to your people's ideas. Speaking for us is a crime – we were told some months ago that a Ferengi was nearly executed because he tried to sell us food."

Noticing her look towards the open space in front of the buildings before she was locked up again, Sanye realized that confinement was as difficult for her as it would be for one of her own people, but shook her head at the Cardassian's unasked question, "Too much of a risk."

Hesitantly, Melset replied, "I know. Perhaps they are checking whether I am alive after all, then we would all pay, and especially you should not."

Yano briefly met the Cardassian's eyes before she was accompanied back into the room and locked in.

At returning, Sanye switched to a local dialect when she spoke to Yano, "There are things that must not be seen, especially not by her."

He had repeatedly noticed their captive at the window, watching the villagers go about their tasks. Her expression had not hinted at either contempt or amusement, but rather at interest and curiosity, as if she were trying to understand their ways.

Malja said, not unkindly, "We cannot risk making the error of underestimating that one. She was a Gul with all that implies, her kind is fanatically patriotic; she did not reach that position without being vicious and brutal, though she looks harmless at first sight. You know her people can be trusted to be untrustworthy. She was left to us for some reason; I am not quite willing to believe her story, at least not yet. It is to you to find out more."

A few days later, a newcomer who looked slightly familiar arrived. He saw the incident with that child! Hoping to learn more, she pressed herself against the wall to the adjoining room. She heard the murmur of voices, but the words were too muffled. Shortly after, the door was unlocked and he came in with Yokim, stared at her, "Yes, that's the Cardassian I saw. He grinned broadly, "Not very impressive out of uniform, is she?"

He addressed her in the language she knew, "Why that sentence?"

"Suggested change in policies. We need reliable allies." She hesitated briefly, "I never was on Bajor, only on Border Patrol and spent some hours on Terok Nor to pick up personnel."

"Exactly what our contacts reported," he said, watching her carefully and using the dialect he had been directed to take. "What will happen now?"

"I cannot go to a Cardassian outpost; I want to live." She considered the situation, then, taking care to sound hesitant and even pleading, "I place my life in your hands, and will try to protect you as you have me, should it become necessary."

He shrugged, turning away wordlessly, still deeply suspicious. They went out, locking the door to the room. Before leaving, he told the others, "Keep her confined, but in about a week, forget to secure that door and see what happens. We will be waiting." He added, "Hobble her – if she frees herself and runs for the hills, we'll know the story is a lie and get rid of that snake."

The test came even sooner than expected. Melset briefly hesitated before pushing open the door. It almost certainly was a trap, so walking out slowly, she first settled where she could enjoy the warmth; no one was around, not even the children. At seeing a pile of grain, she remembered Evren saying it was seed grain to be spread out for drying later on - better seem interested in helping and integrating to validate the entire premise – Melset suppressed the recollection that, years ago, in her childhood, she had seen this very same kind of grain on her home world, in Kelan Province, one of the most fertile areas on Cardassia Prime.

Unrolling two large canvases, she distributed part of it in a thin, even layer then enjoyed the warmth again. While waiting, she found herself wondering about the peculiar pattern of woodwork in the windows, the symbols on the doors of the houses. They clearly were an expression of these people's superstitions, but there could be useful information to be accessed if the right approach was found. She relaxed, planning more ways of manipulating circumstances in her favour, but took care to glance up at the sky every now and then, her attitude tense, as if fearing Cardassian surveillance in case she was being observed by the villagers.

When the others returned their reaction was as she had expected, surprise, then a discussion followed by a search until Yokim found her, dozing in the heat. For a moment he looked at her in disbelief, having expected her to try to escape - straight into the hands of the cell. "You are stillhere," then harshly, suspiciously, pointing at the grain, "You understand us very well, don't you? I wonder what else you can understand." He went over to her, distrustful, prepared to follow through the initial suggestion made by the others.

She looked up at him and slowly got to her feet. "Please, standard. I cannot understand you."

Again the switch, "Why?"

"We have crops like this in my home province, but dry them mechanically. The door was open, so I decided to help, repay you."

"If you had tried to run...," he pulled a phaser out of his pocket, readjusted it to 'stun' then arrived at a decision. "May as well free you. Sit down."

She watched him cut the rope from her ankles, then bent over to rub them - the fine edges of some of the scales had been worn down.

Yokim watched her, lost in thought, and, after a few moments, asked, "Why are you here? You are not like the Cardassians we know. We once saw a captive; he was defiant, arrogant and vicious to the end, with only contempt for us. 'Bajoran filth' was the mildest insult he used. We never could understand why your people have only contempt for us and consider us inferior, little more than animals, killing and torturing us without compunction." This time his voice was without anger or hate as he considered her. "Normally, anyone your people considers a traitor is executed, publicly. You said so yourself."

She showed no irritation at his renewed query. "I never did share this opinion about you or agree with the methods used against your people; so it was thought fitting to have me executed by those for whom I had spoken." Melset added in a low voice, "Killing Cardassians is becoming a sport, thus my sentence."

"We have seen no patrols lately," he stated, not reacting to what she had just said, "Should we feel confident and talk too freely among ourselves? You would be in the best position to spy on us."

"Normally, it is suicide for one of us to go out alone on Bajor; I have been here for four weeks and am still alive. Even if I went to a base to try pass on information, I would have no chance of doing so, as I would be shot on sight." What is he trying to find out?

They were interrupted by a group of arrivals who had various items, Cardassian weapons and communicators as well as tools that could only have been liberated during an attack. Yokim made a hand signal behind his back to indicate to the newcomers they should get out of sight.

She pretended to have noticed nothing unusual, but committed the individuals to memory, as well as the objects she had just seen. That's why he is talking to me…. Draw my attention away from chance observations.

He turned to her, "They are back from the fields they were guarding. We have to see which crops can be harvested next, unless your compatriots plan to burn or poison them first. Go back inside."

Interesting crops indeed. Back inside, Melset heard the door being locked, but knew she was very slowly making some headway. They partially believed the story, but were still suspicious and on their guard. I somehow have to gain their trust, and soon. I need names and places. The details Entek gave me should be important to them, but not to us - all of those bases on the list are slated to be given up before new ones are established; crucial installations have already been moved. She settled down to record the few details she had gathered.

It was two weeks later, just before dark, when Malja came to accompany her into the house for dinner. Even though Melset was no longer confined to the room she had been given, she took care to allay suspicions by staying with the members of the Arna family, immediately seeking cover whenever a shuttle passed overhead. There were more people here this time, among them two she did not know. One, a young woman with wavy auburn hair, who was addressed as Alosa, nearly jumped up in anger at seeing the Cardassian, while a young male, Rendon, gave her a hate-filled glare before snarling, "Since when do we take those in?"

His companion added, "And share the little we have. Have you forgotten her kind is starving us or working prisoners to death in labour camps?" Alosa remained stubbornly silent for the rest of the meal; there were codes of hospitality that were respected, but after the thanksgiving ritual she disgustedly eyed Yano who smiled at Melset and offered, "I'll explain this custom to you later."

Like a human - trying to make even one of us welcome, and only because it seems I was mistreated for my goodwill towards them! "I would appreciate that," she replied in a low voice.

Yokim replied, "Alosa and Rendon, I'll tell you about everything later, but she's not exactly a captive anymore. We have been watching her very carefully. This one does not enter any area without being invited, spends hours watching us at our work, asking about the techniques used, and even works together with us when we need extra hands. She is highly educated, as is to be expected of one of her people, clever at technological work, but is interested in all aspects of our lives, especially our handicrafts."

He remembered an incident and said, "She did not even react to some very offensive epithets shouted at her by one of our children, only turned away and left. When I sent Andyra over to apologize, he got the reply, "It is forgotten. How else can you react? Cardassians have done too much to you."

Rendon made a sound of derision at the back of his throat, "Certainly that one is interested in everything. Cardassians gather as much information as possible first, then use it to find where best to strike to do the greatest amount of damage. Perhaps they want to capture skilled labourers to work on their worlds, freeing their men and women to attack more planets and enslave their inhabitants." Rendon glared over at Melset, it was clear he would have liked to get rid of her on the spot.

Melset pretended not to have understood the conversation, only glanced over at Yokim and Rendon once. At the end of the meal, when Malja got up to take away the dishes, she made eye contact, and rose hesitantly, "I can help," indicating the removal of the ropes.

There was a brief but suppressed argument, until Yokim told them about the experiment and that she had not attempted to escape, but had taken over some work that had been, of necessity, delayed. The reaction of the newcomers was disbelief and suspicion.

Rendon suggested, "A new ploy. Look at her: she's not much taller than our own women, harmless-looking without that uniform, thus ideal to leave here as an unfortunate victim, and you fall for it! There have been variants on that method."

In the course of the conversation which was led in one of their local dialects, Melset heard the Bajorans repeat the name of a weapons depot once or twice. It was difficult to for her understand exactly what they were saying as they spoke very quickly, slurring some words, abbreviating others, laughing; an uninformed listener would hardly have suspected they were discussing a raid as their discussion seemed to involve crops, as well as reusing fields that had lain fallow for the necessary number of years.

To her pleasure, Entek had listed the place that was being mentioned repeatedly as one on which she could reveal data. This is the opening I need! She turned to them with a low cry of distress, repeating the name, then reverted to Cardassian.

Immediately Yokim, enraged, made suspicious by Rendon's words, rushed over and pinned her against the wall, "You have been sent to spy on us!" He turned to his friends, "Faisol and Caron, get rid of her immediately!"

Have to make it appear I am so concerned I haven't understood his order. "No! Not to that base! It is a trap! They are waiting for you there! It is the truth!" She turned to grip Yokim's arms to emphasize the warning, still speaking in her own language, voice rising, eyes wide with fear.

Rendon and Yokim pulled her arms behind her back to tie her up, Rendon cursing the two males who had taken this Cardassian into the village instead of vaporizing her. "They are all the same, you should know that by now, after all that has happened. At least you have finally come to your senses - pity for her kind! Who knows how much damage has already been done! She was in the best place you could imagine. Don't you know their methods? She's watching everything, remembering it. And what she knows will be used to eliminate us; no doubt she'll be awarded a medal for doing her share to destroy us."

Incredulous, Alosa stared at the scene, unable to react, not quite believing what she had heard Melset say. After hesitating for some moments, she came to a decision. "Rendon and Yokim, stop. I want to hear her say that again."

"What she said was enough. I don't need a repeat. That viper understands us, no matter which dialect we speak!" He clenched a hand into one of the Cardassian's neck membranes. Melset gave a protracted hiss of pain but otherwise remained passive, did not defend herself.

"I wonder how it would be to strip off one scale after the other," he said quietly.

Alosa gestured at Rendon. "Let her go. She only understands the standard language. Anyone would have recognized that place name. Her reaction did not look as though she was anxious to have us run into a trap."

Rendon complied grudgingly, saying, "How can you let yourself be tricked like that! Remember what those bastards did to your brother. They don't just leave one of theirs lying somewhere to be found! She was left here with a purpose. They were counting on having her taken in because they know our precepts of charity and compassion. Recall how they questioned Ranit, forcing his wife to watch him being tortured until he died, laughing about her pleading, sneering about his weakness, as they called it!" Turning to the others, he muttered, "I can't believe you let this thing live so long!" He slapped the Cardassian as hard as he could, provoking another hiss. "Even sounds like a viper." Overcome with hate, he suddenly kicked at her legs; Melset fell, twisted to fall on her back, instinctively prepared to defend herself.

This time Malja called out, "Rendon, will you stop! If she is trying to trap us, she's all yours, but for now, it is enough! Are we already becoming like them? We are Bajorans and not brutes like the occupiers of our world! You should have seen her when she was found."

Rendon moved away so that she was out of his reach, but his expression showed he was angry at being kept from getting his hands on the Cardassian, "The worst you can do to them is not bad enough; believe me, she would not have lived to see this day had I been the one to find her." He addressed Melset, "We have learned from you, and I'm looking forward to showing you we have learned our lessons well."

Melset did not reply, only stared up at him in silence.

Alosa went over to her, saying, "Repeat what you said, but in our language."

Melset did not answer, she watched the others and made no move to get up.

"I said get up – we want to hear you repeat what you just said, Cardassian. We're waiting."

She complied, keeping an eye on Rendon who was still eyeing her, just waiting for her to make the slightest error.

Alosa continued, "What your people did to you was bad enough. Rendon is not cruel, but he has reason enough to hate spoonheads; he's lost nearly his entire family to your forces."

At Melset's startled glance, she explained, "Our word for you - in exchange for your insults."

What Melset had just learned was not totally unexpected. These ones have enough knowledge of Cardassi to both understand and use it well enough - have to be careful, especially when the operative gets here - Yet, I already have the names of a number of their contacts as well as of some few of their bases. Are these people so naive or only incautious?

Speaking rapidly in a mixture of both languages, as if too agitated to remember all the Bajoran she knew, she said, "Please. Listen. Not there. I know about the plan. It is a trap. The depot was closed and the equipment transferred well before I was sentenced. You will be ambushed and eliminated, your village razed, and..." she abruptly fell silent, eyes wide.

The group was now staring at her disbelievingly, even Rendon. When she fell silent, Usso Yano went over to him, seemingly to explain something; she watched the gestures the two men used - they were interesting, conveying meaning which, at times, could possibly be radically different from the implications of the words themselves, nearly like the system she had used while still active duty. They are taking the bait – We are taught never to speak impulsively, but they cannot know this. Now to realize just what I have done...

Her expression became horrified disbelief. Misreading, Sanye went to her, saying, "We have to be cautious. All of us are in constant danger so that we cannot take any chances, and even fear Bajorans we do not know as they could be operatives." She added, "Before your people came, we weren't like this; we may have been isolated, but strangers or someone in need could always count on help." As they went out, she added, "If what you have said is true, you have repaid us far more than you realize."

Seeing the Cardassian's distress, she said, "Come, Iníki, let's go back. I assure you, we will not harm you, not now, not after your warning."

Once in her room, Melset slowly sat down on the paillasse, in total despair. "Now I really am a traitor. That is what they had planned all along and why they gave me that drug. If I am retaken now, there's no more hope. Even my family will be made to feel the disgrace."

"They left you here to die, and you call yourself a traitor?" was the Bajoran's reaction. "As you said, the drug makes you react differently – it can be proven that you were given it!"

"No. It breaks down completely after taking effect. It leaves no marker behind, neither in blood nor tissue nor metabolites. Only the effects remain. That is the purpose…" She leaned back, resigned. "In my case, it was make your own traitor – my suggestion only laid the basis of the plan."

"Then what just happened is not your fault, you are not guilty."

"Varun Sanye, you don't understand. Duty, family and our worlds are everything for us. My suggestion already was a court-martial offence even though I wanted to help Cardassia, but this ...," she turned her face to the wall. "I have betrayed my people."

Sanye relied quietly. "I can't help you resolve that conflict. But the loss of those fighters would have meant the loss of your own life." When there was no reply, she said in a gentle tone of voice, "I have to speak to the others; it seems you really cannot go back, not the way your sentence was carried out."

The woman left; alone, Melset cautiously looked up, watching for any movement in the window which could have meant covert observation. Nothing. This may be a new opening. This one seems to be convinced of my sincerity. How little these people knew. Her error was unthinkable, as was her reaction, or the wish to return a favour to inferiors. I'll be taking up weapons myself, if it goes on like this! Hopefully the operative will arrive soon.

She already had collected a fair amount of information to pass on, more than she had expected. These first two months had been unexpectedly productive, even though it was a strain to adapt to her captors' ways, to appear thankful, try to offer them something in exchange for their help.

Melset had never had direct contact with Bajorans, had only heard in reports or from her peers that they were a weak, inferior people caught up in backward superstitions who needed to be brought up to her own people's level, yet who refused to give up their culture, persisted in fighting back. Prolonged contact was showing her entirely different aspects of them, aspects which had been concealed by the propaganda whose aim was to make them appear subcardassian in every way and thus justify the atrocious conditions under which they were forced to work and live by their Cardassian oppressors.

During the following weeks, she noticed the Bajoran who had spoken for her began finding excuses to walk by, often making the most outrageous comments about her people, which she repaid in kind. She was surprised at his reaction to her retorts, laughter or a broad grin. A few weeks after her arrival, he was waiting for her when she came out of the room, "You are free to move around now," was his comment. He did not go away.

Not knowing what he meant, she looked over at one of the houses and replied, "Within limits, of course."

"How are your homes?" was his query.

No harm in giving a description. He listened carefully as she described the arrangements and the typical layout.

After she had finished, he explained, "Our own are built in accordance with our beliefs. The patterns of our windows and inlays in the doors are said to reflect the gates of the Celestial Temple, as revealed to our Vedeks. The central room with the fireplace is a symbol of our unity. We always share our meals; you have noticed our ritual before eating - we thank the Prophets for what we have, even if it is but little. Everything we do, we do in their honour. The occupying forces laugh about our beliefs, but we have been sent ... objects."

"I have heard of artefacts that have been removed from Bajor, from your shrines," was her hesitant, nearly inaudible comment.

His face became grim, "Yes, your forces destroy shrines, have taken orbs - our holiest objects, sent to us by the Prophets, and are examining them in labs to see if they can be useful; no doubt those they have stolen are already destroyed," his anger and bitterness were obvious. I wonder - is she really interested, or only trying to find a weakness? At meeting her eyes, he noticed there was no mockery in her expression. "We did nothing to provoke all of this, and yet what your forces are doing to us is atrocious beyond belief - torture, senseless killings, as if we were vermin."

This really is a regrettable course of action; this terror a serious mistake. A treaty with Bajor would have helped us far more than this...

He looked at her again, "I know you spoke for us; at least that is what you said. Why was that such a serious offence?"

"Any dissent is considered treasonous. Yet, I did suggest alternatives to preclude any loss of the resources which we need. Our rules, however, are merciless."

"So far, none of you has ever wanted to hear about our ways. Our culture is only a source of derision, of mockery. I'll explain it to you, if you want," he looked at her with an indefinable expression.

"Why do you all wear this?" Her voice was hesitant as she touched the chain of the earring he was wearing. Make him believe I am afraid of causing offence.

"They show we are one people. We believe the pagh can be sensed in its true form by a Vedek when he grasps your ear."

With that he began explaining details of their ways; and, noticing her interest, made it a habit. She however took care not to show that she considered listening to his accounts a waste of time - who would want to learn about these people's ways? Her own culture was inherently superior, making it unthinkable to respect the Bajorans' ways. At the same time, she well knew that each small fact could be put to good use under the right circumstances. This development may be exceedingly useful. He seems to trust me, believe the scenario, and wants to help me integrate.

It was nearly eight weeks later that she was awakened by voices raised in argument - she recognized those of the villagers she knew, but there were two which she had not heard before. The door to her room slammed open as two Bajoran males came in to pull her to her feet. When she tried to struggle out of their hands, calling out, "What is the reason for this?" her captor struck then blindfolded her, tied her wrists together.

"Is this really necessary, Denor? She did warn us about that camp," this from Yokim.

"She's a Cardássian. Isn't that enough? If there is nothing to worry about, you will get your pet one back unharmed if you still want her." With that she was taken outside and pushed into a craft - extremely small, as far as she could feel, and tied to one of the seats.

After a short flight, she was released, then prodded to indicate she was to get out. Guided by one of her captors, Melset felt they were walking over smooth ground before entering a cavern. Some more meters, then the blindfold was removed. A tall Bajoran stood facing her, his eyes expressing hatred and revulsion. She looked at him carefully, evaluating the man. Was he the contact she had been told to expect?

"How did you get here?"

"I was left behind by my superiors, having made the error of suggesting different policies towards Bajor." Always the same questions...

"Very likely. You always execute traitors. To leave one of you to us would mean the danger of having valuable information passed on in revenge."

"It doesn't quite work like that. We would never betray our people, no matter what the encouragement. To make the sentence more unpleasant, my mind was manipulated to erase critical knowledge, and make me react differently."

"Like a weak, inferior Bajoran," came the sneering reply.

"No. Like one of us without the discipline and training. And the worst thing is that I am fully conscious of what has been done to me, yet am unable to change my reactions or remember what I once knew."

Her interrogator quickly reached out to grasp her braids, forcing her head back. "Very considerate of them - it will make it easier to extract the information you still do have." He let go, then tripped her up, making her fall heavily, and crouched next to her, his forearm across her throat, ready to exert pressure.

Briefly dazed by the fall, she looked up and met his glance, held it - How to know whether he was the operative she was told to expect or a member of the résistance? To make an error would cost her life and, even worse, the information for her people would be lost.

He lifted his free hand. "Leave us. You had the collaborator, I get this one and her information."

As soon as they were alone, he straightened and said, "Code 2376 black."

Melset did not react. It would have been too easy to get it from another source.

"Gul Torel commands the Orissa and your brother, Åvron Damar, Glinn second level, due to marry Tymaris Dánan, is currently serving there. Entek attended your briefing for this project for which you volunteered - you will become an operative if successful – he vouched for your abilities." Some more details only known to those concerned had her relax slightly, waiting for what would follow.

"We will not be bothered, so can speak with only minor precautions. My friends think we have begun the interrogation. They are disappointed to be sent away, but," he shrugged, "It cannot be helped. At least we need not imitate the sound-effects of such a procedure - it is well known that we are trained to cope with even severest pain."

"It is hard enough to constantly adapt to Bajoran ways, but I knew what to expect."

"Indeed. What do you have?" He held out a padd.

Holding it over the subdermal transponder behind her ear, she transferred a report on all local activities, complete with places and names, plans that were currently being made. "This is all."

Her interrogator gave a satisfied nod, and took his padd back, "A good amount. Garak suggested the right person for this. Well done." He gave her a narrow belt which she concealed under her dress. "Bugs. Two miniaturized datapadds. Any requests?"

"Yes. Do not capture any of my Bajorans, at least not yet, or they will connect my abduction with the leak. I can find out much more now as they have virtually adopted me into their group. Within another six months I will have learned enough for us to eliminate the résistance in this province and possibly weaken it in the neighbouring ones as well." She added after some moments, "They have liberated Cardassian communicators in the course of their attacks, so I will see to manipulating one to produce this signal," she selected a frequency outside the usual range. "This will show you where I am." An amused laugh before she continued, "After all, I was left to their tender mercies, and am so very grateful for help, shelter and kindness that I want to repay it all by joining them in their work on the land and effecting repairs..."

"That can be arranged. Be assured there will be no questions about your return. We wanted to find out whether there was more to the affair, but you did not lie." He looked at her, grinning, before adding, "None of us expected you to survive for even an hour."

"Without those preparations I would not have. Those who found me were horrified. However, I show no signs of interrogative procedures now. That could cause suspicion."

"Luckily for you, the Bajorans have not attained our level of interrogation, and you are only thankful to be alive. Isn't it fortunate that it is very cold in here and you have but light clothing not meant for this area?" Together, they went into another section of the cavern where there was a source of heat, to spend the next hours outlining further activities.

Before ending their session, she was informed about something disturbing. There had been a leak about her mission on Bajor but fortunately greater damage had been averted; when she got back to Cardassia, the Order would present her with the details. "We have found the source and taken appropriate measures. The danger has been removed. Permanently."

Melset stared at him, eyes slightly widened, neck membranes tensed.

"Rendon's insisting on eliminating you was partially due to this factor. He knew about your being found nearly as soon as it happened; it was only at the prylar's insistence that you were spared; he had gone to the Arnas and seen you, touched your right ear in that idiotic ritual they have." He laughed derisively, "Let her live and share our experiences with her kind in full. That's what the fool said. Well, you're certainly doing a good job of learning what their plans are," Denor added, "As to the leak, watch your back even more carefully and don't slip up."

The contact used the following hours to inform her of the developments of the past weeks and of further missions initiated by the Order, as well as details which could be useful in the course of her own work.

The next morning the shuttle returned and Melset got out with her erstwhile interrogator and his contacts. Sanye was the first to see them and came over. "I see you have brought her back. What have you found out? I can relay the message. The others are in the fields, preparing for the next crops."

"There is no subterfuge. We managed to access transmissions, and question some who have positions of trust on Terok Nor, thus could hear what was being discussed. Unlikely as it is, she has told the truth, and is not even thinking of escape. The worst thing they could have done to her was to make her react as we do, while leaving her aware of the fact that these reactions would make her an object of derision were she among her own kind, and with the knowledge that important information was removed from her memory." He laughed, "I wish we knew the method to use it on our beloved Prefect!"

He waited for a moment, "I will return in a few weeks. Hopefully we can expand our cooperation as to agriculture. The Cardassians are destroying so much that we can hardly subsist." With that he left and, before getting into the small craft, gave Sanye a friendly wave.

"I never thought I would say that, but I am glad we were not mistaken," she told Melset who briefly looked over at her without answering. The Cardassian slowly went into what had become her room to sit down, pulling the blanket tightly around herself, then leaned against the wall, trembling with cold, eyes closed. Sanye followed her in and offered, "You would be better off in the main room - it is warmer."

The only answer she got was a slight gesture of refusal. Shaking her head, Sanye decided to leave her to herself at seeing her attitude of total exhaustion.

Some hours later, Sovel and Fyrna returned, obviously very pleased about the results of their group's foray. "We barely escaped, but it was worth the risk. The depot has been destroyed, and the Prefect has a few soldiers and weapons less." They quickly hid some carefully-wrapped objects in a hollowed-out space in the floor, saying, "This equipment should come in useful. Just see your resident Cardassian notices nothing."

"If, she is out of luck."

In the meantime, the Cardassian under discussion was listening at the mud-brick wall into which she had inserted one of the highly miniaturized bugs the operative had given her. This variant was so sensitive that she could follow all conversations, even the most quiet. After distributing the rest, she would obtain far more information as the Bajorans were slightly less vigilant now that the operative had validated her cover; the final step was completed when she had calibrated the devices so that they automatically transmitted information to the pad buried in the corner of the room.

For her, the very idea of ceding to exhaustion when there were duties to complete was unthinkable, but she knew she had to exercise greatest caution and decided to change her routine, seemingly resting more during the day and far less at night. Much of the Bajorans' planning was effected during the day, so they would feel less suspicious about her potentially spying on them if they, looked in to see what she was doing and saw her resting or working on something or another. Taking out a small knife, she quickly made space in a corner for the second of the two padds she had been given. This one's frequency would show where she was, and preclude any mistakes, such as destroying this area.

A few hours later, at seeing the two prepare to leave again, Malja, who had come over, said, "Give this to her," and held out a container. "She was questioned all night and only brought back this morning. I know Cardassians drink it as a stimulant."

Fyrna sniffed at the contents, "Only fit for one of those."

When she went in with Sovel, she saw Melset, who had been given some simple tools some days before to help in repairs, was awake and repairing a diminutive object. Instead of hiding it, she resealed it and explained, "I found this communicator in the outside corner of the hall and have repaired it. If you could get another one, you could keep in contact more easily."

The two exchanged apprehensive glances - that communicator had been taken in one of the last raids. Melset's expression was neutral when she held it out to them. She suspects nothing, doesn't she even recognize where it came from? What has beendone to her mind?

Fyrna put the container on the table, and commented, "...and your people can receive the transmission and home in on the user easily enough. Wouldn't you like that, Cardassian?"

"No. I have programmed it to the frequencies you use." She thought briefly, "Did you keep any of my equipment? It would come in useful for parts."

"When Arna and Sarun found you, you were in uniform, but stripped of weapons, your communicator, even your insignia."

The Cardassian shuddered, but not with cold, as though reacting to a recollection too disturbing to contemplate further, and, rallying, offered, "If you find another, I can prepare it for you as well."

Again a quick exchange of glances. The two Bajorans were relatively sure she was not trying to trick them, or else Denor would have eliminated her. Sovel gave her the container, "Here, your kind of stimulant."

She said, "I thank you." and drank some of it. After some moments she asked hesitantly, "Where is Alosa anyway? She has been gone for weeks."

Sovel did not bother to hide his anger at telling her, "Back in her own village. You can guess why she is staying there, can't you? Your friends have been very active - nearly each house there has been damaged or destroyed."

Melset averted her glance, "And I dared speak out against these methods," was her nearly inaudible reply.

Sovel and Fyrna left, not knowing what to say. It was inconceivable to them that their Cardassian was different, but seemingly she was. They noticed that even though she was no longer guarded as closely as before, she avoided going outside too much to keep from being seen by the occupants of a passing shuttle thus provoking a sensor sweep. Often, she stayed active most of the night, ostensibly watching for any sign of an imminent attack while working at repairs; Cardassians had quite good night vision, so this change did not arouse any suspicions.

"How was she?"

"Fine, and very thankful for that vile brew. She was awake and working on this communicator which she gave to me, said it could be used again. We'll have to be far more careful - Denor lost it when he removed her. What I cannot understand is that she did not recognize it."

"She was subjected to mental processing to keep vital information safe from us. She knows enough to effect repairs, remembers everything else, but any knowledge that could be used against the Forces has been erased from her mind."

Yano came in and stared at the object on the table, "Where was it?"

"Melset found it outside her room, and set about repairing the damage. Her kind seemingly cannot live without working at something. Well, we can take advantage of her abilities."

He went over to slowly open the door and saw her look up then smile at seeing him. Strange. Even her reptilian appearance is no longer so disturbing. She is a representative of the enemy, and yet... He remembered the Texts, the Verses of Life and Creation, which stated that the Prophets had created various peoples, all diverse within themselves.

"I am going to look at one of the fields, check whether irrigation is necessary. You can help me," he offered.

She looked out, "There has been more activity in the past few days. I fear it may be too much of a risk for me to go out. With your clothing I may resemble one of you, but a scan would reveal me for what I really am, and endanger you and your fellows."

She went to the door and briefly remained there, taking in the view. Even though land was only seen as something to be exploited for its resources, she, as other Cardassians, was not blind to beauty, could appreciate that of Bajor. This area was forested, green and fertile, the river free to meander as it wanted in its broad valley; there was not the slightest sign of overexploitation as was the case with land on her own world, here, the fields were relatively small, not the large monocultures she knew. "How have you managed to keep everything so untouched for millennia?"

"We only take what we need, not more, and we have never waged any wars with neighbouring planets or systems. Peaceful contact as prescribed by our beliefs is what we have always wanted, what we wanted with your people, too, when they first landed on our world."

"We were forced to exploit our resources – our own culture once was highly spiritual, with elaborate art and architecture, but after long periods of starvation and need, we had to turn to exploitation for our subsistence, and this meant taking over other worlds as well, either forging alliances or, if there was resistance, eliminating it. This has become a pattern of action for us so that anyone questioning it is considered a traitor who is trying to weaken Cardassia, especially as our worlds are still anything but prosperous."

"And that happened to you." He quoted a phrase that was all too well-known, "And, for a traitor, the sentence is always the same."

She nodded once, her eyes avoiding his, then said, "But their plan did not quite work out. For now, I am still alive."

He did not reply, thinking, Provided your people do not retake you. He was shocked at his own thoughts. This is a Cardassian! He looked over at her again, then showed her more details of the area.

Sanye, preparing some herbs for storage, watched them. It had to come to this. Yano seems to like her even though it is his task only to make contact with her for the purpose of finding out some details. She does seem open-minded, interested in our ways, respects them - but, I cannot bring myself to trust her. Yet, for some time already, that one has been adapting, as if she had no hope of ever returning to her own. Cardassians never do anything without purpose; it is unusual that no one ever checked to see what happened to her. Even if we had killed this one, there would have been the possibility of finding out her fate.

Roughly two months later, the pattern of attack and counterattack was stepped up and, at times, Melset offered some helpful details. As a result of her advice, she was no longer watched so carefully, and often enough heard names or places worth recording. The last conflict saw the loss of one fighter, but in spite of the villagers' anger, she was not harmed. During a planning session, Leshik Vidol said, "I'll see whether I can find out more." He went over to try and pressure Melset for more information. He came in to find her sleeping, curled up against the wall and noticed that she now wore her hair Bajoran style. Never thought we'd have one of those here.

Suddenly, there was a cry of warning from outside, "Search party on the way! We leave at once!"

His curiosity turned to anger, and he kicked Melset as hard as he could. At her jumping up, startled and resentful, he shouted, "Get moving, Cardassian. Your friends are coming for a visit, we leave within minutes, unless you want to stay behind to welcome them."

She wordlessly rushed into the main room where the others were hiding as much of their goods and supplies as they could.

"Give me that communicator!" Wordlessly, Yokim handed his over and she set to work at making a minor adjustment. "This should protect the devices you have by masking their signals. Here." She tossed it back to him and went to join the others in the supply room before they all left, carrying some few necessities.

To her surprise, their goal was a nearby area scattered with boulders - together, the Bajorans removed one of the largest which lay in front of the limestone cliff, revealing a veritable warren of passages, most of them natural, but many added or enlarged in the course of the past decades. No wonder it is so difficult to find their résistance. Those rocks must have natural radiation that makes them difficult to penetrate by sensors. Melset looked back to see a couple with their children and ran towards them. Show concern, no matter what the response; I can thus further insinuate myself into their trust. This one was one of the most vehement in demanding I be eliminated. "Jinor Arkan, you and your wife have the children, and that load is slowing you down. We are trained to transport heavy equipment over long distances. That search party may be closer than expected, so you may be caught. I do not want you harmed."

In spite of his surprise at hearing such words from a Cardassian, he reacted with an insult, but his wife, who often spent time with the Arnas, shook her head and spoke to him in a low voice, looking over at Melset who seemed unwilling to leave the family to the risk of capture, and was walking alongside them, waiting. Another glance and he gave her some of his load, "Take this, Cardassian." Together they rushed into the shelter, resealed the entrance, and withdrew as far as possible.

Keeping totally quiet, the entire group waited for hours, listening, but no sounds could penetrate so far. Melset kept well apart from the others and, when they ate part of their supplies, Yokim went to her, "Come over to us, Iníki. We don't hold you responsible for the raid." He grew pale at seeing her holding a diminutive transmitter and called out, trying to get at the device, "You damn viper! Do you want to get us all killed?"

Melset held him off, explaining, "No! Not that! A scrambler to hide life-form readings, both yours and mine," she said in Cardassi. In his panic, he answered in the same language, "I can only hope so, for your sake." He sat down, an arm around her neck, holding a knife to her side. He must be one of them, too. He knows exactly where to thrust that blade. The others watched them uneasily. Hours later, Malja got up, "I'll check," and chose a passage to the back. Little later, she returned. "They seem to have left. All I can see is smoke, but no signs of shuttles, no movement."

Two others went to survey the area, and reported, "They are gone. Some of the houses are damaged, one destroyed. We'll return at dusk."

Once they had removed all traces of their stay, the villagers set out in groups of two or three, Yokim and Vidol guarding Melset. At reaching the village, she saw the operative had kept his promise - no damage at all would have raised suspicions, but they had done just enough to make it credible. A phaser blast had torn a gaping hole into the wall where she had placed the data carrier with the latest details. Good - the plan has worked out perfectly. They have picked up the information. There should be a padd somewhere in my room for next time.

Immediately they set about making repairs. Their attitude towards Melset had shifted towards hostility again, which she accepted, yet stayed close by, helping when her help was accepted, watching and listening. I wonder that they don't suspect I have learned their dialect. That would be our first thought. As it was, anger made for loose tongues, giving her more information than she had hoped to access in so short a time. After a matter of weeks, repairs were concluded.

In spite of the raid, Yano spoke to her, explaining more details about their buildings, the patterns and colours she had noticed in the windows and doors; initially, they had seemed strange, signs of superstition, not to be compared with the typical Cardassian style she knew - functional, spartan, but at the same time, a reflection of their striving for power. She considered the concept of a celestial temple primitive superstition, yet each explanation contained valuable information that would help in dealing with the Bajorans, and her interest had some of the others offer more details.

May as well take another step which should offer me even more information; and if not, it should at least be entertaining

Whenever the villagers were in their shrine, she made a habit of waiting at a short distance outside, as if trying to listen in, her attitude curious. After this had happened a few times, the prylar pointed her out to Serad.

"Vedek Serad, there's that Cardassian woman again, the one who has been taken in by the Arnas…. Why is she waiting there, and what does she want anyway?" Uncomfortable, he said, "It seems she is watching us, is attracted by something or another. Everyone knows they are curious about everything."

Serad looked over once, but did not react, only, after the service, slowly walked towards her, then briefly hesitated, met the woman's eyes. There is no contempt. "What are you doing here? Tell me, Cardassian. Do you…. wish to see and know what we are doing in our shrine?" How to talk to one of those…." He fell silent. His revulsion and horror whenever he saw Cardassians were too strong after his experiences with them after some time in a labour camp which he had barely survived.

Yokim joined the two, realizing that it was difficult for him. "The next time, Inìki will come with us. There should be no harm in it."

Serad again stared at the woman, one of those. In a shrine…. He forced himself to think of the Verses of Creation, but his unease and horror at seeing the Cardassian up close remained. Somehow, when he had first seen her, helpless, deeply unconscious, brutally mistreated, it had been far easier, he had felt pity, wanted her to live in spite of Rendon's information, but now? The same person, mobile, active, facing him was quite a different matter. Her typical Cardassian way of moving and her voice made him remember the worst atrocities imaginable….

In the following weeks, Serad tried to overcome his reservations, slowly began telling her more, pleased at her wish to learn about their culture. That, along with her people's ability to retain details easily, helped her gain marginal acceptance and, via him, that of the others. There was never any contempt in her manner, only interest.

Their distrust is strong, but easily overcome, provided they get the right cues. The weakness of a culture without constant observation, where people depend on each other for safety. We are only passably safe in the family as long as we comply with societal expectations. For her, the mass of information she could now gather was far greater than she would ever have expected – especially the sermons she listened to were harmless when taken at face value, but from the first one on, she immediately recognized key words, phrasings that had meanings within meanings, revealing plans for attacks, or containing various code names of members of the résistance or where they were deployed.

A month later, Sanye asked hesitantly, "You said your people repay help. We do need it now - to harvest our crops. They are good this year, and possibly abundant enough to get us all through the next seasons. It is around this time that the troops come to burn them or poison fields, so the sooner we get started and done with the harvest, the better."

"What about the reactions of the others? For you, this is an experience closely linked to your beliefs, so there may be objections if a non-Bajoran, especially a Cardassian, participates. And, under circumstances, a sensor scan may reveal my presence, thus endanger you all." Concern, respect for their ways – with unease, Melset noticed that the contempt she felt was no longer all that pronounced and even demanded a conscious effort. She briefly felt worried about these changes she sensed. I hope the operative returns soon.

"Not with that communicator you have realigned. It worked well when we were in hiding." Sanye met her glance openly, with no sign of distrust, only pleasure at her concern. "The others also are thankful for what you did - those caves are invaluable to us, not only during raids."

They really believe me! It was my personal signal, to keep me safe. "Then I will come with you and am grateful for your trust." May as well take this step too. They have given me so much information that my transferral to the Order is virtually assured.

To her surprise, Sanye told her, "You do belong to us now." She hesitated briefly, "I want to be open to you. Usso has suggested we take you into our family to give you a home and security in our group. He asked me to speak to you about it, as is our custom; react according to what is in your own pagh."

Melset did not reply or even react to this unexpected information. "I will come with you." With that she left to change into the work clothing she had made for herself, and joined the villagers, staying in the Arna family group; showing by this gesture that she agreed to the proposal.

Once again, she found herself working alongside Usso Yano, noticing that the others were no longer so disapproving of her participating in these specific tasks. The villagers themselves seemed interested in helping her accept their ways, speaking to her as though there was no difference in species. From their gestures and manner, it seemed that she had finally realized her goal, yet repressed the realization that the companionship she was being offered was even welcome as her people were highly gregarious, thus isolation hard to support.

It was much later than expected that the operative, Loris, returned to the village with the others of the cell, ostensibly to help with their work. To go to him openly would have raised questions, so she waited. Before the meal which they always shared as a group, Loris quickly hid a padd in her room. That same night, she completed the information she had acquired, and carried it clipped inside the loose bodice she wore. Before he left, he demanded to see her. Melset tried to avoid him, but he quickly found her, then backed her up against a wall, pretending to question her. She squirmed aside, as if trying to escape.

"Oh, no, you don't, viper. You stay right here. I want some more answers, and I want them now!" He gripped her arm to pull her close, as if threatening her, so that she could slip him the padd. He then whispered, "Excellent. Now listen carefully. Usso has spoken to Yokim. He is... interested. Although his relatives are in one of the cells they no longer totally disapprove, a most fortuitous development." He added with contempt, "And you needn't worry about any consequences of enjoying your Bajoran while you are still here - the medical department has seen to that."

She barely avoided an angry retort; instead she concentrated on what Loris had told her about the Arna and Usso families. Her bewilderment at this information was not pretence when she went back to the others.

"You seem disturbed. Is there something I should know? I saw how he treated you."

She looked up and saw Usso Yano standing next to her, his eyes showing concern. "No. Loris does not trust me that is all. You cannot blame him, not after all that has been happening here." She briefly hesitated, "I was only on border patrol. Usso, I ask you: tell me everything – allusions are made, I want to know; Vedek Serad has gone through much, so I do not want to ask him."

"Let's go over to the shelter. You want the truth? You will have it." She inclined her head and followed him.

Out of earshot of the others, he told her about his own family's experiences with Cardassians, of the destruction of shrines, entire villages, the wanton cruelties, the conditions in the labour camps where fellow villagers had been worked to death and had experienced, respectively seen the unbelievable atrocities committed there, none of which were justified by Cardassia's need for resources, by the alleged primitiveness of the Bajora, their lack of fierceness. For all her experiences in combat, her dealings with non-Cardassians, the details she heard were deeply perturbing. Remembering the Bajorans on the Promenade, Melset looked away, as if distressed by what she was hearing. It is no longer so difficult to pretend to these emotional responses – this population would have made good allies, and reliable ones, too, to judge by their absolute faithfulness to their people and their culture, …. She quickly suppressed the realization of the horrors these people were experiencing even now. And they took me in….

The next months went by uneventfully, but one evening, well after dark, Rendon came back with Alosa. Yokim quickly led them into the main room where his wife and sister immediately tended to Rendon's injuries. Alosa herself was unharmed, but speechless with shock. When Rendon saw Melset sitting at the table, helping the two women arrange what would be needed, he said angrily, making sure she could hear every word, "They got part of that cell. Loris was killed together with four of his men, and those Cardassian butchers saw to it that they did not die quickly. The rest of us barely managed to escape before being discovered and eliminated, too." His voice was harsh with anger and resentment. "Aren't you proud of your people, Cardássian? Don't you wish for the good days when you were in the middle of such actions? Or pushing guard duty in the camps?"

Melset, taken unawares, called out, clearly distressed, "No, Rendon, never the camps!" and looked over at the two, eyes wide. With the operative gone, they might find out what I really am. I have to keep them off track as long as possible, and can only hope that the padds were passed on, not stored. She went over to Alosa who was barely controlling her grief, hesitantly addressed her then spoke to her gently. Alosa's reaction would show whether her role was still a secret. I am safe, was her thought when the Bajoran woman did not curse her, only nodded silently, accepting her attempt at comfort.

Again Rendon, in a sneering tone, "Look at that! A Cardassian with compassion for inferior Bajorans! Isn't that touching?" He glared at her, his eyes dark with hatred, "I still say we should have done away with you, spoonhead. What role did you play in this attack anyway? You were taken to that cell just under four months ago! This is too much of a coincidence, isn't it?"

"The loss of those men is bad for our group as a whole, but not of her making. Look beyond the differences! She suffered at the hands of her own people for speaking for us and is still paying for it. She knows she can never return to her worlds, to her own people again. She remembers having known things that have been erased from her mind. Do you realize what that would mean for one of us? Do you think she would be here now if she were an operative?" Yokim said.

A most fortunate reaction. Hopefully the operative will be replaced soon. I certainly will obtain even more information as of now, and with fewer difficulties.

"But what about you?" asked Melset. "Outside this area, you may be suspected of being collaborators as you have taken me in. And as to myself, do not think I will be left unharmed as one of the few accessible former enemies. Killing spoonheads - as you call us - will become of little more consequence than killing a pest in your fields, will even be considered a praiseworthy action. There is too much hatred and resentment, all of it justified." She added, "And my compatriots may well come to retake me at some time. We never forget even minor details. Not even one condemned traitor left behind to be killed by the natives."

"I know. But you did say that you were equipped with a transponder, and that the signal ended when your uniform was vaporized. The other one, in your right arm, the medic cut it out while you were unconscious, destroyed it, thus both signals ended. The other matter we can still discuss." Yokim told her. "Don't think your presence here is not known to those living in this area. You have been observed ... constantly. You will be safe.

"Some of us have even taken in half-blood children who were abandoned by their mothers for fear of the social stigma because even though those specific children were a result of rape, a few women made up these stories to disguise the fact they had consented to gain personal advantages. Whatever your people may think about us, we are not the kind to leave someone to his or her fate, even if that individual has committed a grave error. We believe in forgiveness. You, Iníki, you have done nothing wrong apart from your suggestion, and that concerns only your own people, not ours," Malja added.

Two months after Loris' death, no new operative had been brought in. Rumours about extensive troop movements and even the end of the Occupation began to circulate as troops were moved out and not replaced, military installations destroyed after being abandoned. Melset was disquieted - could it be that she was to be left behind, on Bajor? She could no longer be deployed, had been sterilized, had spoken for the Bajorans some years before - could this be her real sentence, pronounced without her knowledge? These sentences did exist - keeping the subject alive to live with the knowledge of his banishment. She remembered Garak and wondered what had become of him.

Collecting information had become insultingly easy to access now that the Bajorans were becoming increasingly confident, priding themselves in finally having forced the occupiers to leave, openly and proudly telling stories about the various cells' exploits, some of which were so daring as to seem incredible. The full extent of the resistance was astonishing - no wonder that even the surgically-altered spies had not been able to shut it down. Virtually the entire population had been involved to a greater or lesser degree, even though many had paid dearly for their activities.

True to Cardassian ways which meant working out problems alone, she began keeping to herself, hardly speaking to the others.

In spite of imminent withdrawal, the danger of raids, however, was not over. Reports on wholesale destruction of shrines, villages and cities came in; it appeared that whatever the occupying forces could not take off-world, they were certainly not going to leave behind to be used by the Bajora, either, compelled as they were to give up their plans for colonization of he planet. In the meantime, she was asked to join a few of the other villagers in watching out for attack parties. Melset did not refuse, often volunteered, expecting to be recalled in the course of one of these incursions.

Some weeks later, Melset, together with the Bajorans, was working in the fields just outside the village when she saw a Cardassian shuttle in the far distance, heading towards their area. It was flying slowly, at low altitude, quartering the ground in a search pattern. With a surge of hope that had her pulse racing, Melset straightened, I am indeed being recalled! She nearly laughed with relief. In a reaction she would not have had only some months earlier, she was concerned for the villagers who had protected her, especially as she had obtained the information needed, had done what she had been sent to do. The gesture she was about to make would validate the cover story to perfection…

With a loud cry of, "All of you! Scatter at once – find cover!" Melset ran towards a copse as if trying to escape, "I'll distract them, Cardassian life-signs should be more interesting than yours…."

Within moments, the group of Bajorans had vanished, everyone had established a refuge of his or her own close by in case of surprise activities, used as they were to sudden attacks.

She hardly had the time to run more than a hundred metres than a phaser blast struck the ground next to her, raising a cloud of soil, the impact of the blast hurling her to the ground. The shuttle landed nearby, and at once, a gul came out, accompanied by three troops.

Gul Torel quickly looked around and found Melset, half-stunned, trying to get to her feet.

His order came immediately, "Arrest this traitor. This time she will not escape or find protection," and, to Melset, with utter contempt, "You thought you had escaped your sentence, did you, you traitor. Hiding among this filth, accepting their protection, perhaps even praying with them in their shrines for deliverance, adopting their ways, turning away from all that is Cardassian! Look at yourself! You have become no better than that shrine-crawling vermin! I don't wonder you made that suggestion."

Turning to his troops, he roughly pulled Melset to her feet, With a vocalization of disgust, he let go of her only to strike her in the chest, making her double up, fighting for breath. "Your trial will begin the moment we arrive on Cardassia Prime, and, I swear, I will see to it every single moment of the interrogation and trial is open to public viewing so that the people of Cardassia will learn about your betrayal of all our union stands for. Your family has already disassociated itself from you. You do not deserve to be a part of our Empire!"

From a distance, Yokim and a few others briefly hesitated to watch what was happening through the dispersing dust then, making use of the slightest cover, crept away to the shelter they had agreed on, but not before they had seen two of the soldiers take hold of Melset who apparently was resigned to recapture, manacle her and, at phaser point, manhandle her towards the waiting shuttle.

Once aboard, Gul Torel stared at her disbelievingly for some moments before saying, "Welcome back to Cardassia, Gul Melset."

"It is good to be back." She stood at attention, saluted.

"At ease, Melset. I regret striking you, but the arrest had to be credible."

"No apology necessary. They would have become suspicious otherwise." She shrugged, "Just imagine, 'Ah, Gul Melset, good to see you have survived. Your mission is over. Do enter the shuttle, welcome home...'" She added, intrigued, "Why was no new operative brought in? The way it looked, I was expecting to be left behind, especially because of my suggestion some years ago."

Together, they walked into a small ready room. "The reason is quite simple: We are withdrawing from Bajor. Detapa pressured Central Command to end the Occupation; the expense and manpower required to keep Bajoran terrorism in check no longer seemed justifiable," Gul Torel said disgustedly.

"So that is why the operative was not replaced! I had gathered so much information that we could have put the entire résistance in this province out of action." With a sigh of relief, Melset added, "I thought I was to be left behind, on Bajor."

"I have been directed by Orid Khalem to inform you that you are on the list of valuable informants," Torel considered her, then, remembering that his former mentor belonged to a relatively conservative ethnicity, chose a neutral phrasing. "Gul Melset, were you close to any of those Bajorans?"

She looked up at Torel, replying indifferently, "No. Even if I had, it would not have mattered. I … was processed."

Gul Torel commented, "I was told your collections of information were surprisingly comprehensive. Five padds of information! Under better circumstances, the résistance in that province could have been eliminated, seriously weakened in others. The Order was pleased. But as I've told you, withdrawal was agreed upon ten weeks ago, thus the details you accessed have become obsolete. You will be reassigned."

Melset accepted the facts, yet there was no mistaking her disappointment. "The experience was interesting, the experiment itself quite effective; yet preparing for it made a form of re-education necessary which will be reversed in the Order's centre. It will be interesting to see how that process is to be effected. As to the material I have gathered, at my debriefing I will present it nonetheless. Perhaps the Obsidian Order can make use of it in future."

Gul Torel knew that the news was difficult for her to accept, all that effort and risk for nothing …. The official part of recall over, he relaxed and carefully looked at her, amused, especially as he had known her while she still was commander of the Orissà. "Let's see, Gul Melset... You certainly have gone native! Bajoran dress, hairstyle, an earring – we were not expecting you to survive, and here you are. Like a Bajoran!" He suppressed an urge to laugh.

The only reaction was, "Everything I did was in the interest of Cardassia; I repeat: had I not made this effort, seemingly adapting and imitating, there would have been far less information for the Order. And now, I would appreciate getting back into uniform."

Torel looked at her pensively, recognizing that his former mentor seemed perturbed. All that material you had gathered – living among that superstitious, violent populace… "Gul Melset, this is too good an occasion to let pass unused," he suggested, grinning broadly. "Just a few more minutes."

He turned to the Var who was staring at Melset in disbelief, "Var Retano, stop gawping like an idiot and get the navigator."

A few moments later, the door opened and Melset saw her brother enter. "Glinn Damar reporting."

"I thought you might like to see whom we have just repatriated." Torel stepped aside, and gestured at Melset.

At seeing his sister, Damar's expression shifted from curious to incredulous before he went over to briefly take her hands in his, then embrace her, his pleasure evident. "I was told you had been sent on a mission to Bajor, but not given any details. It's good to see that you are home again and safe."

"It was successful, Glinn Damar, apart from the fact we are withdrawing." She touched the insignia he was now wearing, smiled up at him. "I see that you have been promoted."

"Yes, I am Glinn Second Order now, and in another half year will return to the Academy for the last phase of Command Training." His relief she had not adapted as totally as her outfit suggested was nearly tangible. "How did you cope with those primitives?"

His eyes reflected increasing concern as Melset explained, "Remarkably well, all considered; they were relatively easy to manipulate. The mission proper was highly interesting, a true challenge, and hopefully will open the path to more missions in future." She met his glance directly, "Avron, remember, I was not forced into anything. I volunteered andI succeeded."

"Look at yourself, Iníki, listen to yourself. You have changed," he said quietly, suppressing his apprehension; he noticed that she was using very slight gestures that definitely were not used among their people. "Iníki," he added, his voice barely audible so that only she could hear, "What have they done to you? You have become different!"

She shook her head, "No, Glinn Damar, what you are noticing is only due to pre-mission re-education. It is mandatory for all who have off-world missions so that they can integrate into the society in question, thus have a chance of survival; I assure you, the effects are entirely reversible. In one or two weeks at most they will have been eliminated."

Gul Torel had noticed the gestures as well as Melset's inflection, and thought it best to end the scene. "After this most touching family reunion you may want to resume civilized clothing, and you, Glinn Damar, your station is waiting."

With a backwards glance, Damar marched out, disguising concern for his sister.

"I know that Damar is worried, but it was necessary to adopt these elements of communication, or else I could not have gained these people's trust. 'Ah look, the Cardi is adapting!' I was even taken into a family." Melset sneered. "Had I refused that privilege they offered, that would have raised suspicions, especially at this time."

Torel, relaxing, accompanied Melset to her cabin while informing her on developments. "I have a uniform for you and, if you wish, get whatever you want out of the replicator. You'll no doubt appreciate decent food after nearly a year! Afterwards, join me on the bridge. We can talk then as this is no patrol; my cruiser is waiting at some distance outside the Bajoran system. I was ordered to pick you up on our way back to Cardassia Prime."

After he had left, Melset went to look at herself in the mirror before taking off and folding the clothing she had been given, then showered and reassumed her Gul's uniform. It felt comfortingly familiar, as did the beep of the intercom, "Docking procedures initiated."

Glinn Masok notified her, "We have reached the Orissà and will transfer in a few minutes."

They got off the shuttle and walked through the corridors of Torel's ship. "These are your quarters, Gul."

"You are free to go, Glinn Masok."

The returnee sat on the edge of her bunk and, while reading the information on the padd she had been given, prepared to face a world she had feared she would never be a part of again, then left her cabin and, getting onto the turbolift, demanded, "Bridge."

Gul Torel was in the Central seat, flanked by two Glinns. At seeing Melset get out of the turbolift, he quickly spoke to one of them and he left the bridge. "Gul Melset, there is a subspace message for you from the Order. I have had it rerouted to my ready room."

After she had listened to it, she quietly sat at Gul Torel's desk for some time. She had received a commendation for her work, and would be permanently instated as a liaison between Central Command and the Order immediately after her debriefing, then resume training in various departments before being redeployed in the Order's service.

Command of a ship and crew, that part of her life had become a thing of the past, but this form of service was compensation enough. There will be no more tours of duty on Bajor, now that withdrawal has nearly been completed, but perhaps the Order will assign me that position on Earth that was mentioned just now. Yet again - await developments, she thought as she went out to the bridge, anticipating new challenges, yet trying to suppress feelings she would never have dared admit, not even to herself.