The battle had settled into an elaborate, deadly dance.

They’d been at this for hours; both sides had taken losses, and it was small comfort to Darin Krell that “only” two on his side hadn’t disgorged active emergency beacons for search-and-rescue teams to retrieve. That was still two pilots he wouldn’t see at debriefing, assuming he got that far. Two families now missing loved ones. With the battlespace still too hostile for SAR to actually get in there, there was plenty of opportunity for that number to get worse, one way or another.

And that was just this particular engagement. Skirmishes had been going on for three days now, with no decisive changes on either side; either group could get reinforced anytime, but nobody had yet.

Nobody wanted more casualties, at this point. They spent most of their time outside direct engagement range and conserved their dwindling missile stocks. Even when the two forces came close together, everybody was more worried about staying alive than scoring hits, and that went for both sides.

Unfortunately, fatigue was setting in. Tired people slipped up, and when the stakes were this high, even a tiny slip could be fatal.

As the two forces arced towards each other again, the otter made a specific effort to keep an eye on the plot. He wasn’t going to be caught off guard this time, at least. He saw the slight tightening of the enemy formation; it wasn’t hard to guess what they were planning to do. “They’re going to punch through us,” he said to his squadron. “All pilots be ready to fan out, dispersal pattern,” he frowned at the plot for a brief moment, “Charlie. Repeat, pattern Charlie. Sweep out, aim in, take shots of opportunity. Ready…” His hands flexed on the control grips. Just a few seconds more…

On both sides, ships began to jink and weave as they neared, then crossed into, the range of direct gunnery. Darin bit his lip, pulling the Shrike through a tight roll, watching the enemy force concentrate and make ready to blast through the Authority wing’s thickest point.

The moment the enemies started boosting, he snapped, “Dispersal Charlie! Execute, mark!” He yanked the stick, gritting his teeth as acceleration slammed him into his seat, the entire wing turning outward in a series of spirals, letting the incoming fire go right through where they’d been heading moments ago.

Just as he started turning back in, a new voice broke into the com traffic. “Code Whiskey, code Whiskey. Papa Oscar Delta five two. Urgent update from SecCom. All units, anti-munitions fire only, repeat, anti-munitions fire only. Disengage and fall back to Lima Three by the numbers.”

Darin swore, yanking the stick to one side even as his finger completed its trigger-pull. It was enough to spoil his aim; plasma spat harmlessly into open space. “You heard the lady, people! Code Whiskey! Watch your buddy, splash missiles, and get the hell out!”

The wings milled about. The enemies kept trying to line up shots, then, with one last feeble spray of missiles, apparently realized that the SLA wing was withdrawing and counted their blessings. Those last few missiles blinked off the tactical plot under point defence fire.

“What the hell’s a Delta fifty-two?” asked Darin’s copilot once they were well away.

“Diplomatic Corps something-or-other. Hell if I know,” Darin sighed. He’d look up the details later.

At least for now, they were done fighting. He’d accept a retreat if it meant no more of his pilots needed to die.