Star Trek: Pathfinder - The Prodigal Captain by Jerriecan
Summary: Commander Beaumont, First Officer of the U.S.S. Pathfinder, finds her loyalties tested - her former commander commands a terrible weapon, and holds the future of the Federation hostage.
Categories: Enterprise, Expanded Universes Characters: None
Genre: Action/Adventure, Drama, General
Warnings: None
Challenges: None
Series: Star Trek: Pathfinder
Chapters: 12 Completed: Yes Word count: 13965 Read: 9024 Published: 25 Mar 2012 Updated: 08 May 2012
Story Notes:
Sequel to Star Trek: Pathfinder - The Siren's Call.

1. Part One by Jerriecan

2. Part Two by Jerriecan

3. Part Three by Jerriecan

4. Part Four by Jerriecan

5. Part Five by Jerriecan

6. Part Six by Jerriecan

7. Part Seven by Jerriecan

8. Part Eight by Jerriecan

9. Part Nine by Jerriecan

10. Chapter Ten by Jerriecan

11. Part Eleven by Jerriecan

12. Epilogue by Jerriecan

Part One by Jerriecan

Part One

Acacia Creek Rehabilitation Facility
Australia, Earth, Sol Sector
June 16, 2160

The walls of Ward C were freshly painted, the eggshell-white shade of hospitals that had endured for hundreds of years.  The smell of disinfectant hung in the air, underscored by the hint of blood and burnt flesh.  Plasma burns were still virtually impossible to treat in the field with any degree of success, which meant field medics' only option was to stuff burn victims into cryotubes and ship them back to rehabilitation facilities behind the lines - and since they were already in cryo, Starfleet brass decided that they might as well receive the very best treatment, which meant transporting casualties back to their homeworlds.  

Lt. Cmdr. Isobel Beaumont, late of the UES Fearless, sat on a padded bench and watched as a handful of fellow casualties made their way up or down the hall.  It was part of the physical rehabilitation regimen most had to endure - plasma burns tended to require high limb amputation, and over half of the residents here had been fitted with replacement prosthetics.  The process of tuning a replacement limb to fully replace the original was long and difficult, and it was unlikely that any of these men or women would ever serve aboard a Starfleet vessel again, but they would go on to lead almost-normal lives once they left the facility.

Beaumont's wound was not so easily treatable.

And orderly pushed an aging cart past her, and Beaumont closed her eyes at the abrupt irritation caused by one squeaking wheel.  For a moment she wanted to stand up and shove the cart down the hallway, just to get the damned thing away from her -

Relax, she thought, breathing slowly, in and out, in and out.  The Starfleet doctors had warned her of this - the abrupt mood swings, the problems with impulse control, the fugue states - that came with traumatic injuries to the frontal lobe of the brain.  They had repaired as much of the damage as they could, had made her functional again for the most part - but Beaumont would never again serve in Starfleet.

"Isobel."

Beaumont shook her head, noticing after a moment that the shadows had moved, lengthened - she had lost at least an hour staring out the window.  She looked up to see Captain Isaac Proudfoot standing beside her, holding two plastic cups of coffee.  "How long have you been there?" she said.

"Only a couple minutes," Proudfoot replied, handing her one of the cups.

Beaumont took it gratefully and drank deep, letting the sugared brew fill her senses as Proudfoot sat beside her on the bench.  For a long moment neither spoke, sharing the view of the bright blue Pacific Ocean spread out before them.  "Almost makes you forget there's still a war going on out there," Proudfoot finally said.

"Might be over soon, if you can believe the rumors," Beaumont replied.  "The Romulans are on the retreat after Cheron."

"Not soon enough."  Proudfoot leaned forward, his hands clasped around the cup.

"I heard about the board of inquiry, Isaac.  They made the right call.  Losing the Fearless wasn't your fault."

"Six hundred and thirty-three people went down with the ship," Proudfoot said, his voice tinged with bitterness.  "My ship.  My crew.  I should have done more."

"Such as what?  Die with them?  Isaac, you saved my life that day - mine and ninety others.  That counts for something."

"Maybe."  Proudfoot watched the waves roll out to sea.  "But I'll never have another command."  At Beaumont's shocked expression, he said, "Those rumors are true - the Romulans are reaching out, looking to end the hostilities.  Seem to have lost their taste for fighting."  He shook his head sadly.  "Starfleet Command has decided that my experience is best applied... elsewhere."

Beaumont reached out and rested her hand on his arm.  "I'm so sorry," she said.  "I know what commanding a starship means to you."

"Thank you."  Proudfoot looked over at her.  "I just wanted to give you something before I shipped out."

"Shipped out?  But you just said - "

"I've resigned my commission," he said.  "There are dozens of cargo ships looking for experienced commanders to make the deep-space runs.  It may not be Starfleet, but it's still a command."  He reached into a pocket and pulled out a data chip, setting it on the bench between them.  "Look over this, Isobel.  I think they might be able to help.  Maybe even get you back into Starfleet."

Beaumont looked numbly at the chip.  "How?"

"Get in contact with Dr. Makav.  I've already told him you might be calling."  Proudfoot stood.  "Starfleet needs good people, especially now."

"Then why are you leaving?"

Proudfoot did not respond, just shook his head sadly.  "Take care of yourself, Isobel.  Maybe we'll see each other again, somewhere out there."

As Beaumont watched him walk away, she hoped he was right.  But before that could happen she had a call to make.

* * * * *

USS Pathfinder
Tau Delta system, Sector Nineteen
May 13, 2163

The UESN Vanguard was gigantic, a massive Omicron-class fighter carrier that even dwarfed the Pathfinder.  The shuttlepod was barely a speck against the slab-sided hull.

Proudfoot's vessel was a veteran of the Earth-Romulan War, its hull pitted and scarred by dozens of engagements with a faceless enemy.  Two thousand feet long, its twin fighter bays stretched forward from the crew spaces and engines at the stern, each bay capable of housing a dozen short-range warp-capable fighters.  During the war, the Omicron-class ships had been heavy hitters = a single carrier with a full complement could easily tip the balance of a battle in Starfleet's favor.

Beaumont never wanted to set foot aboard one.  While she understood the need for such vessels during wartime, it served no peaceful purpose.  All of the surviving  Omicron-class ships had been converted to long-haul cargo carriers or colonial transports - or so she had believed.

She eased the shuttlepod closer, above the main fighter bays, moving above the smaller landing pads spread along the dorsal hull.  Somewhere below her, Proudfoot was waiting for her.  One of the pads lit up and she steered the pod toward it, setting down with a gentle thump.  A moment later the pad retracted into the hull, massive doors sliding closed above her.  Beaumont felt the whirr of pumps through the pod's hull as the bay was repressurized.

A man-sized hatch set into the bulkhead swung aside to admit a half-dozen men in civilian dress, each one armed with a plasma or phase pistol.  The last one through was Proudfoot himself.

Beaumont pushed open the shuttlepod hatch and slowly stepped out, her hands raised as Proudfoot's men surrounded her.  "I'm here, Isaac," she said.  "Now do you want to tell me why?"

Proudfoot gestured for his men to lower their weapons.  Two of them crawled into the pod, hand scanners open, opening every hatch and panel as they looked for hidden weapons or transmitters.  "It's clean, sir," one of them finally said.

"Good.  Lieutenant, take your team and report back to your station."

"Are you sure about this, sir?" the lieutenant said.  "She's not one of us.  How can we trust her?"

Proudfoot smiled grimly.  "I trust her not to attack me.  As for the rest... we'll just have to see.  Go on, now."

The other men quickly departed through the hatch into the corridors of the Vanguard, leaving Beaumont and Proudfoot alone.  "It's good to see you , Isobel," he said.  "Especially back in uniform."

"I suppose I should be glad you're not wearing one, pretending to be part of your very own fleet," Beaumont replied.

"Starfleet made their choice, and I made mine.  I have no desire to act in their name - those days are long past.  What I have now... is a chance."

"A chance for what?"

Proudfoot looked at her, and for the first time Beaumont could see the unbalanced glint in his eyes.  "The chance to end the Earth-Romulan War, once and for all."

To Be Continued...

Part Two by Jerriecan

Part Two

UESN Vanguard
Tau Delta system, Sector Nineteen
May 13, 2163

"The war is over, Isaac.  We won."

Proudfoot paused and turned to Beaumont, his dark features looking decades older than the last time they had met.  "What exactly did we win?  Every single attempt to capture rather than destroy a Romulan ship ended in suicide, all too often taking our people with them in the process.  The Coalition of Planets acceded to the demands of a retreating enemy who never dared show us their face.  Even their surrender was negotiated via subspace radio.  Now they sit behind their Neutral Zone, safe from us as can be."  He shook his head.  "Think about it, Isobel.  Do those sound like the actions of a defeated enemy - or an enemy trying to buy time to continue the fight?"

It sounds like rationalization for treason, Beaumont thought, but held her tongue.

Proudfoot resumed his walk, easily stepping over the optronic cables that snaked across every meter of deck and were two or three cables deep at the corridor junctions.  "Where did you find this ship?" Beaumont said.  "I thought all the Omicron-class  carriers that made it through the war were stripped and refitted."

"And you'd be correct.  The Vanguard didn't make it through the war," Proudfoot said, running his hand over the grimy surface of the wall.  Instead of the advanced alloys and polymers of the Pathfinder, the Vanguard had been built with simplicity in mind, much like the Liberty ships of the Second World War two centuries earlier.  Plain titanium struts were covered by aluminum panels that had not even been polished, just stamped in orbital factories and then taken right to the ship for installation.  "She was declared missing in ‘58, presumed destroyed in action.  We found her in a decaying orbit over Taris Qun, hidden in the radiation belts.  She'd been ambushed by a pair of Raptors, had her warp drive knocked out.  The crew thought they could wait out the Raptors by staying in the radiation while they tried to get the warp drive back on-line."

Proudfoot grimaced at the memory of reading the logs of the dying crew.  "Turns out the Romulans had been driving ships into that belt for years - one of their favorite tactics in the area.  Whole place was a graveyard, and Starfleet never even knew.  The radiation baked the Vanguard's crew in hours."  He pulled his hand away and looked at it for a moment, almost like it was not his own, before increasing his pace.  "That's just one example of what the Romulans did, one of hundreds that happened that we never knew about during the war.  Two thousand people died on this ship, burned to death by the radiation.  People with families who never knew what happened to their loved ones."

As they reached the next intersection, Beaumont said, "How does starting another war help them?"

"Because it's not another war," Proudfoot replied.  "It's the same war.  The Romulan War never ended, regardless of what Starfleet and the Federation believe.  You think the Neutral Zone is keeping them out?  We don't even know what they look like.  We don't even have a scrap of genetic material to extrapolate from.  They could already be anywhere in the Federation - or everywhere."

"You're paranoid," Beaumont said.  "You're seeing an enemy that isn't there anymore."

"That's what the Starfleet head-shrinkers told me, too," Proudfoot said.  "They told me I was thinking irrationally.  Can you imagine - people who never served on the front lines, never saw the battles or their aftermath, judging my fitness to command."  He looked at his former science officer carefully.  "You know exactly how that feels."

Beaumont nodded, remembering the many sessions she had spent with different psychiatric specialists, both before and after the installation of the cortical processor nestled in her frontal lobe.  "Isaac, I can understand your anger.  I understand the need for vengeance.  But what you're doing out here could bring the entire Federation down, just as we're beginning to trust each other."

"The Federation," Proudfoot spat bitterly.  "The Tellarites, the Denobulans, a dozen others just sat on the sidelines during the war, waiting to see how it all shook out.  The only ones who helped us in any meaningful way were the Andorians, and I think that's just because they wanted to piss off the Vulcans.  Again.  And the Vulcans were the worst of the lot."  He looked at Beaumont, his eyes hard and cold.  "Have you read the histories that came out of the Reformation?  The violence Vulcans are capable of, the destruction, the sheer brutality they inflicted upon their own kind?  But when humanity was fighting for its existence, they sat back and did nothing.  Your precious Federation isn't worth the price humanity had to pay."

"Isaac, what happened?" Beaumont said softly.  "This isn't just about the Fearless, is it?"

Proudfoot leaned back against the bulkhead and pressed a hand to his forehead, his eyes squeezed shut in pain.  "The Fearless was just the start.  There have been attacks out here, along the frontier," he said.  "The Romulans are sending assault forces across our lines to ambush our supply lines and colonies.  Of course, there's no proof - the Rommies always have a convenient scapegoat, the Orions or the Nausicaans, even the Klingons.  But what we've found out on the fringe, the things I've seen on the supply runs..."  He paused and wiped his eyes.

"It would curdle your blood.  Hundreds murdered outright or left to starve.  Whole colonies wiped out or picked clean.  Some of the victims... some of them were... experimented on."  Visions of the carnage filled his mind.  "No pirate would inflict that kind of suffering, not so precisely.  Not even Klingons would be so barbaric.  And lately, we've seen signs of Andorian and Tellarite weaponry being used.  This is just the start, Isobel, and while they turn the Federation against itself, the Romulans just sit back behind the Neutral Zone and gather their strength, waiting for the right time to strike."  He stared into Beaumont's eyes and leaned close.  "I will not let that happen, not while it is within my power to stop it."

In that moment, Beaumont realized two things - one, that Isaac Proudfoot believed each and every word he was saying, and two - that he was utterly insane.

"How are you going to stop them?" Beaumont said, carefully choosing her words.  "The Vanguard may be powerful, but it's insignificant compared to the fleets of the Romulan Star Empire."

Proudfoot smiled grimly.  "Let me show you."

Without another word he led Beaumont deeper into the ship, past a dozen intersections, making the occasional turn and descent down metal stairs until they arrived at a heavy blast door.  Proudfoot pressed his hand to the scanner plate, then entered a long code on a keypad.  "The war could have been ended in less than a year, did you know that?" he said as the blast doors hissed and retracted.  "Starfleet had the most advance weapon ever developed - they just lacked the will to use it."

The open doors revealed a massive bay filled with power cables and computer banks, all connected to a long, irregular cylinder that ran the length of the bay.  Fins and aerials sprouted from its casing at regular intervals, a spiral of protrusions, and Beaumont had enough engineering background to realize that what she was seeing was a not a weapon but a massive subspace antenna.

Proudfoot swept an arm across the bay.  "Isobel, this is Achilles."

To Be Continued...

Part Three by Jerriecan

Part Three

USS Pathfinder
Tau Delta system, Sector Nineteen
May 13, 2163

The briefing room was nearly silent as Teague sat at the head of the conference table, hands pressed flat against the gray surface. Through the twin viewports, one of the warp fighters was visible, holding station at the Pathfinder's stern, weapons armed and ready to be used should the starship display the slightest provocation. Spaced equally around the Pathfinder were five identical fighters, each more maneuverable at sublight than the starship was - so long as they could keep the Pathfinder boxed in and unable to go to warp, the pack could easily subdue the ship.

But what worried Teague more were the larger ships - the Roosevelt and the Vanguard. The Roosevelt might not be able to stand toe-to-toe with the Pathfinder, but she could inflict major damage in a fight. And with the Vanguard, it wasn't the weapons he knew about that concerned him - it was the mystery weapon.

Teague looked at the faces of his senior staff - all except Beaumont. His stomach clenched at the thought of her situation, all alone aboard an enemy vessel, trapped with a madman determined to restart the Romulan War. Everyone's face was a mask of concern and anxiety, though some hid it better than others. T'Vril, as always, betrayed no emotion whatsoever.

"Tactical assessment," Teague said.

The wallscreen lit up as T'Vril pressed a switch. Several labeled dots were displayed on a tactical grid, a green dot in the center surrounded by eight red ones. "The Vanguard is an Omicron-class fighter carrier. Typical weapon loadout is six turret-mounted phase cannons along the ventral and dorsal spines, augmented with ten high-yield particle cannons along the flanks. There are ten torpedo tubes, six forward and four aft. Warhead load would typically be six hundred, divided equally between spatial, plasma and nuclear." The display flickered and showed a schematic of the Vanguard. "The hull plating is fullerene-impregnated duranium slab with a polarization rating of seven-point-six. For comparison, our own hull is rated at five-point-nine." That meant that the Vanguard's hull was significantly better at dissipating weapon fire than the Pathfinder's.

The display changed to a schematic of a warp fighter, eerily reminiscent of the NX-Alpha, the early testbed for Starfleet's warp 5 program - twin warp nacelles on either side of a cylindrical hull, joined by stubby wings. "That does not include ordnance intended for the twelve short-range warp-capable fighters the ship carries. Each carries eight torpedoes and also mounts twin high-yield phase cannons. Add to this the capabilities of the Roosevelt, and the tactical outlook is... unpromising."

"You're a master of understatement, Commander," said Amara. "We're surrounded and outgunned, not to mention minus our first officer."

Teague ignored his engineer's pointed comment. "So we can't run, and we can't fight - either would be suicidal," he said. "Proudfoot has us right where he wants us. What is he waiting for?"

"Maybe we're overestimating their capabilities," said Webb. "That carrier needs a crew of thousands - even a skeleton crew would be in the hundreds - and they'd all need at least basic Starfleet training to operate the systems. Add in the fighter pilots, a crew for the Roosevelt - it's just not possible. There's no way this guy found that many Fleet-trained people who think like he does."

"What about coercion?" said Marakis. "Maybe he's forcing the crews of the stripped ships to run the ships under threat."

"I don't buy it," said Webb.

T'Vril shifted her gaze to Webb. "Regardless, Lieutenant, the tactical situation remains unchanged."

"Maybe it has," said Amara. "Those carriers were built as fast as we could crank them out of the Phobos and Jovian orbital yards. Sophistication wasn't a priority. Even some of the newer long-range cargo carriers are more automated that that hulk. It makes sense that they would have had to rig up some kind of automated control system." He thumped his fist on the table. "That would explain why they stripped all those cargo ships - not just for cargo but for enough optronic cable to rig up the automation."

Teague nodded. "It makes sense, but that still doesn't answer the question - even if the Vanguard is at less than full capability, these fighters could pick us apart before we could get into warp. So I ask again - why haven't they finished us off?"

"They want the Pathfinder intact," Sarria said quietly.

All eyes in the conference room turned to her. "It's the only rational explanation. Their first targets were civilian transports which they stripped to the spaceframes. Then they took the Roosevelt without a scratch. They're - trading up?" Sarria looked to her roommate to confirm she was using the unfamiliar phrase correctly and Webb nodded. "Starfleet's newest ship would make a fine prize."

Teague glanced at T'Vril. "The logic is sound," was all the Vulcan said.

"But that still tells us nothing about the weapon itself," said Marakis.

Throughout the briefing Kassin had remained silent, gnawing on his left thumbnail. "Thoughts, Commander?" Teague said, an edge of irritation in his voice.

"Um - there may be a way to detect the full range of the weapon's operating frequencies," he said, shaken out of his private thoughts. "I'll have to tear down one of the sensor heads and recalibrate by hand to account for the tolerances in the system."

"How long?"

"Two hours, at least, sir."

"Get on it. I want to know the instant they try using that weapon on us again." He looked at Dr Ranik. "What about Beaumont's signal?"

"The cortical processor is still fully functional and broadcasting telemetry," Ranik said. "Of course, all the telemetry does is indicate whether the implant is active or not - it's not a surveillance device. Other than that there's very little that I can surmise about her condition."

"Let's hope it stays that way," Teague said. "In the meantime I want firing solutions on every one of these ships, both to disable and destroy. We don't have the sheer firepower to take out the Vanguard, but I want the ability to at least disable every other ship out here, including the Roosevelt. If we can do that, we'll have a good chance to escape."

"And what about Commander Beaumont?" said Webb, her arms folded across her chest. "Do we just abandon her?"

Teague's expression softened slightly. "Not if there's any other choice," he said.

To Be Continued...

Part Four by Jerriecan

Part Four

UESN Vanguard
Tau Delta system, Sector Nineteen
May 13, 2163

Beaumont stood at the railing, looking down at the weapon that Proudfoot called Achilles. It was a truly massive construct, stretching hundreds of meters down the bay, mounted along the spine of the Vanguard. Dozens of people surrounded the weapon, replacing components, calling out readings and making adjustments to the system. Even if it was a weapon, Beaumont still thought it was a spectacular piece of engineering. "What is this?" she said.

Proudfoot exchanged a few murmured words with the nearest technician before answering her. "Achilles is the most powerful subspace transmitter ever carried aboard a starship," he said. "It's not the most efficient device - anything but, in fact. Its power requirements are massive. It can affect targets over short to medium combat ranges, out to about a million kilometers."

"Is it some kind of jamming system?" Beaumont said. She knew full well that it was not, but she needed to keep Proudfoot talking, to get him to share concrete details, something they might be able to use against him. "A million kilometers isn't even a dent when it comes to subspace comms."

Proudfoot smiled. "You're right, of course, Isobel. Achilles doesn't jam subspace frequencies - it generates a modulated pulse on very specific wavelengths. It uses a target's internal systems to amplify those frequencies, spreading the field throughout the target."

He turned to face Beaumont. "It's quite elegant, in a terrible way. The Achilles pulse effects the brain directly, rendering its victims... compliant. It leaves them suggestible, easily controlled, able to follow simple instructions but utterly incapable of resistance. Much like the siren's call of ancient Earth myth." At Beaumont's horrified expression, he said, "Of course, the effect is only temporary - it fades within a few minutes of stopping the pulse. But by that time a small force can have an ship's entire crew restrained and take control of the ship, all without a shot fired in anger."

Beaumont's stomach lurched as she went pale listening to her former commanding officer describe the effect of Achilles. It was no wonder Starfleet had never used it - Achilles wasn't just a weapon, it was mind control on a massive scale. "It's barbaric," she said.

"No, barbaric is sacrificing the innocent in a war when the key to victory was in our grasp all along," Proudfoot replied. "Starfleet proved that in the Romulan War."

"You used this on the Roosevelt. On a Starfleet crew."

"I had to prove my point to Starfleet. They weren't harmed, just like the crews of the cargo ships."

"So where are they?"

"We dropped them on Tau Delta III, along with enough supplies to be quite comfortable. The region we dropped them in will be temperate for several months. Did you really think I would use them as slave labor... or something worse?"

"The thought crossed my mind," Beaumont admitted.

Proudfoot frowned. "The Vanguard was the first field test of Achilles, and they managed to take out two assault groups of Preybirds. The Romulans still managed to self-destruct - paranoia in all its glory." He clenched his right hand into a fist. "Soon after, the Romulans chased this ship into that radiation belt because they couldn't get close enough to destroy it outright."

Proudfoot's eyes narrowed. "How did you figure it out?"

"Sir?" she said, his sudden question taking her by surprise.

"Don't play dumb with me, Commander," Proudfoot spat, his tone changing from sadness to anger at the same moment he chose to address her by rank and not by name. "It was your implant, wasn't it? Is that what gave you enough warning to jam the Achilles pulse?"

"I didn't know about any signal until you showed me this - " Beaumont said.

Proudfoot shook his head. "You never could bluff worth a damn. You're too earnest, too honest. No guile." He nodded once and Beaumont felt hands clasp around her biceps, On either side of her were technicians, each with a holstered sidearm. She struggled for only a moment before realizing the futility of it - even if she escaped, where could she go?

Proudfoot clasped his hands behind his back and approached her. "Commander, so far I've been truthful with you. I have not once tried to conceal my motives, despite the fact that the advantage is mine. The first thing I ask for from you... and you try and lie to me. Not a good way to begin."

"You don't really think you can win, do you?" she said. "Even if you do manage to reignite the war, you'll have both the Federation and the Romulans against you. It's suicide."

"Once people see what the Romulans have done - what they're still doing - they will understand my actions. People will see I did what had to be done to protect humanity. Over time, more and more will support me... until the tide is unstoppable. Until the day the Romulan Star Empire is broken at last." He looked at her captors. "Take her to Sickbay. Isolate the frequencies her implant shares with the Achilles pulse and work around them."

"What then?" one of them asked.

"Then... confine her to quarters and make damned sure she's secure, with a guard outside at all times. Achilles will be charged to fire again in - " Proudfoot checked a nearby readout - "thirty-six minutes. This time we take the Pathfinder."

Beaumont's eyes widened in shock. "The jamming - "

"Stopped a medium-power pulse," Proudfoot replied. "The next time we fire, the Achilles pulse will be at maximum strength... and at this range, nothing your ship can do will stop it."

As the men dragged her off, Beaumont heard him say, "Soon we'll be on our way to the Neutral Zone... and the Pathfinder will be my flagship."

To Be Continued...

Part Five by Jerriecan

Part Five

UESN Vanguard
Tau Delta system, Sector Nineteen
May 13, 2163

"What did you do?" said the tall technician.

His name was Jakobs, and his shorter, stocky cohort was Allenby. Neither man was comfortable with what they were doing, it seemed - they wore their weapons because they were ordered to, not because they felt being armed was necessary. They had taken her from the Achilles bay to Sickbay, where they had secured her to an exam table with fabric straps. Now Allenby ran a bulky scanner over Beaumont's head while Jakobs scritinized the readout, trying to sift out which parts of the Achilles pulse had tripped the implant.

But now the signal from the implant had cut out. "What do you mean?" said Allenby.

"The implant - it's just stopped," Jakobs said. "Total shutdown."

On the table Beaumont uttered a low giggle - the whole situation was suddenly very funny to her. "Of course it shut down," she spat, a hard edge in her voice. "Your pulse almost fried it the first time. It was barely working by the time I set foot aboard this ship. Just a matter of time." Her arms strained against the straps holding her to the exam table. She needed to move, to get up, but the chances of that were slim. It was hard to think - Beaumont's thoughts were no longer the ones she was used to but a tangled mess of impulses.

Jakobs and Allenby shared a worried glance. "I'm calling the captain," Jakobs said.

Beaumont's laugh filled the exam room, utterly unexpected even by her. "Really? You want to bother him now, when he's just about to assault Starfleet's most advanced ship? I'm sure he'd be delighted for you to take precious time out of his busy day to bring him up to speed on my lack of well-being," she snarled. She could hardly believe the cutting tone in her voice - even on her worst days before the implant, she had never sounded like this.

Got to calm down or they might sedate you, she thought, and choked back the next words she wanted to say - something unflattering about their parentage. Then she breathed deeply, remembering the mental exercises she had learned in her long rehabilitation, trying to control her raging thoughts. She hated this feeling, hated it even in a safe, controlled environment, and this was anything but safe or controlled. Every light seemed too bright, every sound too sharp, every sensation too intense, all trying to crowd out rational thought. "I can survive perfectly well without the implant," she explained through gritted teeth. "It just make things - easier to deal with."

Yhe two men shared another quick look. "Come on, let's get her secured," Allenby said, unbuckling the straps. Neither made a motion toward the comm terminal on the desk to alert Proudfoot.

Beaumont could barely hold back her grin as they led her away from Sickbay.

* * * * *

"Commander Beaumont's signal has ceased, Captain," said T'Vril.

Teague was ready. "Tactical alert. Execute evasive plan Gamma. Commander T'Vril, disable those fighters as fast as you can."

Web pressed her hands to the helm controls and the Pathfinder instantly responded to her touch. The massive fusion-powered impulse engines flared bright blue, propelling the starship forward through a tiny gap between the warp fighters. At the same time, a metered electrical current was being passed through the hull plating, aligning the molecular structure of the ship's skin into, effectively, a single colossal construct instead of separate plates, one that was capable of dispersing more energy damage than separate plates could hope to manage.

That did not make the hull indestructible, however. The warp fighters set off in pursuit almost as soon as the Pathfinder moved, firing their high-yield phase cannons at the fleeing ship and scorching the hull with each successful strike. The Pathfinder fired back as it ran, scoring hits on a pair of fighters before the smaller craft reached full speed and their maneuverability could keep them just out of Pathfinder's weapons fire. The pair slowed and circled back toward the Vanguard, their impulse engines stuttering.

On the bridge T'Vril calmly watched her tactical display, a schematic of the Pathfinder centered on the screen. Various portions of the ship lit up red as weapon fire struck, then faded to yellow as the energy dissipated through the hull. "Two enemy craft disabled. Multiple phase cannon impacts, minor damage. Polarization capacity down ten percent."

"How long until we're clear for warp?" Teague said.

Marakis didn't have to check his console - he had run the calculations in his head. "Three minutes, twenty seconds."

Teague was doing the same, though his figures were coming out considerably more grim. At this rate, the warp fighters would disable Pathfinder in less than two minutes, long before they could get clear of the gas giant's gravity well - just as he had feared. "What about the larger ships?" he said.

T'Vril answered him instead of the science officer - Kassin was still halfway through rebuilding the sensor head, somewhere down in the bowels of the ship. "The Roosevelt is drifting, sir. Vanguard is on a pursuit course but her acceleration is less than ours."

The Pathfinder shook under another volley of phase cannon impacts. "Close the distance," Teague muttered. "Helm, reverse course - take us back toward the planet."

"Sir?" said Webb, even as her hands obeyed the command.

"Proudfoot expects us to run - he doesn't expect us to go for his throat," Teague explained. "Take us right across their bow and beneath their keel. T'Vril, arm a full spread of plasma torpedoes. Target the ventral weapons systems."

Deep inside the Pathfinder torpedoes locked into their and nozzles found fill ports, charging them with high-energy plasma from the warp reactor. Six torpedoes sat, death in gray casings, waiting for the ocmmand to be unleashed and fulfill their function.

Teague smiled grimly as the Vanguard filled the main viewscreen. "Fire!"

To Be Continued...

Part Six by Jerriecan

Part Six

UESN Vanguard
Tau Delta system, Sector Nineteen
May 13, 2163

Beaumont was ready as soon as the first torpedo hit.

Between the end of Proudfoot's communication with the Pathfinder and when Beaumont had departed aboard the shuttlepod, there had been precious little time to come up with a plan of action, or even a means of communication between her and her ship. In the end, they were left with only one option - the implant's telemetry. If that signal stopped, for any reason, that would mean that Proudfoot intended to use his weapon on the Pathfinder again.

As part of its normal function, Beaumont's cortical processor broadcast a constant telemetry signal that was received and processed by the medical systems in Sickbay. Intended as an early warning system for potential problems with the implant, the signal was so low-powered it was almost as hard to detect as the Achilles pulse it was now being used to warn the Pathfinder against. Of course, Beaumont had lied about the extent of the damage - the implant had been designed to be deactivated with a thought should it malfunction. For the first time, she found herself thankful that Dr. Makav had insisted upon including that particular feature. Unfortunately, reactivating the implant was not so simple - it required a full diagnostic check by a qualified neurosurgeon, or at least a ship's chief medical officer.

On her left, Allenby looked around nervously as the Vanguard shuddered. "What the hell - ?"

Beaumont jammed her elbow into Allenby's gut and grabbed his right arm, wrenching him around, placing him in between herself and Jakobs. She shoved Allenby forward, her heart racing as adrenaline flooded her system, then reached up and slammed his head into Jakobs', dazing both men. She reached down, yanked Allenby's sidearm - an old-style plasma pistol - from its belt holster, and fired a blast into his right foot.

Allenby screamed and fell to the deck, clutching at the charred, ruined stump where his foot had been moments before. Jakobs was recovering quickly, pulling his own pistol, but he wasn't fast enough. Beaumont fired as Jakobs dodged, vaporizing a foot-wide hole in the aluminum corridor paneling and the equipment beneath, sending a spray of white-hot molten aluminum and razor-sharp fibercoil into his face and chest. Screaming, the man fell to the deck, his face a ruined mass of scorched tissue and blood.

Beaumont didn't bother looking down at him before she ran down the corridor, stopping only long enough to relieve both men of whatever power cells they had for their weapons - one spare each. Not much if she got in a firefight.

She had to put as much distance between herself and them as possible - soon, every crewman Proudfoot could spare would be searching for her. The Vanguard was massive but not infinitely so, and much of that was empty space - the fighter bays. She set off toward the bow at a run, pausing at the intersections just long enough to check that none of Proudfoot's crew were nearby before darting past.

At least her situation had one positive aspect - concentrating on evasion and escape made her less aware of lacking the implant's control over her chaotic thoughts. Those long days during her rehabilitation at Acacia Creek had been almost unbearable, with noting for her mind to do but think of ways to get her into trouble. Now at least she had purpose - somehow get out of this alive, and maybe throw a wrench in Proudfoot's plans along the way.

Twice she almost tripped over the bundles of wrist-thick cables that weaved across her path like technological vines. The third time her foot caught she stumbled, grabbing at the bulkhead to steady herself, her teeth bared in sudden fury. She raised the pistol, her finger tightening on the trigger... then she slowly lowered it as she regained control of her thoughts. She carefully looked at the tangle of cables - sever had been spliced together, forming a single long piece running hundreds - maybe thousands - of feet through the ship.

Cables, but no crew, Beaumont thought, and an instant later: Control runs for automated systems.

She found herself smiling as she raised the pistol again, this time not from anger but certainty. Aiming down the corridor, Beaumont found a knot of overlapping cables a hundred feet away. She centered the sights on the knot, squeezed the trigger, and a blue-white flash filled the corridor as a bolt of plasma erupted from the muzzle and tore through the cables, severing most of them and fusing the rest into an smoking black lump. The corridor lit us as energy arced from the ends of the cables to the bare metal surface of the walls and deck, hopefully shorting out whatever systems they controlled. At the very least it would take time and manpower to repair the damage - and she hoped Proudfoot would be short on both.

But even if she blasted every cable she came across, she might not even make a dent - none of them were tied to Achilles, she was sure. No, she had to find a way to inflict serious damage all at once. She looked around, saw a tiny plaque mounted to the wall, and studied it carefully. A moment later, a savage grin spreading across her face, she loped off toward the starboard fighter bay.

"All right, then, Isaac," she snarled to nobody in particular, not caring if she were overheard. "No more bluffing."

To Be Continued...

Part Seven by Jerriecan

Part Six

UESN Vanguard
Tau Delta system, Sector Nineteen
May 13, 2163

"Damage report!" Proudfoot shouted over the din of alert klaxons and fire extinguishers being sprayed on smoldering consoles.

"Severe damage to all ventral turrets!" a crewman shouted back. "And the primary control run to the starboard weapons is out, too. That makes no sense, we took no damage anywhere near that section - "

A cold lump formed in the pit of Proudfoot's stomach. "That wasn't the Pathfinder. That was her." He looked at nearby tactical display, where one large blip was motionless. "What about the Roosevelt?"

"Control runs shorted out when they tried to go to tactical alert," the crewman replied. "No casualties, but she's dead in the water."

"Damn," Proudfoot muttered. He had been afraid the ship wasn't ready, that the control runs would short out under the strain of trying to automate an entire Daedalus-class starship so only a dozen men could operate her. "Tell them we'll be back for them."

"Already did, sir." the crewman said. "Sir, we should reconsider trying to take the Pathfinder intact. With half our weapons disabled, chances are she'll try to make a run for it - and we won't be able to stop her."

"I know," Proudfoot said quietly. "I've seen Teague's record, I know the type of man he is - he won't abandon one of his crew." He stared at the main viewscreen where the Pathfinder was rushing toward the gas giant, the quartet of warp fighters surrounding her like an angry swarm of wasps. "Pathfinder won't run."

* * * * *

"Good shooting, Commander." Teague watched as the Vanguard's hill crackled with energy where her ventral phase cannons used to be. "Estimated damage?"

"All ventral phase cannons have been disabled," T'Vril said. "It is unlikely they will be able to effect field repairs."

"Now for the hard part," Teague said. "Lieutenant Webb, set a direct course for Tau Delta VI, maximum impulse. Get us into the atmosphere."

Everyone on the bridge knew their options - running was suicidal, as was a head-on battle, but maybe they had a chance if they could hide. Teague was familiar with Proudfoot's combat record, of his experience with the very situation that Teague was about to put the Pathfinder into. Only this time the roles were reversed - Proudfoot would be the hunter, and the Pathfinder his concealed prey. "Give me shipwide," he said to Sarria.

"All hands, this is the Captain. We are shortly going to be entering the atmosphere of Tau Delta VI. Be prepared to evacuate your sections. Damage control teams, stand by to isolate hull breaches and vent invasive atmosphere. Teague, out." He looked ahead at the giant blue-striped world that filled the viewscreen, hoping that he could buy them enough time. "Webb, take us in."

The Pathfinder dove toward the planet, the quartet of warp fighters rapidly closing on her as the Vanguard lumbered in a wide arc as she tried to pursue. A stray phase blast struck just aft of the bridge, disrupting the power and rocking the ship. "Damage report!" Teague said as the bridge plunged into darkness.

"Hull plating is holding but damaged, aft centerline of the bridge," T'Vril said. "Polarization integrity is compromised."

That meant a weak spot - much more damage there and the polarization would start to fail, leaving areas of the hull vulnerable. Teague slammed his hand on the comm switch in his armrest. "Teague to Engineering. Rik, I need more power to the engines."

"Reactors are at one-hundred-seven percent," Amara replied, his voice crackling as the power flickered. "They're already too close to an overload."

"We're out of time. Give me whatever else you can."

There was the slightest pause before Amara replied. "Aye, sir. Bringing reactors to one-hundred ten percent. Whatever you're planning, do it fast - we might get eight minutes before we lose containment."

"Understood," Teague said grimly. "Tactical, find the biggest storm on the planet, then feed those coordinates directly to Navigation," he said. "We have less than eight minutes to get as deep as we can."

* * * * *

On the bridge of the Vanguard, Proudfoot watched the tactical display change as the Pathfinder dove toward the gas giant. Her captain was no fool - going to ground was his only realistic option - but Proudfoot was an old hand at this game. "Helm, decrease speed," he said.

"Sir, they could escape," the helmsman replied. "If they get deep enough we could lose them on scanners."

"I'm sure we will," Proudfoot said. "But down there, in the murk, we'd both be blind as bats - and our fighters would be worse than useless." He sat back, his fingers steepled. "No, we wait. Give them time to hole up, to get secure, to let their guard down just enough..." He clamped his hands together like the jaws of a bear trap. "Then we use Achilles... and they'll gladly bring their ship up to greet us." He turned to an engineer. "How long until we can fire a full-charge pulse?"

"Their attack overloaded some of the internal relays," the engineer said. "I've got repair teams working to replace them but we're stretched thin. Three hours, at least."

"Open a channel." Proudfoot waited a moment then said, "Proudfoot to all fighters. Break off pursuit - we need you back on the ship."

"Aye sir," the fighter leader acknowledged, and the four warp fighters veered away from the Pathfinder, headed back toward the fighter carrier.

For a long moment, Proudfoot sat motionless in the command chair, his face a mask of stone. Then he pressed another button. "Status of the search, Lieutenant?" he said.

"We found Jakobs and Allenby - she hurt both of them pretty bad. We'll have to put them in stasis tubes until we can get to a medical facility. Beaumont's got one plasma pistol and no more than three full powerpacks for it."

"I doubt she'll need much," Proudfoot said quietly. Taking on the Pathfinder directly, he was prepared for - having a saboteur aboard, especially one who knew him as well as Beaumont, was proving far more troublesome. "Call off the search. Withdraw to the Achilles bay and defend it at all costs. Send everyone else to secure Main Engineering."

"What about Commander Beaumont, sir?"

"I'll deal with her. You have - " he checked a nearby readout - "seven minutes before the hatches seal. If you see Beaumont, do not engage - follow your orders. Understood?"

"Yes, sir," came the reply, and the connection was closed.

Proudfoot looked over to the environmental subsystems console. "I'm sorry, Isobel," he said softly. "But you leave me no choice."

In just over seven minutes, Commander Isobel Beaumont would be dead.

To Be Continued...

Part Eight by Jerriecan

Part Eight

UESN Vanguard
Tau Delta system, Sector Nineteen
May 13, 2163

"Isobel, please listen to me."

Proudfoot's voice rang through the empty corridors of the Vanguard, echoing off every bare metal surface. Crouching behind a corner at a T-junction, Beaumont paused for a moment as her former commander continued. The air seemed thin, she had trouble catching her breath.

"I want you to give yourself up. I've ordered my crew not to engage you. We found Jakobs and Allenby - we know how serious you are." A pause. "Here's how serious I am. You might have noticed it's getting difficult to breathe. That's because I've started purging the atmosphere from the ship, save for a few select locations, none of which will greet you with open arms. The purge will be complete in less than six minutes."

Beaumont's heart immediately sped up, pounding in her chest as her lungs demanded more oxygen and failed to find any.

"Go to the nearest comm station and tell me where you are, and I'll halt the purge. There's no need for you to die today, Isobel... but if you force my hand, don't think that I'll hesitate. What I'm doing is larger than any one person. If a sacrifice must be made... so be it. You have five minutes."

Even before Proudfoot's voice clicked off Beaumont was in motion, racing towards one of the emergency lockers spread throughout the ship. She yanked open the door of the nearest one, found the locker bare, ran down the corridor to the next and found it just the same. She slammed the door closed , sending a reverberating bang echoing down the corridor. You already had your crew empty them out, she thought, just in case something like this might happen. You always did plan ahead.

Heartbeat thundering in her chest, Beaumont fell back against the bulkhead, looking at the starboard landing bay and wheezing as her lungs tried to extract oxygen from the ever-thinning air. Without a survival suit she would die horribly. Her body tissues would swell and burst as her fluids boiled away in zero pressure, leaving her a torn and bloated corpse -

Focus, she thought sharply, trying to force the unwanted images from her mind's eye. She had no doubt that Proudfoot would follow through on his word.

And she was running out of time.

* * * * *

Sixty seconds.

Proudfoot watched the clock count down as the oxygen reading dropped. Already there was less oxygen than at the summit of Mount Everest; in moments, it would be like trying to breathe at twenty thousand feet. His hand hovered over the purge controls at the Environmental Engineering subsystems console. This was not ask for a subordinate - this was the deliberate, cold-blooded murder of a Starfleet officer. More than that, she had been his friend. It was his order and his own hand would carry it out.

The numbers clicked off the display - fifty, forty, thirty, down to twenty-six before Beaumont's breathless voice filled the bridge. "Stop the countdown... Section Six... corridor Alpha-Nineteen," she said.

Proudfoot's hand trembled but did not move. "Promise me, Isobel. No more resistance."

"I promise, Isaac," she replied. "There's... nothing more... I can do."

He dialed the control knob back to full and the hiss of air filled the ship. "My men will be there shortly to collect you," he said, a soft quiver in his voice. He nodded to the rest of the men on the bridge, and the three of them stepped into the turbolift and were whisked away. "They'll escort you to the bridge."

"What... don't you trust me?" Beaumont said, already sounding better.

"Something like that," he replied after a long pause. "I'm... glad you didn't make me follow through."

"And I'm sorry you thought this was your only choice," she said. "You knew I'd try to escape."

"Your duty as a Starfleet officer," he said. "You always had that potential to be the best of us."

Faint voices echoed over the comm, yelling for Beaumont to get on her knees as the trio of crewmen approached her. "My chaperones are here," she said. "Guess I'll see you soon."

The comm clicked off, leaving Proudfoot alone on the silent bridge of the Vanguard.

* * * * *

Andrei Kassin was good with his hands, at least when it came to computers. He could not sculpt or build a birdhouse, but when it came to the minuscule adjustments of starship sensors and scanners, he was an artist.

That said, trying to make fine adjustments to the sensors during a running battle was significantly more challenging. As the Pathfinder rocked back and forth under enemy fire, he constantly had to go back and repeat work he had already done. If he had been in the dark about what they faced, the task would have been impossible.

But Kassin knew exactly what they were up against.

When the last sensor module was mounted back in place, Kassin ran to the nearest wall communicator and slammed his fist on the button. "Kassin to bridge, sensor recalibration is complete."

"Get back up here, Commander," came Teague's reply.

Kassin darted to the nearest turbolift, stumbling once as the ship rocked, but this did not feel like weapon fire. No, this was more like atmospheric entry. The ride up to the bridge seemed to take an eternity, until the door finally slid aside to reveal the bridge in chaos. Smoke hung in the air as overloaded relays sparked and smoldered, lights flickered as power was diverted around the damaged systems. Kassin spared no time in returning to his console and activating the recalibrated sensors. "No indication of Achilles activity," he said, and for one heartstopping moment he was sure that Teague was going to turn to him and ask him exactly what the hell he meant by that.

But nobody on the bridge seemed to notice his slip of the tongue. "They're not trying to use the weapon," Kassin continued. "At least, not yet."

"Keep on it, Commander. You see any indication of that weapon, any at all, don't keep it to yourself." Teague looked back at the main viewscreen, where the clouds of Tau Delta VI were almost close enough to touch. Just below them were titanic bands of murky clouds large enough to hide entire planets, and storms that had raged for centuries. No place for man or his flimsy starships.

"Take us down," he ordered.

To Be Continued...

Part Nine by Jerriecan

Part Nine

UESN Vanguard
Tau Delta system, Sector Nineteen
May 13, 2163

"We've lost them, sir."

Isaac Proudfoot nodded slowly, watching the blue-tinged clouds of Tau Delta VI roll beneath them. The Vanguard was in low orbit, barely a hundred kilometers above the cloudtops, and the ship's scanners were bombarding the planet. But Proudfoot knew that trying to scan through these clouds was a fool's game. "Let them hide," he said quietly. "They'll come back up soon enough."

Slowly he turned to face Beaumont. She had been seated at the communication station, with a trio of crewman surrounding her in case she became unruly. That was unlikely, given that her wrists were secured with magnetic shackles, remnants of an earlier, more barbaric age that , even on Starfleet ships, still found the occasional use. "Isobel, I..."

"What?" she replied. "You're sorry for trying to kill me? Didn't stop you."

"You left me no choice," Proudfoot said.

Beaumont chuckled. "Do you think that if you say it enough you'll actually believe it someday?"

Instead of responding, Proudfoot pressed the conversation another direction. "What is your captain planning?"

Her voice filled with bile, Beaumont said, "I don't know. You didn't leave us much time to discuss tactics."

"Too much time, as it turns out," Proudfoot said. "Pathfinder's transporter was undamaged, wasn't it? That line about needing to travel by shuttlepod - you were just buying time. And ten minutes was all you needed to throw a major wrench into my plans." He shook his head. "I underestimated you, Isobel."

"Then you should believe me when I say that you can't succeed," Beaumont said. "It's not too late to give up your war."

"I told you, it's not my war," Proudfoot said. "And it's been too late for a long time now." He turned to study a nearby readout - a countdown timer was clearly visible, with just over two hours and seven minutes remaining. "I know your captain won't surrender - he's not that type. He'll go down fighting if he must."

He leaned forward, clasping his hands together. "But he'll listen to you. Talk to him, Isobel. Ask him to surrender the Pathfinder and I guarantee there will be no further bloodshed this day."

"So you can dump us with the rest, prisoners of your own private war?" Beaumont spat. "Go to hell. If you want the Pathfinder, you're going to have to fight for it. And I promise you it won't be easy."

"I don't doubt that. I had to try," Proudfoot sighed. He turned to a crewman. "Arm a dozen plasma charges, maximum yield." His calm gaze returned to Beaumont. "If I can't have the Pathfinder for my prize, then I'll settle for her destruction. I'll bury Starfleet's flagship right here if I must."

"The you'd better get digging," Beaumont said. "You're going to be filling a lot of graves."

* * * * *

Deep in the atmosphere of Tau Delta VI, the Pathfinder shook as it passed through one of the many storms that riddled the clouds of the gas giant. This one was a hurricane the size of a small moon. The ship was a thousand kilometers deep, buried in a blue-white haze of methane, water and a few more exotic compounds, and so far that seemed to be concealing her from the Vanguard's scanners. Just beyond the hull, the tremendous atmospheric pressure threatened to buckle the plates and force its way inside, flooding the ship with toxic gas. In that respect, thus far they had been lucky.

But luck could never be counted on for long.

Teague stepped through the hatch into Main Engineering and was greeted by a wall of noise, along with the sharp tang of burnt circuitry mixed with vaporized coolant. Repair teams of twos and threes worked at open panels, replacing damaged components before moving on to where they were needed next. Since the start of the attack, there had been little time for them to take a breather, and it seemed unlikely that would change anytime soon. At the center of the chamber, standing near the matter/antimatter reactor that powered the warp engines, Amara orchestrated his crews like a symphony conductor.

Teague muscled his way over. "Rik, what's our status?"

Amara let loose a stream of profanities under his breath. "Bad," was all he said clearly. He didn't bother to turn and look - there was too much work to be done in keeping the ship from getting any worse. "We lost the starboard impulse reactor on the final approach. Coolants feeds blew out and flooded the whole compartment. I've got four crewmen in Sickbay, one who probably won't make it."

Without both impulse engines, the Pathfinder was having a difficult time maintaining her position. "Can it be repaired?"

"I've got everyone I can spare replacing the feed lines. Give me an hour and I'll have an answer."

Teague nodded. "What else?"

"The hull plating has taken a major beating. We have replacement stock, but there's no way I'm sending out my teams in this storm. We need calm space to perform that kind of work, preferably a nice high orbit. I doubt we'll get it."

"Hull integrity?"

"She's holding - just. We're getting a few leaks, mainly around viewport and hatch seals, but they're pretty steady. I've got a team out reinforcing the seals just in case." For the first time, Amara looked at Teague. "We cut this way too close."

"Didn't have a choice, Rik." Teague looked up at the massive warp core. "Other damage?"

"The rest is fairly minor, mainly blown relays or power fluctuations. Warp drive is intact - all we need is the chance to run."

"Can't run this time," Teague said. "Not while Proudfoot has that weapon. God only knows the kind of damage he could do if we let him get away. He leaned in close and lowered his voice. "Be prepared to divert all available power at a moment's notice."

"To where?"

"I'm working on it. Just be ready." Teague left Amara to his work, making his way across Engineering to the nearest wall communicator. He punched the switch and said, "Teague to bridge. Commander T'Vril and Lieutenant Webb, report to the hangar deck immediately. I'll meet you there."

To Be Continued...

Chapter Ten by Jerriecan

Part Ten

USS Pathfinder
in the atmosphere of Tau Delta VI
May 13, 2163

"It's crazy," Webb blurted.

Standing in the hangar bay, Teague was unmoved. "Can you make it work?"

Nearby, T'Vril was studying a monitor that was currently displaying a rough schematic that was... unorthodox, to say the least. "It is theoretically possible, though I am unaware of such a device ever being conceived. There would be no guarantee it would function correctly, or even at all."

"There's no time for guarantees. Can you do it?"

Webb looked around. "We can put the pieces together. We'll need an engineering crew to do the heavy lifting and to actually get it assembled."

"Then get moving. Whatever you need, you're cleared to take."

Teague walked away, leaving Webb shaking her head. "Commander Amara isn't going to like this one bit," she said. "Brand new ship and everything - it's a shame what we're about to do."

"What the chief engineer likes is irrelevant," T'Vril replied. "We have a great deal of work to do."

* * * * *

Beaumont could barely keep still as the clock counted down, inexorably dropping toward zero. With each passing moment Achilles was building its charge, awaiting only the right moment to unleash its power against the Pathfinder.

And there was nothing more she could do to stop it.

She looked over at Proudfoot as he sat in the command chair, looking like some ancient statue that was crumbling beneath the ravages of time and stress. His dark skin had taken on a gray tinge, and Beaumont wondered how long it had been since he had last slept. "When did it happen, Isaac?"

"What?" he said absently.

"When did you decide you had to restart the war?"

Proudfoot shook his head and sighed. "I'm not playing this game with you anymore, Isobel. You can't talk me out of this."

"We were friends for a long time, Isaac. I think I deserve the truth."

Proudfoot stood and walked toward the main screen and murky clouds of Tau Delta VI it showed. "It was eight months after the treaty. I was captaining a T-class freighter, out on the tail end of the Sigma Draconis run. Last stop was this tiny mining colony - six hundred people who had scrimped and saved every scrap of profit for two years, just to buy a simple auto-doc unit. Can you imagine it? Trying to carve out a life inside an airless rock with just basic first aid. They were so happy when we unloaded it - the party lasted for two days. It was almost a shame we had to leave."

He looked down, his voice quieter as he resumed. "We were four days out when we picked up their distress call. We reversed course at once, drove the engines as hard as we dared... but by the time we got back, it was too late. Every last colonist was dead. Whoever attacked the colony stripped everything of value, right to the bare rock, then purged the atmosphere on their way out. The few who survived, who hid deep in the mines during the attack, ran out of air while we were still half a day out."

He paused, his hands trembling, and then he looked up at Beaumont, his eyes cold as space. "I saw enough Romulan weapon damage during the war to recognize it when I saw it. I started asking questions, listening to the stories that spacers told when they got together, and they were always the same - out on the fringes, someone was killing people. I tracked down the few who survived, heard their stories, saw their wounds. I went to the colonies and saw what little remained, picked up the ash and let it fall from my hands."

Proudfoot gestured at the bridge of the Vanguard. "Finding this ship was pure luck... or perhaps it was fate. I was trying to track down Starfleet ships that had gone missing during the war, maybe to try and build a fleet that could defend the fringe colonies. But when we recovered the Vanguard, when we found Achilles and realized what it could do... that's when I knew what had to be done."

Beaumont looked again at the countdown - seventeen minutes and change. 'What happened was tragic. Criminal. But vengeance won't work, Isaac - it will just spill more blood."

"What else can I do?" Proudfoot whispered.

"Take your claims to Starfleet. Let them see what you've seen. Let them decide for themselves if what you claim could be true. If there's event he slightest chance you're right, they would have no choice but to act."

For a moment Proudfoot's gaze wavered, and Beaumont through he might be listening, that he might actually turn away from this path toward destruction. Then he turned away. "No, Isobel. I've made my choice. If Starfleet decides to follow my lead, I won't refuse them... but I won't turn back now. Even if I could."

Beaumont licked her dry lips as the countdown clicked over to sixteen minutes. "Isaac - "

"Please," he said, holding up his hand. "No more. Just... just be quiet." Proudfoot returned to the command chair and fixed his eyes on the screen, turning his back on Beaumont. "This will all be over soon."

To Be Continued...

Part Eleven by Jerriecan

Part Eleven

USS Vanguard
in low orbit around Tau Delta VI
May 13, 2163

"Achilles is fully charged, sir."

Proudfoot leaned forward in the command chair. "Then let's not keep the Pathfinder waiting any longer. Begin active scanning, maximum power. Contact the Roosevelt - if their sensors are operational, have them assist, even if they can't maneuver. Bombard the planet with scans, as deep as you can."

Beaumont knew what Proudfoot was doing - trying to flush the Pathfinder out like the hunters of old did with game birds. If the Pathfinder was deep enough, the sensor waves would be scattered by the thick atmosphere long before they could be of any use in detecting the ship. But so much activity might make Teague panic and run - which was just what Proudfoot wanted. "It won't work," she said.

Proudfoot ignored her as a crewman confirmed his order. A moment later, invisible waves of energy lashed out over the planet, penetrating deep into the murk before being scattered to the point of incoherence.

On the screen a computer-generated grid appeared over the planet, and after several minutes one sector lit up. "Contact, sir. Approximately six thousand kilometers deep."

"Take us in," said Proudfoot. Although Achilles could work out to a million kilometers in open space, the closer they got to the quarry, the more effective the pulse would be. "Skim the cloudtops."

The Vanguard lumbered closer, adjusting her course until it was leaving a wake along the very tops of the clouds. "Ready the plasma charges," Proudfoot ordered. "Wide spread. just enough to give them a good rattle."

"Charges armed, sir," a crewman said.

Proudfoot hesitated only a moment. "Fire!"

Fierce blue bursts of energy dropped away from the Vanguard's remaining launchers, plunging into the atmosphere until they reached their pre-programmed depth of six thousand kilometers. Then they dropped their magnetic containment, allowing the star-hot plasma they contained to burst outward, creating massive shockwaves in the thick atmosphere which combined and grew more powerful with each successive blast.

High above, Beaumont watched in horror as the clouds rippled and tore apart. This was exactly the type of attack that had injured her, that had robbed her of three years of her life, that had destroyed the Fearless and most of her crew. And this was just the beginning.

But while the eyes of the crew were fixed on their stations, or the main viewscreen, Beaumont's were fixed on the nearest chronometer. Any minute now, she thought.

Five minutes was not much time - but as she had already shown Proudfoot, it was more than enough to throw a wrench ion the most carefully laid plans. After Proudfoot had issued his ultimatum to purge the Vanguard's atmosphere, Beaumont had almost flown into a blind panic until; she realized where she was - a hundred meters from the starboard landing bay. At first she thought she might be able to steal one of the warp fighters and blast her way out, but that would only leave her vulnerable to the remaining fighters and Vanguard's surviving weaponry.

But she could use one of the fighters in another way.

As the Vanguard plowed across the cloudtops, Proudfoot ordered another salvo of plasma charges to be loaded. He was halfway through issuing the order when a shudder ran through the ship, followed by a harsh klaxon. "What is that?" Proudfoot shouted above the noise.

"Explosion in the starboard hangar!" one of the crew shouted. "Major damage to the bay, the whole section has been vented to space."

Proudfoot whirled on Beaumont. "You promised - "

"I promised no more resistance after I set the fighter's reactor to overload," Beaumont replied, a sly smile curling the corner of her mouth.

Proudfoot raised a fist, fury rising within him as the Vanguard began to list to starboard... then he let it fall to his side. "Status of Achilles?" he called out, his eyes fixed on Beaumont.

"No damage, sir," said the crewman. "Ready to fire at your command."

"And the Pathfinder?"

"Still - wait, they're moving!" the scanner operator said. "They're running - must have detected the detonation."

"Running while they think they can," Proudfoot said, turning back to the screen. "But it's too late."

* * * * *

The Pathfinder shook and rolled as the shockwaves raged all around her. This was worse than taking fire from the warp fighters - this was nature itself being turned against the tiny ship. "Status?" Teague called out.

"Minor damage across the ship," Marakis said. "Hull is holding - just."

"Webb, are we ready?"

The helm officer nodded. "As we'll ever be."

"Captain, detonation at the edge of the atmosphere!" Kassin said, his eyes glued to the sensor hood. "Not a plasma charge - looks like a fusion detonation, maybe a reactor overload - "

"Like a warp fighter," finished Teague. This was their chance. "Webb, go!"

Webb leaned forward on the controls, hoping that the captain's plan would work - for if it didn't, they were all dead.

* * * * *

The scanner operator watched as the Pathfinder accelerated, leaving a wake in the atmosphere as it passed through. The ship was moving fast - any faster and the atmosphere would generate so much friction it could burn up. The ship rose through the clouds, barreling toward space as fast as they could. "Range?" Proudfoot snapped.

"Three thousand kilometers."

"Target Achilles. Fire when ready!"

The crewman pressed a toggle, and Beaumont's heart sank as the bridge lights dimmed and an invisible beam sliced through the clouds like they weren't even there. "I'm sorry, sir," she whispered.

"Direct hit!" the crewman said. He followed the scanner contact, waiting for the Pathfinder to come to a halt. But after several seconds he turned to Proudfoot and said, "Sir, the Pathfinder is still underway."

"What?" Achilles worked fast - its effects should have kicked in within moments, and the instruction to surrender and bring the Pathfinder to the surface was unable to be resisted. He shoved the crewman aside, studied the scanner readings - and his blood went cold.

Isobel had been wrong - it was too late after all. Just not in the way he had imagined.

* * * * *

Webb gripped the controls,tight, trying to maintain course through the storm. More than once the ship was almost carried away, which wasn't surprising given its current condition.

Of course, trying to pilot it from ten thousand kilometers away didn't help, either.

Teague's idea had seemed crazy - outfit a shuttlepod with an overcharged fusion reactor and a gravity generator set on overload, enough to make it look like it had the mass of a starship. Never in a thousand years would she have considered it - even her uncle Rhys wasn't quite that crazy. But here she was, struggling to keep the decoy on a straight path.

And the Vanguard was falling for it. They were following the energy and mass readings of the decoy and ignoring the Pathfinder itself. It was doubtful they could pick her up at all - Teague had ordered Amara to create a low-level warp field around the ship, not enough to provide any thrust but more than sufficient to neutralize the ship's mass, effectively making the ship weightless. As the Vanguard went lower, the Pathfinder drifted up behind her, until...

Teague leaned forward. "Now! Full impulse!"

Webb released control of the pod,. letting it be carried away by the storms, and immediately grabbed the helm controls, sending the Pathfinder rocketing upward. Ten thousand meters behind and below the Vanguard, the clouds parted and to reveal the streamlined yet scarred shape of the Pathfinder. Teague looked at the screen, quickly studying the damage Beaumont had caused with her sabotage. "What's their status?"

"Significant damage to most systems, including their engines" T'Vril replied. "Starboard weapons are disabled."

"Let's finish the job," Teague said. "Close in and declaw them."

The Pathfinder leapt forward, her phase cannons slicing through the Vanguard's remaining weapon turrets and launchers as she sailed past. One or two of the turrets had a chance to return fire before being destroyed, but not enough to inflict any real damage.

T'Vril checked her console. "All weapons have been disabled, sir," she said, with a unmistakable hint of smugness in her tone.

"Open a channel," he told Sarria. "Vanguard, this is Captain Teague. Your weapons are useless. Your engines are failing. Surrender immediately or I will be forced to destroy you. You have two minutes to comply."

* * * * *

Proudfoot looked around the bridge as Teague's crackling voice echoed from the speakers. One glance at a status monitor told him all he needed to know. The Vanguard had no way to fight back, not now - even Achilles was out of action until it could recharge. And Teague would never give him the chance to use it again. He pressed a switch on his armrest. "Proudfoot to all crew. Abandon ship. Repeat, abandon ship."

The few crewmen on the bridge ran to the turbolift, holding the door for Proudfoot, but he waved them away. "I'll catch up. One last thing to do."

The door slid closed, leaving Proudfoot facing Beaumont alone. He leaned in and unlocked her restraints, letting then drop to the deck. "Better contact your ship," he said as he crossed to the engineering console. "I imagine they'll be waiting to hear from you."

Rubbing her chafed wrists, Beaumont followed him, watching as he adjusted the controls for the impulse fusion reactors. Her eyes widened as she realized what he was about to do. "Isaac, you can't! Not like this - "

"I knew where my path would lead," he said as he dropped the magnetic containment on the fusion bottles. Immediately the Vanguard shook as her engines exploded in nuclear fire, the power of the stars tearing them apart. "I just didn't believe it would be so soon."

As the Vanguard began its plunge toward destruction, Beaumont ran to the comm station, opened a channel and shouted, "Beaumont to Pathfinder! I need emergency transport for two people!"

"Only one, came Proudfoot's voice. Beaumont turned to face him as he sat in the command chair, a plasma pistol in his left hand. "Just you."

"Isaac - "

"I won't go back," he warned, raising the pistol and aiming at Beaumont's chest. "Not like this."

Beaumont looked on, opened her mouth to plead, to beg for him to come with her... then said, "Belay that. Only one to transport."

A moment later Beaumont vanished in a shimmer of blue-gold light, leaving Proudfoot alone as the Vanguard plunged into the depths of Tau Delta VI.

But he wasn't alone - they were waiting for him, had been waiting all along, he realized. The crew of the Fearless were all around him, here to welcome him into their midst at last.

* * * * *

"Captain, we've got her!"

Beaumont fell back against the wall of the transporter chamber, her legs wobbly from the transition from matter to energy and then back to matter. Amara was standing at the console, breathless from running through the ship to get here and handle the delicate process himself. "Are you all right, Commander?"

She nodded, still dizzy, but the disorientation was passing quickly. They might claim the transporter was safe for life forms, but she hoped it would never become the preferred method of travel.

"Nice work, Rik," came Teague's voice over the speakers. "Commander, what about Proudfoot?"

Beaumont shook her head wearily. "He... didn't make it, sir."

"I see," Teague replied. "Report to Sickbay. I'm sure you've had a trying day."

"Aye, sir," Beaumont said, slowly making her way toward the door. And all she could think was, I'm so sorry, Isaac... but you left me no choice.

To Be Concluded...

Epilogue by Jerriecan

Epilogue

USS Pathfinder
in orbit around Tau Delta IV
May 19, 2163

"What's that?"

Webb moved the duffel a bit further back. "What's what?"

"That." Sarria gestured toward the duffel that Webb had been trying to conceal with her body.

"Nothing."

"You're not acting like it's nothing." Sarria leaned over to get a better look.

"And you're really nosy. Trust me, it's important, okay?"

Sarria's antennae quivered in confusion. Nosy? she thought. Humans have such odd sayings. But she closed her mouth and the pair finished their journey in silence.

The briefing room was already almost full by the time they arrived. A few of the officers spared the duffel a glance - bringing luggage to a briefing was not exactly standard - but as soon as Teague began to speak, it fell away from their thoughts.

"Now that we're all present - " He spared Webb a stern look. " - we can get started. Mister Amara, state of the ship?"

"All systems are fully operational," Amara replied tiredly. "She might not look pretty right now, but everything works."

Amara was understating things just a touch - large patches of scorched and pitted hull plating had been replaced, leaving obvious signs that the ship had recently survived a major battle. But we did survive, Teague thought. That's what matters.

But not everyone had. Shortly after Beaumont's rescue, the Pathfinder's sensors had recorded an explosion deep in the atmosphere of Tau Delta VI as the Vanguard's warp core lost containment, destroying the ship - and the Achilles weapon. Proudfoot's war was over at last.

It had taken the better part of a day to recover the two hundred crewmen that had escaped the Vanguard, including those marooned aboard the disabled Roosevelt. These crewmen - including the injured Jakobs and Allenby - were now secure on the surface of Tau Delta IV, where their captured freighter crews had been kept until just a few days ago. Now those crews, restless after weeks or months of isolation, were gladly assisting with the repairs to both Starfleet ships. The stripped freighters were beyond field repairs, but the various crews were already talking about throwing in their lot together on a few brand-new ships to make the deep=space cargo runs, traveling like the caravans of ancient Earth. Teague wished them the best of luck.

"That's good to hear," Teague said, coming back to the moment. He looked over at Beaumont. She had been quiet since her return and the reactivation of her implant. "And what about you, Commander? Any lasting effects?"

"No, sir," she replied. Her thoughts were once again as ordered and precise as she liked them. Her time without the implant had left no scars it seemed, at least none she could identify. But something was different now - the world seemed just a bit duller, the sounds a touch muted. And part of her wanted to be freed from that dullness.

"I'd still like to keep a close eye on you, Commander," said Dr. Ranik. "Now that I've finally freed up a little room in Sickbay, I want to get some detailed neural scans and send them along to Earth along with a complete diagnostic. I want to be sure the mechanical parts are working as well as the organic ones." He sniffed disdainfully. "I'm a surgeon, not an... engineer. No offense, Commander," he said to Amara, who waved the comment away.

"Your diligence is most appreciated, Doctor," Teague said. "One last piece of business - Starfleet is concerned that someone determined enough might be able to salvage something of Proudfoot's weapon from the wreckage. Is that remotely possible?"

Beaumont shook her head. "between the battle damage, the reactor explosions and the planet's gravity, there won't be enough left of Achilles to fit in a cargo pod."

Beaumont's description of Achilles and its effects had raised the hairs on Teague's neck, especially when he learned that it was a Starfleet project. Teague had been unable to learn anything more about it from Starfleet Command - they had not even wanted to confirm its name when he contacted them. Which left him wondering just why Kassin had uttered the word 'Achilles' on the bridge long before Beaumont had even returned to the ship. The science officer might have regained his outer calm - he had even stopped chewing his thumbnail for the moment - but Teague knew that wouldn't last, not once he had an opportunity to speak with his science officer at greater length.

"That's very reassuring," Teague said. "In that case, there's no need for us to remain here any longer." He rubbed his hands together, looking at his crew who had endured the first of many trials and come out victorious. "The Roosevelt has things well in hand, and will remain on station until Starfleet can collect both the prisoners and the freighter crews. I think it's past time we began our mission properly. Now, if there are no other matters - "

Teague was halfway out of his chair when Webb's voice made him pause. "We can't leave yet, sir."

He slowly lowered back into his seat. "And why is that, Lieutenant?" he said coolly.

"It's bad luck for a ship to leave port without being properly christened." Webb reached down, retrieved the duffel and unzipped it, revealing a dark green glass bottle with a faded label that read Chateau Picard, 2056.

Beaumont picked up the bottle and looked at it. "I hesitate to even think where you got hold of this," she said - examples of wine from before the Third World War were exceedingly difficult to find.

Webb grinned. "Just a keepsake, ma'am," she said. "Figured it might come in handy someday."

Teague looked over at Amara. "What do you say, Rik? Can the hull take one more hit?"

Amara smiled. "Absolutely, sir."

"Then let's get me suited up," Teague said, standing and taking the bottle. "It's not every day a captain gets to christen his own ship."

As they left the briefing room, headed for the nearest airlock, T'Vril turned the opposite direction. "Lieutenant Commander?" Beaumont said. "Aren't you joining us?"

T'Vril turned back and said coolly, "This... tradition... is not logical," was all she said before turning away again.

And without another word she walked away. She found the nearest turbolift, commanded it to go to D Deck, and went to her quarters. Checking to make sure the door was locked, she opened a drawer beneath her bed and pulled out a wide case and sat down at the desk. Turning it upside down, she pressed at one specific area on the case, and a concealed compartment sprang open, virtually impossible to find unless you knew what you were looking for.

Two items were nestled inside. T'Vril gave one of them, a folded flexible case, a long look before she removed the other, a thin portable computer. She set it on the desk and tapped the screen, making a keyboard with strange symbols appear.

Strange symbols to anyone aboard the Pathfinder but her, of course.

She rapidly typed out a message in a language no Federation race would recognize: The objective has been lost. The weapon was destroyed.

After a few moments, a response came. The weapon was never essential. The true objective remains. You will remain in place until you are called upon to act.

A moment later the Romulan letters vanished from the screen, leaving T'Vril all alone... and farther from her home than anyone aboard the Pathfinder could imagine.

The End

Coming Soon:

Star Trek: Pathfinder #3 - The Revenant Star