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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...

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