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.
     The inside of the POIS capsule was spartan, but then again, it didn't have to be anything else. It was meant to keep a pilot alive just long enough for a search-and-rescue team to arrive on the scene and extricate them. There was barely enough room for him to wiggle around in. A couple of pouches along the wall held basic rations for several days. Another pouch held basic EVA gear, which would enable the occupant to make a quick flight from the POIS to special emergency camps setup on designated asteroids before most missions. A tiny drive motor, using a chemical reaction to produce tiny puffs of gas, was pushing him, ever so slowly, toward one of those camps. A slight, comforting hiss let him know that the capsule's air supply was still functional. At least he thought that meant it was still functional. He had never had a fighter shot out from under him before, and the one day he had spent in a POIS during training was long forgotten.
     He could see the glow of several stars through the membrane. As he continued to berate himself, a shadow passed across the surface of the POIS and blotted the stars out. A moment later, he felt a vibration in the membrane. He looked up above him where the crude docking hatch was. After a moment, he heard several sharp clicks. The hatch opened and the anxious looking face of Slider appeared. As soon as the lizard saw him, a toothy grin broke out, and the Hilidarian reached a long arm down to him. Ghunterian pushed off the bottom of the capsule and floated up to where he could grab the arm.
     Slider smoothly pulled Ghunterian through the docking hatch into the warm interior of the shuttle. It was a little more crowded than he thought it would be. In addition to himself, Slider, the Seltorian ensign, and the two pilots they had launched the mission for, Jharna Klant was also there, looking none the worse for her ordeal. Her face broke into a big, wide grin as she saw him and he suddenly wondered if he had made any overtures toward her in the past. No, she is just not my type. And I do not believe that I am her type. Further conjecture on his part was cut off by Jharna herself.
     "Thank the Stars. Now I don't have to worry about hearing a lecture from you because I managed to get shot down."

     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.
     The rescue mission had been successful. He now had all of his pilots back and it was time to move on to the next phase of the operation. There was a Tholian CWV in the area, one that had thwarted his plans in the past. Now if I can bring it to battle, he thought, I will destroy this carrier once and for all. I have better fighters than the Tholians have, and I have Zerhaks also. The enemy fighters will be crushed between the two squadrons and then I will destroy the ship itself.
     That was why it was important to have all the pilots back. The Sages in the intelligence section had collated the information that the Klingon squadron leader had brought back with other information that they possessed. They had decided that the CWV was currently within striking distance. If he had to wait for replacement pilots to be brought in and trained up, the CWV would no doubt slip out of his grasp.
     An Expert interrupted him from his reverie. The female handed him a report to review. He scanned it, realizing that it was a report showing the status of replacement fighters that were still onboard. The ship was starting to get low on spare fighters. The Expert had verified that an FCR was due to join them soon. Excellent initiative on her part. But no doubt she has been doing the same type of duty for a hundred and fifty years. He signed the report and gave it back to the Expert. She hustled off, leaving him to return to his thoughts.
     Fighters were such useful things, he thought. He couldn't understand why Seltorian or Tholian scientists in the home galaxy had not come up with the idea. Or the new gunboats. They packed a lot of firepower in a small hull, making attrition warfare possible. He smiled at the thought. They would not have to rely upon the Klingons to provide them with skilled fighter pilots much longer. They would be able to hatch millions of workers in a few months time to crew the gunboats, once production of the small ships had been streamlined. We do attrition warfare better than anyone. He glanced around the bridge, listening to the chirps, whistles, and snaps that was the Seltorian language.
     Around him hummed the nerve center of the most capable ship in the Seltorian fleet, the focus of his plans. The Wind was capable of launching devastating strikes with its Zen-Yakens and Zerhaks, and then vanishing without a trace. It had repeatedly done so over the past several months, and it would do so again. All of that power was his to command. He liked to think of himself as a huge parasite in the side of his race's former masters, one that would gnaw and fester and rot until the host beast had been driven insane with the agony.
     He smiled.
     Then, at the moment of their greatest fear, and with the help of our Klingon allies, we will burn their infestation from this galaxy.

     Ensign Oceans of the Moon watched the six alien pilots debark from the rescue shuttle. They all seemed in good spirits, as well they should. From his studies, it seemed like the successful ejection rate from a destroyed fighter was only on the order of thirty-three percent. The four pilots they had recovered had been extraordinarily lucky. As have I.
     He had always been different from his fellow Seltorians. Even before his recent "awakening" as he liked to call it, he had been atypical. He always had more questions about the universe and his place in it then any of his fellow Seltorians. Being atypical in the Seltorian society was not always good. He had learned this after he had accidentally witnessed what happened when a Seltorian Ram was truly different from its fellows. After that ... "deletion" ... he had concealed what he considered as differences, even though as a Sage he had far more rights than he had as a Ram.
     One such difference had set him free. As a Ram, he had strongly felt the urge to mate with the Queen, but had always been one or two steps behind the faster Rams when the call went out. After the first two initial disappointments, he found that he was subconsciously dragging his feet. After that realization, the blinding urges became easier to control, until the fateful day he realized he no longer had to fight the urges. The rage of Ram hormones was gone forever, and he had become a Sage. Now, he knew, I will live for centuries, and there is no hurry to get killed.
     The next few weeks had been a blur, as he took test after test after test to determine what his aptitudes were and what direction his new life as a Sage would take. Then his first assignment had been to the flight deck, where he had been ordered to learn as much as possible about flight operations.
     It had been a difficult job so far. The Workers in the section had not treated the last ensign well, and apparently had decided that they were going to give the new ensign as much trouble as they could get away with. They were constantly questioning his orders and his intelligence and he had to constantly stay on them to do the simplest task. He could feel the eyes of his lieutenant on him every time a Worker didn't complete a task on time.
     Still, he had resolved to treat his Workers well. Unlike the ensign before him, he had learned that the Workers, despite their limitations, were worthy of respect. He learned all he could from them, and day by day, things were starting to get better. He realized that some of them had started to look at him differently.
     He got up from his seat in the shuttle, and started walking down the ramp, still studying the humanoid pilots. They were a strange group, and he could sense the fellowship they shared, something that seemed foreign to his kin. He felt a momentary pang of loneliness.
     He pushed the thought away. He had work to do and more skills to learn. He did not have time for self-pity. While that would not get him deleted since he was now a Sage, it would be career impacting. He didn't want to be working in the hangar bay his whole life.