There was a quiet chiming and a soft voice warned, "Contact. Contact. Contact."
"Put it on the HUD," said Clark.
The enemy was arranged in a straight, level line facing him. Four ships at the extreme range of the equipment with no IFF signals. It was obvious that these were not ships from any human source.
"Shielded signal to others in flight," said Clark.
"Signal sent and acknowledged."
"Time to maximum range for engagement and time to optimum range."
"One hour twenty minutes to maximum and two hours thirty-two to optimum."
Clark flipped a switch and used the shield radio communications. "Scout flight, we will engage the enemy in about two hours. There will be no missile launches until orders are given. You may maneuver independently to protect your craft but let's maintain unit integrity as long as possible. Respond in scout order."
To the computer, he said, "Show me the distribution of my scouts."
Clark studied the HUD. His ships were clusted near him while the enemy was spread over a wide area. That would change, he was sure. At the moment he wasn't going to order his group to spread to engage the enemy. They might tighten their formation later. If they remained spread, they could be taken one at a time. A six on one fight wouldn't last very long. If they clustered, the six on four odds still gave him the advantage.
Now he was searching for any change in the situation. Would there be more enemy ships appearing? Would they scatter? Did they even know that he was approaching with his flight? All these things would give him clues, but the enemy continued to patrol as he had, as if unaware that anyone was nearing.
The time slipped by as the enemy maintained his routine. They were boring holes in space, circling at the edge of their system. They took no notice of the approaching scouts.
"Scouts," said Clark finally. "Engaging closest enemy. Follow me in."
Clark took the control stick and put his left hand on the thruster controls. He aimed his ship at the enemy and then fired the first of his missiles. It flew straight and true. The enemy made no move to dodge the missile. Forty seconds after launch, the missile detonated. There was a bright flash and the first of the enemy ships was gone.
"Piece of cake."
"No unauthorized chatter," said Clark.
The rest of the enemy ships maintained their headings. Clark checked his instruments and found that there was no communciation between the enemy ships. No electromagnetic radiation at all. Just a loose formation that continued to patrol as if nothing had happened.
"One, I am in range to attack."
Clark recognized the voice of William Carlson, one of the youngest of the scouts. "Four hold your position."
Clark turned his scouts toward the second of the enemy ships. As he began the attack run, he said, "Six, break off and take out the farthest of the enemy."
"Four, you have the next."
"Five you're with Six. Three you're with Four. Two, you're on me. Respond in flight order."
Now Clark focused on the enemy ship. He waited until he had a good lock and fired a single missile. Again, the enemy didn't try to evade. The missile slammed into the ship, detonated in a blinding flash of light and was gone.
This bothered him. Why throw out pickets for sacrifice? Of course, with the disappearance of them, it was obvious that something was happening. Sometimes that was the purpose of the pickets. They were out there to cause the enemy to announce themselves.
Watching the HUD, he saw the other enemy pickets disappear one by one. Scanning the space around them, he could see no evidence that there were any more enemy ships.
"Let's make the transmission that the first phase of the mission is complete."
There was a moment of silence and then, "Message sent and acknowledged."
"Good," said Clark.