Flight Admiral Sand among the Stars pushed himself off the deck. The gunboats had hurt his ship terribly, and he realized that his life and career had come to an end. There would be no raids into unprotected Tholian space, and it would be up to the other Sages that came after him to destroy the Tholian menace in this galaxy. But he still had one more weapon at his disposal. He would have his vengeance upon the commander of the Tholian space control ship.
He slid back into his command chair, opened the comm-link to the transporter room, and put his plan into motion.
The Tholian attack fighters had closed to within forty thousand kilometers when the Seltorian carrier abruptly fired every heavy and defensive phaser it had left, blinding its special sensors and losing the ECM protection it had been generating. Orrna winced instinctively, but her flight had not been the target of the phaser volley. The Guardian, now following close behind her flight, was the target of the enemy fire. The front shield, already damaged by the phaser battle, failed. The phasers opened up grievous wounds in the hull of her command ship.
A return volley of disruptor and phaser fire flew past her and smashed into and through the front shield of the Seltorian area control ship. The ship staggered from the blows and began trailing a fiery trail of debris, but cruisers died hard, and this one was no exception. That is good. It's our turn now.
"Fire all weapons!" she ordered, taking advantage of the down shield.
Four out of five disruptors hit. The next to the last one caused far more damage than it should have, and she realized that it must have hit a fighter being reloaded in the hangar bay, causing one of the fabled chain reactions that some carriers were vulnerable to. She watched in awe as the reaction continued, until a single great violet-orange explosion began to blossom in the heart of the ship. Seconds later, there was nothing left to show that a starship had been there except an expanding ring of debris.
She began to turn her nose toward the Seltorian escorts. But the three ships, battered and bleeding as they were, had had enough. They blew past the patrol corvettes, and with a final spat of phaser fire, turned for home, with the surviving Tholian gunboats in pursuit. They won't get very far with those gunboats chasing them, she thought.
But she was wrong. The Seltorian escorts had each dropped a transporter bomb behind them. The gunboats had to detour sharply, enough to allow the Seltorians to make good their escape.
So, we can't kill them all, she smiled to herself, but you can't blame us for trying. Now where are those Seltorian fighters?
Ghunterian heard the general recall signal being broadcast from the Seltorian escorts, but he was in no position to respond. He was flying with his head tilted back, as far as he could keep it, desperately trying to keep sight of the Tholian he was dogfighting. He grunted as G forces pressed him against the side of the cockpit, vision graying out at the edges despite the best efforts of his flight suit and the inertial dampeners. He continued the hard turn, riding the edge of unconsciousness. He was rewarded by the sight of the Tholian fighter gradually coming into view at the top of his display.
It was over a few moments later, but it took several low-power bursts from his twin phasers to destroy the other fighter. The Spider-III was an agile dogfighter, but the characteristic he feared most was the toughness of its design. He looked around for his wingman. Off in the distance, he saw the two Cromargs involved with two of the other Spiders.
"Will you quit admiring your sskillss and get over here, Gunss?" Slider's voice came over the comm-link. Despite the insult, Ghunterian could hear the desperate tone in his voice. Ghunterian re-oriented himself and checked his computer. Slider was close by, but he was in a dogfight with the last two Tholian superiority fighters. It looked like he might have been slightly advantaged on one, but the other fighter was closing fast on his tail. Ghunterian rammed his throttle forward and dove into the dogfight. He crossed in front of the second Tholian, pulling up and over just before he crossed in front of its guns, a clear challenge that he knew the enemy pilot would not refuse. He was correct.
The enemy pilot chopped his throttle and tried to pull up behind him, but he was still moving too fast and shot out of the maneuver barely in front of his Z-YC. Ghunterian pressed his twin firing buttons gently and was rewarded with a spray of metal from the tail end of the Spider. The Spider tried to reverse his course again, switching off warp packs as he did so. But Ghunterian was ready for the maneuver, cutting his warp packs in response and squeezing another burst off as the fighter flew under his nose.
This time he must have scored a solid hit, for suddenly, the fighter leveled out and the pilot ejected. Grinning to himself, Ghunterian craned his neck around, trying to find Slider again. The Klingon pilot caught sight of Slider, just as the other Tholian fighter exploded. Ghunterian keyed his mike.
"Thankss for taking the other one off my tail, Gunss."
"No problem. Now let's go help the Cromargs. They have the other three all to themselves."
But it was too late. They were just starting the turn back to help their fellow fighter pilots when they saw the twin explosions. A quick check verified that both fighters had exploded, with no signs of either Cromarg ejecting successfully. Ghunterian grimaced at their deaths.
He quickly went over his options. They had drifted while in the dogfight, and now the bulk of the Tholian fleet was between them and the Seltorian ships. There was also the matter of the two Spider-III superiority fighters just beginning to head in their direction. While he would love nothing more than to mix it up with them, they were getting short on time with the surviving Seltorian warships exiting the area. Fuel was no problem; time and distance were. Quickly, he made a decision.
"Slider, let's head away from here. We'll lay low for a while, then circle back and try to make our way to one of the backup rendezvous points."
"Ssoundss like a good plan, Gunss. I don't like the idea of being a Tholian captive very much."
The two fighters winged over, engaged their warp packs and began disengaging from the arena of battle, leaving the two Spiders harmlessly in their wake.
Major Zira surveyed the wreckage of the Guardian's bridge. The Marine intruder response team was still poking through the bodies, ensuring that each member of the Seltorian Avenger team was dead. He repressed a shudder.
The administrative shuttle floated silently at the rendezvous point. Inside the shuttle, Oceans of the Moon stared morosely at the view screen. Behind him, the shuttle was packed with other survivors, many of them injured, some of them grievously.
He still found it hard to believe that they had been able to escape the exploding inferno of the hangar bay, but they had. As the computer-controlled abandon ship klaxon went off, he and the nearest Workers had piled into the shuttle, packing it almost beyond its capacity. Automatic controls had then taken over and flown the shuttle out of the exploding bay. He saw at least one other escaping shuttle flying dangerously close to them as the computer overrode all safety margins in an effort to save as many lives as possible.
After that, it had been a perilous situation as they strove to remain undetected in the aftermath of the battle. The other shuttle he had seen escape had not been as lucky and only debris marked the spot where the Tholians had destroyed it. He hoped others had made it.
He had managed to remain undetected and now they floated at the closest rendezvous point, not that he expected anyone to find him. From all indications, his fleet had been routed, and would undoubtedly spend some time licking their wounds before they ventured into the contested zone again. He and the others were doomed to death by asphyxiation as the shuttle's air supply gave out. Well, it could be worse. A Tholian patrol might accidentally stumble upon me. They would love to get their hands on a few Seltorian prisoners, especially if one was a newly awakened Sage who might be malleable to their torture techniques.
To his horror, a light began blinking on the shuttle's control panel. A ship was approaching, and it could only be Tholian. He steeled himself and reached for the airlock controls. Better death by vacuum for all of them than torture at the hands of the Tholian monsters.
Before he could open the doors, another light started blinking. He stared at it, puzzled. The contact was trying to open a communications channel with him, but did not have the right codes to do so. Deciding they had nothing to lose, he opened a channel. If it was the Tholians, he could still blow the hatch before they were captured. The universal translator automatically kicked in, rendering the incoming transmission into the clicks and snaps that he could understand.
"Unidentified shuttle, you are claimed as salvage by the captain and crew of the CVL False Arrest, operating under the authority of Cartel Pharaoh. Keep your engines off. Prepare for transport."
Hope abruptly bloomed within his thorax, but it was short-lived. While the Orion pirates were known for ransoming marooned personnel back to their home empires, he had never heard of them returning Seltorians back to Klingon space. More than likely, they would space them as surely as the Tholians would have tortured them. I might as well see what they will do to us.
He transmitted his concurrence and a few moments later, felt an odd wrench as his view of the shuttle's control console was obscured by a curtain of sparkling light. An infinitesimally long moment passed, and the sparkles subsided. He looked around into the muzzles of all the weapons that were trained upon them by Orion Marines.
He stared at them, waiting tensely for them to open fire. Then a hissing broke through the fog that was beginning to cloud his mind. A hissing that sounded suspiciously like laughter.
He looked up past the Marines. The first thing he saw was a hangar full of old Z-V fighters. Then he noticed two, brand new, Z-YCs. Standing to the side of the Marines were two familiar figures, one of them Klingon, the other one Hilidarian. That was where the hissing laughter was coming from. Beside them was a figure that had to be the captain of the ship.
"Well, Slider, looks like the Orions might have a new recruit and a deck crew that can teach the other deck crews how to load the ready racks for a Z-YC. Unless..." Ghunterian looked at Oceans of the Moon questioningly, and he could feel a tense undercurrent to the Klingon's voice. "Unless you'd rather stay at the rendezvous point, Ensign? Or spend a few months in a cell waiting for a ransom payment from your admiralty?" The Seltorian paused. He knew his next words could determine his future, and if he had one.
A flurry of emotions ran through his mind. He knew he should stay at the rendezvous point in the hope that a Tribunal ship would pick him up so that he could continue to be a component of the Tribunal's attempt to bring the Holdfast to justice, but he just didn't see a chance of that happening. How might his destiny change if that single overriding factor was removed? He took a deep breath, paused and let it out.
"Well Lieutenant, I cannot speak for the workers anymore, and their fate is in your hands whether you decide to ransom them or not. But I have always thought that my future was limited on the Wind of Ordained Retribution. Perhaps that is no longer the case. Duty on your ship will give me a chance to... how do you say it? Break out of the mold? Stretch my wings?"
It took a few seconds for the translator to render his answer to them. But as it did, he could tell by the look on their faces and the slow transition to open laughter by the Orion captain, the Klingon, and the Hilidarian, that he had made the right choice in words.
"Relax, Lieutenant," the Orion said. "You are in no danger and will be sent home if you don't want to join us, but I hope that you will consider what we have to offer."
He relaxed slowly. It appeared that he might become this galaxy's first Seltorian pirate. At least as far as he knew, anyway. Not every Sage who had been lost in combat was properly accounted for. He wondered if it was possible that he might find acceptance here among these aliens, or even happiness. Oddly, he had never felt happiness on the area control ship. Here, he sensed, things might be different. He felt a world of new opportunities opening up before him.
And that is something I can live with.