"Johnson, bring us to forty-five degrees. Mendolow, fire the number three phaser at twenty thousand kilometers. Fire the other two phasers at point-blank range." The turn they were in would take the left-side phaser out of firing arc before the plasma torpedo reached point-blank range, so he had no choice but to fire it at twenty thousand. I wish I could save them all to fire at the SkyHawk instead, but reducing the strength of this plasma torpedo comes first.
O'Donnell refused to think that he might be wasting his fire on a fake. He could feel it in his bones that the SkyHawk captain had panicked when he realized that he might not be able to tractor the escaping frigate and had launched a real torpedo at him in the hope of scoring some internal damage. He was not going to allow that to happen at this early stage of the game.
    "Firing phasers, Sir," Mendolow reported seconds later.
The first phaser erupted from the frigate's phaser banks and spat its controlled burst of destructive energy. Two more bluish-white beams of barely-controlled violence followed shortly afterward and disappeared into the glowing mass of the plasma torpedo, now barely ten thousand kilometers away. The brightness of the torpedo dimmed noticeably, but it still chased them inexorably.
  "Brace for impact," he ordered quietly. It was the second time in the last couple of minutes that he had given that command, and he didn't like it all.
          The ship shook hard as the torpedo moved within the detection range of its proximity-armed warhead and detonated. Despite the strength of the explosion, the shield held. A quick glance around the bridge showed him that there was no damage.
"Right front shield down 44 percent, Sir," T'Chira reported. "No casualties reported so far."
   "Johnson, continue acceleration to warp two point nine two and bring us to heading zero-zero-zero. Mendolow, start arming both of the photon torpedo tubes to standard levels. T'Chira, use battery power to initiate level one jamming. Let's force them to use a little battery power or slow down if they don't want to fire through fuzzy scanners."
        "Level one ECM jamming initiated, Sir. Romulans are counter-jamming, but not slowing. Romulans are firing phasers."
     Again, a shield on Guderian sparkled with the terrific effort of absorbing the energy imparted to them by the phased energy beams. The bridge shook slightly. At least they didn't fire as soon as the torpedo hit. That ship must have a political appointee as its captain, he chuckled to himself. He was only half in jest. It was an old joke in Star Fleet Academy that there would be no Romulan fleet if they threw all the personnel off of their ships that had political ties to the Great Houses.
   "Number three shield down 55 percent, Sir."
     He looked at the situation display. They were clearing the jaws of the trap now, and from Rommel's position, it looked like it would also be able to escape. Even as he watched, Rommel fired two phasers which connected solidly with the rear shield of SkyHawk Alpha. Immediately, the SkyHawk began a turn which would take the damaged shield away from the course the second Federation ship was following.
       He smiled. The turn, while it protected the damaged shield from continued attack, would also allow both Federation ships to put some needed distance between them and their pursuers. The smile faded. In normal times, a mistake like that would probably have meant the end of the battle, as it would have given them time to call in a relief force. The Romulans would also have realized that they had botched the ambush and would have left to no doubt try a more successful one another day.

     The sputtering vision of the Cutlass's commanding officer faded from view as the channel faded out. Idiot. If House Pentalion has many more officers like that in positions of command, our war against the Federation will be short-lived, and the end will not be to our liking.      
He looked at the tactical display. The Cutlass had resumed the chase that its commander had so foolishly bungled. As punishment, Cutlass had been ordered to continue at full speed, meaning it was well ahead of the other two Romulan ships. Parthek had considered letting Cutlass slow until the other two caught up, so he could concentrate his firepower, but decided that giving the Federation ships a bigger lead was a bad idea. His face contorted with rage as he considered that by now at least one of the frigates should be burning at the other end of the Cutlass's tractor beam, not taunting them with its continued survival as it danced ahead of them at maximum tactical combat speed. He knew that the Cutlass would have taken internal damage in its effort, but that was to be expected. That's what destroyers are for.
   With an effort, he reined in his temper. What was done was done. Now he had to pick up the pieces. This was not a "privateer" raid like he had been involved with in the past. His ambush had failed, and the Federation ships should have accelerated out of the combat zone, leaving him a fruitless stern chase, or, even more worthwhile, giving his ships a free attack on the Federation supply ships and other unguarded support units. But they aren't leaving, so they have orders to cover the gap between the squadrons on either flank and keep us off their logistics. If we break off and go for those targets, the frigates will cut us off and force us to fight. We're already doing that. No, we'll kill those frigates and then rampage through the enemy supply chain.
      "If I may," Tacunin said. Parthek nodded. "I do not question your decisions, or claim superior skill, but I was curious about one aspect of your deployment."
      "Leaving Cutlass in the lead?" he asked.
        "No, that one was obvious," she said. "The Federation ships cannot simply accelerate to strategic speed and leave, as that would allow us to raid their logistics areas."
       "Yes," Parthek said. "They are, in effect, holding us at a slower speed so that their overall commander can redeploy his forces before we break through this screen. It is a question of time. How long will it take us to get past these frigates, measured against how long it will take them to move something else into our path."
      "Indeed," Tacunin said. "Given the time situation, you could order Mace to drop back, then race around us at hyperwarp and get in front of the Federation ships. It is a bold move, and the decision not to take the risk would not merit censure, but could I know your reasoning on the matter?"
      Parthek paused to think it through. He had not, in fact, considered doing that. Thinking about it now, he realized that it was theoretically possible, but as Tacunin had said, there was a risk, and it took him only a moment to see it.
        "Dividing my force is a risk, of course," he said, "but one I may take if this continues. We can always do that later, but for now, the pursuit by a combined squadron is certain to work, given some time, and there is no indication of anything to change the outcome." The present battle could only have one ending. It would take the destruction of at least one of the opposing ships to let him break away and attack the Federation logistics, leaving Cutlass to pursue the survivor. One kill would also satiate his anger and satisfy his superiors.
       "Risk," Tacunin said. "Ah, I see. The Mace might encounter an unknown force or an unknown hazard, and being by itself, might not survive."
      "More than that," Parthek said, as his capable military mind opened to new thoughts. "The frigates might detect the maneuver, or might be warned by other Federation units. A slight course change and the Mace would fail to intercept and would have to catch up to us on the new course."
    "You are correct, of course," Tacunin said, "and I benefit from your wisdom. Of course, the two Federation ships could split up, leaving us with two targets to pursue."
        "If so, Cutlass will pursue one while we and Mace pursue and destroy the other, then move on to raid Federation logistics, convoys, bases, and other targets."
  He paused in thought. That might be even better. If one does manage to escape, I will make the Cutlass's commander my scapegoat. Only House Pentalion's prestige will be affected negatively by such an "unfortunate" turn of events. He smiled to himself.
     Yes, one will do.

     Senior Lieutenant Myra Jones worked her board furiously. The fatigue that had seemed to be smothering the life out of her moments ago had lifted magically with their ambush by the Romulans. Now she was doing what she and her team of officers and enlisted people had trained so hard to do over the past few months. That training had only one purpose, to put photon torpedoes on target against an enemy ship.
  Beside her, she noted that Petty Officer Green was working just as hard. He was a few years older than her, and had been assigned to Rommel for several years. She considered herself fortunate that he had not been transferred to another ship by now, as his knowledge of Rommel's photon torpedo system and how to milk the most out of its targeting system was astonishing. He had been responsible for teaching her the ins and outs of that system, and she had proven herself an adept student.
        Green brushed a hand through the short, stiff blond bristles of his hair and looked over at her curiously. She started and felt blood rushing to her face as she realized that she had been staring at him. That had seemed to happen often as of late, as had the thoughts of him that seemed to come at random moments throughout the day or night. Now come on Myra, quit acting like a lovesick puppy. You know you can't have anything to do with an enlisted man, not one in your duty section. And now is no time to be thinking of anything but putting an X on that SparrowHawk's bridge and blowing the crap out of it.
       She threw herself back into her work so ferociously that within moments all thoughts of anything else extraneous to the battle had been banished from her mind. She focused so hard that she did not notice Green force his gaze away from her profile and bury himself in the performance of his duty.

      "Photons armed, Commander," Mendolow said. O'Donnell nodded, his attention focused on the tactical display. The lead SkyHawk, which T'Chira had identified as the Cutlass from previous raids, trailed along behind them, although it was closer to Rommel than it was to them. Rommel itself was paralleling their course, one hundred and fifty thousand kilometers away, and some one hundred and twenty thousand kilometers ahead of the Cutlass. The other two Romulans trailed the destroyer, but they were slowly catching up, primarily due to the fact that they had not fired their weapons yet, and had no need to rearm them.
       He took a deep breath. The next few minutes would indicate whether the plan that he and McGilland had agreed upon had any chance of success. The Thach Weave was an old tactic, taught in the military history sections in their Academy curriculum. It had been developed on Earth during the heyday of propeller-driven planes flying off of wet navy aircraft carriers. It was a defensive tactic that had been designed to thwart the superior maneuverability of opposing aircraft. Once the attacker had selected a target, the defenders would turn toward each other and cross each other's path. Once they had done this and gained enough separation, they would turn back toward each other again. Each time, they would drag the attacker into the sights of the second defender. Their professor had said it should work in starships, but admitted he had never seen it done.
        O'Donnell could not think of any other tactic that even allowed them the slightest possibility of winning their "fighting retreat". He and McGilland had tried it against, and with, each other in the simulators several times, with varying degrees of success. Neither had thought they would actually have to use it in a wartime situation, as each had assumed that they would be part of a task force by the time the Federation actually came to blows with anyone. He shrugged his shoulders. Boy, were we wrong on that one. I guess now is as good a time as any to find out how well it will convert to space warfare.
"Mbolov, tell Rommel that we are executing. Johnson, turn to port 60 degrees and maintain current speed. Mendolow, stand by on the photon torpedoes. It may take us a while, but we're going to chip away at their shields until we get through.
        Moments later they were closing on the Cutlass. Belatedly, the Romulan destroyer began turning to meet them as it realized that it was about to have a frigate behind it that was out of firing arc of its heavy weapons. He grinned as he saw Rommel mirror the Cutlass's turn. He waited until the forward shield of the destroyer was facing them before he gave Mendolow the order to fire.
Two glowing orbs slipped out of their launch tubes and sped toward their violent rendezvous with the facing shield of the Cutlass. The range was almost one hundred and forty thousand kilometers, a range which was not especially conducive to hits by the notoriously inaccurate photon torpedoes. But he had confidence in his highly-trained torpedo crews and the drills they had been running daily. He considered them the best shooters in the fleet. Even if we miss, it will tell the Romulan the risk he is running and make him back off.
      That was a very good thing. Due to the necessity of traveling at a high rate of speed to avoid being run down, and the energy required to arm the torpedoes themselves, he had not ordered the phasers recharged yet. Normally phasers were far more efficient weapons to fire, but their damage output varied greatly at the ranges that he and McGilland meant to fight this battle. It would be relatively easy for the target to block shield damage from phaser fire with reserve power. With the photons, it was more of an all-or-nothing affair. Either they would get a solid hit which would blow away any reinforcement and do serious shield damage, or they would get no damage at all.
    His faith in his photon crews was not misguided. Both torpedoes slammed into the facing shield of the Cutlass. In response, four phasers lashed out at them from the embattled Romulan destroyer. He tightened his hands on the sides of his command chair. He needn't have worried. The first three phasers missed completely while the last one barely brushed Guderian's right front shield.
     "Number two shield down 11 percent, Sir," T'Chira informed him. "Rommel is now crossing behind the Cutlass. They are firing two photon torpedoes... one hit, but no internal damage. Shield at 30 percent."
     "That's two hits for us, Sir, and one for Rommel," Mendolow cheerily announced. O'Donnell heard a general chuckle roll around the bridge, except from T'Chira's station of course. The Vulcan just endured the display with stony-faced silence. He shook his head
      "Indeed, Mr. Mendolow. Keep that up and I'll buy the whole photon section a fancy dinner, all you can eat, when we make shore leave again."
     He sobered quickly with the thought. Not because they might not make it out of this action alive to take shore leave again, but at the thought of buying Mendolow all he could eat.
     That kid can eat like a horse.