"Captain Chen reports that the Zhadanov is still on course to her rally point," Trelar continued, "and still unable to shake the Romulans in pursuit. They were forced to fight another delaying action last night, and were again successful in disengaging without major damage. Even allowing for the slower ships she's escorting, Zhadanov will arrive at our rendezvous about three days before we do, assuming we maintain current course and speed. Kashmir reports no enemy contact since their last encounter and has already arrived at their rally point. They have been on station there for eight hours. Captain Svenson says there's still no sign of Mallory."
     "And still no signals from Mallory since the day of the initial attack? No relays from Orions or bases?" Yefimov asked.
     "No, Sir. Nothing," Trelar said.
     The sinking feeling in Yefimov's gut deepened. One of two frigates in the Third Division, Mallory's orders had been to fall back and link up with the light cruiser Kashmir. Since Mallory had been much closer to the rally point at the time of the initial Romulan attacks, she should have made it to the rally point almost a day before Kashmir.
     "Play back their last transmission," Yefimov ordered.
     Trelar input a command on her console and the main viewscreen crackled to life, the placid atmosphere of the briefing room suddenly shattered by the sounds of Mallory's commanding officer shouting to be heard above the din of the battle roaring around the small frigate.
     "...I repeat: this is Commander Sanchez of the USS Mallory. We are under attack by two BattleHawk-class Romulan ships and are falling back under heavy fire..."

USS Mallory
Romulan Border 2 August 2573; Day of the Eagle

     "...falling back under heavy fire," Sanchez was saying, as the turbolift doors opened onto Mallory's crimson-lit bridge. "We have sustained light damage, but are still warp-capable and falling back to rally point delta-four. Requesting assistance from any vessel within rangeŠ" He was cut off in mid-sentence as another barrage of phaser fire slammed into Mallory's shields, shaking the deck hard, so hard he almost pitched forward out of his chair, and sending the turbolift's occupant sprawling forward onto the deck.
     Junior Communications Officer Sevrin quickly picked himself up and headed over to the communications station. Lieutenant Pell, the senior communications officer, was just completing the transmission of the captain's distress call. He scowled distastefully as he saw Sevrin approach.
     "Sevrin," Pell said, "What the hell are you doing here; you're supposed to be in auxiliary control!"
     "I am responding to your request for assistance with repairs," Sevrin said, indicating the electronics kit he had carried with him to the bridge. "All damage control teams are occupied elsewhere and the first officer felt I was best qualified to..."
      "Fine, fine," Pell interrupted, "An engineer is what I need but you'll have to do. Listen: the main communications array has just about had it; I barely got that last message out."
     "We should switch to the secondary transmitter," Sevrin said.
     "Thank you, Mr. Sevrin, I did think of that," Pell said impatiently, "Only I can't get the system to fail over to the secondary. The primary isn't working, but the computer thinks it is and won't let go. The backup array is on line; I just can't get the damn computer to recognize that. See what you can do with it."
     The deck heaved under them as the ship banked abruptly to starboard. Sevrin gripped the console, barely keeping his feet as Mallory swung away from her assailants. Trying to ignore the chaos going on around them, Sevrin started running through diagnostic routines on one of the overhead displays, confident he could resolve the problem. In point of fact, Lieutenant Pell should have been pleased to see him. Sevrin held an A5 computer expert classification, two levels higher than anyone else in communications including Pell himself. Although he tried to remain focused on the task at hand, Sevrin was disappointed in himself for not having already confronted his superior about his unprofessional attitude. Now, his delay in resolving the matter was adversely affecting the mission.
     The ship rocked again as another salvo slammed into the aft shield. Sevrin stole a glance at the main viewscreen and was relieved to see both attackers astern as Mallory maneuvered onto an escape course.
     "Engineering," Sanchez ordered, "Dump the photons and divert all available power to propulsion. Helm, set course for the rally point and prepare to boost to maximum warp. Get us out of here!"
     Sevrin completed the last of his diagnostics and verified the results. "The fault is not in the computer, Sir. All routines are functioning within nominal parameters. A physical problem is preventing system failover, probably the result of battle damage."
"There's no way both arrays could have been knocked out," Pell said, "They didn't hit us that hard. It must be a connectivity issue. Start running through the conduits one by one and I'll check the relays." Pell dropped to his knees, yanked the cover off the access panel under the communications console, and started inspecting connections.
      Privately, Sevrin considered Pell's reasoning to be seriously flawed. The chances of both arrays being damaged seemed to him to have more to do with accuracy or luck on the part of the Romulan gunners rather than the total amount of damage sustained. But there seemed little point in debating the issue while still in combat, and both possibilities would need to be checked eventually anyway.
      "New contacts!" the sensor officer shouted. "Two vessels, bearing zero-mark-four, directly in our path. Hostile 3 is reading as a frigate, Hostile 4 as a cruiser. They're on an intercept course and closing fast!"
      "Dammit, they must have flanked us under cloak while we were busy with the other two!" Sanchez said. "Helm, secure from high-warp preparations. Come about to two-nine-zero. Hopefully that cruiser is one of the older Eagles that we can outmaneuver."
      Sevrin continued trying to diagnose the problems with the communications arrays. Although he did not approve of Pell's methodology, he was beginning to arrive at the same conclusion. All of the first six connections he tested showed green on the console but failed as soon as he tried to put actual load on them, and he reported as much.
       "Are you positive it's not the damn computer?" Pell replied, the upper half of his torso still buried in the guts of the console. "Because I don't see anything thatŠ oh, crap, wait a minute. I see it now: it's the junction box all the way in the back by the EMI interface. I can see the scorch marks from here. We'll have to pull the whole console to get at it!"
      Pell was right; there were too many live components in the way for him to make repairs without electrocuting himself ‹ not while the console was active. But Sevrin remembered having assisted the chief engineer with a similar problem on the weapons station a few months ago. "I can access that box from the other side," he said to Pell, who was still extricating himself from the access panel. "If I cut carefully through the wall of the head, I should be able to get at the relays without taking the console offline."
      Pell considered this for a second and nodded assent. "Good idea. Go do it and be quick about it!"
      Sevrin hurried through the portside access hatch into the service corridor that circumscribed the main bridge. Passing through the restroom into the emergency supply storage beyond, he grabbed a hand phaser from the weapons locker and ran back into the head. If his estimates were correct, the damaged junction box was right on the other side of the far wall. He dialed down the power on the phaser and narrowed the focus emitter. While was lining up his target, his communicator started beeping urgently. Flipping it open, he heard Pell's voice, sounding panicked now.
      "Sevrin! Hurry the hell up, I just got an order to launch a log buoy and I can't get the logs to dump their files into it. I need those relays online now!"
      Sevrin stopped short. Emergency log buoys were triple-redundant systems; he had never heard of one going completely offline. "Sir, I suggest we abandon these repairs and tell auxiliary control to take over all communications systems. If the damages"
      "And just who in AuxCon do you think is going to take over since we're both up here?" Pell yelled angrily. "In the time it would take them to figure out the system I could replace that junction box twice. Now move!"
      Before he could reply, Sevrin was thrown hard to the deck as it went out from under him. The frigate shook like it had just crashed into the side of a starbase. He could hear the bridge crew in the background through the open communicator.
     "The King Eagle has us in a tractor beam!"
      "Engineering: emergency power to negative tractor!" Sanchez ordered.
      "No effect, Captain, the link's too strong."
      "Torpedoes inbound from the Snipe!"
      Sevrin hesitated. He had never disobeyed an order from a superior officer, but there could be only minutes left to complete the captain's last order. After a brief mental debate, he holstered the phaser and switched frequencies on the communicator.
      "Auxiliary control," Sevrin said, "This is bridge communica..."
      There was a deafening blast and Sevrin had just a moment's sensation of being completely airborne before his body hit something solid.
      He tried to catch his breath as the world went dark.

Covert Operations Base Aerie 7
Federation Neutral Zone 3 August 2573; Eagle + 1 Day

      Pente-Tribune Julian Artex ignored the young Praetorian standing at attention before him as he paged through the applicant's service record. By any standards, his record was impeccable: graduation with honors from the Academy, four commendations for bravery, and a deep background in engineering and ship's systems. He was the perfect replacement for the team's former technical specialist, who had been unexpectedly reassigned shortly after their return to base. Artex needed to look no further than the man's ceremonial blade to know this was no coincidence. The mainz gladius the applicant proudly wore on his belt belied his noble birth and his affiliation with the powerful House Casifax. Artex despised politically motivated personnel transfers. The fact that the man was unquestionably well qualified for the slot on his team only made him angrier.
      Artex went through every detail of the flawless record twice before snapping off the monitor and turning to regard the man standing across the desk from him. The young applicant continued to stare straight ahead unflinchingly until Julian finally spoke.
      "Centurion Tev, do you know why I hold the rank of pente-tribune?" he asked.
      If the unusual opening to the interview caught the applicant off-guard, he didn't show it. Tev hesitated only a moment before replying, "Your experience, years of service, and achievements have exceeded the expectations of a major-tribune and warranted your promotion."
      Julian snorted. "That is a textbook and quite politically correct response, Centurion. What I am asking is if you know why I do not wear the rank of commander and never shall?"
      "I do not, Sir," Tev replied.
      "Well then, allow me to explain. I hold what you know full well to be a dead-end rank because I do not play politics well and I do not suffer gladly those who do. So, over the years I have primarily recruited Praetorians who are not affiliated with a Great House or are members of the Military House like myself and my executive officer over there," Artex said, gesturing towards the slender woman seated in the far corner. "Knowing this, why would an obviously talented and ambitious young officer such as yourself waste his time applying for an appointment on a team led by a political exile?"
      "May I speak candidly, Tribune?" Tev asked.
      "Because you believe doing so would somehow improve your chances? By all means speak frankly, Centurion," Artex said, leaning back in his chair and gesturing magnanimously.
      Tev turned to meet Julian's gaze squarely. "Tribune Artex, your reputation precedes you, but not only for your political bias. Your team ranks among the top 10 Praetorian teams in active service. You are consistently selected for the most challenging assignments and you have an almost perfect mission success rate. You've read my record; you know that throughout my career I have sought out tough assignments and served with distinction. I want a spot on your team because it is a place where I believe I can be of great service ‹ to House Casifax, certainly, but to the Empire first and foremost."
      "For the Empire first and foremost?" Julian said. "As long as we are being so candid with each other, Centurion, I must say that this has not always been my experience with well-heeled officers. If I were to take you on my team, I would almost certainly wish to test you on this. Not to mention that I would also be harder on you than any other new team member. You would need to prove to me that your glowing record is indeed based upon your skill and hard work and not your political connections. Knowing this you would still wish to serve under my command?"
     "For duty, all things," Tev replied, returning to attention.
     Artex glared silently at him a moment longer and finally said, "You're dismissed, Centurion. You will hear of my decision presently." He waited until the door closed before addressing his second in command. "He's clever, I'll give him that. A little bit of modernist philosophy to show he's willing to challenge me but be respectful at the same time. What did you think, Rav?"
     "Top 10, my ass," Ravenna Lal said, walking over to claim one of the chairs in front of Artex's desk. "You couldn't find three teams with a better record than ours, especially since old Quintus got himself eaten by the lizards."
     "I meant your impressions of the man, not his flattery."
     Ravenna shrugged. "What do you want me to say, Jules? His skills are perfect for the open slot. His record is perfect; his hair is perfect; his teeth are perfect. I don't know where the big houses get these guys from; it's like they grow them in a vat somewhere. More to the point: why are you bothering to interview him if you don't like his pedigree? I'm sure you have time to make inquiries through the Military House for someone you'll find more agreeable than Mister Perfect."
     "As it happens, I do not," Julian said, feeling his choler rising again. "I was just informed an hour ago that we have been given a priority one assignment in Federation space: something directly supporting the invasion. The briefing is in two hours and it will include some gentlemen from the Intelligence Directorate who just happen to be from HouseŠ"
     "Close. Pentalion. Those two houses have been as thick as thieves as they keep trying to grab power from House Aurelius in the senate. So, I have the choice of letting them get their man a spot on my team or running a mission in enemy space without a tech specialist."
     "Well, look at it this way, boss. As political appointments go, you could do a lot worse. His attitude doesn't seem too bad. If he's really as sharp as his record says, he might work out. If notŠ" she shrugged, "space is a dangerous place. The poor kid might have a terrible accident or something. Might serve as an example to future generations why engineers shouldn't wear pig-stickers on their uniforms."
     Julian laughed despite himself. "Come on, let's get out of here. I need an hour in the gym to burn off some steam before that briefing."