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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...

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