Firnx took one look around at the crowded interior of the Fi-Con and realized that there was no way the over-burdened patrol boat was going to be able to make it back to the DNS group without a serious failure of the ship's life support systems. He made his way through a crowd of moaning wounded being treated by a medic to the small ship's cockpit. He had to ease by several stiff and heavy bodies lying in the passageway whose normal, healthy colors had been replaced with a deep shade of black.
     "Can we link up with one of the cargo boats and transfer some of these people?" Firnx asked.
     "Negative," the Fi-Con commander said. "Another Seltorian ship is due here in minutes. We can get away easily enough, but not if we stop. The cargo boats are already running, and it will take too long to link up, slow down, and dock. Maybe we can do that after we break contact."
     "Then we need to get a message to the Commodore that explains our situation," he said to the Fi-Con commander.
     "My sensor technician just encoded and transmitted a request for help. We should have an answer back soon."
     "Good work." He turned around and left. I'm just in the way here, Firnx thought. Maybe I can help with the wounded.

     "Commodore, we have messages from both raid groups. Should I feed them to your command console as soon as they finish decoding?"
     Arrax looked over at the communications tech. The Tholian was a technical officer that had almost finished its Turn service. He thought he could detect a hint of nervousness in the other being. This sometimes happened when one was near the end of his military obligation, but he did not think it would affect the civilian's work.
     "No need for that; just read them to me."
     "Group One reports that the picket has been driven off with heavy damage, with the loss of one patrol boat and some casualties on the Patrol Leader. The special strike group reports mission success, but they have lost a Fi-Con, and have many dead and wounded from it that are being carried on board the other boats. They request that someone meet them to take the extra personnel off. Otherwise, they do not think they will be able to make it back."
     Arrax thought for a moment. We have to stay here in order to meet the returning patrol boats, he mused. But I do not want to abandon the survivors of the other raid. He looked at the tactical view screen, at the other ships that he had with him. He didn't like dividing his forces, but he had no choice. Which ship to send? Neither the FCR nor his specialty-built escort corvettes were what he considered expendable. In the end, he chose to send the FCR.
     "Tell the strike group that they will have to make it to our territory, and suggest that they link up to transfer passengers when out of the battle area. Send the FCR to meet them, but warn its commander not to go beyond ... this point." He indicated a map location that was still within Tholian space. He paused for a second. "Tell them to hurry up. Time is getting short."

     The Zen-Yakens and the heavier Zerhaks descended upon the mining planet with all the fury of a supernova. The planet was a typical Tholian mining colony, a hellhole that wallowed appallingly close to its star. The planet had temperatures that only a Tholian could love, if the atmosphere had not been mostly stripped away by the gravitational pull of the sun. To the Seltorians, and the Klingon pilots in their service, it was just another planet to cleanse.
     Ghunterian pulled back on the stick of his fighter and watched the Zerhak heavy fighters do their work. The mining colony had modest defenses - a small fighter base, three standard phaser batteries, and a Marine garrison to safeguard the mining facility - but at the moment, they weren't doing a very good job. It had not been a fair fight from the start. Just the way a battle should be planned.
     The Zen-Yakens, with slight help from the Zerhaks, had brushed the old Tholian defensive fighters from space and were now standing off to allow the Zerhaks to do the dirty work. The Zerhaks were using ballistic targeting to ensure that none of their drones would be decoyed by distraction shuttlecraft. They were standing off at between three and four kilikams and systematically destroying the network of bases, mine works, and other facilities. They had already wrecked the fighter base, one of the ground-based phaser platforms, and the mining station itself. Now they were going after the other two phaser batteries and the Marine base. Even as he watched, a drone exploded over that last target. Ghunterian winced, as he knew the damage at ground level would be tremendous. I almost feel sorry for them. He straightened his shoulders. The Tholians did not show mercy when they took the territory they now claim from the Empire. The Empire will show them no mercy now.
     One of the Zerhaks turned off, trailing debris. It had taken a couple of solid hits from the defenders. That made it two Zerhaks damaged - enough to call it a day. By firing at the Zerhak, another hole in the defenses had been opened, and two more missiles slammed home. The last defending phaser stopped firing. The remaining Zerhaks moved in closer to finish off the defenders with phaser fire. Ghunterian shrugged and toggled the remainder of his drones to the disarmed position. They would not be needed here today, and they cost money.
     His flight of four Z-YCs continued to patrol at a distance. The flight's main purpose here had been to destroy the defending fighters, and then to safeguard the Zerhaks from any responding enemy fighters, with ground attack a secondary mission if the Zerhaks needed help. Ground attack was a job he despised. He was not a space-to-mud pilot, even though he had the training and skills to perform the task. Let the Zerhak crews get their hands dirty, he smirked. If they were truly worthy, they would be fighter pilots!
     He smiled at the thought. A bit haughty, but true. The smile faded from his face. Why are there no reinforcing enemy fighters? They should have responded by now. Maybe the enemy carrier losses have been greater than they can support? He tried to remember how many Tholian fighters had been lost over the last few missions, but realized he didn't have a clue. But he didn't think they had lost enough not to contest this raid. Maybe they are on a mission themselves?
     The Zerhaks peeled away from the planet. Ghunterian waggled his wings and the rest of his flight fell in behind him. They took up station trailing the Zerhaks and waited as the Zerhaks transitioned to strategic warp. With a final, disappointed scan around, he flicked the necessary switches to prepare his fighter to follow them. Then they were gone.
     Behind them, the Tholian survivors gathered in the wreckage of their facilities, hoping that someone would rescue them before their environmental suits and shelters gave out. It was a forlorn hope.

     "Scanning debris field, Sir."
     Kollanda looked over at his sensor officer. The lieutenant was staring intently at his instruments. The Maelstrom had been the closest ship to the FCR when it had reported that it was under attack. He had answered its summons for help, but obviously, they had not arrived in time.
     "It's the Seltorian FCR, Sir. There are some survivors in rescue pods." The lieutenant paused for a second, adjusting a control as he did so. "There also appears to be the wreckage of a Tholian patrol boat and I have found ion trails headed back to Tholian space."
     Kollanda rubbed his chin. So, was this the result of Tholian ingenuity? Or was it plain, bad luck or poor planning on the part of the Seltorians? A combination of all three? He suspected that it was the latter. The Tholians had, in the past, pulled off some incredible operations, such as the commando raid to obtain disruptor technology. The Seltorians had not impressed him yet with their cunning. The only thing that has impressed me so far about our allies is their mindless hatred of the Rockheads, Kollanda sighed. He turned to his communications officer.
     "Inform the Seltorians that we have found the wreckage of their ship. Give them all the data on the ion trails. We are picking up the survivors. After that, we will return to our standoff point and await further instructions."
     He turned back to the view screen. Staring at the wreckage strewn before him, he could not help but feel a strong sense of foreboding. He had been working with the Seltorians too long, and their reckless desire to destroy the Tholians was going to get him and his crew killed. Winning an individual battle could be a glorious thing, but winning without regard to cost was not. He was a strong advocate of Kumerian's creed. Never fight a battle you do not have to win.
     That was the antithesis of the Seltorian Tribunal. They believed that the destruction of the Tholians was worth it no matter the cost in the lives of Workers, or Experts, or even Sages. Or Klingons for that matter.
     I will not be a martyr for their obsession.

     Flight Admiral Sand among the Stars was furious. The Tholians had destroyed one of the ships that supported his campaign against their treason and put another one out of action. He had to find the ones who had done this. He banged his forelegs together. This will not do, he clacked to himself. The one who ordered this will not go unpunished.
The thought brought him to a stop. What if it was more than one carrier? What about the patrol gunboats that had damaged the picket ship? His antennae twitched with indecision. Something was not as it appeared. Did the CWV group have a couple of Fi-Cons attached to it in response to the movement of his ACS group into the theater? Had a CW PFT been deployed to the sector? Was that where the patrol boats had come from?
     A sinister thought struck him. Has the fabled Tholian DNS found the courage to oppose me? Instinctively, he knew that this was possible. Dismay overtook him for a moment. The CWV would have been a simple matter to crush once they succeeded in bringing it to battle. The DNS would not be so simple, and would pose a serious threat to his smaller ACS.
     Then a sudden sense of excitement pushed the feelings of dismay away. Was this the chance they needed to rid themselves of the most powerful single unit in the Tholian fleet? He compared the combat capabilities of each side. After some debate, he decided that they had an excellent chance to strike a damaging blow to their blood enemy due to what he considered as the technological superiority of the Klingon fighters and heavy fighters he carried. It would be a tough fight, but he thought that the chance to change the balance of power in this region would be worth the risk. Otherwise, it might take decades to extricate his race's sworn enemy from their "Holdfast."
     The flight admiral needed proof that this was indeed the DNS group and that there were no other ships attached to it. It would not do for a cruiser squadron for example, to be patrolling with, or near, the DNS group when he began prosecuting his attack. He called up an Intel Sage over the intercom and tasked Intel to see what they could find out about the current location of the DNS, if it had any ships other than its normal complement of escorts, and whether it could be reinforced before they had time to destroy it. He then turned to the Sage that was in charge of the long-range sensors.
     "Lieutenant, extrapolate the most direct course the Tholians would have taken to return from the FCR ambush site to the likely operating area of this Tholian fleet. Focus your sensors along that track. Once you have found the patrol boats, follow them to the ship we are seeking."
      "Yes, Flight Admiral."
     "Then feed the data to navigation." Sand among the Stars turned to the navigator. "Once you have the data, plot an intercept course. It is time to end the lives of these Tholians."
     "Yes, Flight Admiral."
     The intercom beeped for his attention. He flicked the intercom switch, and digested the report by Intel that by collating new data they had just received, they had deduced that it was possible, even likely, that the squadron of ships they were facing was the DNS group, and that it had no significant reinforcements close by. He acknowledged the report and flicked off the intercom switch, leaning forward in thought.
     They have sought to weave a trap for me. A web of deceit that would have sent me reeling in shock and fear if we had not discovered its secret before it was too late. We know the truth now, and willingly go into harm's way for this chance at vengeance. Let them think they have deceived us, and perhaps they will fall into their own hateful web.
     Sand among the Stars sat back in his chair, musing on the future. Once they destroyed the DNS and its charges, they would be able to launch heavy raids in the newly unprotected area. At least until we run out of Klingon fighters and pilots. He smiled. This could well be the beginning of the end for the Tholians in this galaxy.