Commodore Arrax was not pleased. This was his last operation before his planned retirement, and it had started out badly. He had been looking forward to his reintegration into Sphere society, but not with the stigma of defeat following him everywhere. While the loss of the four fighters was annoying, it was to be expected. Even now a fast carrier resupply corvette was offloading replacement fighters. The loss of four highly-trained fighter pilots and the de facto destruction of the convoy were much more regrettable. He struggled to keep his body emitting a calming, golden glow as he looked at each subordinate that had gathered around the meeting table. This will assure them that I am still in control, although I suspect that I am tingeing red with anger in places.
     "The convoy's escort ship was able to pick up one of our pilots, Commodore. He should be returned to us as soon as we can arrange transport." Arrax twirled in his chair to face the speaker, eyes glowing as he regarded the Tholian that spoke.
     "That is the one thing the escort did correctly, Squadron Leader, and it is a small comfort. I would have expected my pilots to be better able to defend a convoy or themselves than was shown." The air between them shimmered with heat waves, but with the help of his magnetic sense, he was able to see the officer clearly. The officer was clearly perturbed, judging from the reddish-orange glow that transfused her from head to the lower, tapered point of her pillar-shaped crystalline body.
     "Then perhaps we should have had a better report from Intel, Sir. I had no idea that my pilots would be facing a full squadron of the best Klingon fighters, and no information that the fighters would be backed up by a drone bombardment cruiser. Indeed, I had no information that a drone bombardment cruiser was even in the area." The Squadron Leader spun furiously toward another officer, her body floating up a full foot above her eggcup shaped chair as she did so. She pointed one hand sharply at him and her eyes flared intensely as she regarded the major that was serving as the intelligence officer for this operation.
The Intel officer leaned forward uneasily in his chair, his lower point maintaining just enough contact to keep himself grounded. Arrax noted that he was shaded with purple, evidently embarrassed at his failure to predict the enemy's course of action. Before the officer could formulate a taut reply, the commodore leaned forward and interrupted the squabble before it could begin.
     "Since this engagement, have you been able to ascertain the source of the fighter strike that destroyed the convoy, Major Zira?" He saw the officer lean back, struggling to bring his thoughts back to where they needed to be, and away from the accusatory pilot. Focus, I need him to focus. After a moment, the officer spoke.
     "Sir, as soon as we realized that a major strike was underway, we sent a message requesting that other intelligence assets be tasked to track the fighters back to their recovery point." The officer paused, looking at him for his approval to continue. Arrax bobbed up and down in assent. Even though this area of the Holdfast-Klingon border was relatively small, compared to the size of the galaxy itself, the volume of space within that area was still enormous compared to the ships that they were trying to track. It often required more resources than they had onboard to track enemy units through the vastness of space.
     "They discovered that the strike had been launched by the Seltorian area control ship, named by our enemy as the Wind of Ordained Retribution." Zira paused as the other Tholians around the briefing table digested the intent behind the name. An area control ship was a cruiser-sized hull, fitted with a standard fighter squadron and a heavy fighter squadron. The ship had no heavy weapons; it carried sensors to find targets for the fighters. Zira noted that there was more than one Tholian whose shards began to turn red with anger at the mention of the hated traitors that had driven them from their home galaxy and at the thought of what Seltorian retribution would doubtlessly entail.
     "The area control ship strike group's initial launching position was somewhat exposed and it subsequently withdrew. We postulate however, that the Seltorians plan to operate in our zone of operations for some time to come. As we are newly arrived here, we do not think that they realize we are in the area."
     "But surely they know that our twelve fighters had to have been launched from a carrier? There were no bases within response range of the convoy when it was attacked," the Squadron Leader interjected.
     "The CWV Swarm Master just rotated out of this sector," the major continued, looking at the pilot, but still speaking to the commodore. "It is unlikely that the Seltorians or their Klingon masters know this yet. As the size of the Swarm Master's fighter group is the same as ours..."
     "It may be possible to draw them in close enough to surprise them with our gunboats," Arrax finished the major's sentence for him. The commodore thought hard for a moment, and did not bother to try to control the colors that roiled across the surface of his body. It was not often that one had a chance to strike a significant blow for the Holdfast. If they could destroy this ship, a dangerous threat to their forces would be neutralized, and the pressure on the border would ease drastically. Another thought occurred to him. "Didn't the enemy lose fighters also?"
     "Yes, Commodore. The escort observed two ejections, but was unable to find the capsules."
     "Then they will probably mount a rescue attempt."
     "Yes, Commodore. The Klingon pilots on the Seltorian ship value the lives of their comrades, even if the bugs do not."
     "Then we will launch a strike to oppose them, but it cannot be anything more than the Swarm Master could have thrown at them before they got new replacements." He paused to contemplate his projected course of action. "Squadron Leader, deploy four attack fighters to intercept the rescue mission. But tell them not to engage too closely. We want to make it look like they are getting to some of our less-trained pilots." He looked around the table, his color a golden yellow. "This meeting is over. Report to your stations and execute."
     There was a bustle of action around the table as the other officers floated off their chairs and to the deck, then leaned forward and smoothly moved to the room's exit. Only Arrax stayed behind, watching in his mind's eye the Seltorians inexorably falling into the web of deceit that he was weaving.


     Karlos Ghunterian scanned over the mission profile as the briefing officer, another colonial Klingon like himself, highlighted the coordinates of the asteroid that the two spaced pilots were supposed to try to reach. It was a rogue, an asteroid in an artificial orbit, set in motion by the Tholians from the outer system toward the inner planets. Is it destined to become an anchor for a web, or just grist for the mine? he wondered. No matter. We picked it because the pilots could track its beacon and positively identify it, and if they ran out of air they could use the beacon to summon the Tholians to accept their surrender. Not that death might not be easier.
     He looked around the room at each of the other pilots that were going on the mission with him.
     Across from him sat a Hilidarian, Slider, who was piloting the shuttlecraft that would pick the pilots up. This particular lizard would never have been trusted enough to fly a fighter for a DSF squadron, but the Seltorians didn't seem to care that he couldn't be trusted.
     Beside the lizard sat a Seltorian, a new ensign that had apparently just missed being in the wrong place at the wrong time during the Hive queen's last mating frenzy. The ensign was going to co-pilot the shuttle, a job Workers normally did. But the ensign was trying to learn his new duties from the deck plates up, a point that was not lost on Ghunterian. He may turn out to be a decent officer one day if he keeps this up. Or he could just be trying to get away from some of the hazing. Seltorian Workers were infamous for the hazing they gave newly awakened Sages. At least he's not trying to be a fighter pilot. Ghunterian had yet to come across any Seltorian that would make even the poorest fighter pilot worried about losing his job.
     In most pre-mission briefings, they would also have the two Zoolies in the briefing room that normally flew the squadron's electronic warfare fighter. As the EW fighter was down for routine maintenance and was not going on the mission, they had been exempted from the briefing.
     The other seven pilots that sat around the table were a creative mix of the subject races of the Empire. All were male. There were two Cromargs, humanoid dwarfs whose homeworld was blanketed by race-killing radiation left over from a nuclear war. The two were near the end of their enlistment and were itching to go home. They normally flew the number three and four fighters in the squadron. There was another Hilidarian, and a Dunkar, an orange-skinned humanoid whose mustache-like smelling organ was wrinkling slowly in the close quarters of the room.
     There was also a Slirdarian, who was the smallest representative of his race that Ghunterian had ever seen. If he had been born on his own world, Ghunterian thought, his mother would have left him on a hillside to die. Born on Bakuria among civilized Slirdarians, he was at least given a chance to prove his worth. Even at that, he was at least as big as Slider. The muscles of his chest and arms rippled under the shaggy fur covering them. He was a ferocious specimen, something that the bear-ape never let the lizard forget. More than once, Ghunterian thought he would have to pull the two apart over some minor issue that was just symptomatic of their racial dislike. But he had given them separate sections to fly in, and that helped to keep their arguing to a minimum.
     There was only one other ethnic Klingon here, the pilot that usually flew the number seven fighter. Several of his fellow pilots thought that the thin, pale ensign with the garish mustache was an undercover ESS agent, sent to keep tabs on them and to observe the Seltorian war machine in action.
     Ghunterian thought that was unlikely. It was more likely that the Klingon's only mistake in life was being born on one of the far-flung colony worlds, a planet whose population was not under the constant surveillance of the ESS. One near a border area and potentially rife with foreign agents, as was the one Ghunterian hailed from. He is destined to serve out his career in the service of the Empire alongside these infernal bugs. The ESS does not trust us enough to allow us to fly from DSF carriers despite our combat records. There was a bitter taste in his mouth. He pushed on with his mental survey of the pilots in the room.
The number eight slot belonged to the most unlikely pilot of all. He was a Bargantine, and one of the very few that Ghunterian had met that was capable of driving anything more complicated than an industrial grain harvester. He'll never be able to lead the squadron in combat, but he has proven his ability fighting the Rockheads. Four proven kills against Spiders are nothing to scoff at. But no matter the little Bargantine's accomplishments, he would never be seen as more than a second-class citizen in the Klingon Empire. Just like his squadron leader.
     He shook off the gloom that had begun to settle around his shoulders like a mantle. At least here he could fly the top-of-the-line Zen-Yaken, something he would never have been trusted to do in the regular Deep Space Fleet. Back there, he would probably be stuck flying antiquated Zorans off broken-down auxiliary carriers on anti-pirate patrols. He barely repressed a shudder at the thought, and then wrenched his attention back to the briefing officer. He was just in time to catch the traditional end of the briefing where the officer bade everyone good hunting.
     A moment later, they were all filing out of the room, eager to be on the way to rescue their two compatriots from a cold and lonely death, lost forever among the stars.