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NINE MONTHS AGO
Far below the cracked ochre wasteland of Harkoum's surface, Iliana Ghemor turned away from the reading screen, her anguish and rage competing for dominance as she wedged the knuckles of her left fist between her teeth. She savored the sensation of her skin breaking against the pressure, the metallic taste of her blood mingling with the salty tears that flowed freely down the cheeks of Kira Nerys.
Dead, she thought as her eyes traveled tremulously back to the shatterframe monitor atop her desk. They're all dead. And they've been dead for years. Her mother, her father, Entek, the Obsidian Order itself...And now, if this newest intel from her spies was to be believed, even Gul Dukat was gone -- consumed in Bajor's Fire Caves during an arcane confrontation with the Emissary, a battle that had evidently claimed them both.
In truth, she'd half expected this. From the moment she'd learned the full scope of the Dominion War and the attempted genocide on Cardassia that had marked its end, Iliana had accepted the very real possibility that all the people she'd known in her old life were among the nearly one billion slain. But instead, after scouring the files of Dukat's personal database -- copied from his secret safe house beneath the lunar prison on Letau -- she learned that they'd met far different fates.
Her mother had been first. Less than a year after Iliana had departed Cardassia for her covert mission to Bajor, Kaleen Ghemor had fallen into a despair from which she had never recovered. She resigned from the judiciary, withdrew from the world, and eventually became gravely ill following a prolonged struggle with a crippling depression. She finally expired in a hospital room seven years after she'd last seen Iliana.
Corbin Entek met his end three years later, after he'd become one of the highest-ranking strategists of the Obsidian Order, and during a predictably convoluted plot to expose her father's covert involvement with a growing dissident movement on Cardassia. That the eroding certainty of her father's political beliefs had eventually led him to become one of the movement's leaders was a revelation, but it was as nothing compared to the shock of learning that Entek's scheme had involved manipulating Tekeny Ghemor with the promise of restoring his long-lost daughter to him, using a surgically altered Kira Nerys -- the other Kira Nerys -- to convince him that she had finally returned from her assignment on Bajor.
That her old mentor -- and the architect of her metamorphosis -- had chosen to defile her memory in order to achieve his ends came as little surprise. Entek had done a poor job of concealing his true interest in Iliana during her tutelage, and the things she had heard Dukat say to him at Elemspur on the day of her memory transference left little doubt that Entek had manipulated her from the start, and that his frustrated obsession with her was directly responsible for the course her life had subsequently taken. Fittingly, the farce he had perpetrated against her father had been Corbin's final undoing, though it had thrust Tekeny into exile and had allowed the other Kira to survive unscathed.
The final insult, however, had come two years later, at the time of her father's death of Yarim Fel syndrome aboard Deep Space 9. The bond that Entek's plan had created between Tekeny and Kira had endured right up until Tekeny Ghemor drew his last breath. He had sought to spend his last days in Kira's company, even sharing with her the final, supremely intimate rite of shri'tal! Had he known that Kira shared responsibility for killing the love of Iliana's life? Was it really possible that he had given up any hope of ever finding his real daughter, and had turned to the creature Iliana had been sent to replace in some pathetic need for a surrogate, just so that he wouldn't have to die alone?
They gave up on me. All of them.
It had been no less devastating to learn about the deaths of her Bajoran loved ones. Thanks to the memories of Kira Nerys, Iliana recalled the mortal wound Cardassian soldiers had inflicted upon Kira's father, Taban. But Kira's mother, Meru, had apparently lived for years as Dukat's concubine, long after her daughter had thought she'd died of malnutrition in the refugee camps of Singha. Dead too were Kira's brothers, Pohl and Reon.
Most of Kira's resistance cell -- the Shakaar -- were gone as well. Some had fallen during the Occupation, like Dakahna Vaas, whose loss had been so painful to Kira that it drove her into a self-destructive spiral from which she had only barely escaped; others had been murdered in recent years by a vengeful Cardassian who'd survived Kira's bombing of Gul Pirak's compound on Bajor -- the same bombing that had killed Iliana's beloved Ataan Rhukal. Ataan's death had driven Iliana to the Obsidian Order in her need to exact justice -- and there she had drawn first blood by killing one of the Order's captured terrorists, Dakahna Vaas.
Ataan and Vaas. She remembered loving them both. She remembered killing them both. And the terrible symmetry of those memories often seemed too intolerable to contemplate.
And now to learn that Dukat, too, was dead...
She would have been the first to admit the source of the new information was dubious -- if she had lacked Kira's appreciation of Bajoran metaphysics.
The report, filed by members of the Vedek Assembly and now glowing out from her desktop screen, told of an account given by the wife of the Emissary. This Kasidy Yates claimed to have experienced her husband in the aftermath of his final encounter with Dukat, and that he had told her that the gul was lost forever to the very entities he had tried to unleash -- the Pah-wraiths. From a Cardassian perspective, it was utter nonsense.
But from the perspective of a devout Bajoran, it was an entirely logical and fitting end to the life of the planet's most universally hated enemy. Adding to that the information she'd gleaned from Dukat's own files on Bajoran mysticism and the many inexplicable events of the last eight years, and Iliana could well believe that the inscrutable alien beings who resided within the Bajoran wormhole had spun a complex web that had ensnared many lives, including that of Skrain Dukat.
And perhaps even her own.
That's it, isn't it? she thought. Cardassia and Bajor, her life and Kira's, Tekeny and Taban, Kaleen and Meru, Shakaar and Corbin, Vaas and Ataan -- they were all somehow intertwined; entangled by invisible strands that formed the pattern of whatever obscure and intricate tapestry the Prophets were weaving behind their impenetrable curtain of timelessness.
And the thread of my life? Where does it lead now? How do I make myself whole again? Cardassia lies in ruins. Bajor has no place for me. Vengeance against Dukat is denied me. Entek is long dead. My mother succumbed to her own broken heart. And my father...My father's love was stolen from me forever.
By Kira --
Iliana started, but didn't turn toward the voice, hastily moving instead to close the file on her reader and wipe the tears from her face.
"What is it?" she asked sharply.
She sensed Shing-kur's hesitation. Ever since they'd broken out of Letau, together with several other inmates, the Kressari had been her devoted right hand, and she'd had the clearest understanding of everything that Iliana had endured these last two decades.
Shing-kur alone knew that Iliana was not the Bajoran she appeared to be. But she seemed to appreciate nonetheless Iliana's all-consuming need, after fifteen years of physical and psychological torture in Dukat's private dungeon, to cling to the identity of the Bajoran woman that she should have replaced -- the woman whose identity was the only one that had any meaning to her now. Consequently, during the months since their escape to Harkoum, Shing-kur had become acutely sensitive to Iliana's moods, and it had to be obvious to her now that she had intruded upon Iliana at a moment of acute vulnerability.
"Well?" Iliana demanded. "Out with it!"
The Kressari seemed to take the hint, though she gave no further sign that she thought anything was amiss. "There's been news out of Bajor."
Her interest piqued, Iliana turned her head halfway toward Shing-kur, so that the Kressari would see her profile. "What sort of news?"
Shing-kur's voice carried an air of possibility. "There's a Jem'Hadar soldier aboard Deep Space 9."
Harkoum proved to be everything Iliana could have hoped for, and more: Dukat's secret Dominion transporter on Letau had deposited her band of fugitives deep within the abysmal Grennokar Detention Center. This was one of many underground secret prison installations that the Obsidian Order had quietly maintained over the last century, until Cardassia finally abandoned the remote planet for good. Rumor had it that mummified corpses still resided in many of those forsaken facilities, and that the so-called enemies of the state who had been incarcerated here at the end of the Order's reign -- many of them having served as test subjects for the Order's medical research initiatives -- had simply been left to die in their locked subterranean cells. Iliana had tried to imagine what it must have been like for those poor souls, caged and starving, their ever-weakening screams for help and rescue going unheard until they had at last faded into eternal silence.
But if those rumors were true, then Grennokar was a notable exception to current Cardassian policy. The initial search that she and her cohorts had made of the facility showed considerable evidence of recent use, which appeared to have ended both suddenly and disastrously. Between the detention center's still-intact records, which had included copies of Dukat's personal files, it hadn't taken long to piece together what had happened here, or why Dukat had taken such an interest in this place that he had used the Dominion subspace transporter in his secret Grennokar safe house exclusively for travel to and from Harkoum.
Dukat had first learned about Grennokar's existence during the time of his great disgrace several years ago, during the period when he had been relegated to captaining a military freighter that serviced some of the Cardassian Union's most remote holdings. But it wasn't until he'd begun his negotiations with the Dominion to drive out Cardassia's then-occupiers, the Klingons, that he had started formulating new plans.
Plans that were to make considerable use of the Grennokar facility.
To bring those schemes to fruition, Dukat had successfully tracked down two of the Order's former medical researchers, Doctors Omek and Vekeer, and recruited them for a very bold and risky project. Once he'd returned to power as the new Dominion-backed ruler of the Union, Dukat had quietly set the two men up at Grennokar. He then began discreetly redirecting useful bits of Dominion technology, thereby slowly rebuilding and improving upon the experimentation facilities that already existed on the detention center's bottommost level.
These covert machinations were all directed toward a single purpose: to secretly undermine the intricate genetic programming that governed the Jem'Hadar's loyalty to the Founders -- part of a long-term plan to challenge the shape-shifters' mastery of Cardassia and the Dominion by transferring their soldiers' genetically mandated loyalty to him.
Research subjects were initially the corpses of Jem'Hadar soldiers recovered from battle. Later, sedated live specimens were pulled off massive offensives against the Federation and the Klingons, abattoirs of battle from which a few fallen cannon-fodder troops would never be missed; these eventually found their way to Grennokar, providing Vekeer and Omek with as much raw material as their work required.
In hindsight, it came as no surprise to Iliana that not a single individual, neither Cardassian nor Jem'Hadar, was left alive in Grennokar by the time the war had ended. Iliana recalled Shing-kur's incredulous reaction upon studying the project data, likening the doctors' experiments on live Jem'Hadar to studying lightning from the top of an iron tower.
Nevertheless, the research had continued for two years -- until quite recently, it seemed. According to the records, at the time of Dukat's last visit to Harkoum to check on their progress -- shortly after he'd had himself surgically altered so that he could pass for a Bajoran -- Omek and Vekeer were convinced that they were on the verge of a significant breakthrough. Dukat led them to believe that he intended to return in order to put the fruits of their long labors to work, once his latest task on Bajor was completed.
But he never did. And less than a month after that final visit, both the scientists and every member of their support staff died horribly -- moments after their "breakthrough" Jem'Hadar test subject broke through quite literally, overcoming his restraints. The creature's berserker rage wasn't spent until everyone in the lab lay dead, including the Jem'Hadar itself, which apparently had fallen victim to a massive and fatal cerebral hemorrhage.
It was the grisly aftermath of the doctors' arrogance that greeted Iliana and her gang when they had first beamed in from Letau, some weeks after the disaster had taken place. Still, these gruesome findings had done nothing to discourage her from recognizing Grennokar's enormous potential utility. The secrecy of the facility and the remoteness of Harkoum -- to which Grennokar was linked via Dukat's subspace transporter -- offered Iliana and her band of fellow travelers a long-term haven. The fugitives spent many of their early days at Grennokar simply taking inventory of their new home, assessing its resources, and debating the possible uses to which they might be put -- computers, medical technology, weapons, a communications system linked to the Cardassian subspace relay network. The place even had a number of small, nondescript spacecraft that were clearly intended not to attract any unnecessary attention.
While each of her fellow escapees started to imagine how they would resume the various individual pursuits, legal or otherwise, that had landed them in Letau's prison levels in the first place, Iliana began to formulate how she would fold their ambitions into her own. The more she learned about the strange new galaxy into which she'd emerged, the more the scope of her desire for revenge expanded outward, becoming a need that couldn't be satisfied simply by eliminating her double aboard Deep Space 9.
She craved far more than that: she wanted -- needed -- to hurt Kira Nerys profoundly before finally killing her. The exact shape of that vengeance was something she still had to determine. But Iliana had become convinced that whatever form her revenge would take, it would best be achieved with an organization at her back.
Fortunately, convincing her fellow former prisoners to continue following her lead proved to be far simpler than she had hoped. Shing-kur's devotion to her since Letau was pure, and could be called upon to serve as an example to the others; the Kressari seemed satisfied to make Iliana's needs her own, and supported her every decision. She was, in fact, Iliana's sole confidant.
The others were fairly simple creatures at their cores, motivated by little beyond a thirst for profit and a contempt for the respective societies that had either rejected them, hounded them, or betrayed them. To build upon the tentative loyalty Iliana had earned from them during their escape, she needed to provide all of them with what they desired most.
With Shing-kur's support, Iliana painted a picture of an organized group of criminal operatives working out of Grennokar, with themselves at the top of the organizational hierarchy. She told them that this emerging brave new age of protectorates, in which the Allied powers were carving up the battered Union into swaths of loosely policed space -- ostensibly to assist in preventing a descent into complete anarchy while Cardassia licked its Dominion War-inflicted wounds -- would not last forever. But it would give them a definite window of opportunity they could not afford to squander. She argued passionately that the ships and worlds of this region would never be more vulnerable than they were at the present moment. This vicinity of space was now ripe for the picking, and the five of them were uniquely positioned to bring in that harvest.
The young gunrunner, Fellen Ni-Yaleii, bought into her vision at once; Iliana felt certain she could fan the Efrosian woman's interest into passionate enthusiasm before very long. Mazagalanthi, the Lissepian smuggler of illicit technologies, had been somewhat more reserved, but finally gave his full support to the proposal. Telal, ever the skeptic, had taken some convincing, but in the end even the Romulan freelance assassin had allowed himself to be ensnared by the very real possibilities and opportunities that Iliana had laid out for the group.
The group spent the weeks that followed bringing the most useful sections of Grennokar back online, as well as recruiting mercenaries from those few old industrial communities on Harkoum that still clung to life as havens for every type of outlaw from dozens of worlds. And as the structure and aims of Iliana's emerging criminal enclave gradually emerged, the group began undertaking seemingly random acts of piracy in several of the adjoining sectors, slowly escalating to more ambitious targets: outposts, colonies, even elaborate confidence games.
And as the rewards began pouring in, Iliana gradually exploited her inner circle's growing euphoria, reaching out to them as trusted friends. Eventually she confided in them the tale she wanted them to believe about her imprisonment on Letau -- that she was the victim of an imposture being carried out to this very day, by a fraud who had claimed Iliana's real identity aboard the Federation's starbase in the B'hava'el system.
Iliana's subtle manipulations had their desired effect: Bit by bit she was transforming their already solidified loyalty into something much larger, much more heartfelt, and far more difficult to quantify: zeal.
These pirates and former prisoners were no longer merely Iliana's accomplices, or even her friends.
They were now her followers.
"Nerys, did you hear what I said? There's a Jem'Hadar aboard Deep Space 9!"
Iliana sighed and turned all the way around to face Shing-kur, who was standing just inside the threshold of the modest quarters Iliana had claimed as her own shortly after their arrival at Grennokar. Her Obsidian Order training had given her valuable insights into the detention center's design, and she had immediately recognized the unremarkable-looking room for what it really was by its very inconspicuousness.
True to her suspicions, she had discovered that the room's rather ordinary workstation allowed -- with some painstaking navigation of its labyrinthine security system -- exclusive access to some of the detention center's more interesting amenities, such as a personal armory, a secure subspace communications booth, a self-destruct system, and a vault containing a shocking amount of latinum. If the dust present was any indicator, Dukat and his scientists hadn't known about any of it. Whoever had been in charge of this place when it was first built certainly had a flare for the dramatic. But then, she reflected, that was true for most Cardassians.
Kressari, by contrast, possessed notions of drama that were not immediately recognizable outside their species. Their rough, hard-edged faces, lacking the flexibility of either Cardassian or Bajoran skin, did not emote in the manner of most humanoids. It wasn't until Iliana looked into Shing-kur's eyes that she saw the excitement there, evidenced by the deep black that filled her irises. Iliana had become quite fluent in the chromatic language of Kressari emotions, including even the subtle variations in Shing-kur's ocular palette. She had learned to decode instances such as when one color encircled another, and the meaning conveyed by the expansion and contraction of those colors. It was a fascinating vocabulary of visual signals, in many ways as complex as the kinesics of any of the various species Iliana had studied during her Obsidian Order training. Interpreting the meaning behind those cues was usually easy, Iliana found, though she had to see Shing-kur's eyes to fully grasp the emotional context of her words.
Even so, there were still times when it could be a challenge to "read" the Kressari accurately. News of a Jem'Hadar visitor to the other Kira's station was odd, to be sure, but Iliana failed to understand why this was a source of excitement for her confidant. It certainly offered Iliana no solace from the bitterness she was finding increasingly difficult to tamp down.
"A Jem'Hadar on Deep Space 9. What is that to me, Shing?"
The Kressari stepped farther into the room and, as if suddenly concerned about being overheard, lowered her voice to a whisper. "According to what I've been able to find out, he could be there awhile," she said. "His name is Taran'atar. Supposedly he was sent by the colonel's changeling lover as some kind of cultural observer, and the assignment is open-ended. This may be the opportunity we've been waiting for."
Iliana thought she understood where Shing was going with this, and she shook her head irritably. "If you're thinking of doing to the colonel's new pet what Dukat's fools did with the Jem'Hadar on Harkoum, so that he'll go into a berserker rage and kill her, I won't have it. She's mine to destroy, Shing."
Flecks of blue grew inside the Kressari's eyes, conveying mild disappointment. "I'm not suggesting anything of the kind. I'm proposing that we put the Jem'Hadar under your control. Directly."
Iliana stared. "What in the world are you talking about? You were the one who couldn't believe Omek and Vekeer were arrogant enough to tamper with creatures that dangerous! Now you want to follow in their footsteps? Are you insane?"
"Hear me out," said Shing-kur, spreading her hands placatingly. "I've been studying the research that was done here, and I think I've figured out where Dukat's men went wrong. If I'm right, there may be a noninvasive way to override the Jem'Hadar's behavioral programming and transfer his obedience imperative to you. And the best part is this: We won't need to strap him down to a table and pray that he doesn't kill us before his brain explodes. We can do it remotely, from the safety of Harkoum."
Iliana was beginning to think she might have to reevaluate her estimation of the Kressari flair for the dramatic. She folded her arms before her.
"The short version? A subliminal waveform embedded in a subspace communications signal."
Iliana almost laughed. "That's it?"
"It's actually considerably more complicated than that. But as I said, that's the short version."
"And you're telling me that once he's exposed to this...waveform, he'll obey my every command?"
"Every command," Shing-kur assured her. "And if it works the way I intend, he won't even be aware of what we've done to him...especially since his new master will appear identical to his current one."
A sleeper. How deliciously ironic. Iliana turned and started pacing the office.
"Nerys, are you listening to me?"
"I'm listening, Shing. I'm just trying to consider all the implications." She stopped in front of the Obsidian Order's spectral Galor-emblem that still decorated one wall of her quarters and focused on it while she spoke. "How soon can you put your plan into effect?"
"I'll need several weeks at minimum to configure the pulse correctly," Shing-kur said. "One of our people will need to hack into Deep Space 9's medical database and download a copy of any scans the station's doctors have made of the creature."
Iliana nodded, knowing that several of their hirelings were sufficiently proficient with Cardassian computer systems to pull off the job. After learning that Bajor was spearheading relief efforts to Cardassia Prime from all over the quadrant, and that those efforts were being coordinated from Deep Space 9, Iliana knew it afforded her the perfect means by which to keep tabs on what was going on aboard the station, as well as on the two worlds Iliana had lost.
At her instruction, several of the smugglers in her employ began hiring themselves out legitimately as freelance cargo carriers, making regular runs as part of the relief effort. The required stopovers at Deep Space 9 allowed them some freedom of movement aboard the station for brief periods at a time, and they reported what they observed or overheard during those visits back to Shing-kur. Visits to the station's Infirmary were not uncommon.
"All right," she said. "Put someone you trust on it, and get started on developing the pulse as quickly as you can. And Shing..."
Shing-kur's black irises became ringed with vermilion -- the pattern Iliana saw most often when she looked into her confidant's eyes. "You never need to thank me, Nerys," she said softly before turning and leaving Iliana's quarters.
Iliana watched her go. She had known for some time that Shing was in love with her. Not in any way that could be consummated, of course; the profound differences between their respective species made such a thing impossible, even if Iliana's ordeal of the past fifteen years had not purged her of any interest in physical intimacy. And for her part, Shing-kur made no such overtures. Her love for Iliana clearly wasn't about that. Rather, it was the adoration of one individual for the essence of another -- a tender and unconditional affection for the intangible part of another person's being.
Had Iliana believed herself capable of reciprocating those feelings, Shing-kur certainly would have been more than deserving.
But she understood all too well that her own emotional spectrum had been bled of such vivid colors a long time ago.
The next several weeks went by swiftly. A seemingly galaxywide crisis erupted during that time, involving the spontaneous opening of innumerable transspatial gateways. The brief period of instability that had grown out of the event came and went before Iliana could decide how she might take advantage of it -- much to the relief of her lieutenants, who had considered the situation too dangerous and unpredictable for their liking.
Still, the transient emergency had made Iliana imagine how she might employ such power had she been in a position to gain control over it.
As Bajor's movement toward Federation membership accelerated in the aftermath of the gateway crisis, Shing-kur reported that her subliminal waveform was ready at last. They were delayed from putting it to work, however, when Deep Space 9 became engulfed in a conspiracy by a species of hostile sentient parasites bent on dominating the Bajoran civilization; the discovery of that threat had forced a lockdown of the B'hava'el system.
The deceptively small creatures had already usurped the body and the identity of Bajor's political leader, the man Iliana remembered as her friend and commander in the Bajoran resistance, Shakaar Edon. Iliana's emotions at learning of his death were decidedly mixed. On the one hand, she had found the fact of Edon's demise and the circumstances surrounding it both horrific and heartbreaking. On the other hand, the fact that it had all happened right before Kira's eyes seemed to make it all worthwhile.
It was during the days that followed the successful ending of the parasite menace -- a resolution that had brought with it both Bajor's admission to the Federation and the inexplicable return of Benjamin Sisko, the supposed Emissary -- that a relative calm settled over Deep Space 9.
That was when Shing-kur told Iliana that she thought she was ready to attempt the subversion of Kira's Jem'Hadar, because there was finally a reasonably high chance of success.
Bypassing the station's comm system so that their signal wouldn't alert station personnel to the incoming transmission -- and then following that system to the correct companel -- took a bit of finessing. But when the shatterframe screen in Iliana's secure comm booth suddenly came to life with the Jem'Hadar's grim visage, Iliana smiled at him from across the many light-years that separated Harkoum from Deep Space 9 and uttered the words she'd been waiting months to say.
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