Ensign Oceans of the Moon was proud. Everything was running smoothly. The fighters were being reloaded from the ready racks. The only drawback to the process was the sheer number of drones that had to be loaded onto each fighter, but they were making progress. Even now, some of the first fighters to return had half of their drones reloaded.
      He turned around and began to check on his Zerhak reload teams. They were still working smoothly, but the Zerhaks carried even more drones than the Zen-Yakens and it would be some time before they were done.
      A sudden thought popped into his head. The Zerhaks carried disruptors and he knew that they would be an important part of any attempt to keep the Tholian gunboats away. The heavy fighters had returned to reload as part of the initial plan to get more drones launched as soon as possible. They would not be able to provide anything for their defense for some time.
      What is keeping the gunboats away?


      "Accelerating to speed factor three point one," Firnx said as he closed the link to the Guardian. He turned to his weapons officer. "As soon as we get close, we're going to slow down just enough to overload the disruptors. I plan for a pass at point-blank range, so hold everything that you can until then."
      He turned back to stare out the cockpit window of the gunboat, trying to link the view outside with what was being shown on his tactical scopes. All he could make out was an occasional flash of weapons fire in the darkness of the void. This is wasteful. The windows only exist for docking and formation flying. Nobody can see anything at combat ranges. He tried to focus, but one thought kept running through his mind like a mantra. It won't be long now.
      Firnx checked in with the other gunboats and gave them final instructions. To the scout, he gave instructions to use its jamming and counter-jamming capabilities with discretion on the run in, but he needed them to cut through as much of the jamming as possible at the point of attack. Then he settled back in his harness. It won't be long now.
      He felt the gunboat smoothly accelerate under him, the frame thrumming with the barely-contained extra power that the warp packs provided. It wouldn't be long now before he had the ACS under his guns, and the Seltorians would feel their unchained wrath.
      It won't be long now.

      As the gunboats accelerated, Orrna and the other surviving fighters accelerated behind them. She was silently thankful, for without the dangerous gunboats drawing fire, it would have been unlikely for any of her fighters to survive the attack run.
A moment later, she noted that the gunboat flotilla was screaming now, moving at near the limit for tactical warp combat. They were definitely committed to avenging the loss of the Swatter. She ordered her squadron to activate their booster packs to ensure they would be able to reach the ACS barely behind the gunboats. To attack in separate waves would give the traitors time to recycle their weapons. Attacking together would subject the combined force to half as much firepower.
      Four Z-YCs launched from the Seltorian escorts. She knew they could not have a full load of drones on board, but they were still dangerous. She detailed the five Spider-IIIs to deal with them, with further orders to return to her wing when they were done.
The superiority fighters separated smoothly from the attack fighters, leaving them alone to thread their way though the enemy defenses. As they left, she could not help but feel a sudden sense of vulnerability as she watched the titanic discharges of energy being exchanged between the main combatants of each fleet. But she was reassured by the certainty that the tide of the battle was about to turn, and that they would have their revenge for the death of the Swatter.

      Karlos Ghunterian gunned his fighter out of the shuttle bay of the River of Breaking Ice. Slider was right behind him. He only had half a load of drones, but the commander of the ship had ordered them to lift off early. He could see why as soon as he cleared the bay doors, and the head-up displays came on line. The Tholians had a major attack inbound. The Tholian fighter squadron was almost within engagement range when he saw five of them peel off toward him.
Ghunterian queried his computer and verified that the fighters from the destroyer escorts had the same drone load-out as he had. Then he keyed the comm-link.
      "Slider, this is going to be rough. Try to stay with me, but do what you have to do to stay alive."
      "You can be ssure of that, Ssir. What about the type-IIIss we are carrying?"
      Ghunterian thought for a minute. The type-I standard drones were small enough not to impede their dog-fighting capability, but the type-IIIs with the advanced targeting systems they carried were heavy. The big missiles would substantially reduce their maneuverability in a dogfight, and with the odds against them as they were, they didn't need anything else tipping the scales in the enemy's favor. Luckily, due to the early liftoff, they were only carrying one type-III each. It should be easy to find a ship to target them on.
      He scanned his displays. The Tholian escort corvettes were good targets, but they would chew up the drones with no chance of one of them getting through. He decided to target them on the incoming Spider-IIIs. It would help draw some fire away from the Seltorian fighters and might help keep him alive a little longer, and that, in his opinion, was a good thing.
      He considered the gunboat flotilla again. He saw that there was no way he could slow them down, but at least he could make them expend a few weapons on drone defense. He opened his comm-link to the other three fighters.
      "Target your type-III on the fighter opposite you, but after you launch it, make sure you launch a standard drone as soon as possible at the patrol ships. Maybe that will slow their approach some. Then we cover each other's tail and maybe we can all make it through this." He tried to think of something else to say, but his Hilidarian wingman beat him to it. The lizard's hiss-chuckle reverberated over the comm-link.
      "And if we don't, we'll dine at the table of the War God and the Life Mother tonight."
      Ghunterian couldn't help but smile. Meeting a War God would be an honor a true Klingon would never pass up.

      Arrax watched the tactical situation closely. The gunboats and fighters were closing in on the Seltorian fleet. Only a few Seltorian fighters had made a reappearance. If it was up to him, the rest of the fighters would not get the opportunity. The moment is here. Now is the time to add our forces to the attack.
      "Helm, point us directly at the area control ship. Increase speed to warp two point five. Weapons, keep disruptors at standard power until we get close, and keep them firing at the escort cruiser on the way in. We've got to keep them off balance. As soon as we get close enough, overload the disruptors, and fire at my command. "
      "Seizing the moment, Commodore?" The question came from his old friend.
      "Yes, Xitrin, it is time to finish this."

      Flight Admiral Sand among the Stars sat paralyzed. The Tholian dreadnought had abandoned the circular battle and was headed straight at them, following in the wake of the gunboats. He dismissed the fighters as insignificant, but the ships and the gunboats were something altogether different. They are truly insane! While it was true that his fighters would have killed them if they stayed at range, Sand among the Stars knew his ships would surely destroy them if they come closer. All that will be different is how many Seltorians they will take with them. That must be what they are trying to do.
      He checked the range and the Tholian's speed. It would not be long before they were locked in close-range combat with the dreadnought. His resolve hardened. The destruction of that ship will be marked as the beginning of the end for the Holdfast. We make our stand here.

      They were just out of disruptor range when the three escorts and the carrier began to turn toward them. Firnx had been concentrating so hard on the approach that he did not initially understand why they were making his attack run easier. A quick glance at the tactical screen showed why. The Guardian and its two surviving escorts were following him, along with the five attack fighters. The Seltorians had chosen to meet them head-on.
      They crossed into disruptor range, then into overloaded disruptor range. He pulled the throttles back to enable the gunner to fully overload the gunboat's twin disruptors. They wouldn't have many firing opportunities like the one they had coming up.
      He turned around to check the gunner's targeting screen. The image of the Seltorian carrier was more than slightly blurry, the computer's way of showing that their lock-on was being degraded by enemy electronic countermeasures.
      He spun back around, bobbing slightly. The degradation was to be expected. The orders he had given their scout earlier were still in effect. Only when they reached the point of attack would the scout shift its efforts into counter-jamming. Even then, it was unlikely that they would be able to completely negate the advantage in power that the carrier had over their scout, but it would have to do.
      They closed steadily. He knew it was his imagination, but it seemed like they were getting impossibly close to the enemy ships. He checked the range and saw that if they got any closer, they would run the risk of feedback damage from the disruptors. As if on cue, the image of the Seltorian carrier cleared slightly as the scout boat put all of the power it could spare into cutting through the jamming noise that the Seltorian ship was putting out.
      "Weapons Officer, fire when ready!"
      "Yes, Lieutenant." He heard the officer select the controls for unrestricted fire. That let the gunners at the phaser and disruptor control stations know that they were free to fire.
      At that precise instance, it looked like every phaser that could bear from the four enemy ships opened up on them. They must have been waiting for the scout to shift its power into counter-jamming, Firnx thought. The phasers pounded into their front shield, then through it. The gunboat rocked hard and he felt himself slammed upward.
      Two disruptors and two phasers leapt out from their gunboat. Both disruptors, perhaps because of the enemy jamming, missed cleanly. The two phasers barely sliced across one corner of the carrier's rear shield before the mounts disappeared in a molten cloud of metal.
      He did not have time to be disappointed. All he heard was a series of small explosions as the ship's computer sensed the imminent destruction of their craft and blasted them free of it in a survival pod. The force of acceleration pressed him so hard against his web harness that he lost consciousness.
      He came to a few seconds later. He laboriously released himself from the web harness, and pushed himself away from the wall. He could barely move around, but was able to reach the navigator and check his condition. The Tholian was hurt badly, but would live if he received advanced medical treatment shortly. He found the medikit, and did what he could to soothe the navigator, stabilizing his condition to wait for real doctors.
      The other two members of the cockpit crew were still unconscious from the brutal force of the acceleration, but they would live. He checked out view ports to see if any others had escaped the destruction of the gunboat leader.
      There were three more pods floating nearby, all of them with markings indicating that they were from his boat. The pods were equipped with small reaction jets that would allow them to move enough to dock to each other. They could live for a few days in the resulting configuration until the power ran out. Even as he watched, one of the pods began to slowly move toward him. He looked around and spotted the controls to his pod. He floated over and tried them experimentally, but they seemed to be damaged. With a shrug, he gave up and floated back to the view port, trying to keep up with what was going on outside.
      He made out the wreckage of another gunboat nearby. It looked like the number three boat had been tagged pretty hard also, but it hadn't been totally wrecked. It might even be salvageable, but they were in no position to help each other.
      The pod was spinning slightly. The Seltorian formation came into view. The carrier staggered on, burning from a dozen holes in its hull, but the core structure was still intact. The amount of jamming it had been emitting must have been incredible to allow it to survive the hammer blows that the gunboat flotilla had inflicted upon it.
It wouldn't get far. Even now the DNS was closing fast. It was getting ravaged by the combined fire of four ships, but it would be in position soon to crush the Seltorian carrier. He pressed himself tighter to the window. After all, it's not every day you get to see an area control ship die. He found himself flushing orange in excitement.
      The excitement was replaced with frustration and he almost screamed as his view port was covered by the other survival pod moving to dock with him. Disappointed, he floated back. There was nothing else he could do but wait. Wait and hope that Tholian forces would be able to rescue them after the battle.

      The work was almost finished on the Zerhaks and the Z-YCs. The deck crews were struggling mightily to finish the loadouts and to get the fighters back into action.
      The ship trembled under Oceans of the Moon's feet. He looked around in alarm. Another tremble, and then the deck seemed to jump up and hit him in the face. Woozily, he tried to push himself back up on his forelegs, but to no avail. He slowly slid back down to the deck and looked around.
Battle debris was strewn from one end of the hangar to another. The deck crews were still working, despite the hammer blows that were beginning to rain down upon the ship. Two fighters were even now being lined up to face the hangar bay doors. At any moment, those two fighters would begin to trundle single file to the launch position.
      Ashamed at his weakness, he struggled up again. This time, he managed to get to his feet and stagger over to the side of an administrative shuttle. He sat down in its open door, staring around him at the barely controlled chaos of the hangar bay. Despite the damage they were taking, everything still seemed to be working.
      And then the side of the ship blew out.