Commander Kollanda watched as his drone crews worked feverishly to reload the racks of the Maelstrom. As the last drone was cycled through the number six airlock and loaded into position on the rack, the lieutenant in charge of the reload crews stepped up to him and saluted smartly. Kollanda returned his salute and then checked the reload time on his PADD, comparing it to the reload time from the last fire mission.
     "An excellent time, Lieutenant Ghant. The professionalism of your reload crews is commendable."
     "It's not like they don't have enough practice, sir," the lieutenant smiled.
     "True enough." Kollanda ran a hand through his gray-tinged buzzcut and returned the lieutenant's smile, feeling the youth's enthusiasm force away the weight of years of warfare that were hanging on his shoulders. Unconsciously, he straightened his back, taking care not to bump his head on the uncomfortably low ceiling. He was a tall Klingon, and it had taken years for him to get used to the ceilings that were not built for his race.
     "Continue your duties, Lieutenant. I can't stand around here all day admiring your reload times." Ghant saluted again and Kollanda returned the salute, still smiling as he watched the young Klingon turn around and walk off.
His smile faded a little as he thought he caught a whiff of methane. Just my imagination. Everyone knows methane is odorless. Still, he could not help himself and turned to the nearest bulwark. He experimentally ran his left hand along the cool metal surface, and then lifted it to his nose, reflexively grimacing as he did so. I can't believe that after all these years I still think I can smell the Snake stench emanating from the very pores of my ship. The Maelstrom had begun life as a Hydran Ranger-class heavy cruiser, and had been "liberated" from its former owners when it was captured during the great Klingon assault on Hydrax.
     Unconsciously at the thought, his hand dropped and rubbed his left thigh. He had been a lieutenant when he was wounded during the battle that had led to the capture of the Ranger, but his wounds had not been severe enough to discharge him from active service. He had been assigned to the Ranger while he was recovering, along with most of the other walking wounded from that battle.
     The ship had been used as a prison barge for the first few months after its capture, while its shields, engines, and phasers were gradually brought back on-line. Seeing promise in the ship's sturdy design, his commander had embarked on a campaign to convince the local admiral to allow them to bring the ship up to Klingon standards. Conversion to a drone bombardment ship was obvious. It avoided having to rebuild the unique Hydran fusion weapons or to fit proper disruptors in their mounts. The Hydran ship's launch tubes were fitted with drone racks, and the shuttle bays with reload drones. The launch tubes were perfect for that purpose. Open the inner door to reload; open the outer door to launch. Given Maelstrom's stockpiles of drones, Kollanda laughed, I could do this all day.
     His previous commander had thought that the convincing would be the hardest part. Still, after getting the admiral's permission to proceed, it had taken over two years to get the needed components through the overburdened fleet supply channels. However, in the end, they had a ship worthy of service in the Deep Space Fleet.
     Now, it's my ship, he thought with a smile. It had taken most of the last ten years for him to work his way up to command of the Maelstrom, but he had finally achieved his goal. He knew that it was unusual for an officer to spend most of his career on one ship, but it was not unheard of. The smile faded with the thought. Ironically, the attainment of his goal was likely to be brief. The Empire had an acute shortage of officers at the next level due to the war, and he had proven himself to be a competent commander in the short time since he had assumed command. It would only be a matter of time before he was promoted out of the ship. He shook his head in dismissal of the unwelcome thought and allowed himself to think back over his time on the ship.
     The Maelstrom had become something of a wanderer over the decade after its conversion. It had seen service against the Lyran Democratic Republic, the WYN, the Federation, and the Kzintis. He smiled to himself at the memories. The years had been tough, and they had served in their share of battles for the Empire, something that they had fought so hard for when they first began converting the former prison barge into a real warship. Now they were in the Tholian sector, supporting the ships of their newest ally, the Seltorian Tribunal. The smile faded as he heard a series of clicks and chirps and the soft tap-tap-tap of alien feet coming closer around the nearest bend in the corridor. Looks like Moisture on the Morning Breeze has found me.
     He was correct. A few seconds later, the figure of the Seltorian lieutenant that was serving as liaison officer came into sight. While he was now used to the humanoid-shaped insect appearance of the alien officer, he still had to push down a sharp feeling of revulsion at his appearance. At least it is not a Tholian.
     The Seltorian stopped in front of him and rendered a passable Klingon salute. Kollanda returned the salute, staring back into the iridescent, multi-faceted eyes of the being as he did so. No matter what his personal feelings were toward the Seltorians, they were important Klingon allies in the war against the cursed Tholians and shared his race's ardent desire to rid Klingon territory of the Rockheads.
     "Captain Kollanda, I have word from the Wind of Ordained Retribution that the fighters are almost to the target." The Seltorian did not speak Klingon of course, but the varied clicks, chirps, and snaps that represented the "words" of his race were translated into Klingon by the translator device attached to his thorax. The Seltorian "language" was overly complex, and the simple statement by the Seltorian lieutenant had taken at least twice as long to be translated as it should have.
"Good, Lieutenant." Kollanda consulted his PADD. "The first wave of cruise drones should be closing in on the target even as we speak. The second and third waves will be close behind. Between the drones of the fighters, and the drones of our ship, the defenses of the convoy should be overwhelmed." He waited patiently while the translator decided which hiss, click, or chirp, and which tonal variation of each was needed before continuing. "Please inform your commodore that we stand ready for the next fire mission."
     Another long moment passed as the translator worked. Then as it finished, the Seltorian saluted him once more, and with a single click, turned about and departed, eyes flashing in the lights of the corridor. The speed at which he departed conveyed his eagerness to be on with his mission of arranging for more Tholians to be killed. Kollanda chuckled. It was good that their allies shared their hatred of the Tholians.


     Twelve Z-YC fighters raced though space, hurtling toward their targets at just under warp three. Starlight glinted off their metallic bodies, and the cold winds of space whispered over the deadly cylindrical tubes that hung under the wings of each fighter.
     The fighters had met the convoy on the outer edge of a Tholian-controlled star system. The convoy had been tracked earlier headed into the system, where the Tholians had a mining base. Intercepting and attacking the convoy here was easier than finding the convoy in open space.
     Inside the lead fighter, Karlos "Guns" Ghunterian flicked the switches that brought his drones to life. He checked to make sure that the computer had tagged each ship of the convoy they were attacking with an electronic ID, and that the computer had shared the information with the other fighters of his squadron. It would not do to target all the drones upon one ship.
     With a final deft touch, he targeted the first missile on the lead ship. He felt, more than heard, the drone drop off of its launch rail as it began the journey that he hoped would have deadly results. He quickly lined up another freighter, all the time keeping an eye on the electronic signature that depicted the convoy's escort. Inexplicably, the escort was hanging on the far side of the formation, refusing to offer them battle.
     Ten of his other fighters followed suit. Only the electronic warfare fighter held back. By the time the eleven fighters had finished launching drones, each of the two large freighters had four drones targeted on them, two of the four small freighters had four drones assigned to them, and the last two had three drones targeted on them.
     Why is the escort not attacking?
     As if on cue, another light started blinking. Ghunterian checked his long-range scanners and uttered an imprecation. While he had expected one of the small Tholian corvettes to be present as an escort, he had not expected the four fighters his scanners now showed to be closing in on the battle. There must be a small carrier group in the area. The mining colony has no fighters, at least none I have been told about. Or maybe they're from the war cruiser carrier that we've been sparring with. Then he noted that from the far side of the convoy, the corvette was now heading straight for them. It had held back, no doubt, waiting on the fighters it had known were coming.
     The Klingon checked the computer readout and smiled. The Tholians weren't the only ones that had a few surprises. Six  Long-Lance drones announced their arrival by activating their seeker heads to search for objects that met their targeting criteria. After a brief moment, they found one and turned their noses toward the incoming patrol corvette. The corvette immediately turned parallel to the incoming drones to try to increase the time it had to deal with them. The Tholian fighters continued to approach and Ghunterian grudgingly admired their bravery. Or is it stupidity?
     His computer identified them as Spider-III space superiority fighters, and they were flying just as fast as he was. That gave him a slight pause. He had expected Spider-II fighters. Then he relaxed a little. At least I don't have to worry about dying by disruptor before I get into dogfight range. He checked the range. Eight kilikams. Almost time for the opening salvo of phasers. But first...
     "Squadron! Shut off your dash pod." While the dash pods were a valuable asset to fighters and could effectively double their speed, they also made the fighters far more susceptible to damage while the warp booster packs were operating because of the way they were integrated into the fighter's engine system. No need to take more damage than we have too. Their speed slackened noticeably. Within seconds, the Tholian fighters slowed also, as the enemy fighters mirrored his actions.
     "Squadron, first section, target the lead fighter. Second section, target the second fighter. Third section, target the third fighter, and fourth section, target the last Rockhead. Electronics, support with ECCM!"
     The range wound down quickly. Unconsciously, Ghunterian held his breath waiting to see if the All-Seeing Stars were going to judge him today. As the range closed to within two kilikams, all four Tholian Spiders opened fire. Only a short scream over the intercom, one that was cut off quickly, told him that it was not his time to be judged. On his tactical display, the icon representing the number five ship winked out. He quickly whispered a short prayer for Jharna Klant, the squadron's lone female and the stocky pilot of the destroyed fighter. Maybe her computer had ejected her in time, but it was unlikely. He gave the order to return fire as the range closed to less than a kilikam.
     "All fighters, fire your phasers at full strength!" He had the option to choose whether to fire his phasers at full-strength or in low-power mode. If he had thought the Tholians would survive to reach dogfight range, he would have ordered his squadron to fire them in low-power mode, which was far more useful in a dogfight. He felt a slight twinge of guilt for a second, as he felt it was more honorable to kill his opponent in a swirling space battle, warrior to warrior, than to strike from a distance as they were doing now. But he had a numbers advantage, and it would be foolish not to use that advantage to greatest effect. This is war, not a philosophical exercise. He tightened his fingers on his twin firing buttons.
     The energy beams lashed out at the enemy fighter, joining four other beams from the other two fighters of his section. The Tholian seemed to hang suspended in space as the destructive weapons played across it from stem to stern. Then in a flash of light and incandescent metal, the fighter was gone. Ghunterian checked his scanner quickly. There was no sign of an escape pod. Only an expanding circle of metallic debris marked the pilot's tomb.
     Two of the other three Spiders were gone also. Only the number two Spider still flew through space, and it was clearly crippled. Doubtless it had survived only due to the innate toughness of its design and helped by the fact that only two Klingon fighters had fired at it. Even as he watched, his computer notified him that the Tholian pilot had ejected from his stricken craft.
     Almost instantly, Ghunterian noted, the Tholian's ejection capsule began broadcasting a distress signal. If the Tholian could have breathed the same atmosphere as he did, Ghunterian would have considered rescuing him after the battle was over, but he had no idea what hellish mix of gases the alien pilot breathed, and he didn't really care to find out. He could only save the coordinates of the enemy pilot's location into the computer of his fighter for the attention of his superiors after the battle.
     He paused and took stock of the situation. The patrol corvette had just finished dealing with the six drones and was now turning back toward them. Even as it did so, however, six more drones dropped out of strategic warp and began to hunt for it. He briefly wondered how the Empire had managed to spare a drone cruiser for this mission. Only a drone bombardment cruiser, with its copious supply of missiles and its advanced targeting systems, could afford to engage targets at this range and in this manner. He did not know of any that had been assigned to work with the Seltorians.
     With the corvette's attention momentarily riveted on the drones seeking its destruction, Ghunterian was able to analyze the effects of the raid thus far. One of the large freighters had internal damage and was floating motionlessly in space. One of the small freighters was a burning wreck and would be useless for anything but salvage. Two more of the small freighters were limping away. He realized that one of them was relatively undamaged, but was accelerating slowly from where it had come to a complete stop after dropping a distraction shuttlecraft.
     Only the other large freighter and the last small freighter were undamaged, and they were desperately trying to slip away. It's time to do something about that. He glanced down at the board that showed the weapons status of each fighter.
     All of his surviving fighters still had two standard drones on them, as well as two of the type-III "special" drones. He was under orders to conserve the high-priced type-IIIs though, so he would only use them if the drones from the drone cruiser failed to keep the patrol corvette at a distance. That left him twenty standard drones to use to kill the two fleeing ships. Then we can kill the stragglers with phasers.
     "Section three, target the small freighter that is escaping. Sections two and four, we will take out the large freighter. One volley of standard drones only, and save your special drones for the escort. After we slow them down, close and destroy with your remaining standard drones and phasers."
     A chorus of affirmatives rang out over his fighter-to-fighter voice channel. The third section separated slightly as they began tracking the last small freighter. The two surviving fighters from the second section and the two ordinance-carrying fighters of the fourth section closed in tighter on him. The EW fighter hung back slightly, still lending them electronic counter-countermeasure radiation as it did so.
     At a signal from Ghunterian, the fighters launched the first volley of drones. Unerringly, the drones flew toward their targets, rapidly eating up the distance to the fleeing ships. The corvette turned back into its pursuing drones, accepting two hits as it did so, the facing shield flaring and dying from the impacts of the deadly warheads. It phasered the other four drones out of existence. The ship's captain had decided to accept the hits in order to put the ship in position to defend the freighters when its weapons recycled. That was a gutsy move. Then again, no one ever claimed the Tholians lacked courage.
     But even with the thought, six more drones dropped out of high warp and began to move toward the patrol corvette. Ghunterian smiled. Then with a snarl he ordered his fighters to close the range and maul the surviving freighters.
     A few minutes later, it was all but over. Only one of the large freighters and two of the small freighters were still moving, and all three had sustained heavy damage. His squadron had lost two more fighters in the melee. Their POIS beacons even now blared out their distress signals. He debated if it was worth the risk to the rest of the squadron to completely destroy the remaining ships. The corvette is still a threat, and by the attack plan there will not be any more cruise drones to distract it. The long-range scanner alarm began blinking again and Ghunterian bit off a curse as he checked it.
     Eight more Tholian fighters were joining the fray. A quick check showed that six of them were Spider-IIs, standard attack fighters. It was a robust design that while not quite as fast as the space superiority fighters that they had fought earlier, made up for that deficiency with pure firepower. There was also another Spider-III superiority fighter and an electronic warfare fighter. They are definitely from the CWV. No Widow-class carrier carries twelve fighters. He would have to pass this information up to his commander. They would be interested to know that the Tholian war carrier was still in the operating area, and would have to be accounted for during the raid planning sessions.
     Well, this makes my decision. It is time to withdraw and plan the rescue mission for my pilots. He tallied up the raid's results again. His squadron had destroyed a large freighter, and two small freighters. The other three ships were crippled. He smiled. The convoy's schedule was definitely disrupted.
At his signal, the remaining fighters formed up tightly on him. He ordered them to turn the warp booster packs back on and they accelerated away from the incoming Tholians. With a final taunt tight-beamed in the clear directly at the cockpit of the leading Tholian fighter, the nine graceful fighters took wing and transitioned to strategic warp speed. Only the death and destruction they had sown in their wake bore witness to their skill.
     The last thing Karlos Ghunterian noted as his fighter accelerated out of danger was the two plaintive Klingon distress beacons winking out, the pilots marooned inside them cutting them off in an attempt to avoid capture. Without the beacon blaring out their position, it was highly unlikely that they would be found by the enemy, and be forced to become slaves in some demonic Tholian undertaking. The beacons would remain off unless the two pilots thought they were in danger of running out of air, then they would have to trigger the distress calls again and accept whatever fate had in store for them. Otherwise, if a rescue mission returned and broadcast a pre-arranged signal, the beacons of the POIS capsules would automatically turn back on. Then it would be a race between the Tholians and the Klingons over who would get to the pilots first. Ghunterian resolved that he would be first if he had that chance.