Pathfinder

Disclaimers: The usual legal babble; sexual situations, homosexual situations (maybe), violence, bad language. You know, everyday life stuff. Oh, not in your world? Ok, um, do you get frequent flyer miles to your fantasyland? Does Elvis talk to you? If you answered no to both questions, continue reading. If you answered yes, go here http://www.webmd.com/ The more feedback we get, the faster we write: Adarkbow@yahoo.com

 

Part 4

Bear stood on the command deck, thoughtfully pulling at the hair growing just under his lip. Svetlana had told him to meet her here an hour ago to start an unscheduled drill. He was beginning to be concerned. The Captain was never late especially for drills. If she was detained somewhere else, she would always get word to someone to explain her delay.

"You there," he barked, pointing at Davie. "Have you seen the Captain or the XO?"

 

Davie quivered in his chair. "Not for a while, sir. I gave them a message pad someone had handed to me and they both left after reading it."

The blonde giant was starting to get worried. "Find me Major Dononov, now!" he snapped at the hapless ensign.

Davie quickly spun in his chair and started contacting anyone who could possible track down the scary Marine for him.

----------------------

Bear pulled Dononov and Rozov in the briefing room off of the bridge. "Have a seat. We may have a problem." He stated quietly. "I can't find the Captain or the new XO."

The two officers looked at each other and leaned forward. "What do you need from us?" asked Dononov.

"I need you and Rozov to track down where they might have disappeared to. I have a bad feeling about this. We need to find them quickly. Davie, that ensign out there, was the last to see them both. Normally, if I can't find Commander Ramirez, I ask the engineer, Sparky. Apparently they are close friends. The funny thing is, no one can seem to locate the engineer either. To make matters worse, Sparky was last seen in the company of our own Commander Kuzmin. Rozov, I want you to track down Kuzmin and our wayward engineer. Dononov, I need you to lean on the kid out there. He gave the Captain a message pad that sent her on a errand that she hasn't returned from." He leaned back in his chair. "I don't need to tell you to keep this quiet. The crews are still on edge from everything that has happened plus the stress of having to work and live side by side with the crew of an Ženemy' ship. To have four ranking officers, including the two Captains, disappear, well, it won't be good for moral. Contact me directly if you find anything."

The two officer's stood and saluted him. Bear returned the salute and motioned for the Marine Major to stay in the room as he followed Rozov out. "I'll send Davie in." Dononov just smiled and started cracking her knuckles.

Bear crossed back over to the command chair and motioned Davie to come speak with him. "I need you to go into the briefing room and answer some questions, ok?" The young ensign nodded his understanding and left unsuspecting to go face Dononov. Bear almost felt sorry for the young man. Almost.

A short time later, a pale and shaking Davie left the room, quickly followed by Dononov. At Bear's questioning glance, the Major shook her head in the negative, indicating that Davie knew nothing. Taking in the visible stain on the young man's pants, Bear was inclined to agree with that assessment. "Davie," Bear called out, "How about you go and grab me a sandwich or something from the galley?" The young ensign nodded and bolted for the lift before anyone could notice his reason for embarrassment.

"He found the pad marked ŽEyes Only' addressed to the Captain," whispered Dononov. "She didn't mention where she was going to him, but took the XO with her to where ever she went. His captain didn't seem to know what was on the pad either."

Just then, the com beeped for his attention. "Commander Brozendin," he responded.

 

"Commander, this is Master Chief Rozov. I would like to show you and Major Dononov something on C deck, near the lifts."

"We'll be right there Chief, Brozendin out."

He stood and cast his eyes about the bridge crew. "You, Theodore is it? You have the Com. Try not to run us into anything," joked Bear.

The astrophysicist just gave the blond man a dirty look as he took the command chair. "And where are you going, in case your Captain or the XO show up to find me here?" he inquired dryly.

The big man grinned disarmingly. "Out for coffee,"

------------------

Rozov met the two officers at the lift and proceed to lead them down a passageway into the Pegasus crew quarters. "I found that Witworth was speaking with Sparky before she left. Apparently, she was doing something and Witworth sent her somewhere. The engineer was angry enough with the man that she threw the tool in her hand down and kicked the part she was trying to install across the room," room Rozov.

"So, now we are going to speak with him?" questioned Bear.

"Yes, I figured that either your rank or Dononov's fists would convince him to answer questions." The Master Chief shrugged. "He doesn't seem the type to answer questions that enlisted personnel ask him."

"This would be the man that the Captain shot?" asked Dononov, struggling to remember where she had heard the name before.

"Yes," answered both men at the same time.

Rozov stopped in front of a door almost at the end of a passageway. "It seems the displaced executive officer spends an inordinate amount of time in his room. This is it." He waved towards the door.

Bear knocked on the door. "WHAT?" screamed a male voice from inside.

"This is Commander Brozendin. I would like to ask you a few questions."

"FUCK OFF!" came the reply.

Bear stepped out of the way and motioned with his hands towards the door. "It's all yours now, Major.

The Marine grinned and stepped up to the door lock and whipped out a muli-tool. She popped open the access panel, and quicker than her companions could follow, hacked the lock and opened the door. She stepped through the door and punched the man who was coming towards them in the nose. As he screamed and staggered backwards, the Major shoved him towards a chair in the seating area. She then motioned for the other two to come inside and shut the door.

"When the Commander wants to ask you questions, you don't have a choice in the matter," the Major ground out as she wiped his blood off her hand.

"Yo brok mby noz!" yelled Witworth as he held his hands to his bleeding nose.

"And that's not all I'm going to break if you don't answer his questions," threatened Dononov.

"You can't do this to me." Witworth's voice was clearer once he removed his hands from his face.

"And who is going to stop us, little man?" rumbled a ticked off Bear. "We are looking for Captain Montastyrskaya, Captain Ramirez, Commander Kuzmin, and Commander Beauchamp. We think you may know where they are."

"Fuck you," ground out Witworth. And he spit a mouthful of blood at Bear. Dononov backhanded him.

"Wrong answer!" roared Bear. He grabbed one of Witworth's arms and pinned it to the arm of the chair and motioned with his head for Rozov to hold the other arm down. "Now, you get 10 chances to tell us where they are, do you understand?"

 

The man just struggled and continued screaming curses at them. Dononov understood what Bear was threatening and grabbed Witworth's right hand and bent the pinky back. "Where are they?" she demanded.

"Fucking cunt!" was his only response.

The Marine snapped the finger like a dry twig. She grabbed the ring finger, ignoring Witworth's screams. "Where is the Captain?"

"In Hell!" spat Witworth as he tried to catch his breath. He was spraying blood with every exhalation now.

 

Dononov broke the next finger. "Where are they?" she asked, grabbing the third.

Witworth had stopped screaming and was now making weird gasping noises. "Dead," he gasped. He let out a strangled moan when the Major broke his middle finger.

"You are actually lasting longer than I thought you would," commented the Marine. "I figured you for a weak bully. Now I know you are just a stupid one. Now, where is my Captain?"

"Death first!" declared the bloody man, but all three of his attackers could see him weakening. Dononov snapped the last finger and reached for her multi-tool. She opened the blade and held it to Witman's right thumb. "Wait! I thought you were going to break my fingers?" he screamed.

"No, as I recall, the Commander said you had 10 chances. I haven't cut them off yet because I hate to get my uniform messy. But since your blubbering and crying has made that a moot point, I'm going to have fun now." The brunette grinned evily.

"Stop! Stop! They are in the containment chamber! Where the big relay is going to blow!" The Coalition officer sagged in the chair, sobbing. All three officers hurriedly backed away as a distinct smell arose from the man.

"Rozov, get a party together and get them out!" The Chief nodded and ran out of the compartment to go do the Commander's bidding. "Dononov, good job! Not often you get to make two men pee their pants in less than an hour. I need you to escort this piece of shit to Med Bay so the Captain can deal with him."

"But Sir÷," the Major stopped when Bear held up his hand.

"Are you the one to tell the Captain that she can't deal with him herself because you did?" At the Marine's pale face and hurried shake of her head. "I thought not. So, since you made him soil himself, you get to carry him to medical. Then, meet me at the containment room." As the Marine picked up the sobbing wreck that was once an XO, Bear prayed that they had found the information in time.

--------------------------

Svetlana was curled up on the floor with her head in Kuzmin's lap. Maria and Sparky sat against the wall across from them. Sparky had initially wanted to sit next to the blonde, but Maria had firmly steered her engineer to a sitting position as far from the upset Captain as possible. Kuzmin had finally gotten the Captain to calm down, and was running her fingers through the dark hair. Svetlana was sleeping, soothed by the repetitive motions of her lover's fingers through her hair. Maria was staring at the two, torn between wanting to have someone take care of her like Kuzmin was doing and that she was the one to run her fingers through the glossy black hair instead.

I did NOT just think that! Maria was shocked. In order to keep her mind off the fact that she just might be attracted to the person she hated most in the universe after Witworth, she started questioning Kuzmin about the dozing Captain.

"Hey, Kuzmin," the blonde looked up and met Maria's eyes. "Is it true that the Captain's family is some kind of aristocracy?"

The blonde frowned. "What do you mean, kind of aristocracy? The Republic is a constitutional monarchy. Her cousin is Tatiana, the current czarina. So yes, her family is pretty high up there."

Sparky interrupted. "Doesn't the fact that you are a constitutional monarchy make the term ŽRepublic' a misnomer?"

"Your government describes us as the Republic. We don't."

Maria and Sparky looked at each other for a moment, both raising an eyebrow. "What do you call yourselves, then?" asked Maria finally, after Kuzmin didn't elaborate.

"During the first conflict we had against you, we were named the Republic. But after some disastrous decisions made on the governments part, there was a coup. Ekaterina, the mother of the current czarina, Tatiana, was the military official who overthrew the Republic's government. Svetla's mother is Ekaterina's twin, so she supported the coup. Everyone who supported the new government was given a title as a reward. Ekaterina then set up a system of checks and balances; the House of Lords and the House of Commons. One is hereditary, the other, elected. The Lords can choose the Prime Minister, but the Commons control the purse. So the whole system balances the other. We have the stability that doesn't come with a democracy. We are called the United Kingdom of New Russia, but I guess that information hasn't made it over to your side yet."

"Oh," was all Sparky could come up with. "We solved that problem too by having a hereditary President."

Kuzmin made a strangled sound that might have been a laugh. "Yes, I'm sure that works very well for a Ždemocratic' state."

"The Council can force him to resign if they want to."

Maria smiled faintly at the note of indignation in Sparky's voice. While it was technically true that the Coalition Council, made up of representatives from each member world that made up the Coalition, could force the President to step down, it had never happened. To force the hereditary President to leave power would require a unanimous vote from the Council. Since the Council couldn't even come up with a stance on the increasing tension between the Republic, I mean United Kingdom of New Russia, she mentally corrected herself, there really wasn't much chance of them unanimously doing anything.

Maria, sensing that politics would not be a good idea to discuss in a small room with no chance of escape, hurriedly changed the subject. "Why do you call her Svetla?"

Kuzmin, ready to blast Sparky with another political insight, was caught off guard at the non-sequitor. "What?"

"I've noticed that the Rep.. I mean that your crew calls each other by different names. Can you explain this?"

"Oh," Kuzmin thought for a minute, trying to express how something that came naturally to her worked to an outsider.

"In different social situations, we address each other differently. Svetla is the ŽCaptainŽ in most situations. With her officers in the wardroom, where she can relax a little, she is ŽSvetlana NickolayevnaŽ and I am ŽAlyona KapitonovnaŽ. For civilians, this is how they address each other in a formal setting or at work. If you are friends, and not at work or in a formal situation, then you would be invited to call someone by their first name. Feyda, or ŽFyodor IvanovichŽ, and I are intimates so we can call her Svetla, she can call him Feyda, and I go by Yona."

Sparky's face scrunched up. "You are intimate with both of them?" the engineer looked like she was going to be sick.

"Yes," said a puzzled Kuzmin, who didn't know why her new friend seemed upset by this. "We have been good friends since the Academy."

Maria caught the clue. "Sparky, I think she meant that they are close friends, like you and me. I don't think she had meant it as she has seen both of them naked."

Kuzmin seemed even more puzzled. "I have seen both of them naked," she responded, wondering what had the Coalition officer so worked up

"She means, are you sleeping with both of us?" supplied the prone Svetlana in Russian. The Captain slowly sat up and groaned. She had been awake since the beginning of the conversation, ready to jump in and help Alyona at anytime. The blonde was normally very quiet and reserved around all but her closest friends, so Svetlana had pretended to be asleep and listen to her lover's explanations.

Alyona looked sick.

Svetlana explained to the others,"She meant that the use of the shortened form of a name was used among close friends. She did not mean to imply that the three of us were in some sort of sexual relationship."

The Captain couldn't tell which one of the two was more relieved and her brows drew down in thought.

The steady thumping that had been coming from the relay was just at the lowest end of the audible range. The noise was more felt than heard. As the four sat there, carefully not discussing politics, but reliving stunts and antics pulled while in service to their respective governments, the thumping had steadily changed. The sound was working its way up the frequency range, becoming more and more audible, as well as as well as the increased tempo of the thumps. Finally, it reached a point where talking became impossible, and the four just sat there looking at each other.

Every few minutes Sparky would edge her way over towards the main conduit, and gingerly touch the metal, gauging its heat. Normally the highly shielded power relay should have been just as cool to the touch as any other bulkhead in the ship. However now it was steadily growing warmer. This time the multi-hair colored engineer couldn't even touch the conduit, and Maria thought she could see a dull red spot forming in the center of the metal.

The glances they exchanged were not reassuring.

The room had grown blisteringly hot by then, and Maria irritably wiped at the sweat forming on her brow. A steady trickle was making its way down her back between her shoulder blades and between her breasts. They had all long since gotten rid of their uniform jackets.

Who needs a sauna?

The XO grinned wryly at her macabre humor.

The women's forced confinement had sown the first steps towards a good working relationship and maybe the first few hesitant steps toward friendship as well. But if someone didn't figure out where they were soon, everything would be for naught. Sparky had given up gauging the rising conduit temperature to judge how long they had left. The engineer was now desperately trying to pry up a part of the armored paneling that covered the mechanism for the containment room door. She'd have better luck suddenly discovering a way to teleport them all out of the room, then she did opening that sealed unit without high-powered equipment.

Maria tried not to think about what was going to happen to her ship, and to her crew if they died.

Across the small chamber from her, the Captain was busy with her own thoughts.

If Svetlana had figured correctly, Bear had missed her within the first 30 minutes of confinement. The two had an unscheduled drill planned for everyone, and Bear knew how his Captain relished those. So hopefully, when she didn't show up to start the drill, Bear would come looking for her. The first place he would start would be Yona. If anyone would make her late for anything, it would be her blonde lover. Not finding Yona would cause Bear to really start worrying, and then he would probably enlist the aid of the rest of the Kursk's senior officers along with the Master Chief to search for them. Bear would find them, of that, Svetlana was certain. Now, as to Bear finding them before the relay blew÷.

The thumping from the ready-to-blow power relay masked the opening of the door that Svetlana and Maria had come in earlier. Dononov stuck her head in and shouted at the four officers huddled against the walls, their ears covered in vain to block out the whiny sound of the relay. Since the shouting wasn't getting any attention from the women, Dononov's head disappeared and returned a few seconds later along with a boot that she tossed at her Captain. Svetlana's head snapped up and she smiled when she saw her Marine Major standing there. She grabbed Kuzmin with one hand, leaned over and grabbed Maria with the other and started dragging them to the door.

Unluckily Sparky had her head against the shorter woman's shoulder, so when Maria was yanked to her feet by the excited Captain, the engineer fell over and just managed to catch herself with her hands. Noticing that she was rapidly being left behind, she jumped to her feet and ran out of the room after the others. As she cleared the door, members from one of her repair parties slammed the door shut behind her.

"Keep moving!" the engineer yelled as she made for the door on the far side. "That's a level two containment room. I don't know if it will contain the explosion!"

The others followed her as she ran out the door on the far side of the room. Once everyone was through, Sparky shut and sealed that containment door as well. "Please tell me that someone in my section has been draining the relay so as to contain÷" The rest of her words were lost as a gigantic explosion rocked the ship. Everyone in the compartment was thrown from his or her feet by the concussive blast.

As the group started to pick themselves up off the floor, Dononov smiled at her Captain. "I know you are happy to see me, but you don't have to kiss my boots," the Marine teased.

"Ha, ha, ha. What kept you?" replied Svetlana.

"Bear said I couldn't use my normal questioning techniques on that little runt that gave you the message."

"Ok, that means Davie is still breathing."

"Yes, but he had to change his uniform," smirked the Marine.

Svetlana grinned at her friend. "So how did you find us?"

"Bear did let myself and the Master Chief Žtalk' to Witworth, who finally confessed to sending the engineer and Kuzmin down here."

"And where is the ex-First Officer?" questioned Svetlana.

"Medical," admitted Dononov.

"XO. How would you like to go pay an old friend a visit?" the Captain asked her First Officer.

 

-----------------------------

"XO. How would you like to go pay an old friend a visit?" Svetlana's voice cut through the haze in Maria's mind. She was still a bit stunned by all that had just happened, and more than a little panicked when she considered the lowest thing on the list of events seemed to have been the close call with death.

I am not attracted to the person who took over my ship! Maria took a deep breath and met the Captain's piercing blue gaze. Took in the depth in those eyes, the classical beauty of the woman she was facing and winced visibly.

Crap! Crap! Crap!

"Skipper, you ok?"

"Just fine Sparky, thanks," she lied. "You'd better get your people to work on that." The XO hooked a thumb towards the containment door they'd just come out of, and fell into step besides the Captain. Kuzmin and Bear rounded out the little party.

Maria let the Captain and the Weapons officer move a little further ahead of them as they moved through the hydroponics bay, grinning at Bear as he fell into step beside her. Dononov stayed with the still somewhat shocked Sparky, wanting to know how exactly the door had been rigged and who else besides the Engineer could have done it.

The XO glanced at the large man walking besides her, and found herself smiling.

"Thank you, Bear." Maria said as she touched his arm.

The big guy shrugged, grinning easily as he ran a hand through his blonde beard.

"No worries, as your people say."

A touch guiltily, Maria glanced ahead towards the two women in front, noticing again the closeness between both of them.

"You must have been a good XO, I'm sorry I took your position."

"Bah! Do not worry little one, I'd much rather be down here perfecting my potato crop."

Maria blinked, and glanced up at the smiling man.

"Your what?"

"Potatoes."

That had to be the strangest answer she'd ever gotten.

"Why?"

Bear glanced about then leaned in close.

"The Admiral, he knows how to make a distillery."

Oh my god.

"I did not just hear you plan to open an illegal moonshine operation on my ship!"

"Vodka, not moonshine." Bear said with a smile, and she sighed.

"Hard to stay angry at a guy who just saved your life."

"Da."

Maria spotted the Admiral in the next section of the hydroponics bay, hunched over a group of plants. She tried not to wonder if they were part of Bear's new pet project. Instead she focused on the unlikely duo ahead of her.

"Bear, can I ask you something?" She kept her voice low, trying not to be overheard.

"Da. Anything but my secret Vodka recipe," he joked.

Since the last time she'd tried Vodka she'd nearly killed herself coughing, Maria wasn't really tempted. "How long have Svetlana and Kuzmin been... I mean, how long have they been together?"

Bear scratched his chin in thought. "Well, we were all at the Academy together, if that is what you are asking," he said slowly, wondering where this conversation was going.

Oh boy. These people really have trouble with innuendos.

"No, I meant, how long have they been TOGETHER."

Bear looked down at the smaller woman in puzzlement. Realizing what she meant by the expression on her face and the glances she kept throwing at the Captain, he finally caught the real question.

"Oh, that." he mentally counted. "On and off for about 10 Standard Years"

"Ten÷" Maria made an effort to keep her voice low, "Ten standard years?"

That was longer than all her relationships added together!

Blinking in amazement she gazed at the two in front of them, keeping her pace slow so she'd have just a few more minutes to talk with Bear.

"Ten years? Wow. I've never been in a relationship for anywhere near that long. Hell, my record is two months. I guess they must really love each other."

If her tone had become wistful she didn't notice. The feeling coiling in her gut at that revelation most certainly was not jealousy. She wasn't attracted to Svetlana, and that was that.

Poor Sparky, she's going to be crushed when she finds out. Ten years! That's a really long-term relationship.

"Da. After Tasha, Alyona helped her to pick up the pieces," then Bear shut his mouth with a click, wondering if he had said too much. He liked the little Spaniard. She was a spitfire.

"Tasha? The one that she went to school with?" The one that was raped and murdered, Maria didn't say that out loud, but it was there.

"You know about Tasha?" Bear seemed puzzled. I didn't tell her, and Svetla would swallow ground glass before admitting a weakness to her XO.

Maria shrugged, watching the two ahead of them as they exited the hydroponics bay and started towards the nearest lift.

"Kuzmin told me, Svetlana found out about..." Maria hesitated, glancing towards the big man then sighed. What did it matter anymore? "Witworth."

Bear stopped dead in his tracks. "Kuzmin told you? Alyona Kuzmin, the blonde up there?" he pointed to the woman in front of him. "She talked to you? And about Svetla?"

Maria sighed; she should have known that she wouldn't be able to just leave it at that.

"Svetla?"

Unaware of the small grin hearing the knick name nickname again caused her, Maria continued.

"Svetla found out about Witworth's hold over my parents and went kind of berserk. Kuzmin told us why." Maria smiled slowly as she turned back towards the Captain and Weapons officer who were waiting for a lift to arrive. "Does Svetla love her, Bear?" She didn't know why she suddenly blurted that out, but it was important.

I need to know to tell Sparky. Yeah, that's it.

"What about Witworth?" Bear certainly wasn't going to voice his opinion on the Captain's and the Weapon officer's relationship, especially to one who made her apparent dislike of the Captain no secret.

Maria just smiled painfully, shaking her head. "It doesn't matter, not anymore, I guess." Not now that he'd been demoted and then pulled this stunt. Not even his family could save him from his own stupidity this time. Her parents would suffer for it though and she swallowed against bitter bile at that thought.

"We'd better go." The two ahead were waiting for them by the lift and she started forwards.

Bear followed the diminutive woman. He was confused about the whole conversation. He would make a point of getting Svetla alone with some of her Vodka and getting the truth of what happened in that room out of her.

The silence in the lift was strained, and Maria kept studying the two other women out of the corner of her eyes. It was a relief when the lift slowed to a stop on the med bay level.

Bear hung back slightly and grabbed Kuzmin's arm lightly to hold her back as well. After the Captain and the XO had moved a few paces ahead, he asked her quietly but with emotion, "What happened in that room?"

The weapons officer shook her head, waiting for Svetla and the shorter Maria to move at least a little bit out of earshot before answering, "Svetla was reminded of Tasha, she had an episode."

"Is that why her hands are so messed up?"

"I worry about her, Bear. I don't know what's going through her mind sometimes."

"The XO was mighty interested in exactly what your relationship was."

To her surprise, Kuzmin could actually feel her cheeks start to heat. "Sparky probably asked her to find out." She wasn't sure if she was annoyed or amused.

Bear looked confused "And why would that be?"

Kuzmin opened her mouth, but was saved from answering by the shout from inside of the med bay. With a curse she took off, skidding to a stop in one of the first examination rooms. The one she'd been treated in, she noted absently.

Bear grumbled to himself as he followed the blonde. "I am back in school. The next thing will be people passing notes..." the rest of the tirade died off as he caught up with the others in med bay.

Witworth's corpse was stretched out on the bed. His face locked in a silent scream, now sightless eyes staring upwards at the deactivated medical sensors above him. Carl was vainly trying to revive the man, but it was obvious that he was gone.

----------------------

She felt numb. She'd spent so long hating him that now that he was dead she wasn't sure what to think. Blankly Maria stood in the corner watching as Carl tried to revive her former XO, and failed. Which was right about the time Dononov came in, and then the Marine Major started cursing out the Medical Chief about not keeping a closer eye on a sabotage suspect.

Which Carl didn't take kindly to at all.

Svetlana had to step in to keep the argument from escalating even further, and the small part of her mind that was still working after the confusing and frightening day nodded in approval at the quick end to the yelling.

In the end it all got sorted out. Dononov found a small device attached to Witworth's neck, and from the expression on the Marine Major's face it wasn't benevolent.

"Here it is Captain."

Maria watched as Carl examined the device and cursed.

"It's a miniature auto injector. I bet it's loaded with some sort of toxin, probably a neural toxin judging by the state of the body."

The body. My God, he's actually dead.

She felt ashamed that her very first thought was relief, relief that she wouldn't have to keep facing him. Fearing that she'd find him lurking, waiting for her. Then the realization slammed home.

His family will blame me. My family's dead.

Something very close to despair rose up in her then, and she closed her eyes, trying to keep herself from screaming at a universe that would put her in such a position.

I just need to beat them to it then.

Despair turned into resolve and she took a deep breath, opening her eyes to see that the conversation had gone on without her.

Mama, Papa, Carmen, I swear I will get you out of there if I have to destroy the entire colony to do it. That is if we ever get home. My poor Pegasus, look at what we've done to you.

 

She wasn't the same ship that Maria had gladly and ecstatically taken command of. The Pegasus had been a ship of peace, designed to chart the limits of human explored space and render aid to those in need. Now she was as well armed as some of the older Coalition battleships.

I will get my crew home, even if it means I have to make more sacrifices.

She was certain that giving up her Captains rank, a position she had loved, was not going to be the last sacrifice she was called on to give. It was her duty though, these were her people, she cared for each of them, they were a part of her extended family. Perhaps she would come to regard some of the crew from the Kursk that way as well, but she wasn't going to hold her breath.

It was hard, but she pushed all of the conflicting emotions and thoughts down and focused on the conversation. Someone had put a sheet over the body while she wasn't watching, and they were now trying to figure out who had access to the body. Judging by the glares Dononov and Carl were exchanging, Maria had a good guess about who was at the top of the Marine's list.

It was then, in the middle of the accusations and dark looks that Davie decided to open a ship wide hail.

"All hands, all hands. I'd like to report that the voting has been tallied, and the winner of the name the ship contest is: Pathfinder! Congratulations to Ensign Jarris and Lieutenant Callejo who put forth the winning name suggestion."

Maria blinked and stared at the other four in the sudden silence following the ship wide announcement.

"WHAT THE HELL IS HE TALKING ABOUT?"

 

Interlude

 

 

Senior Admiral Erin Callejo glared at the main holographic display.

Days like this one are the reason I'm starting to get gray hair.

"Report?"

The tall slender man by her side didn't even glance at the reports he was holding. In all the years she'd known her assistant, Commodore Guillermont had never ceased to impress her with his ability to remember even the most trivial of things after only one glance.

"The Augusta reports no signs of the Pegasus or what might have caused her to disappear. She also confirms that the wreckage is, or was, part of one of those new Republic cruisers."

The Admiral grunted and peered at the holographic display irritably. ONI was having a devil of a time telling her what those new Cruisers could do. On top of that, she had no idea why the rear half of one was drifting around on the boarder between Coalition and Republic space right at the last known coordinates of the Explorer class vessel Pegasus.

"The Republic forces?"

This time the Commodore did double check the reports he held.

"They matched our maneuvers."

"Terrific, just fucking terrific." Erin moved around the large flag bridge, peering over the shoulders of one or two members of her command staff.

"CIC, have those force estimates yet?"

"One Carrier, four battleships, ten cruisers, and some smaller LACs."

Erin glared once more at the display, shaking her head. That was a large force for even the Coalition, and the Republic had far fewer ships. After the last war, which a large minority of Coalition citizens still continued to think of as just a Žrebellion', the majority of Republic ships were actually captured Coalition ships.

Captured, or defected. Let's not forget that at least two entire battle squadrons went over to their side after the fighting started.

It had been eighty-four years since the last war, and the Coalition had yet to recover from the stunning defeat. In the first IW (Interstellar War), the Coalition had forced the Republic to sue for peace. They had then proceeded to rule over the Republic territories as if they were mere colonies of the Coalition.

In hindsight, the second war or Župrising', depending on whom you asked, had been inevitable. In twelve long years of warfare, the second IW had killed over ten times as many people as the first. In the end, the Coalition, the owner of the most powerful military in the history of mankind, had been forced instead to sue for peace.

The relationship between the two powers had been glacial ever since. There were no formal diplomatic ties, no embassies, and quite definitely, no state visits. In fact, when the news had finally made it to the Coalition through contacts on Earth soon after the second war had ended, the Republic had changed their name and adopted a head of state, the Coalition had ignored it completely.

All of which, unfortunately, meant that Erin and her people didn't have much to work with. They knew the capabilities of the old Coalition ships that they were facing, but ONI only had a faint idea of what the newer Republic ships were capable of performing. Then, there were these rumors that the newest generation of Republic ships had stealth or cloaking capabilities.

Not the most encouraging news.

I spend two hours trying to have a conversation with some rear admiral over there. All that I get out of it is veiled threats by both sides about what would happen if the other side was stupid enough to have caused the disappearance of those ships. Of course we didn't make our own ship disappear! What sort of stupid idiot÷

"Admiral?"

Erin stopped her glaring at the display just long enough to glance towards the com operator, nodding at the lieutenant to go on.

"Senior Captain Qauril is offering his battle squadron to do recon."

The Admiral ground her teeth and swiveled slowly towards the hapless Lieutenant. Commander Guillermont was wise enough to back away a discreet step and stay quiet.

"Tell the good Captain," she stressed the lower rank title "that if he offers to go across the border once more, I'll have his battles squadron doing picket duty."

 

She stalked back to her command chair, practically growling as she sat back down.

"You know he's trying to provoke a fight."

Keeping her voice low to match the Commander's, she nodded, "I know, but I can't relieve him from duty without reason. He has political aspirations."

Senior Captain Frederick Quaril's had ties with the so called Freedom Coalition, a party that held an alarming large amount of power in the Council of Planets. A party whose main platform consisted of little more than war mongering as far as Erin was concerned. It had become painfully obvious over the last few months that he saw himself as becoming the head of the Freedom Coaltion.

"Fernando, any sign of those reinforcements?"

Another member of her command staff, Fernando Argez was the Liaison Officer between her staff and the Carrier she was currently using as her flagship.

"Fleet HQ assured us that the sixth and seventh fleets were being mobilized, no ETA on them though."

Which was pretty much as she expected. Since they were posted so close to the Republic border, the Fourth, her fleet, was the only one kept at constant battle readiness. That was the only reason they'd managed to actually make it so quickly to the site where the Pegasus had disappeared.

She was about to have her communications lieutenant try to hail the Republic fleet once more when warning buzzers snarled. With a start, she looked down at her readouts, intently scanning the sensor reports being relayed to her station.

"CIC reports multiple launches from the Republic fleet!"

Battle klaxons blazed to life throughout the Coalition fleet, as Erin grimly watched the sensor information.

"Admiral? Should we counter attack?" Guillermont asked, while sliding into his own station nearby and then subsequently opened a channel to all vessels.

"Not yet, Commander. Fernando, tell CIC I need to know if those are missiles!"

"They don't know yet, Admiral."

"Tell them they better hurry up."

If this was a preemptive attack by the Republic forces, she'd just allowed them a sucker punch with her delay and everyone on the flag bridge knew it.

"CIC reports twelve launches in total."

The admiral forced herself to relax. That few meant they weren't missiles. At least, she hoped that was what it meant. Even the outdated Republic ships she was facing now could have fired at least ten times that many in a single salvo. The Coalition ships could fire at least twice what even the Republic ships they were facing could manage.

"Admiral," once more she glanced over at the communications Lieutenant, noting the hesitant look on the younger woman's face.

"Yes?"

Lieutenant Alex Morilla had been the head of communications for her command staff for only a month now and the young woman had yet to learn that the Admiral's bark was worse than her bite.

"Senior Captain Qauril is asking for permission to fire."

That's it. I don't care he thinks he is, or what political connections the idiot has, I'm going to make sure he never commands a warship again.

"Tell that idiot that he isn't to do a single thing without a direct order!"

It was too late though. Even as the Lieutenant was relaying her orders, she saw missiles launch from Quaril's battle squadron. Seconds later, CIC labeled the objects launched from the Republic fleet as being sensor probes.

Shit.

Quaril's missiles raced across the distance towards the Republic fleet. As she watched in growing horror four ships on the other side returned fire. In that second, her course had been decided. Inside, she screamed and yelled at the injustice of it all. She hadn't wanted to start a war. After all she'd argued against one often enough.

More and more enemy ships were beginning to open fire on the Coalition fleet and she forced herself to bite out the only order she could give.

"All ships, return fire."

To be continued.

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