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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...

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