Orrna rolled the Spider gracefully, visually assuring herself that her squadron mates were still in position. The other three fighters hung off to her right, waiting for her word to unleash their phasers and disruptors against the opposing fighters that they were tracking. There was just one problem with that core-warming thought - the word "lightly".
Her orders were to track, observe, and "engage lightly". How do you engage lightly? She angrily punched the toggle switches that armed her disruptor. It is difficult enough to kill them if you engage them with all your might. The number of drones they could launch at you made arriving close enough to destroy the cursed, Klingon-designed fighters a tricky proposition at best. You had to get to the firing point when the phasers you had fired at drones had recycled, and when your fire control had cleared from using chaff. At least their flight had been fitted out with chaff pods for this mission.
Engage lightly. Could there be a more irritating order? She was not in a good mood anyway. She had just returned from a leave of absence during which she had produced an infant with her mate. She was now asexual again for the first time in three years, and the change had made her irritable. She still also thought of herself as female. Most Tholians tended to think of themselves as male or female depending upon what state each one had assumed during their last mating cycle. Another wave of irritability washed over her. Next time I will let my partner assume the parental role state. If there is to be a next time, she thought sarcastically.
She was glad that she did not have to produce any more feeding shards for the child who was now old enough to subsist on normal food. The little one was being taken care of by her mate, a former technical officer for the Guardian. He had completed his Turn service and now had a good job back in the home system. Normally, in Tholian society, the female stayed with and took care of the child for several years. But the two of them had jointly decided that since her mate was now working in a stable environment, he could take over the child-rearing duties and she could return and complete her Turn service.
She glanced at her tracking scope. Nine icons were represented there, one of them a fat, slow administrative shuttle. If she saw a chance to pick it off after it had rescued the pilots they had come for, she would, despite her orders. In her mind, it was always a good thing if you could kill experienced pilots before they got back into action.
Even as she studied the icons, the fighters shifted formations, and six of the Z-YCs turned hard toward them. The other two stayed in close escort formation with the administrative shuttle. The shuttle appeared to be preparing to land on an asteroid, probably the rendezvous point for the spaced pilots. On a hunch, she checked her passive sensors. Yes, it's a tracked asteroid, one the local administration had set in motion toward the inner system. The asteroid had a tracking beacon on it, one that beeped every few seconds, just for navigational safety. Why did the Klingons pick that one for a rendezvous? she wondered.
Her eyes flared as she considered the odds. The Z-YC was an excellent fighter, with a large throw-weight of drones, superb maneuverability, and two phaser cannons for close-in dog fighting. Her Spider was tougher, and her defensive phaser turret had a larger firing arc. She had a heavier primary weapon, albeit one with limited charges. That's about even, but I'd rather not bet my life or the lives of my flight on "even". And they still outnumber us.
They could try to stay at maximum disruptor range and snipe one or two of the Klingons as they attacked, but the Klingon fighters also had a speed advantage over her fighters, which was exacerbated by the extra chaff pod. The speed advantage, while not great, might make staying at maximum range difficult. Even worse, it would make leaving at a time of her choosing even more difficult.
The decision was taken out of her hands. The lead Klingon fighter launched a drone at them, followed quickly by three more drone launches from the next three enemy fighters. She checked the range and saw that she would have to deal with them before she could get within disruptor range of the fighters. The enemy fighters turned off, doubtlessly trying to see how she would deal with the drones. An error. We will have time to destroy the drones with phasers instead of having to drop chaff to deal with them.
"Flight, separate just enough to ascertain which drone is targeted on you. Then drag the drone across your wingman so he can get a clear shot at it if necessary. Do not let it get within detonation range!" I probably didn't need to add that part, but best not to leave it to chance.
The drones closed in, tiny robotic brains seeking her destruction. As her flight separated, the path of each drone began to diverge slightly. Anxious moments ticked by as she maneuvered her shuttle, trying to decide which drone was targeted on her. Then she realized that she had two targeted on her, and two were targeted on her wingman.
"Second element, take a shot at the drones following my wingman please. If one of them survives, I'll take it out."
She watched as the second element slid in behind the drones. Even though they were at close range, the drones were very small targets, which made a sure kill almost impossible. But the two pilots in the second element made the most of their chance and blew both missiles away. Her wingman then arced in behind the two drones chasing her and took his shot. Again, a missile disappeared. That left only one more drone targeted on her. She locked her defensive phaser onto the small, dancing target. As soon as it indicated a solid lock, she pressed the firing stud. The drone disappeared in a blinding flash of light.
With a snarl she turned to face the Z-YCs. Another set of four drones appeared, but she would be able to reach disruptor range before her fighters had to deal with the drones. The fighters themselves appeared content to shield the administrative shuttle from their approach. In her opinion, that was a definite mistake on their part. No one tries to kill me without me trying to kill them, she snarled. Perhaps an oblique attack and a face full of disruptors will teach them that little fact? She turned slightly, knowing that the computer would keep her disruptor pointed in the direction of the Klingons, and the turn gave them a better angle to leave the area after they had fired their main weapon.
"Flight, target the lead fighter and fire your disruptor at maximum range." I bet that's the one that taunted me in the last battle. She centered her disruptor's targeting mechanism on the opposing fighter. As she came within maximum range of her primary weapon, she pulled the trigger. A red beam of light erupted from her fighter's nose, joined almost instantly by three more beams from the other Tholian fighters. To her delight, all four beams scored solid hits. The Z-YC crumpled like the fragile insect it was. A small blip appeared on her scanner, as the pilot bailed out of his stricken spacecraft. What great reflexes. He must have been flying with his hand on the ejection lever, she thought sarcastically.
"All right Flight, good shooting. I think we've engaged lightly enough," she chuckled. She still had another shot left in her disruptor capacitors, but it would be best to save that shot if the enemy fighters refused to let them leave. "Let's get out of here and back to the Guardian after we deal with these drones." The flight turned away and strung the drones out as before, although this time she had to drop a chaff pack to get rid of the last drone.
She watched the surviving Z-YCs mount a short chase after them. As soon as the fighters realized that the Tholians were indeed leaving, they broke off and headed back to circle the newly-downed pilot protectively. She noted that the administrative shuttle had finished its business at the asteroid it had landed on and was now moving toward the POIS capsule. Too bad his wait won't be any longer, she sneered. But maybe he'll fear us a little more the next time we meet in battle. And if that fear makes him more mistake-prone, then this fight was worth it.
Orrna took a moment to beam a choice taunt of her own in the general direction of the circling fighters. Then she cut the channel and began to hum contentedly, her body harmonically vibrating with the sound.
Karlos Ghunterian was furious with himself. Never launch fewer drones than are needed to do the job correctly, he chided himself, conservation of resources be damned. Without thinking, he punched the tough, semi-transparent elastic membrane of the pilot-out-in-space capsule with his left fist. The reaction sent him spinning slowly in the zero gravity. He cradled his right arm protectively against his chest. It had been banged around as he had been automatically ejected by his fighter's computer system. While he didn't think it was broken, it would be tender for several more days. His left knee was sore also, and he felt like he had been beaten all over from the force of the capsule separating from the fighter.
Seltorian Admiral Sand among the Stars relaxed in his command chair, stroking his forelegs together. To the casual observer, he appeared almost asleep. But in reality, he was busy planning the next move of his campaign to bring the Tholians to their fated end in this galaxy.