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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...

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