Roger Smith was fascinated. The battle seemed to be reaching a crescendo, with the shields on the two frigates and the lead destroyer growing weaker by the minute. The two frigates had completed their dragging maneuver four times now and each time they had scored enough photon hits to degrade the SkyHawk's shields slightly. The effect was almost like rubbing something with sandpaper. The bridge crew had even begun to cheer their own strikes quietly, and to good-naturedly boo those of their sister ship. Four passes, eight shots each, and the score was tied five-all.
        But the feeling of good will would not last much longer. Their own shields had been degraded from the constant fire of Romulan phasers, a factor made worse by the fact that the SparrowHawk and the second SkyHawk were now close enough to take shots at the two ships with phasers. SkyHawk Beta had even bolted both torpedoes against Rommel. Neither had hit, but the fact that the Romulan had fired them showed that they realized that their ordinary methods of fighting were not going to work in this battle.
       At an order from O'Donnell, Guderian turned once more, the crew working with a seamless synchronicity of purpose that he had never seen before. It was as if the only point in their existence was to deliver the judgment of the fleet onto a hated foe.
       "Fire both photons - narrow salvo," he heard O'Donnell say. Instinctively he released his chair restraints and stood up. He turned to watch as the two orbs of glowing energy arced slowly for the destroyer, seemingly linked together like two balls on a chain. Both torpedoes smashed into the remnants of the SkyHawk's right front shield, overpowered it, and spent the bulk of their explosive energy against the unprotected hull of the Romulan ship. A stream of molten and vaporized metal poured from several holes torn across the body of the ship. Crystallizing atmosphere sparkled in the void, trailing behind the ship like colorful streamers in the cold galactic wind.
   A roar of approval sounded from the bridge crew. He saw the corners of O'Donnell's mouth lift up into the wolfish smile the man often wore. He couldn't help but to be impressed. Damn fine shooting.
The Romulans fired. Every bearing phaser on the three ships locked onto Guderian and smashed into the frigate's battered shields. He felt the ship shake hard as one of the shields failed. The ship slammed sideways a second later as another bolted plasma torpedo smashed through the hole torn into the ship's defenses by the phaser fire. He felt himself flying across the bridge toward the engineering station. He managed to throw up an arm as he impacted into the back of the engineering officer's seat. That probably saved him from a broken neck as his head connected with a thud, but it didn't save him from unconsciousness. Everything went black.
       He came to a moment later. T'Chira hovered over him, no sign of compassion on her greenish-tinted face. Smoke filled the air, and he found himself coughing. Distantly, he wondered about the halo of stars the Vulcan seemed to be wearing. Suddenly, the pure exoticness of her alien origin made her beauty increase tenfold. Her lips parted, and he found himself staring at them. Time seemed to slow to a crawl as he waited for the words of heaven to drip from her lips and he wondered why he had ever disliked Vulcans.
     "The journalist will live, Commander," she paused for a moment, her voice like honey. He could see that she would direct her next words at him. "Perhaps next time, Mr. Smith, you will not be so quick to undo your protective restraint."
     She stood and turned away from him, headed back to her station, but not before he heard her say, almost under her breath and against all logic, sarcasm rolling from every syllable.
    "Only a human could be so utterly witless."
     All the myriad reasons why he disliked Vulcans rushed back into his mind.

     "Fire photons," McGilland commanded. He watched in anticipation as both torpedoes sailed for the gap that was normally covered by the left rear shield of the SkyHawk. One torpedo missed, but the other impacted heavily against the boom area of the ship. Again, a stream of debris trailed behind the ship and the speed of the destroyer slackened noticeably. The ship was also virtually without shields now.
    "Guderian reports moderate damage to crew quarters, a slight loss of warp power, one light and one standard phaser disabled, and a casualty on the bridge," Jolandae reported.
  "The Cutlass is turning off, Sir, but the SparrowHawk is slowly gaining on us," Callaway noted. He turned back to face forward.
"Pearce, Jolor, finish the cross behind them and prepare to initiate the next attack as soon as the photons are armed again. He briefly debated using proximity fuses for the second time in the battle, but decided that even though they were more likely to hit a target, the decreased damage they caused when they exploded farther away made them less useful in this situation than normal. He needed solid damage output every time from here on out. Time to check on O'Donnell.
        "Jolandae, open a channel to Guderian."
"Aye, Sir," the voice of the Arcturian tinkled melodiously through the tense atmosphere of the bridge. A moment later, the image of his fellow commander appeared on his main viewscreen. He winced as he noted the blood-stained bandage wrapped around the man's upper chest. His tunic was also in tatters. Smoke lazily floated through the air of the bridge behind him.
   "Everything holding together over there, Jake?" He tried to keep the concern out of his voice, but he knew he was unsuccessful.
"As well as can be expected, Ron," the other man coughed, and a look of pain crossed his face as he did so. Behind him, McGilland could see a medic hovering anxiously.
"We can slow them down, maybe give you a little time to move off and fix up some shields," he offered. "Your port side is completely unprotected."
      "Then we'll fight from the starboard side, Ron, we're not bugging out," O'Donnell flared. He paused a moment, struggling to get his anger under control. "We're not leaving you and your crew out here alone," he finished grimly.
      "I appreciate your concern for my crew, Jake," he offered, genuinely touched at his friend's show of support.
   "Ron, if your crew could shoot worth a darn, I'd already be off my fixing shields." O'Donnell grinned at him through the haze of smoke. Then with a wag of his finger, the channel went dark.
   There was nothing McGilland could say at that point. He just shrugged his shoulders and turned back to the task of fighting his ship.

         "The frigates fight like demons, Sir." The voice belonged to Tacunin, who had left her station and was standing beside Parthek. He had been so engrossed in thought that he had not noticed her approach. "I did not realize that any of the Federation's captains had the courage to face us when outnumbered as these two have."
      "Nor did I," he grudgingly admitted. "Still, we will have them soon. This cannot last."
"Is it possible that they have improved their targeting systems for their photon torpedoes?"
    He thought for a moment, stroking his chin as he did so. He considered the possibilities long and hard before he finally answered her.
  "It is possible. Or it may be that they have just been inordinately lucky so far. I personally believe Sero is favoring us with the chance to prove our worthiness to worship him." He could see Tacunin considering a response, but whatever she had to say in reply was lost as their discussion was interrupted.
     "Cutlass is reporting that they have lost a torpedo tube and some phasers. They are conducting repairs, Sir, and will follow the battle at their maximum speed," the communications officer stated.
     Parthek nodded. He did not expect any better than that after the miserable performance the idiot from House Pentalion had shown thus far. If it had not been for the impact of our bolted torpedo, we would still be trying to down a shield. And yet the Federation ships dance ahead of us, taunting us to follow. This should be over before Cutlass catches up.
Of course, they had no choice but to follow the frigates. His orders were to raid the flanks of the Federation squadron on either side, and the rear of the entire Federation Sixth Fleet. To do that, he had to break contact with the frigate covering the sector, preferably by destroying it so that it could not interfere.
        The surprise of the second frigate would be seen as an opportunity to kill a second warship, not a hindrance to his mission, which of course was the case. He could not just bypass the frigates, which would then intercept him before he could reach any worthwhile targets. The situation left only two choices, destroy the frigates or go home.
    I will clear the area of this Federation filth and complete my mission ... or I will die honorably.
The battle wore on into the night. The two frigates continued their weaving dance, leading the three Romulan ships ever deeper into Federation territory. Periodically, they would turn just enough to fire their torpedoes at the tormentors that pursued them.
        Jones knew the constant gunnery drills they had completed over the course of the patrol were now beginning to pay off. As the battle had progressed, their accuracy with the torpedoes had actually increased as she and her assistant weapons officer "zoned" in. She had no eyes for anything other than the relationship between her firing platform and whatever target the commander had currently allocated to them. Beside her, Green was just as absorbed in his work.
  She heard McGilland designate the SparrowHawk as the next target. Her lips curled into a predatory sneer. They had already forced one ship to fall back. With sufficient time, she was sure that her team and the one on Guderian would be able to emulate that feat and force the light cruiser to disengage. Of course that will still leave us with one more ship to deal with. At the rate our shields are disappearing, I don't expect we'll be going home.
She risked a glance back at McGilland, and what she saw there confirmed her gut feeling. McGilland's shoulders were set, and his eyes were locked onto the tactical display. He was all business. The man does not have an ounce of fear in him.
The ship rocked slightly as yet another phaser tapped a shield lightly. "Tapped" was, of course, a relative term, but she preferred to think of it that way. It was much easier to think of it that way rather than to imagine the torrent of ravenous energy that would all too easily dissolve the corporeal bonds of her body.
       She shrugged her shoulders, and tossed her head back, shaking the tension out of her neck muscles. She turned her head and her eyes met those of Green. He smiled encouragingly at her, but she could see a hollowness behind them that she had not seen before. He knows that we will not make it out of this alive. Yet he still fights. Her head turned, glancing around the bridge.
As do they all. A revelation dawned on her. With a pang of regret, she realized for the first time in her life, the true meaning of duty. The tenacity to fight on in the cause you believed in, even if it meant your life might be forfeit when you could just as easily cut and run. They had to do their best and wait for a change in the situation that would give them a chance for victory.
     She had signed up for Star Fleet because she believed that someone must be ready to protect the weak of the Federation from the wolves that would do them wrong. Now she was doing what she had signed on the dotted line for. She steeled herself to carry on. I will not find myself lacking. She turned her attention back to her weapons board, a feeling of peace and determination now flooding her soul.
The battle wore on.
        Parthek could feel a weight lifting from his shoulders as he sensed that the end of the battle was near. The shields of both frigates were almost nonexistent. Neither ship could attack now without exposing themselves to serious risk. Both ships had already taken some damage, but unfortunately, neither had lost one of the torpedoes that seemed so infernally accurate.
        His own forward and right forward shields were now almost gone. Still, he should be able to absorb another hit from a normally charged photon, or two if they were proximity fused. If I take that many hits, which is unlikely, I will fight from the oblique until the two ships are destroyed. That was one of the beauties of the SparrowHawk design. The ship was built to the strengths of the plasma torpedo, and an elegant fighter it was.
     He sighed as he considered that this brutal fight did not lend itself to the strengths of the Adversary.
        But sometimes you must take the trail where it can be followed if that is the only way to bring the prey to ground.
Something odd caught his eye. One of the frigates, the one identified as Guderian, had miscalculated. He checked the range excitedly. It was barely within maximum bolt range of all of his ships, but it was definitely within range. Should I take the chance and order all torpedoes to be bolted? If they hit, the frigate cannot possibly keep up its speed, and we will overrun it with phasers. He came to a decision.
        "Order the Cutlass and Mace to bolt their torpedoes at Guderian. Ante-Centurion Vanin, slave the targeting of the two light torpedoes together and bolt them, then bolt the heavy torpedo, but bolt them all." He settled back into his seat. As he did, an old Serist adage floated across his thoughts and he smiled.
Sero favors the bold.