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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...



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