The sleek Federation frigate slid silently through the depths of space. Starlight glinted softly off the saucer-shaped hull as the winds of interstellar space gently caressed the ship. A soft glow emanated from the ship's two warp nacelles, indicating to any chance alien observer that here were a people advanced enough to tame the hellish reaction between matter and antimatter.
      Every sensor the ship possessed was pointed outward, probing the dark reaches between the stars toward the Romulan Neutral Zone - not that it was neutral any more.
      The bridge was quiet. Only the low hum of electronics and the hiss of the life-support system broke through the layer of silence that lay preternaturally heavy upon the members of the bridge crew. They moved about their duties with the stiff movements of automatons, an effect of the stress they had been under from the constant threat of attack they had endured since the Romulan horde had stormed over the borders in what was too large an operation to be a raid. Rommel's crew now seemed more like machines than intelligent creatures - machines fit only to do the tasks that had been pounded into them through countless drills that in retrospect seemed to have scarcely prepared them for the harsh realities of war. They had been tired, at the end of a three-month patrol, when the war started.
      Commander Ronald McGilland felt the tiredness, too. He smoothed down the ever-present cowlick in his sandy brown hair. Then he rolled his head around on his neck, and tried to massage the tension knot away from his right shoulder blade, but the ache would not go away, no matter how hard he tried. At last he gave up, and focused his attention back on the main viewscreen. It showed only the typical, slowly-scrolling starscape common to warp-powered travel as the frigate steadily moved along its patrol route in a universe turned topsy-turvy by war.
He checked the ship's chronometer which was positioned over the main viewscreen. It had been fashioned after an old-style chronometer often found on old Earth naval vessels. Only a few more minutes before we reach the rendezvous point with Guderian.
      Guderian was their sister ship and would be taking over the patrol sector while Rommel headed back to the nearest base that was clear of Romulans for refueling and resupply. The sector was a gap between two Federation squadrons, both of which were under heavy attack by Romulan fleets. A ship had to be here, just to warn either squadron if they were about to be outflanked, but it was lonely and dangerous duty. The warning that a Romulan squadron was breaking through might well be the last word anyone ever heard from Rommel.
      After resupply, they would undoubtedly be attached to a battle group. There they would help screen the heavy hitters of Star Fleet as the Federation regained the initiative and began the inevitable counter-offensive to push the Romulans back out of Federation space. He shook himself. Star Fleet doctrine, learned from the first day of the Academy, was the the Federation would never invade anyone, but would always repel any invader. Doctrine said that the ships on the border would conduct a fighting retreat, giving up space slowly, until ships from the Home Fleet and the reserve, and those called from other sectors, arrived to begin the counter-attack. But that was before the Klingons had invaded, and before Orion Pirate activity had tripled, and before the fleets on the Romulan and Gorn borders had been stripped of ships to feed the Klingon appetite for war and death. Sixth Fleet was a paper tiger facing the Romulan eagle, and it was in trouble. Every ship that could be found, pulled out of reserve, or built had been sent to the Klingon Border, and there was nothing coming to support Sixth Fleet, not unless Star Fleet Headquarters decided to give up more space to the Klingons. It would be years before the Federation's industrial might produced the ships that would throw the invaders, all of them, out. That was in the future, and the future was too much of an unknown to dwell upon when their own survival over the next few weeks was very much in doubt. Pushing those thoughts of the future out of his head, he shifted his attention back to his crew.
      The helm and navigation station was located directly in front of him. Occupying the left seat, Master Petty Officer Trevor Pearce, a slender man in his late thirties, concentrated studiously upon his helm controls. To the man's right, the squat, powerful figure of his Prellarian navigator, Senior Lieutenant Mon Jolor sat. McGilland had often joked that he could see muscles ripple every time the high-gravity native pushed a switch, but now the normally jovial lieutenant scarcely moved at all.
      Jolor stirred as a light began blinking at him from his navigation console. He looked back at McGilland, and spoke, the low rumbling of his voice sounding like gravel tumbling down a mountain stream.
      "We have reached the rendezvous point, Sir. There is no sign of the Guderian."
      "Thank you, Lieutenant." He glanced at the chronometer again, before he gave his next order. The second hand on the chronometer seemed to be slowing in its passage around the face of the instrument, as if each second of his life was becoming more valuable to him and he was becoming ever more loathe to seeing each one go. With a sigh, he forced himself to give the next order.
      "Slow to warp one point five, Mister Pearce. We'll circle and wait for them here." With a war on, I don't want to drop out of warp unless I have too. Which I hope won't be until we're docking with a supply base.
      "Aye aye, Sir," Pearce replied. He felt a slight shift in speed and momentum as the helmsman implemented his orders. Satisfied that he had a few free moments before the rendezvous, he continued his survey of the officers and enlisted members of his bridge crew.
      The rest of them were seated around the perimeter of the bridge in standard Federation fashion. To his left front, the diminutive form of his Arcturian communications officer, Junior Lieutenant Salas Jolandae, contrasted sharply with the seven-foot tall Rigellian male beside her. The Arcturian was short, even by the standards of her race, and stood barely four and a half feet tall. As she monitored Star Fleet and Romulan communication channels, she had the far-off gaze of someone concentrating intently on something the rest of them could not see. A smile slipped onto his face. Her profile reminded him of the heroic fantasies he had read as a child that had a beautiful elven female in them who usually caused the death of any human male that became enamored.
      The Rigellian was the XO of Rommel's Marine unit. Delak Yoaak was a First Lieutenant, and was responsible for coordinating offensive boarding party actions and Marine responses to any internal security breach. He knew his stuff; he had been wounded by a Klingon Marine fighting a boarding action on another ship, six months ago. Sent here to recover, he was one of two dozen recovering wounded crewmen who had shed blood fighting Klingons. The pure white of his short hair contrasted heavily with that of the Arcturian's hair which cascaded like an ebony waterfall down her back. The bridge lighting caused the blue lines crisscrossing his face to stand out sharply upon his darkly pigmented skin. The lines were a kind of dermal tattooing which occurred naturally among his people, and his skin coloration was a result of his world's constant exposure to the high ultraviolet output of their sun.
      McGilland swiveled his chair slowly around to the left. The engineering station was manned by Junior Lieutenant Ronaldo Picallad and Petty Officer First Class John Adalae. Both were good men, and he knew they could be counted on in a fight.
      He continued to rotate his chair around. The next station was the ship's science section, to what was normally his right rear. Usually, this station was not fully manned, but now Senior Lieutenant Brandon Callaway, Rommel's science officer, was being assisted by a second officer, Junior Lieutenant Tyra S'Loden. It would likely take the best efforts of both officers to detect a stealthy approach by cloaked Romulans before it was too late for them to do anything but stand and die.
      He frowned at the female officer. S'Loden was an Alpha-Centauran, and despite her best efforts, still struggled with the fact that she was subordinate to several males, something rare in the civilian circles of her female-dominated culture. He thought about it for a moment, then pushed a wave of weariness away. He was confident that with the help of Callaway, she would eventually master her inbred prejudice against males, and as long as it did not interfere with her performance, he would let her work her issues out. However, he would continue to keep an eye on her in case her attitude became a problem. He felt that the Academy should have adjusted her attitude before she joined the fleet.
      He completed his circle and was now facing the main viewscreen again. The last bridge station was to his right front. The two seats of the ship's tactical station were filled by the weapons officer, Senior Lieutenant Myra Jones, whom he had begun calling Jonesy, and her enlisted weapons technician, Petty Officer First Class Brennon Green. The two had formed a good team over the last year, and the entire weapons department of the ship routinely posted superb scores during gunnery drills. The only ship in Sixth Fleet that was any competition for them was Guderian. He was glad of that, in a way. People on top of their game tended to slack off if they had no one to push them. Competition with Guderian helped keep his crew sharp. The two frigates had been assigned together since they were commissioned, on the same day in separate shipyards. Crews came and crews went, but Rommel herself knew that only Guderian was any real threat to her status as the best of the frigates.
      He stirred in his command chair and looked at the chronometer again. It was time for Guderian to appear. He glanced over at the communications officer. As if on cue, she stiffened in her seat, and a ripple flowed through her flawless locks. She swiveled in her chair and turned to face him. He nodded for her to speak.
      "Guderian reports that they are arriving on station to relieve us, Sir. They are using current codes and have transmitted the correct response from the challenge and response matrix." McGilland nodded and swivelled his chair around to the right. Callaway and S'Loden had been deep in conversation, but were now checking sensor readings. Callaway murmured something to the Alpha-Centauran, and then turned around to face him.
      "Sensors confirm a ship approaching, Sir, from the correct direction. They will be in positive ID range shortly." Again, McGilland nodded. While it was very unlikely, it was possible that the Romulans had broken or stolen current Federation codes. However it was not possible for them to fool Rommel's sensors, not for very long, not close enough to be a threat, anyway. He was confident that he would have proof of the ship's identity in a moment.
      "Sir, Lieutenant S'Loden has picked up a subspace echo. It is approximately two hundred thousand kilometers away, heading 292, mark 10. On our port side, now." McGilland felt himself straighten in his chair as Callaway continued to speak. "I've been trying to boost gain on a directional antenna, but we cannot gain a solid lock. It could be a sensor ghost, or..." the human paused, "...or it could be a Romulan coasting along under cloak," he finished grimly.
      "Jolandae, bring the ship to action stations. Jones, energize the phaser capacitors and start arming them. No photons, not yet, anyway."
      "Sir, we have a positive signature on the incoming bogey. It is a Federation frigate. Still unable to resolve the echo," the human paused, reached out and turned a knob. "It looks like we have two echoes now."
      McGilland grunted. Two echoes could be attributed to flaky sensors as easily as one. Better get a little speed up, though. He didn't want to be stuck dealing with plasma torpedoes at low speed.
      "Pearce, continue to circle the rendezvous point, but gradually increase speed to warp one point eight." He paused to consider the situation, and then decided he needed other options besides pure speed. He swiveled his chair around to face the engineering station. "Picallad, contact shuttle bay control and get a distraction shuttlecraft ready. Then ensure reserve warp is ready if we need it.
      "Jolandae, as soon as you can, get me a ship-to-ship encrypted link with Guderian."
      Three sets of "aye-ayes" told him that his orders were being followed. Satisfied that his ship was as ready for anything that might happen as he could make it, he settled back into his chair. The next few minutes would either find them on their way back home for a well-deserved break from the strain of patrolling, or in a fight for their very survival against an implacable enemy.


      Major Commander Marcus Parthek was pleased with the performance of his ship and his crew, as well as that of the two supporting SkyHawks. The information that House agents had acquired from the Orion spy on Revlis had been correct. The frigate was here, and the encirclement of it was almost complete. So far, the frigate had shown no sign of realizing the danger it was in. Another few moments and its doom would be sealed. He smiled. His uncle's judgment of his fitness for a command slot would be validated.
      That validation had been a long time coming. He knew that his uncle, a veteran of the intense political struggle for the control of the planet Vergo between their house, House Notrub'illah and a rival house, House Pentalion, had championed his ascension through the ranks. He also knew that support would eventually have a price. Mentally, he shrugged his shoulders. When he had won this battle, his own prestige would grow considerably. When my fat uncle chooses to call in his favor, I will help him if it pleases me.
      The political conflict had also affected the composition of his squadron. To counterbalance House Notrub'illah's growing influence and the glory that it was likely to gain in this battle, a Pentalion senator had "arranged" through his contacts in the Military House for a ship with a commander friendly to them to be assigned to his squadron. They would undoubtedly seek a way to share in his glory.
      He pursed his lips and leaned back in his command chair, staring at the main viewscreen. A tall, thin Romulan, he was a native of Vergo like his uncle. He stared at the stars arrayed on the main viewscreen and suppressed a shudder. Vergo was a minor industrial planet with no atmosphere. The entire populace lived and worked in huge, pressurized domes that gave no glimpse of a starry sky. The only time the stars were visible was when a dome ruptured, a rare occurrence to be sure. But when it happened, there were always many dead before the breach could be repaired.
      "Major Commander, we have a new contact."
      Parthek spun in his chair to face his sensor operator, Major Tribune Litia Tacunin. She was a sturdily-built Romulan with dark hair cut in the short style favored by members of the Military House she was a member of. She had proven to be a capable officer despite the low opinion he had of her house affiliation. Because of her potential, he had worked hard to subvert her, so that in the future he might have a valuable ally in that House. He might even sponsor her for membership in House Notrub'illah if she proved capable enough.
      "It is on a course to intercept the target. It may be a chance encounter between two Federation ships, but I believe that one ship is relieving the other."
      He felt his temper spike. Cursed Orions! They never give you all the information, just enough to not be caught in an outright lie. He had no doubt that the green-skinned slime-devils had known that another ship would be here and had held that information back purposely.
      "Sensors are now detecting energy being diverted to the target's scanners, sir, but the photon tubes are still cold." Tacunin continued. "The new contact has now been classified by the computer as another Federation frigate. We are still too far away to detect weapons status of the new target."
      "Prudent thinking demands that we proceed as if every phaser on that ship is armed and its photon torpedoes are being held," he interrupted. "You will make a fine commander one day, Tribune." He had his temper back under control now. He glanced at the tactical display that showed the new contact closing rapidly. The odds are definitely still in our favor, thank Sera. An unwelcome thought coalesced in his mind. Perhaps this development is the work of Sero instead?
Parthek had converted to Serism early in his military career and knew that Sero was one of the two avatars of Seri. Unlike Sera, who represented Love and Order, Sero was the God of War and Chaos. Followers were often tested by Sero with unexpected challenges that forced them to adapt and excel or die. The lessons gained through successful completions of these trials were key to making Serism a viable alternative to Therism. Otherwise they faced the risk of their faith being absorbed back into the Therist mainstream. So is this another trial? If so, I welcome it. Leaning forward, he spoke.
      "Tight beam transmission to Mace and Cutlass. The trap is set, and our glory will be doubled. Now is the time to do our duty for the Empire. Praetor Maxillius and Emperor Tarus will take heed of our actions and we will reap the glory of the whirlwind we have set in motion."
      He settled back stiffly against the hard backrest of his command chair, his eyes glaring at the screen. A cruel grin flitted across his face as he considered his words, then dismissed them. I will crush these puny ships or scatter them before me. The glory will be mine and mine alone. I will do with that glory as I see fit.