Outside, all along the surface of the Guardian, hatches opened and fighters lifted off. Four more gunboats were released from their moorings and joined the other two that were already deployed for combat. The twelve fighters took up a wing formation just behind the gunboats. Due to the design of the Tholian hangar bays, the entire strike force was outbound far faster than the Seltorian force had been able to form up.
              Orrna checked to make sure her targeting systems were locked on the enemy ships. She tried to ignore the fact that the enemy fleet had enough weapons to make her survival a dim prospect at best. The only solace she had was that those weapons were likely focused on something that was a little more dangerous than her fighter, like the six Arachnid-class gunboats. She pulled her throttle back and turned off her booster pod to put a little more distance between the patrol boats and her flight. It never hurts to be out of range of the explosions.
      She began to spread her formation out a little. Their job, at least for now, was drone defense. Only after most of the drones had been dealt with would they think about taking offensive action, and considering how many drones were possibly stored on the Seltorian ships, it might be sometime before she could think about that.
      Then she saw the enemy fighters. They were spreading out in preparation of launching a wave of drones. She could not help but wonder how many would be targeted in her direction. Her escort Spider-IIIs slid out protectively and put themselves between the assault fighters and the Seltorian fighters, as they were trained to do. The Z-YCs, instead of approaching closer, chose to stay near their ships also, and a warning buzzer in her cockpit, accompanied by a bevy of warning lights, told her that the first drones had been launched.
      Orrna cycled through the communications channels as she waited for the drones to reach her best firing range, wondering how the battle was shaping up. There was not a lot of chatter on the channels, just several terse orders being passed from the Guardian to the escorts and the gunboat flotilla. Her squadron was composed of veterans, and needed no orders at the present.
      Then a horde of drones were inbound, more drones than she had ever seen in her life, and she had no more time for idle thoughts or idle actions.

      Ghunterian had watched the Tholian gunboat flotilla deploy warily. Gunboats were anathema to fighter pilots. He had watched the Tholian fighters deploy with a different feeling, an almost overpowering urge to take his squadron in and mix it up with them, an urge that he was sure was common to all fighter pilots. He was confident that all of their training and the superb fighter they were flying would enable his flight to come out on top.
      But it was not to be, at least, not on this sortie. His squadron had been ordered to stand off and attack the Tholian space control ship with several volleys of drones. Then they were to return to the carrier, rearm, launch, and repeat the process as many times as it took to accomplish the mission. He gazed after the Spiders. Your time will come.
      The enemy ships were fifteen kilikams away now. They had turned sixty degrees away, and the two groups of ships were falling into a circular pattern. No doubt damage to their front shields and an ingrained hesitance to place the valuable carriers in direct combat had led to that peculiar dance. It is a dance we will have to break up, he thought. He toggled his squadron comm-link.
      "Squadron! Target two standard drones on the biggest ship, the dreadnought. We'll launch the other two standards at it as soon as our control channels clear from the first volley. We'll fire the type-IIIs last. Then we will return to the ship and get rearmed as soon as possible."
      A chorus of affirmatives rang out over the comm-link. He closed it, then took a deep breath and launched the first two drones. They were type-I standards, nuclear-tipped missiles capable of doing significant damage to their target. He knew that most of them wouldn't get through the Tholian's defensive fire, but a few would. He hoped that they would be enough to do permanent damage.
      Due to limitations of his fighter's guidance and launch systems' software and hardware, he could not launch his full load of drones at one time. Several conditions had to be met first. He could not launch another drone until after the drone control officers on the Wind of Ordained Retribution notified his fighter that they were taking control of some of the drones he was guiding, or one of his drones had been destroyed or hit its target. Even if those conditions were met, he still had to wait until his fighter's launch cycle reset.
      Ghunterian checked behind him to make sure the rest of the squadron was still spread out; he didn't want a single transporter bomb to take out a whole wave of drones. Losing two or three drones would be acceptable, but no more than that. He needed the drones to occupy enemy phasers so that the Seltorian ships could continue to win the phaser duel. If the Tholian phasers were firing at drones, they wouldn't be firing at Seltorian ships. Tholians, of course, had no drones.
      The clear-to-launch signal from the Wind came on just as the launch cycle reset. He launched two more drones targeted on the space control ship. He didn't really care if it was forced to use a distraction shuttlecraft or not. If the Tholian ship did use such a shuttle, they would have to slow drastically, because the targeting systems of the drones, while not very sophisticated, could tell the difference between a ship and a distraction shuttle if the ship was moving above warp one point six. If they did use such a shuttle, the Seltorian fleet should be able to seize the maneuver advantage. Your choice, he thought, die at full speed when the drones hit, or die at slow speed when the ships close to overload range.
      Now comes the complicated part, Ghunterian thought. The Zen-Yaken was one of the best fighters in known space, but it had reached its limits. There were forty-four missiles inbound on the Tholian flagship from his squadron, and they were moving at the extremes of tactical warp combat speeds. His fighter was controlling two of the four he had launched, but both of his control circuits were in use. He still had two more drones to launch, but no circuits to control them. Normally, he'd have to wait for some of his first drones to impact or be destroyed to launch the final two. Control of the other two had been passed off to one of the Zerhaks by the drone launch control officers on the Wind of Ordained Retribution. But not this time. The final two drones on board all the Seltorian fighters were type-IIIs, which had their own advanced targeting and guidance systems. This means I have options. He opened the comm-link.
      "Zoriastan, take control of twelve of our drones."
      "One moment, Sir." There was a short pause while the Zoolie backseater in the EW fighter took the necessary steps to accomplish the task. "Done, Sir." The EW fighter, while not as dangerous to ships as the other Z-Ys, had better electronics than the regular fighters and was a worthwhile addition to the squadron. It had assumed control of a dozen drones, opening up control circuits for more drones.
      "Squadron! Program your first type-III for a ballistic launch, course 290, inclination 3, activation range eight kilikams. Set the new-dreadnought hull type as the targeting criteria." He quickly programmed the settings into his targeting computer and then waited a few seconds to make sure everyone else had done the same.
      "Launch." Eleven drones cleared their rails and began seeking their own immolation in the guts of the Tholian ship. That left eleven more type-IIIs on their fighters. He rolled his head, trying to work the tension out of his neck and considered how the battle was unfolding.
      The clear-to-launch signal came on again. The Wind's officers were doing a fine job spreading control of the fighter squadron's drones around. He considered for a moment. So far they had been proceeding by their pre-launch orders to target their drones on the enemy flagship, but those orders gave them some leeway with their last set of drones.
      "Target the last set of drones on the war cruiser escort. Let your computer guide them until they achieve lock on. It's about time for us to give another ship something to worry about." That brought a chuckle from a couple of the pilots. That's probably more from the stress than the joke, he thought for a moment. Hard to believe no one is firing at us. Our luck can't continue for long. He paused again.
      "Slider, return with me to the River of Breaking Ice. Fighters three and four, head for the Mountain of Ram's Duty and the Mountain of the Final Dawn," he said, referring to the light cruiser escort and the two destroyer escorts. The three ships had fighter ready racks to help the fighters get turned around more quickly. "Everyone else, start returning to the carrier. "Nobody lands before Drone Launch Control gives you permission." No reason for a drone to drop tracking before it had a chance to hit its target or draw defensive fire from an enemy phaser. The more phasers they have to recharge, the slower they have to go.
      The drones were fast movers. It didn't take long for his control channels to begin to clear, and he received permission to land. Knowing speed was of the essence, he didn't wait to see the final results of the squadron's drone-launching frenzy. As he banked into the landing pattern, he noted several drones stuck in a web near the space control ship and the last wave of Type-IIIs closing on the escort cruiser. The last thing he saw as he flew into the escort's shuttle bay were four scatter-packs moving toward their programmed release points where they would launch 24 drones in a flurry.
      That will take a while for the Rockheads to deal with, he thought wryly.

      The ship rocked as a drone slipped through the rapidly solidifying web that the Guardian had just cast with a snare generator and impacted against the number five shield. Arrax swore as he felt himself almost slide out of his command chair. Only the innate ability of his gravamagnetic organ to maintain his "place" in his surroundings kept him steady. Three more drones were stuck in the web - for the moment - but they would have to be dealt with eventually when they made it through the sophisticated energy field.
      There are just too many drones to deal with. I may have to launch a distraction shuttle soon. He had ordered two shuttles to be prepared for emergency use as distraction platforms. He checked the tactical screen. The two escort corvettes and the war cruiser escort were doing a magnificent job, casting timely web snares, tractoring drones, and firing accurate phaser shots, both from themselves and from the warp-packed shuttles that they had launched for point defense. They had also been able to efficiently identify the targets of several drone waves so far, even though their resources were limited. That hasn't been hard though. So far, the Guardian has been the target of every missile.
      The last wave of drones launched by the Seltorian fighters made a slight course change. It was so slight he almost missed it. He began to scream an order to Taregaz to warn the escorts when the drones exploded. With shocking suddenness, the escort cruiser Swatter blew up. Appalled, he watched as the violet-tinged explosion from the cruiser's death washed outward, destroying two shuttles and several of the nearer drones in its fury.
      How had Captain Jerra made such a mistake?
      But he knew the answer even as he had thought the question. The fleet only had so much computing power. They could not identify the target of every drone that the Seltorians could launch; therefore, the escorts were being forced to take chances. And at least one of the chances Captain Jerra had taken had cost him his ship, his crew, and his life.
      Arrax hammered on his intercom switch.
      "Transporter control, did you get any survivors from the Swatter?" He was counting on the ship's computer and its ability to react to the catastrophe much faster than the reflexes of his transporter room personnel. After an uncomfortable pause, the answer came back negative. As I feared, the computer would have had to drop a shield that was currently protecting us from enemy fire. That would have required command approval, which the computer was unable to request in time. He considered the position of his ships. Due to their formation, the other two escorts would not have been under the same restrictions. He turned to his communications officer.
      "Taregaz, check with the Shielder and the Warder and see if they got any."
      "Yes, Commodore." A moment passed before she was able to relay that eighty-three Tholians had been saved by the two escorts.
      A wave of despair shook him to the core. If I had placed the fighters outside the escorts, the Swatter's sacrifice might have been avoided. Abruptly he realized he was floating high over his command chair. He forced himself down and grounded in his chair. He had to focus on the battle, or the sacrifice of the Swatter would be for nothing.
      "Taregaz, order the escorts to pull in closer. The formation is looking a bit ragged." That must be because of that big hole where the Swatter used to be. He grimaced with the thought.
      His eyes went back to the tactical screen. All of his fighters were pulling point defense near his ship. He should have had them outside the ring of escorts where they would have had the first shot at incoming drones. He gave the order for them to take up positions outside of the two remaining escorts, which had moved even closer.
      His eyes flared as four Seltorian shuttles slowed to a stop and released 24 drones. Then he grunted. He was surprised he hadn't seen those before now. Of course, the battle was not even half over. He sighed. He was going to have to use a distraction shuttlecraft. With the loss of the escort cruiser, their drone defense was not nearly as solid as it had been. The Seltorians were also beginning to use their web breakers to free some of the drones that had been stuck in snare generated webs.
      "Helm, slow to warp factor one point five eight." Next time, I'm bringing a distraction drogue. "Launch the first distraction shuttlecraft as soon as we're slow enough. We've got to clear out some of these seeking weapons."
      "Affirmative, Commodore." He leaned back in his command chair, fighting against the urge to float above the chair.
      "Xitrin, when are you going to release the gunboats? We can't hold much longer."
      "I'm ordering them to attack now, Commodore. Most of the Seltorian fighters have landed to reload and it will take time for them to rearm. These Seltorians are about to pay the price for pursuing us to this galaxy."
      Arrax absorbed the words and bobbed up and down angrily. His eyes flared again. They have won the first round. But the next round will be ours.

      The mood on the bridge was so thick with jubilation that Sand among the Stars could almost taste it in the air. He had expected the escort cruiser to die, but not so quickly. The Klingons had proved extremely proficient in the use of their drones, with their vast combat experience serving them well.
      The Tribunal has done well in allying with them against the Tholians. It will not be long now before the way into the heart of the Holdfast is open!