RECRUITED

A Hopeless Situation

The harsh sound of red alert resounded through the corridors and cabins of the nine Cardassian warships that had converged on the system. Their commanders had been ordered to annex it by all means at their disposal. However, this order was more difficult to realize than expected. The conflict had gone on more than two days so far, with no one willing to give up.

The bridge vibrated again, the stars on the viewscreen seemed to veer upwards and to the right. Immediately after, a female voice reported a litany of damage caused by the impact of a photon torpedo; it was not necessary for the second in command to order a team of technicians to report to the afflicted area and effect repairs; personnel was trained to react automatically. However, the guls involved knew the situation was becoming critical, their respective crews stretched to the very limit of their capacities.

The conflict was becoming an unmitigated catastrophe; upon the squadron's entering the system the commanders were taken by surprise as Starfleet had used a far different opening strategy, deploying its cruisers well outside of sensor range, distributed to form a three-dimensional net, effectively surrounding the squadron. Maintaining communications silence, they slowly began closing in the moment the Cardassian vessels entered the targeted area, then, once in sensor range, attacked the division from all directions without prior warning, weapons firing at will.

Via a closed channel, Gul Renor contacted the others. "Report: damage to the Kraxon."

The same applied to the ships captained by Kerdal, Nador, Sherkan, Turrell, Melset and Denak.

"Lost warp," was Ketaj's report, "Impulse only."

"Retreat to last position."

Renor, as the leader of the squadron said, "Outnumbered and outgunned."

Sherkan and Nador both stated, "Severe damage. Only four of our ships fully functional."

Denak pronounced the fact everyone was unwilling to address. "We have to decide the battle now, break through with the next exchange of fire. If not, we will lose more ships and crew."

They quickly agreed on a strategy, and Renor directed, "No success? Withdrawal."

On their respective bridges, all personnel prepared for this last effort, programmed trajectories…. Hoped for success.

For a Gul, defeat meant far more than loss of personnel and the disgrace of withdrawal. It meant analysis of strategy by the top echelons, detailed questions asked by a commission of Central Command's elite strategists, and if the strategies and responses to the situation were found lacking, questioning in an interrogation chamber at Order Headquarters. At times, such debacles were officially ascribed to dereliction of duty and lack of commitment of those responsible.

On the bridge of his cruiser, Gul Renor was staring at the screen in hopeless rage: in spite of their efforts, their fleet of eight ships had not managed to break through, the Federation's cruisers were rapidly advancing towards them, firing as they approached. He felt his cruiser sustain a direct hit, saw the navigator catapulted out of her seat by the force of the impact, but retake her post at once, not bothering to wipe the trickle of blood from a head wound off her neck. Renor did not order her to sickbay; she knew herself whether she could see to her duties or be replaced.

A blinding flash of light off to the side, … Federation's or ours?

Transmissions disguised as static scrolled down his display. "Guls Turrell and Melset report further damage, Gul Ketaj's ship has been destroyed. No survivors." His anger and frustration were carefully disguised when he hissed under his breath. "I've got eyes, saw the Rakatan explode."

The situation as was indicated that they had no other choice but to retreat if they did not want to lose even more ships and crew. Humiliating as it was to be forced to withdraw, the guls were forced to acknowledge that they had met their match in this latest conflict with the Federation. What had just been lost could be regained at another time, although the task would be much harder with Federation outposts established throughout the contested system.

While watching developments on the screen he saw a series of phaser hits impact the Orissà, some plates torn from the hull float away into space, imagined crew racing to repair the damage. We cannot take any more hits like this, not without risking more ships and personnel. Keeping a tight check on his anger, he contacted the others. "Withdrawal to within the border. We rendezvous at Celtris I." When we have regrouped, our ships have been repaired and we assigned troops, we will return, and you will pay for every single Cardassian officer and troop who has given his or her life in this battle!

His navigator, Glinn Ferid, input the trajectory. The lead ship, accompanied by the others, changed course.

Within seconds the comm activated. "Incoming message from the Orissà."

"Put it through."

"Gul Melset of the Orissà reporting." There was no mistaking the anger in her voice.

"State your purpose." He said evenly, not responding to her concealed outrage.

Melset dispensed with formalities and said, "Gul Renor, we cannot withdraw now. We have sustained severe damage, but the same holds true of the Federation vessels. If we press on, we may yet be able to take this system."

"Gul Melset, you have your orders. One ships has been lost and now yours, the Orissà, among others, has sustained damage severe enough to make withdrawal necessary."

Uncharacteristically, she insisted, "Gul Renor, I request you listen, my plan is feasible." She transmitted it, couched in static. "We cannot give up now, not at this point. The moment we leave, Starfleet will take over and the system will be lost to us! We need it!"

Gul Renor quickly scanned her proposal. Too risky; if it fails, our squadron will be further decimated. He could understand her; the system had extensive resources that only needed be exploited, no sentient life on the planets; if they withdrew, all losses sustained so far would have been in vain; yet to continue the battle would possibly end in catastrophe.

"Gul Melset, you have your orders. Withdraw immediately to the rendezvous point inside the nebula. I repeat: Withdraw at once!"

The command was not acknowledged, she only went through her plan one more time. The situation was desperate. Guls Renor and Turrell had already withdrawn and Renor, her immediate superior, had given her a direct order. Either realize my strategy or face trial for insubordination. I accept the risk, know this will work.

She turned to Major Tepek, explaining, "Some years ago a captive, Herven, told me that the Federation was wondering why none of us seek sanctuary in their Union to partake of a life of luxury, peace, prosperity and self-realization," Her intonation was derisive. "My dear Major Tepek, how about giving them such a traitor? They have been waiting so long for one of us to come in waving a white flag. No doubt I would be welcomed, given the best treatment imaginable at little cost to myself and my dignity as a Cardassian. Imagine, I would have all I could desire!"

Gul Renor still stared at her from the screen. I have to put her on report for insubordination unless I want to face trial for betraying the interests of Cardassia. "Gul Melset, withdraw at once. This order is final." The final one before sending Security over to her ship to arrest her for insubordination….

Last-Ditch Maneuvre

Melset turned to the agent and said in a whisper, "I must speak to you, Major Tepek, there is one remaining option, and I am prepared to face the consequences should it fail."

They went to a corner free of listening devices only known to the two of them.

The operative who was on board the Orissà at her request realized exactly what she was planning, but wanted it verbalized so that procedure would be registered on the listening device in her area for later reference in case she was to stand trial.

"My plan is to pretend to defect, try to reach one of those Federation ships and request sanctuary. They usually lock onto a shuttle with a tractor beam to get escapees on board before an enemy vessel can retrieve them. In addition, beam-out will be foiled in my case as I have activated a blocking effect. The odds of success are not overwhelmingly good, but my shuttle only needs to be drawn in far enough so that my present for the Federation ship can reach its recipient. It is a small but exceedingly powerful mine disguised as a piece of debris; Var Desan who is specialized in weapons systems has built it. If successful, I can get out of range of the detonation. If not, I'll have done my duty to Cardassia. Whatever the outcome, he should receive a commendation for his effort."

"What you propose is little more than a suicide mission. I have information that reinforcements are on their way, will take over where we have left off; we have not failed. The Order will protect you, now that you have informed me."

"Major Tepek, I know that, yet this option makes use of the element of surprise. If we strike now instead of retreating, they will be forced to give up, whereas if we leave, they will be able to entrench themselves and regaining this system will come at a very high cost. They have seen the other vessels begin withdrawal, and this one ..." she pressed a series of buttons, "...is now dead in space, helpless, vulnerable."

All the while, the Federation ships were unable to tap into communications to obtain information on conditions on board the cruiser; apparently all systems were down and the Orissà now dead in space, ready to be boarded.

"We are being scanned," commented the agent.

"I know. Major Tepek, we have no other option." In a very low voice, she added, "There is a data rod in my ready room, under the holograph of Loo'Wess. It has a message for my family; give it to my parents should I not return."

Briefly wondering, Do Starfleet officers have this custom too? Major Tepek nodded.

She turned to Glinn Masok, "You have command."

With a salute, he took the central seat. The gul had made her decision whatever it was.

She ran into the docking bay, got into the shuttle and departed, edging out from between the bay's opening doors as if trying to escape to the forces of the Federation, using the impetus of the air that shot into space to get clear of the cruiser.

The Captain of the Shishaldin could not believe his eyes when he saw what was happening, "There! A shuttle leaving that Cardi ship!"

Melset opened hailing frequencies, called out, her voice hinting at despair, "This is Gul Masati Denaro. I request asylum! Lock onto my shuttle at once. I offer valuable information in exchange for protection. I am to be arrested, interrogated and publicly executed for questioning policy as soon as we return to the Union!" The static she had programmed to distort the visuals let them see just enough to recognize her fear; she had also seen to distortion of her vocal patterns so that they could not be used to identify her at some future date.

"Get as close to that shuttle as possible and open fire at the Cardis should they try to get it back," the Captain of the Shishaldin commanded. He turned to his first officer. "It looks as though the defector is taking quite a risk to reach us."

The officer smiled grimly, "Apparently the situation in the Union is becoming too unbearable, even for the spoonies."

"Activate tractor beam."

Before the order could be followed, however, the Orissà surged back into life and its own beam locked onto Melset's shuttle. It is so weak, it can be broken at any time, with no damage to the L'Oacris. No transmission to her shuttle, no threats from the Cardassian ship, but when Gul Melset felt her shuttle vibrate briefly, stop advancing and move back towards the huge vessel, she cried out in terror; as communications were open, the bridge crew of the Starship heard her. That should convince them that I was hoping to get away. They are so compassionate and no doubt recall what we are said to do even to prisoners of our own kind, moreover, they want the information.

There was a sudden abrupt feeling of release, then a renewed strong vibration, a flash of phaser fire; the shuttle reversed direction, approached the Federation cruiser. She smiled to herself. First phase of plan successful. Now to wait... When the shuttle was nearly in the docking bay, so close details of the interior were recognizable, she pressed the release. The shuttle recoiled from the force of the ejection when the mine shot out of its container. Your decorative mine looks very convincing, Var Desan, as if this shuttle was damaged, too.Now to see what happens. Her hands hovered over the controls ... a split second would decide her fate.

The mine's impetus had it enter the docking bay of the starship where it detonated upon reaching the inside wall, disrupting vital circuits. Seconds later the tractor beam was cut off when systems failed and the shuttle shot away from the Federation ship. Now to get out of range of the shock waves. It will be a narrow margin indeed. The shuttle was sluggish, response time below par and Melset, apprehensive, realized that its material had been subjected to too much stress. Too much to withstand the shock waves?

Within moments, the result of the explosion became apparent in a chain of detonations: an expanding fireball of debris followed by a shock wave that would reach two or three other Federation ships as well, disabling those nearest the explosion. They would however, and the Cardassians knew that very well indeed, attempt to save the people in the escape pods before taking up the fight again. But the Cardassian reinforcements Tepek had mentioned were approaching, would reach the area shortly, making a Federation victory unlikely; they were not willing to risk as much as Cardassians.

Knowing that her odds of survival were low, Melset opened communications to the Orissà to call out the third verse of the Pledge given by Cardassian officers at induction into Central Command's forces, shouted "Talsvar Kardassú!" in elation, rejoicing in her success as the shuttle briefly sped ahead of the waves, riding their advancing currents. The system is ours..… However, the stress to which its material had been subjected had resulted in structural damage. The vibrations grew stronger, became a violent shaking as its engines destabilized. The last thing she consciously saw was a blinding flash of light from her station, followed by the force of sudden, extreme acceleration which pressed her into the pilot's seat. A hard impact, an explosion followed; she was hurled full force against the bulkhead...

The transporter team of the Orissà was on standby with Tepek at the controls, following events on screen, ready to beam their commander aboard; when the shuttle began disintegrating, he routed the transporter signal to sickbay where a stasis generator had been activated in case of such an outcome; the maneuver was a success, but the price to be paid high.

Dr. Nyson stared down at Melset who lay unconscious in the bluish light of the stasis field, then calmly entered his findings: "Severest trauma. Survival doubtful. Initiating life-saving procedures immediately. Patient to be terminated should condition deteriorate in stasis."

His assistant contacted the bridge, "Transmit following to Central Command Medical: Emergency admission to Order Section. Subject: Gul Melset of the Orissà. Severest trauma - shuttle explosion. Condition Red."

When Losir Damar returned from duty, he found a message on the intercom. "Gul Iniki Melset, in command of the Orissà, admitted to the clinic of the Order. Status: critical, in stasis; surgical intervention initiated. Expect periodic status updates."

"Notification received." The officer looked at the screen, calm in spite of the news. For now, his daughter was still alive. If she didn't make it, the family of a Cardassian killed in battle was expected to show pride when in public, with grief reserved for the confines of home.

In spite of her defying Renor's orders his daughter's actions were considered an act of patriotism as expected from an officer. Iníki, you have shown yourself a true Cardassian, was Losir's thought as he transferred the message to his wife's station. Åvron would be told when he returned from his posting that evening.

To judge by the medical officer's expression, there was little hope, and if she recovered against all odds, retaking command most likely impossible.

Losir Damar opened a channel to the Order. …

The Price of Cooperation

Six weeks later, the doctor in charge was evaluating the patients under his care when he received an urgent message.

"Dr. Khessano, report to your office immediately."

He left at once, wondering what was so important as to interrupt his examinations of his patients. "Doctor Tekrem, take over patient Serakh; I should return soon."

His colleague inclined her head, took the padd he held out to her and went into the next room.

"Director Tain, I am at your service," he saluted when he entered and saw the head of the Order waiting for him. Nothing negative, to judge by his manner… The doctor permitted himself to relax marginally.

"Dr. Khessano, it is most accommodating of you to respond so promptly. I have to make this brief as I am expected back in Headquarters shortly." He looked around the room before commenting, "By the way, we can speak freely. All listening devices are inactive for the duration. To get to the point: One of your patients, the officer who was critically injured in a shuttle explosion, a certain Gul Melset… Status?"

"I have just examined her. The prognosis is excellent; surgery and regenerative treatment have been far more successful than originally expected so that she should make a full recovery and resume duty within two months." The doctor was visibly pleased about his success as this case had been one of the most critical ones he had treated so far.

"My esteemed Doctor Khessano, I compliment you on this evidence of your exceptional skills and have instructions for you concerning your patient. She is to be given a medical discharge from active duty. Establish a diagnosis that cannot be contested. And one more little detail. Radiation damage to her genome makes sterilization of subject necessary."

No, not this! That procedure constitutes a crime against Cardassia as she is perfectly healthy! Concealing shock, Khessano stared at Tain before saying very cautiously, "I have looked up her data in the repository of genetic specimens and the evaluation of her genome prior to effecting regenerative procedures. It is flawless, nor are any signs of irradiation to be found; Paragraph…"

"Spare me the details, the decision has been made." Tain's expression was no longer friendly. "For your information: this is not a request, but an order you are expected to follow to the letter. Is this understood, doctor? Nor are my reasons for this demand any of your concern. Be assured your final report will be read with the greatest of attention to detail."

"Unable to retake command. Genetic flaw, thus sterilization… a most unfortunate development." Khessano's voice was even, his expression neutral, disguising dread.

"It would seem we have avoided a serious misunderstanding. It always pays to speak openly, doesn't it?" Tain said the words with a smile but the cold, merciless expression in his eyes sent a chill down the doctor's back.

Suddenly his expression shifted, showed pleasure. "Ah, yes. I must not forget... May I be the first to congratulate you on an exceedingly positive development, Dr. Khessano? The funds for your research have been granted. Whatever staff or equipment you need is yours to select, respectively to order as required." With that, the head of the Order made a gesture of greeting, smiled, then left unhurriedly, without a backwards glance. A barely audible click signaled that the listening devices had been switched on.

For some moments, the doctor stood in his office, stunned, before resuming his round of the ward. Sterilization of a healthy individual is a crime punishable by 10 years in a labor camp! But if I do not cooperate, … he shuddered, knowing that Tain did not tolerate any form of non-compliance. Khessano had repeatedly witnessed exactly what fate awaited those who attempted to defy Tain's wishes. Tain's mentioning the support for his work was meant to underline his dependence on the Order's director.

Some days later, he performed the operation after writing a report attesting to the necessity: radiation damage to the ovaries, resulting in mutations leading to nonviable fetuses that would spontaneously abort. Khessano looked down at the woman when everything was done, Every single cell removed. As if trying to feel her temperature, he touched her cheek with his hand, I regret, had no way out, am in the hands of the Order.

The medic looked over questioningly at seeing the gesture.

"Medic Nadal, her temperature is norm, 39.2°C," he said, waving the woman over. Her sensor arrived at the same result. She tilted her head very slightly, surprised.

"An important skill I learned in the field. Try to master it, make use of our ability to sense even the slightest source of warmth and its intensity – can be useful."

Khessano turned away, feeling guilt about what he had been forced to do, and left the operating room. Apparently thisindividual is a candidate for enlistment in the Order, slated for long-term deployments off-world which would be impossible if she had a family... The Order's hospital gives me access to the most advanced facilities for research and treatment I could desire, but at times, the price to be paid for this privilege is entirely too high; she is not the first to receive this… therapy…

As soon as Tain was back in his office, he notified Major Tepek who promptly entered, saluted, then waited for what his superior had to say.

"Well done, Major. The delay in beam-over was perfectly timed. She will survive but, and this is most unfortunate, be unable to resume command." He faked an expression of regret when he added, "What a pity… she was a very good commanding officer indeed. I listened to the recordings made by the Orissà's network of surveillance devices."

Tepek commented neutrally, "Consistently furthered her officers and sponsored foot soldiers who showed potential for an officer's career. Five are presently studying at the Academy with excellent results."

The head of the Order continued as though Tepek had said nothing, "One problem remains: She could potentially decide to become an instructor at the Military Academy as she has the necessary qualifications…." He looked at Tepek, his expression one of disappointment. "Now that would be a quite regrettable outcome, don't you agree?"

The major suggested, "Ah, precluding this decision should not present any greater difficulties. There is the Change of Command, the news about annexation of that system. Wouldn't a brief celebration be in order? Granted, this is unusual, but an important step towards winning her, let's call it… cooperation."

"What do you have in mind?" Now curious, Tain tilted his head to the side.

"There is a certain drug which destabilizes the transmission of impulses in the hippocampus, the resulting imbalance provokes the symptoms of a massive emotional breakdown, its severity and duration depending on the dosage. This is followed by a phase of recuperation no different to the corresponding phase of the non-induced medical condition. This drug is metabolized completely within two hours after onset of the first symptoms, so, should a doctor display an unusual degree of initiative and test for it, he will find nothing."

The head of the Order listened with great interest.

Tepek fell silent for some seconds then continued. "A further plus: For a day or two after recovery, the subject's emotions are very close to the surface, a rather humiliating condition." He risked adding, "Doctor Khessano's discovery is quite useful. What can be used to heal can also be used for other purposes."

Tain was amused about the plan. "Excellent idea, my dear Tepek. And during this vulnerable phase one of our specialists, a psychologist, can take over. Finding the correct dosage presents a challenge however, so I propose leaving this part of the strategy in your capable hands."

Tepek nodded in agreement before adding cheerfully, "I have accessed her physiological data thus can determine the required dosage; I'll claim the honor of serving her and her Glinns at table in a sign of respect; after all, we cooperated intensively during her tenure. Thus you will obtain a recruit who will be most grateful to our institution for giving her the chance to continue serving Cardassia. If I may presume to suggest her mentor? Considering her profile and heritage, Entek would be ideal.

"That will be decided when the time has come."

"Of course," Tepek inclined his head in respect.

"Dismissed."

The Cardassian Way

Slowly, after all phases of treatment had been concluded, regeneration completed, Dr. Khessano and his staff eased her out of the artificial coma, removing the various sensors and supports from her body as her condition gradually stabilized.

Ten weeks after admission to the Order's clinic, she was finally conscious again and waiting for the doctor's report. Most likely I can return to duty soon. She was relaxed and glad to be alive.

Khessano entered the room to inform her about the outcome. As was Cardassian custom, he addressed the facts at once. "Gul Melset, further tests are required to determine whether you can retake command. One fact, though, is already a given. In the course of examinations prior to regenerative measures, we diagnosed genetic damage due to radiation released in the explosion. Unfortunately it is manifested in the germline, thus precluding you from contributing to the population. Surgical procedures have already been effected; in accordance with the law, Gul Renor has dissolved your commitment." His phrasing was neutral.

The woman showed no outward reaction whatsoever to the information. Yet she had the feeling of once again being subjected to the effects of violent acceleration. Gul Renor has been ordered to dissolve our engagement: a union that does not ensure healthy children is forbidden, as is a sterile one. Trying for equanimity, she gazed up at the Cardassian precept inscribed on the wall. Duty to Cardassia Supersedes All.

Meeting Khessano's eyes, she answered, her voice steady, "I am most grateful for your intervention. Anything compromising the strength of our people must be circumvented. What has been done safeguards Cardassia. Personal circumstances are a minor consideration and must cede to the interests of the Union." Her voice was little more than a whisper when she added, "Cardassia's glory must prevail, now and always."

The doctor reacted with approval. "Gul Melset, you are a true daughter of Cardassia. I was told that you called out the third verse of The Pledge and 'Talsvar Kardassu!' when you realized what was going to happen. You will be examined tomorrow at this time and informed about the results immediately." After a moment, he added, "Your retaking command of the Orissà has yet to be decided."

He pressed a button on the monitor to call in a nurse, "You can get up and dress. There could be a slight tendency to vertigo which will be over within minutes. I suggest you use the next hours to rest."

With that he left. A lie, all of it lies… He could only begin to imagine what a blow the news was for this officer whose patriotism and dedication were so sincere. Agreeing to cooperation with the Order in exchange for funding of research ... it seemed a good decision at the time; I wanted to heal, but found no sponsors because my methods were regarded as unconventional. Tain had specialists analyze my work, said he trusted in my abilities. And now, my methods are being misused ...

Procedure was a detailed scan of transmission of nervous impulses, coordination, reaction times, resistance to prolonged stress. Within a day, all tests were completed and evaluated. Once again in uniform and ready to either retake command or be given a medical discharge, Melset waited in the office, reading a report on developments along the border.

After some minutes, Doctor Khessano entered to give her an official datapadd. His expression was neutral as he sat down next to her.

"I regret to inform you that you have been accorded a medical discharge effective as of today. While regeneration has been successful, the extent of the injuries you sustained in the shuttle explosion has proven beyond full rehabilitation so that active duty is no longer recommended. If you are interested in the details that have led to this decision, feel free to read the padd; the information is not classified."

He rose to go to the com which had just activated. "I am to notify you about the following: Gul Shengir of Central Command has scheduled the Change of Command for 3:00 hours tomorrow on board the Orissà."

She did not answer or comment. There was no need to.

Khessano added, "I have also been authorized to inform you that the system was annexed two days later by the squadron under the joint command of Guls Jasad and Renor and is now an integral part of our territory. The Federation suffered a crushing defeat. Due to your role in taking out, respectively damaging enemy vessels and thus improving the odds in our favour, your superior officer has waived charges of insubordination against you which would have led to court-martial procedures as would be his right. Derive pride from your sacrifice with the knowledge it was for the good of Cardassia; your act of patriotism will serve as an example for others to emulate." He added, "I must not forget to inform you that you have been granted two weeks of downtime due to the severity of your injuries."

Happy about the good news, Melset rose to stand at attention and saluted. "A most positive development. The system has resources enough to at least marginally satisfy our needs. This information is compensation in full." She left without another word.

Family Matters

When she was packing the few things that had been beamed down with her, someone knocked at the door.

"Enter."

"I am Recruit Turad. Dr Khessano has directed me to take you to your place of residence."

"This is most considerate." I'm not actually tired, but have no stamina; troop shuttle service would have been difficult to negotiate, even with help.

The recruit took her bag and she followed him out to the shuttle, quickly got in, thinking. I'm not returning to duty on the Orissá… this part of my life is over. It was hard to accept the fact.

Within a few minutes they had arrived; the soldier accompanied her in after she had entered the code to inactivate the alarm, preceded him to her room where he carefully deposited her bag.

"Gul Melset, Dr. Khessano has requested I give you his regards. Serve Cardassia well." Turad saluted her respectfully and left without another word, as was custom.

"At home, for the first time in nearly five years," she murmured to herself when she left her room and looked around at the corridor, the carved doors leading to other rooms, the broad staircase up to her parents' offices and an open area on the roof that offered a view over to the hills.

After the events of the past months, everything seemed unfamiliar to her, as though she was a stranger in the very house where she had lived from early childhood on up. With a sigh, Melset slowly went to the main room, felt oddly reluctant to meet her family. It will be hard to tell them what has been decided, if they don't know already via the Order or Central Command….

As expected, her parents were waiting in the main room and, much to her delight even her brother Åvron was present. This was not yet the time for questions as they clung together in a joyful embrace. Finally, Delhina Melset broke the silence, "Welcome back, my daughter, You are back, are alive…" In a whisper that could not be registered by the listening devices, she added, "The Bringers of Light have been merciful to you, to us."

Her father took her hand as they went into the main room to sit together in silence, near one of the windows overlooking the garden. This was not the silence of insecurity, of not knowing what to say, but of welcome, the simple pleasure of being together again as a family, secure, protected.

Soon after, a house servant brought in a simple meal and a non-stimulating variant of red-leaf mixed with rokassa; he laid the table quickly and efficiently. At their observing him, he explained formally, "The family is truly reunited when its members share even a small meal together," he indicated the food and drink, "it is a sign of thankfulness, of confirmation."

"Indeed. We are once again united as a family, and all families are united in service to Cardassia," replied Gul Damar; he gave Tedro a nod of approval, saying, "Your initiative is entirely appropriate." The servant left.

Melset looked at her father curiously, "A new employee?"

He nodded, then explained, "I hired him a little over a month ago; he was looking for work at an agency in North Torr. Tedro's background is acceptable so I took him on as his family is desperately poor; we are instructing him how to serve in accordance with military protocol, both in official and private situations. The next step will be securing employment in the service sector of Central Command." He tilted his head slightly, "And the foot soldiers you are sponsoring?"

"All five of them have been accepted. One of my Glinns volunteered to teach them the basics, and after successfully passing the introductory courses, they are doing well at the Academy; tuition has been waived as they consistently receive excellent evaluations."

Delhina Melset, a former member of the Order, made a hand sign, "Come, let's enjoy what Tedro has brought. We are finally together again."

As was customary for this meal, it was shared in silence.

Mapa bread and fresh ikri buns… it is more a treat than a meal. On board though, this would be sheer luxury! Åvron's and her eyes met across the tableas they remembered walking through the city nearly eight years before, settling in a public area on one of the higher buildings with some buns to enjoy, discussing their respective plans for the future.

Tedro took out the dishes when the family rose to go out into the garden and settle there to exchange news.

"Iníki, you have been given information about the … outcome?" Gul Damar said in a low voice.

Uncharacteristically, the woman hesitated before replying, "Indeed, Father. You already know that Gul Renor has dissolved our commitment as I was diagnosed as having sustained genetic damage due to exposure to radiation … the necessary treatment has already been effected."

She turned her glance away from her parents' and brother's expression of distress which paralleled her own feelings too closely.

"My command? Dr Khessano informed me that the injuries I sustained proved too severe for full rehabilitation. I have been given a medical discharge. Change of Command is scheduled for tomorrow at 3:00 hours."

"Who will take command of your cruiser?" was Åvron's query.

"I do not have the information yet, but my 3rd level Glinns are fully qualified to take command of the Orissá; no doubt the decision has already been made," was the reply.

"The most important question at present is what career to select after your two weeks of medical leave are up."

"Gul Damar, it is my wish to continue serving Cardassia, I have already made inquiries and was informed that the Military Academy has openings for retired officers. Instruction by veterans combines practical and theoretical aspects, thus is not purely academic work. Once I have decided and submitted my application, a series of exams will determine which branch best suits me. Half a year of courses for such a position, final exams, then immediate placement."

Her father inclined his head in approval. For him, as for the others, the turn his daughter's life had taken had come as a shock, but even the slightest question about the validity of the diagnoses presented a risk, and getting a second opinion was unthinkable. Acceptance then moving on was the only safe reaction, true to the precept "A Cardassian accepts whatever happens, and copes on his own."

Attempting to disguise her unease and concern, Delhina Melset got up to inspect one of the newly-planted bushes a few meters away. What I have been fearing all these years may well happen now. Diagnoses can be manipulated for a purpose. Iníki, it could be that the decision about your future career has already been made for you. Tain and other members of the Order have observed and evaluated you for years.

Suddenly, a small brown kyssil, frightened by her untangling a twig from a vine, darted out of the bush and into a tree from where it chirped shrilly at her, crest raised, clawed wings spread and vibrating. Amused about its audacity, she smiled and returned to the others. The little creature was a distraction, but did not have her forget the problem at hand; her apprehensions remained.

The family stayed outside, relaxing as the afternoon heat dissipated, a slight breeze from the nearby river came up towards sunset, making temperatures more pleasant. Carefully avoiding the topic of what had happened, they exchanged news. Damar mentioned he would soon be posted on another cruiser prior to sitting another series of tests in connection with his forthcoming promotion to Var third level.

"Perhaps," Melset commented, "I can attend the next Samagaltayi Magtaal as I will be onworld then; I did miss the last two."

"Sister, do you still know our own form of Kardasi? Or have you forgotten it in the meantime in favor of Terran Standard or Klingon?"

A hiss of derision was the answer…

Family news about their relatives in Kelan Province was the next topic, an interesting source of discussions and amusing anecdotes. Delhina repeatedly looked over her daughter, you are a typical representative of our minority, with all of the characteristics, each of them of use for off-world missions. She determinedly pushed her concerns aside. What is to be will be, no point in spoiling this day….

Change of Command

The next day, preparations for the Change of Command. After inspecting her dress uniform for flaws before putting it on, the thought she had been holding at bay struck her full force: this was the last occasion on which she had the privilege of wearing it and of being addressed with the title attained with ceaseless devotion to the interests of Cardassia. For some moments the impact of the losses incurred within a few weeks nearly overwhelmed her, making her breath catch in her throat. I am a Cardassian officer, took the oath to serve, make the ultimate sacrifice… I did not hesitate, survived to continue serving. Whatever career we choose, we live for the Union, from servant to upper echelons. She walked through her family's residence, out into the garden, then struck her commband, "One to beam up."

When she materialized on board the Orissà, her adjutants, Torel and Masok were already waiting outside the transporter room. "Everything has been arranged, Gul Melset."

"Acknowledged."

The two Glinns escorted her to one of the storage bays which doubled as a conference room. As was custom at such occasions, the walls were draped with the emblems of Central Command and the Order alongside the insignia of the squadron. On the wall across from the lectern, a plaque inscribed with the names of the systems and planets comprising the Union caught her attention. It has been expanded. The system they had occupied was already on the list…

Gul Melset went to the lectern, raised a hand for attention and said, "You are here to bear witness to a Change of Command. The Commission of Personnel Affairs have evaluated the files of eligible Glinns and made their decision." She turned to Glinn Masok who activated the padd before handing it to her with a gesture of respect.

"Central Command has designated the following Glinn 3rd level to be promoted to Gul 9th level. This officer has proven himself repeatedly and has demonstrated his abilities in command during the past missions." She faced her staff.

"Glinn Torel, after consideration of all factors such as your performance ratings by the commanders under whom you served in the past twelve years, your results in Central Command's external and internal examinations, past and recent actions in combat, preparedness to serve in all capacities, your readiness to make the ultimate sacrifice for Cardassia, it is my honour to inform you of your promotion to Gul 9th level."

He rose, marched to the lectern.

Gul Melset ordered, "Take the Pledge to Cardassia and never forget it for as long as there is a Union and you are alive to serve."

He pronounced the words which to him, to everyone in the service, embodied all they valued and believed.

When he had finished, she attached the insignia of command to his armour. "This insignia instates you in your rank as Gul, the commander of the Orissà. Serve with dedication and pride."

He gave the standard acceptance speech. "It shall always serve to remind me of our duty to Cardassia, our life, our future, our very existence. Whoever endangers her integrity both within her borders and outside of them is to be crushed, all traitors brought to justice; our very determination will see us assume our destined place in the Quadrant to the greater glory of Cardassia!"

The witnesses, including Gul Melset, shouted "Talsvar Kardassú!"

With that, the Change of Command was completed.

After the ceremony, she was spending some time with her now-former crew, speaking with the senior officers about developments along the border when Glinn Masok announced a spontaneous get-together in the mess hall. Tepek was staying on the Orissà and, together with some members of the service class who were experienced in military protocol, had organized the occasion and was serving at the superior officers' table.

This was an unusual change of procedure as promotions were a normal occasion, but all of the officers were pleased about the possibility of relaxing over a meal for some time, discussing past and future missions, shipboard life. Melset especially appreciated having the privilege of interacting with staff one last time. After two hours, she caught sight of Torel's adjutant, Glinn Masok, who had just entered and was approaching their group.

"Gul Torel, be strong and serve with pride. I see orders have just come in." And I wish I was still part of it all.

"That I shall do," was his reply as he indicated a salute.

Time for me to depart… Melset rose to leave, looked around one last time, taking in the atmosphere, the sounds, the activity, remembering another Change of Command only ten years before.

It was to Gul Torel to become established as the new commander. She saw him depart with his staff, having received his orders via Glinn Masok. The Orissá was scheduled to join the division within the hour.

Softening The Target

At returning home, Melset went into her room and slowly, pensively took off her uniform, Have to turn it in to the quartermaster…, put it aside for cleaning then chose civilian clothing. It felt strange, used as she was to military attire; when she looked in the mirror her reflection looked unfamiliar, nearly made her laugh Have to get accustomed to something so normal before joining Central Command at barely seventeen. She touched her braids, Same withcivilian hairstyle... I have some weeks of accrued leave at my disposal, thus time enough to make a final decision on whichcareer to select. Not only members of Central Command serve Cardassia. There are many options open to former officers. An instructor at the Military Academy still seems the most attractive one.

An access of vertigo suddenly hit her, forcing her to grasp the back of a chair for around once it was over, she had the impression that her immediate surroundings were very gradually becoming indistinct, distorted, retreating into the distance, the colors fading, as if she was losing contact with reality. It must be a side-effect of the regenerative treatment; Dr Khessano informed me there could be reactions that are neither serious nor of longer duration.

When her vision finally cleared again, she went over to her desk, a present her father had brought from a brief stay on Bajor some years before her signing up, sat down and, lost in thought, idly traced the alien carvings that so strongly resembled those typical of her own ethnic group's art; It is said toillustrate a legend only those can recognize who have in-depth knowledge about the culture that has produced this work. For some time, Melset tried to concentrate on it, even though it was only Bajoran, considering it useful as an exercise in analysis of detail….

It is no use, the developments of the past months keep intruding...With a low sigh of resignation, she leaned back in the chair, drew up her legs and remained motionless, dazed, eyes closed. I can no longer serve! Now that I have been discharged, I can no longer serve the Union. But I was informed there will be new duties for me! Already have begun considering options… I am a Cardassian, accept everything! But the feeling that all her efforts had been in vain and alternatives out of reach was impossible to shake in spite of evidence to the contrary; with increasing unease, the woman realized that she was unable to think clearly, keep track of her thoughts...

A little later, someone entered after repeatedly requesting access. It was Åvron. "Iníki, you are back. We have been waiting for you all this time. Come into the main room so that we can be together. I cannot tell you how overjoyed we are that you are with us again, alive, and about your staying at home for a longer period. We are going down to the river later on; you will like the changes that have been made since the last time you were here. At times Tymaris and I go there."

There was no reaction to his presence or his words as his sister turned away, refusing to speak to him.

"Iníki, what is wrong? Please, talk to me." After a moment of waiting, he pulled over a chair and sat down next to her, gently made her face him.

"Iníki? Did something happen during Change of Command?" He got no reply; it seemed she didn't even register his presence.

To be released from the service... Åvron could only begin to imagine what it meant to lose something that had been an important part of her life, a source of pride and motivation. He affectionately held her close for a few moments, whispering to her comfortingly before getting up.

As if from a distance, unable to react or even to understand what was being said, Melset heard him go to the door and call Gul Damar. "Something is seriously wrong, father. Iníki doesn't react to me at all, or to anything I tell her."

The older male quickly looked in, immediately recognized the symptoms. "Delhina, stay with her while I contact the medical department; we cannot handle this on our own."

Within minutes, another person, a woman, arrived, accompanied by an orderly, addressed her... Irritated at the intrusion, Melset jumped up with a hiss of rage, preparing to attack, but before she could do so felt someone press a hypospray against her neck.

An indistinct sensation of being taken to another place, a different environment, isolated and silent; at regular intervals unfamiliar people whose presence she resented addressed her. Grotesquely distorted, nightmarish visions of past events and battles, the loss of comrades, or fallen comrades who seemed to come alive again sent her either into accesses of rage or panicked attempts to escape the room in which she was confined. Sedation and drugged sleep followed. Most of the time though, apart from these episodes, she was left to herself but constantly kept under observation via monitors.

Cardassian therapy left victims of a breakdown to themselves, only ensured their safety until recovery set in. Sessions with counselors or therapists? Speaking about the trauma, constantly forced to recall the events that had caused the collapse only resulted in further destabilization of the patient, a destabilization concealed behind a facade of calm and control that could shatter at the slightest provocation. We solve our problems on our own… the rapidity of an individual's recuperation depended on this person's resilience alone.

Within twelve days, Melset became intermittently, then permanently aware of her surroundings again, but remained passive, rejecting the data padds and rods offered as well as conversations.

Reorientation

After two days without incidents had passed, Revett, the doctor in charge, notified Tain's immediate subordinate as she had been directed. "Garak, the subject has overcome the effects of the drug. Entek can take over now as she should be open to … suggestions."

A nod of agreement and the contact was ended.

An hour later, Dr. Revett opened her patient's room, "Gul Melset? May we enter? You have a visitor, a friend who has repeatedly inquired about your condition. He wants to see you." She stayed near the door, ready to activate the call button in case of problems.

He exchanged glances with the doctor before slowly going in. "You do remember me, don't you? I am Entek, one of your former instructors."

The woman was still withdrawn but finally turned to the agent who had been waiting patiently and replied, avoiding eye contact. "Yes. However I am plain and simple Iníki Melset now."

"Any potentially disturbing topics should be avoided," the doctor cautioned before leaving.

Very good, Tepek, your method will make my job much easier. He inquired, his voice soothing, "Iníki, it seems you have given up. Why?"

No response.

"Or, my dear Gul Melset," he emphasized her title, "... do you distrust me? I am no altered member of the Federation to make empty promises then, with some well-chosen words, send you into a tailspin."

She only murmured, "Entek, I was given a medical discharge. And now this..." her voice trailed off when she turned away, weeping with humiliation.

Going over to face her, Entek placed his hands on her shoulders. "This reaction is not in accordance with your status," he said gently.

Taking a deep breath, she regained composure before calmly waiting for what he had to say.

"You have recovered; I can see you are ready for new duties, a true Cardassian." He shrugged, indicated that what had happened was meaningless. "You did have a severe breakdown, were extremely agitated, at times screaming about places, events and people only you could see, attacking anyone who came into this room or else you lay huddled in a corner, utterly terrified; you repeatedly had to be sedated to avoid harm to yourself or your caregivers. That is over. You are scheduled for release today, can return home."

"To be isolated, hidden; the defective family member. Dependent, useless, a disgrace to the family name," her voice was barely audible.

"By no means. What gives you that idea?"

"I saw it happen," she whispered. "To a friend, years ago."

He touched her hands gently, "No, much to the contrary. Duty to Cardassia still awaits you, my dear. Don't you realize how valuable you are to us? The skills you learned in the Order while a recruit need only be refined as Tepek kept you up to date with innovations. You have excellent command of Federation Standard, Klingon, even Bajoran, are highly flexible, adapt easily … have the characteristics needed for your future career."

"After this?" Her reaction was incredulous. "Who in his right mind would place trust in my competence and abilities. Tell me that!"

"I do, Tain does, so do your future instructors. The Order doesn't waste resources on personnel incapable of fulfilling expectations."

"And what work would that be? Finding and disarming shifting mines, probably."

"Mines, certainly, but of another, far more insidious kind. You will become a liaison between Central Command and the Order. Certainly you remember we once discussed this option some years ago, shortly after you escaped from captivity."

The reply was a slight nod, but then she looked away, "I ... remember nothing of my time here… nothing after returning home following Change of Command."

"A normal symptom. Forget it: Others have gone through much the same and are faithfully serving Cardassia, have rewarding positions, are respected by their peers."

Entek went to a communications outlet, activated it then gestured at her to come over.

He observed her every motion, her facial expression; when she got up, crossed the room to sit next to him, he smiled to himself. Attitude, responses nearly standard, but still quite vulnerable. Excellent … she will agree to anything now, hoping to serve Cardassia in a new career.

"Yes. I was offered a transfer to the Order."

"Indeed. And now transfer is within your grasp; ah, my dear, how often did Director Tain invite you! You were an excellent student, managed double studies. Moreover, you are talented in gaining individuals' confidence, can imitate offworlders' reactions. Remember Herven?" He briefly laughed, "The recording of the conversation was remarkable, as was your imitation of human mannerisms! No interrogative procedures, but a pretense of interest in the Federation made him talk, give you so much apparently harmless information. This combined with the data registered on his padd was exceedingly useful."

"Ah, yes, five years ago." Her eyes glittered, "It was no challenge to deceive him… He believed I was 'one of the rare decent specimens'..."

"The very abilities we require," he took her hand in a fatherly gesture, "I have spoken to the Gul First Order. You were instrumental in securing that system and he has agreed to your becoming a liaison. As a member of both institutions, you retain both title and uniform." He added, "Gul Melset, this position is yours for the taking.

"Entek, I am most grateful to you and Director Tain for offering me this privilege and accept it."

Entek met her glance, "During your time in Central Command, you often cooperated with us, were tested more than once without realizing it, and passed each time."

He called up the description of the position, smiled faintly, pleased about his success while watching her read it avidly, eyes slightly widened in disbelief, gradually relaxing. "See, exactly what I have told you."

When Melset turned to him, he switched off the annex, "You have two weeks of R & R before being informed about the first phase of studies. Dejar, a recent graduate, has volunteered to instruct you in calibrating and installing the latest surveillance devices."

"And after the introductory phase?"

"Major Kevrak will organize the list of subjects and your schedule, send you data rods to help you prepare. As you have just seen, studies are comprehensive: accessing information, en- and decoding, creating, respectively deactivating security measures, state of the art interrogative procedures. More courses and practical training with specialists are to follow."

She was listening to what he told her with the greatest of interest, much to Entek's satisfaction.

"You will also work in the offices of Central Command, cooperate with representatives of the leading echelons while studying methods of surveillance, acquisition and clandestine transferal of information. Later? Off-world missions. Quite challenging, actually."

"It is most kind of you to call my attention to this option."

Neutral words, but I can see she has decided. We have been working towards this goal for years; you will serve the Order with the greatest of dedication as distracting factors have been eliminated and you given an attractive alternative to replace what we have taken from you.

"I was told about your recovery, decided to come by, and at the same time, inform you about this option which is far more rewarding than the work of an instructor could ever be."

He rose, was let out by an orderly and went to chief medical officer Rettal's bureau to give her the audiovisual recording of the conversation. They watched it carefully, analyzing and commenting on the woman's behavior in detail, making slight gestures; Rettal nodded once in approval.

He returned to Melset; with a friendly smile, he gestured she come with him.

"I am still in treatment, departure not authorized."

"But it is, my dear, as of now." He gave her a padd, "Your medical records. Our conversation was the final examination, monitored and analyzed by Dr. Revett. I shall take you home." He gave her a data rod, "More information about the position I have mentioned."

Together they left, talking quietly.

Via the monitor, Dr. Revett watched them head for the exit of the complex. Mission accomplished… experiment a success. "Repeated subliminal auditory input during an artificially induced breakdown increases the subject's readiness to accept or reject suggestions as needed, an old but highly effective method."After inputting the comment, she informed Dr Khessano.

On his return to Order Headquarters, Entek reported to Tain's office to inform him that everything had gone according to plan….. An invitation to transfer to the Order is a command that is either accepted, or, if not, there are methods of ensuring compliance even though it can take patience to wait for the right moment and make it seem the choice has not been forced upon the subject, but is due to careful deliberation.