Windstar: Sparky and I have been getting emails asking if we were ever going to finish Pathfinder. We are, I promise! It’s just taking longer than we thought it would to write these final parts. To try and make up for the long wait part 11 is longer than our usual update. Part 12 is going to probably be the end of this story, but it’s going to be a long section. Please let us know what you think or if you have any suggestions about the story so far, your emails keep us going:


Part 11

Despite their precarious situation, life onboard Pathfinder slowly returned to normal. Repairs continued on the NOVA drive since Sparky refused to allow the ship to reenter NOVA space without a full diagnostic of all the remaining sails. ‘In case of another booby-trap’ she argued. Seeing as it was a near miracle they had survived the loss of the one sail while in NOVA, no one really wanted to press their luck and over-ride her decision. The minor repairs to the ship’s hull were done in record time.

Theodore and his scientists were cloistered in the science labs pouring over the streams of data being collected by Pathfinder's long-range sensors. The ship was still several parsecs from the alien signals but close enough to pick up a lot of raw data, giving the science teams even more information as they tried to decipher the alien signals.

To the XO’s satisfaction, Pathfinder’s people were working as cohesive, single unit crew instead of two separate groups. There were the inevitable rough spots but, overall, things were going smoothly. Maria smiled as she thought of them.

Earlier in the day, Maria oversaw the removal of the nuclear apparatus in the Atrium. She still didn't know how the device had ended up buried there and that greatly disturbed her. She had a quiet word with Carl and asked him to do a full autopsy on the Admiral.

The results of that autopsy were the reason why the Spaniard was standing in front of the Captain's quarters buzzing for admittance.

A slightly rumpled Captain greeted and waved her XO into the room.

Svetlana had been working long hours with the Weapons division as they checked to make sure that there were no booby traps in the ship’s weapons array. She also had been trying to track down whether the warhead had come from the Kursk's missile inventory or if the Admiral had smuggled it aboard all on his own.

The brunette had been catching sleep where she could and Maria had caught her during one of her catnaps.

"Sorry to wake you, Captain," Maria said, not sounding particularly sorry as she walked into her old quarters and made herself at home.

The Captain rubbed her face roughly with her hands and mentally counted to ten. In three languages. Then she responded to her XO. "And what do I owe this honor, Commander?" The Captain's accent was noticeably thicker indicating her level of exhaustion.

"I just had an interesting talk with Dr. van Reiss. Who had just started to do an autopsy on the Admiral, when Major Dononova ordered him to stop." Maria paused a moment as she recalled the look on Carl's face as he'd told her about the "Russian Storm Trooper" that had ordered him around in his own med bay.

She leaned forward and studied the other woman carefully before she continued. Maria knew she probably wasn't going to like the answer to her next question.

"How long were you going to keep this under wraps?"

Svetlana struggled to keep her face expressionless. Damn her. Apparently, Dononova was playing her cards close to her chest. So close that she had no idea what her Security chief was doing. She put on her best poker face and replied, "Major Dononova is conducting an investigation. She had reasons for stopping the good Doctor from damaging evidence."

Green eyes narrowed slightly. "That's not what I'm talking about and you know it. Carl's good. Real good. He knows reconstructive surgery when he sees it, and he saw a lot of it in the few minutes he had with the Admiral's corpse."

The smaller woman laid out all her cards. "Doctor Montcalm also refused to talk about the bio scans and DNA samples he took earlier for your Marine Major."

As the silence stretched out, Maria felt her anger rise. Regardless of who carried the title Captain, this was still her ship and her people were being put at risk!

"Was he some sort of UKNR spy?" Maria demanded, breaking into the taut silence.

Svetlana's eyebrows rose in surprise. "No, we do not make a practice of placing moles in situations like this. Besides, the Admiral seemed to be targeting UKNR personal and that certainly wasn’t helping us." The Captain stood and started pacing. "Is it possible that he was a spy for your own government?" she asked abruptly.

Svetlana knew the moment she said it and saw Maria’s expression she had made a grave error. Her only excuse for mentioning something so potentially accusatory and with so little tact was her lack of sleep. She braced for the explosion from her first officer.

"What!?" Maria surged to her feet, face going red with anger. "Unlike yours, my government does not spy on its own people!"

"Oh really?" Svetlana could feel her own face getting flushed. The UKNR government, after all, was her family and she knew her Aunt better than most. "That’s right. Your government is so squeaky clean that they placed your attempted rapist as your first officer and then, they’re holding your family hostage to keep you in line. My Aunt would never do such a thing, and she would execute the any member of the aristocracy for even attempting it!"

The shorter woman froze, her anger draining away as Svetlana's words struck home. "You really think he was assigned here by my own government?"

There was a sick logic to it she admitted to herself. How else could the nuclear device have been buried in the Atrium? Certainly, some sort of high level go ahead must have been received to move such a thing into the ship during its construction. There were stories of ONI operatives who underwent massive surgery to change identities, but those reports had always seemed to Maria like far-fetched rumors.

Svetlana calmed down after hearing Maria’s subdued question and sat back on the bed. "I would hate to think that of any government. I know the consequences of abuse in my government first hand. But it seems to me that your government makes a habit of lying and being deceitful to its own citizens. I think the Major is unsure if the Admiral is working alone or if there is another sleeper on the ship. She doesn't trust any of your officers except yourself, and strangely enough, the engineer."

Maria let out a strangled laugh and moved over to stand by the view port to stare out at the stars. "Sparky's a good person. I know you don't think so, but she is. She's also a great engineer."

Svetlana smiled faintly at the XO’s support of her crewmember.

Suddenly Maria remembered the other things said by the Captain and her shoulders sagged. "I’m afraid..." she swallowed, "What if they have already murdered my family?" It was the first time she'd allowed herself to voice her secret fear. She'd been telling herself for days now that Witworth’s people wouldn't act until they had proof that he was dead. That seemed unlikely now.

She sniffed back her tears, "I mean, if the Coalition would blow up an entire Explorer ship than see it lost, no one would bat an eye if my family disappeared, would they? No one would even notice or care."

Svetlana felt herself move to comfort her XO. ‘Damn,’ she said to herself. ‘What is it about this woman that makes me react to her?’ She started to put her hands on Maria's shoulders, when suddenly the smaller woman turned and buried herself in Svetlana’s chest. Svetlana hesitated a moment and put her arms around the trembling woman.

All the fear and uncertainty Maria had been feeling for her family became too much for her and she gave in to her emotions when she felt the Captain arms. Her sobs wracked her small frame.

"What if they’ve all been killed?" she asked again, between jagged breaths.

The Captain awkwardly stroked Maria’s hair, trying to offer some sort of comfort. The smaller woman had given off such an air of confidence, of imperviousness, that to see her break down like this added a whole new dimension to the little firebrand’s personality. Svetlana found herself admiring and liking Maria even more.

The tears slowed, but Maria stayed where she was. "His family, his father actually, promised that if anything ever happened..." she trailed off, remembering the outright threat.

"I'm sorry." Lana searched for the right words to comfort Maria but failed. "I wish I could give you words of comfort, but if your government believes that the Pegasus has been destroyed, I don’t believe there is much hope for your family."

Maria closed her eyes, feeling the hot tears leak from the corners. "My little sister," her voice cracked, "she wanted to be an explorer. My mother and father worked on a hydroponics farm on an orbital colony. All they ever wanted to do was to grow things. They loved farming."

Maria was interrupted as the entrance buzzer sounded repeatedly. She barely had enough time to stumble away from Svetlana before the doors to the quarters slid open and Theodore burst inside. The XO scrubbed her face, trying to remove the wet tracks down her face.

"We've done it!" the excited scientist yelled, waving a data pad around, his eyes feverish bright.

Svetlana strode forward and grabbed the man by his upper arm. "Do you have any idea what you just did?" she hissed in his face. She was incensed at his audacity to burst uninvited into her quarters. Not to mention the compromising position she had been in.

"What I just did?" he blinked at her uncomprehendingly, and then smiled. "Oh, what we just did, you mean!" Theodore leaned to the side so he could see Maria, "My God, Skipper, you wouldn't believe how complex their language is. It's actually got over a thousand distinct sounds, well, most of them are sounds. Our ears can't process a lot of them because they go into super high or low frequencies." The head scientist beamed at them both as he caught his breath.

"You barged into my quarters to tell me about what?" Svetlana couldn’t follow the man’s energetic ranting.

"Theodore," Maria cut in before he could get started again. "Remember the last talk we had about bursting into private quarters?"

"What? Oh, right, Skipper." He bobbed his head at Svetlana, "Sorry, Captain." Then he shoved his pad at her. "But you can't imagine how hard it was to break their language. We had to use up nearly half the computing power of the mainframe to do it. But," he grinned again, "we did it!"

Svetlana stared at the man while his words filtered through her brain. "Wait. You mean you decoded the aliens’ message?"

He nodded. "We're still working through the subtleties. Their verb tenses are unbelievably complex. We don't have any equivalents to draw on."

Svetlana enunciated slowly to make sure the scientist understood what she was asking. "But, can we… communicate… with them?"

"The frequencies they use are a lot higher than standard Coalition frequencies, and of course we'd have to rewrite the software to..." he trailed off at the look on Svetlana's face. "Er, umm… yes, we can. I think."

"You think we can, or are you sure we can?" Maria asked, still standing behind the Captain.

Theodore shrugged, "We won't know that for sure until we actually try."

"So, you are willing to take the chance that when we are trying to say "Hello", the aliens are hearing "Fuck your mother?" Svetlana asked dryly.

"Oh, no, no!" The scientist added helpfully, "The worst we could probably do is sound completely insane. Like just saying a string of words that don't make sense."

Svetlana rolled her eyes and tried to ignore the muffled snicker from behind her. "Fine. Keep working on the translations. See if you can come up with a acceptable greeting and then figure out how to ask them to send us home."

She turned to Maria, but realized she didn't hear the door open and close. She looked back around and raised an eyebrow. "You’re dismissed," she told Theodore.

Maria's lips twitched with barely concealed amusement as Theodore kept grinning at Svetlana before he processed the order.

"Oh, right, of course," as he made a less than graceful exit.

"He lives in a different world than the rest of us," was the XO's only explanation for the science officer’s behavior.

"No. I never would have guessed," the Captain replied drolly.

Maria laughed and then asked, "Well, what do you think?" motioning toward where Theodore had just stood. "Does this give us a shot at going home?"

"I’m not a hundred percent convinced at this moment." She cocked her head at her XO and smiled. "I've listened to your Science officer on many occasions about his ‘expectations’. Despite that, I have more hope than I’ve had since our ships wound up here in the first place."

Maria smiled at Svetlana’s comments and started for the door. "Then I'll, umm, leave you to get some rest?" After breaking down, she felt somewhat exposed to the other woman and it was a strange, unsettling feeling. The sooner she was away from the tall, dark-haired Captain, the better, she decided.

"But, we are not finished with our conversation." Svetlana turned to watch her XO's reaction.

"What more can you tell me?" the smaller woman asked quietly, still facing the door. "You said it yourself, they're probably already dead."

The Captain flinched, realizing that the woman thought she meant the discussion they were having before Theodore had interrupted them. "I mean, about the investigation with the Admiral," Svetlana clarified gently.

Maria took in a sharp intake of breath and turned around. "Of course, please excuse my inattention. But perhaps we can continue it some other time? I’m…"

Svetlana shook her head. But inside, she was warring with herself for pushing the XO to stay when she knew how vulnerable the Spaniard must be feeling right now.

"I understand that you don't want to talk right now, Commander," as she motioned her toward the couch, "but we need to figure out what is up with the Admiral. I need to know if there are more sleepers on this ship."

Maria gritted her teeth and frowned. Obviously, a quick retreat wasn't going to happen. "Fine," she said in a clipped tone as she sat back down. Then, with raised eyebrows, she looked at Svetlana expectantly.

Svetlana started to pace as she spoke, "Ok, let's go over what we know for sure." Svetlana ticked off the points on her fingers. "One, Witworth tries to kill us. From all accounts, the man was not bright or ballsy enough to come up with this on his own. Two, after we arrest him, Witworth comes up dead. Three, the Admiral had a nuclear warhead buried in his garden." Svetlana shuddered at the reminder. "Four, the man was seriously off his rocker and had facial reconstructive surgery."

As her own executive skills took over, Maria added, "Five, he actually tried to detonate the nuclear warhead." Maria continued thoughtfully, "and six, the nuclear warhead was probably installed during the conversion of this ship into an explorer ship at Space Dock."

"Now, that is a scary thought," said Svetlana slowly, still trying to wrap her mind around why the Navy felt the need to plant a warhead in the garden.

Maria was quiet for a few seconds, toying with the edge of a pillow. "It makes sense if you look at it the right way," she said finally.

"After the last war between us, when a lot of the non-Navy ships defected to your side, the Coalition Government became paranoid about it happening again," she reflected with displeasure. "If they were suspicious enough, maybe the Admiral was here to make certain we didn't defect. And with orders to blow the ship if it looked like that was going to happen." Her eyes widened as she realized the implications. "This means, of course, every other Explorer ship in the Coalition probably has the same nuclear warhead onboard."

"That is a truly frightening thought," Svetlana agreed. "Couldn't they, I don't know, maybe work on moral to keep the defections down?"

"We aren't the Navy," Maria smiled grimly, "as you well know. Most people in Search and Rescue or the Explorer Corps are on the edge of the military society anyway."

Something just didn’t add up for Svetlana. "Okay, forgive me for not understanding, but can you explain exactly how you aren’t related to the Navy? I thought this was just an old, converted Navy ship."

Maria picked her words carefully; there was a truth here that she didn’t want Svetlana to see. "The Explorer Corps used to be an arm of the Navy, mostly used for scouting. Then after the last war, civilians thought that dedicated search and rescue ships were needed, and at the same time, the scientific types were screaming for some sort of true, scientific exploration. So the Navy took ten of the older carriers that were going to be decommissioned anyway, gutted them, put in big sensor packages, science labs, and made them mobile hospitals." The smaller woman waved her arms around. "And here we are."

"Apparently, they put in more than just sensor packages," deduced Svetlana.

Maria, with a pained look crossing her face, just shrugged.

Svetlana scrutinized at the former Captain’s face carefully as she thought about the explanation. Suddenly, she connected a few of the puzzling pieces. "What is so important about this ship," she looked speculatively at Maria, "or this crew, that would make the Coalition blow it up rather than let it fall in the enemy hands?"

Maria looked away, avoiding the other woman's eyes. Damn this woman. Doesn’t she ever stop asking questions? "Why does it matter?"

Within a heartbeat, Svetlana crossed the room and grabbed her XO. She could feel her rage building and she almost shook the smaller woman in anger. "What are you hiding from me? She wasn't quite shouting, but it was close to it. "Our lives are on the line! I need to know what is going on! Now!"

Maria pulled the Captain's hands away and curled her lips as she looked up at the taller woman and spat, "I swore an oath!"

"I think that the oath to your government was voided after Witworth was assigned as your first officer and your family was threatened!" Svetlana was inches from Maria's face as she bit out each word

"I pledged my word!" Maria countered, standing up and meeting Svetlana face to face. Oddly enough, she wasn't sure if her pulse was racing because of the yelling or because of how close she was standing to the Captain. She concentrated on focusing on the Captain’s dangerously flashing, blue eyes.

Svetlana shook her head and replied tersely, "I understand how much your word means to you." Svetlana licked her lips before finishing her comment. ‘That’s odd’ she thought as she noticed for the first time how soft her XO's lips looked. She mentally shook herself and completed her statement. "I think this is a unique situation that relieves you of that oath, don’t you think?"

"Would you, if our situation was reversed?" Maria challenged her voice dropping as her eyes lowered to watch Svetlana's wet her lips. Unconsciously, she licked her own as well and leaned closer to the taller woman.

"I think…" Maria's lips were so close. "I think..." She could feel the red head's breath against her lips.

"Yes?" It was halfway between a question and a plea.

The buzz of the admittance chime sliced through the moment. Startled, Maria tried to move away from Svetlana, only to crash down onto the couch as the doors to the Captain's quarters slid open.

"Captain!" Carl yelled irately. "I won't take this, I tell you. That she-devil has crossed a line! She's kicked me out of my own morgue!"

Svetlana turned and let loose all of her anger, frustration and confusion out on the Medical officer. "And that gives you the right to barge into my private quarters?" she roared, advancing toward the doctor.

"I'm sorry if I interrupted your little tete’a tete," Carl shot back, "But you need to get your ‘dog’ under control."

Maria groaned and sank lower into the couch, covering her face with a pillow.

At that moment, Major Dononova and three Marines came in on the Medical officer's heels.

"For the love of God," the XO muttered. "I can't believe this." Maria stood up and moved over to stand by Svetlana.

The Captain threw up her hands at the second invasion. "Maybe I should try and sleep in the Officer's mess. Then I might get some PRIVACY!" she shouted, veins popping out in her forehead. "That's it! Everyone out!"

Various protests came out of the crew’s mouths.

"No, I will not have it. OUT!! I will meet you in my office in one hour. Understood?" Svetlana leveled a gaze at them that would have melted steel.

Silence greeted her announcement.

"Now, everyone is dismissed!"

The XO watched as everyone filed out, then headed for the door herself. She was anxious to leave before she did something to embarrass herself even more. ‘I don’t even like her,’ Maria kept telling herself.

"Commander," the tone held something that Maria had never heard before. "We are not done with our conversation. I will get the information out of you sooner or later… anyway I can." With that, the Captain disappeared into the head to take a quick shower.

The only thing Maria could think of as she watched the tall, dark- haired woman leave was that some torture techniques were far more pleasant than others.


It was another half hour before Maria managed to slip away from the Command deck and make her way to Engineering. Theodore and his scientists had taken over the Command communications console, rerouting lines in an attempt to communicate with the aliens.

‘That is, if we ever manage to get the NOVA drive up and running again,’ Maria thought crankily which was another reason she needed to see Sparky. As she went down the corridors, she realized she was use to repairs taking much less time, and if they were working on the hull of the ship instead of replacing a NOVA sail, they would have.

With a nod to the two Marine sentries placed at the entrance to Main Engineering, the XO tried to hunt down the Chief Engineer.

Maria could hear her cursing before she saw the engineer buried inside a control panel that was shooting sparks. Nodding to the two unlucky technicians helping out, Maria called out, "Works every time, just follow the cursing and you’ll find Sparky."

"God damn right!" growled Sparky as she removed herself from the console. "I swear, the people who designed these things never thought ahead about how to take them apart…as if electronics never break. I wish I could get my hands on some of those designers for just an afternoon and…" Sparky interrupted her rant by the look on the Commander's face. "What’s wrong?"

Nodding to the two techs, "Give us a moment, will you?" the Spaniard asked and watched them discreetly slipped away to other duties. Only when they were out of earshot did Maria continue, "I need to talk to you, somewhere safe."

Sparky raised an eyebrow, but led the way through a path of debris to her office. Upon finding techs lounging in her office playing twical and drinking various beverages, the Chief Engineer growled causing them to scatter. She waved Maria in, slumped in her office chair and waited for the Commander to continue.

Maria let the doors slide shut then locked them from the inside before starting to pace back and forth in the small office. Without warning she stopped and turned to stare at Sparky and asked bluntly, "Have you told Kuzmin anything about..." she waved a hand toward Pathfinder's outer hull ‘our modifications’?"

Sparky brought her feet down off her desk and looked at her friend. She held up a hand and rummaged around on her desk. She pulled out a device and flipped it on and checked the read out. Satisfied with the results, she turned back to Maria and stated, "I would never compromise my loyalties like that." Internally she winced, wondering if Yona asked her directly what she would say.

"Hell." The XO blew out a breath and then sat down opposite her friend. "I know that. I'm sorry, that's not what I meant, I just..." she shook her head, took a deep breath and started again. "It looks like the Coalition government knew about the nuclear device hidden in the Arboretum, and that the Admiral was actually some sort of agent to make certain we didn't defect with our new addition. Svetlana figured it out and knows we're hiding something."

"And did you tell the bitch what it was?" The engineer glared at the redhead.

Maria gave her upset friend a stern look. "Of course not." She gazed thoughtfully at the engineer and then said, "Maybe I should, though."

"WHAT?" Sparky sputtered as she pounded on her desk. "I know that the woman does a number on you every time you look at her," she shouted at Maria, "but this is something that could compromise everything we have worked for."

Green eyes narrowed dangerously. "I came here to talk with a friend, not to get insulted because you still feel threatened by your girlfriend's ex." Holding off the engineer’s outraged retort with a hand, Maria shook her head, "Wait, don't even say it. Let's not start that again okay?" The XO licked her lips and tried a different tactic.

"What if..." she bit her lip, it was difficult to even think it let along say it. "Sparky, what if we're on the wrong side of this one?"

"What are you talking about? You want us to collaborate with the enemy? I mean, I know we’re in a bunch of hot water when we get back, but we can probably use their weapons systems and their personnel as a get-out- of-jail free card for the whole crew. But to actively aid the enemy and give them our secrets? That’s nuts!"

"Personnel?" Maria raised an eyebrow. "You're willing to give these people over to our government? Kuzmin too?"

Sparky refused to look at Maria.

"That's what I thought." The smaller woman rubbed a hand over her face. "It was a hell of a lot easier when we didn't like any of them."

"Love," whispered Sparky, still not looking at Maria.

The other woman smiled pensively at her friend. "You love her?"

"Yeah. Oh, I don't know." She rubbed her hands together, and then looked at Maria and said gravely, "In some ways, I hope we never go home. Most of the time, now, I try not to think much past the present moment."

Despite her pessimistic words, Maria felt happy for Sparky. Her friend constantly seemed to have bad experiences with her relationships. She gave Sparky a quick hug. "I think we’ll have to figure out what to do with our personal lives after we get back to our space, my friend." Sparky just nodded.

Maria stood back and studied her hands. Finally she whispered, "I don't know what I'll do if my family’s dead, Sparky."

Sparky looked guilty. She reached out to try and comfort her friend. "I haven't even thought of that. I’m sorry."

The XO shook her head, "Don't worry about it, they could still be alive, too." She prayed her gut feelings were wrong.

Forcefully, she dragged her mind back to the current problem. "We still have to talk about what could happen if Theodore manages to talk the aliens into sending us back. I don’t… I can't just turn these people over to the Coalition. They’ve become our friends and co-workers and I know a lot of other Coalition crewmembers think the same way, too. You know what’ll happen if Military Intel gets their hands on them."

"Or, what will happen if they turn us over the Republic?" shot back Sparky, wondering if it would be any different.

Maria shook her head, she hadn’t thought about that possibility. "We know what the Coalition tells us about them, that's it. That's why I was thinking about our little test for the Coalition. Sparky, it could save a lot of lives. We both know it, but who says it has to save only Coalition lives?"

Sparky stiffened and replied hotly, "It's ours, not theirs! Why should we tell them about it? She smiled smugly, "And then, if we get back, we can point out and say to the Coalition, 'Hey, the Republic still doesn’t know about the self-healing ships. So now, ‘Don't shoot us!'"

The redhead couldn't help but smile at her friend's words. "I don't know if that would help us much, Sparky. We’re probably in more trouble than we can imagine."

She knew she, personally, had no future when they got back. Any Captain who handed over her command to the Republic was finished as far as the Coalition was concerned. Her crew, on the other hand, might have a shot if they handed over the Russians.

"Well, think about it, okay? We don't have to tell them just yet. But remember, Svetlana now knows we're hiding something."

"My vote is that she can suck my left tit. I say, we tell them nothing. And then we should have a meeting of just our officers to find out what to do if we get back. You know, a contingency plan. We’ll lull them into complacency then take over as soon as we hit our space or something." Sparky stood up and added, "Look, I'm sure your family is ok. I mean, we were on the ass of nowhere. Maybe they don't even know we are gone yet."

‘There’s a snowball’s chance in hell of that,’ Maria thought and shook her head. "Just think about what that would mean to them. We'd be handing them, all of them, even Kuzmin, over to Military Intelligence. I'll talk with the others. Just don't do anything without talking to me first. Are we clear on that, Sparky?"

"Sure, sure," Sparky waved her hand in the air. "No plans behind your back. Got it."

"Good. Don’t forget about the staff meeting in a half hour." Maria still wasn't sure what to do, but for now, she wasn't going to tell the Captain anything about Pathfinder's modifications. "And make sure only your people work on the hull repairs."

Unlocking the door, Maria headed quickly back to the bridge. She didn’t want anyone to start asking questions about where she'd disappeared.


Svetlana paced in her quarters. She was furious over so many things she couldn't keep them straight in her head.

She's hiding something from me. God, her lips were soft. I can't believe we've come this far and she doesn't trust me! I have to get my hormones under control. Why do people keep bursting into my room!

This last thought stopped her dead, and the Captain went to double check the lock on her quarters. Noting that it was secure for the fifth time in the last ten minutes, she resumed her pacing.

Where can they be hiding this secret? Not in weapons, they don't really have any, plus the Kursk's crew has been all over them. Not in the sensors, Theodore is not one for keeping secrets about his capabilities, plus the UKNR has pretty good intelligence on what they do have. Where are we deficient in crew that would allow the Pegasus people to hide something…something so potentially groundbreaking for them to want to blow this ship up just to make sure we don’t learn about it?

The Captain stopped dead as the answer hit her square in the face. "That fucking bitch!"


Maria watched Svetlana warily throughout the meeting, waiting for an explosive confrontation that never happened. The XO had fully expected the tall, dark-haired woman to demand the Coalition staff to tell her what it was they might have been hiding.

Instead, the Captain had listened in silence as Theodore and his team presented their findings and their plan to communicate with the aliens once the NOVA drive was fully functional. The woman hadn't even made any comments during Sparky's status report on the repairs, something which had caused a few shared surprised glances around the conference table. Thankfully, no one had yet decided to ask why it was taking so much longer to repair the NOVA drive than it had to finish repairs on the hull.

Now, as they were preparing to adjourn, Maria risked inserting an idea of her own. "Captain, perhaps when we regain NOVA, we should attempt to come out behind one of the main planet's moons and then immediately activate the cloaking device?" The Spaniard could feel all eyes on her, doubtlessly wondering if the Captain was going to take her head off. It didn't take an empath to pick up the barely restrained tension between the two of them that had flared up yet again.

"Why?" asked Svetlana simply, shocking everyone in the room into stunned silence.

Maria gaped at the woman seated across from her at the table, wincing as Carl kicked her foot. Shooting the CMO a dark look, she snapped out of her surprise. "We've been attacked once already out here. Based on that, I think we should get a close up look of the situation before we try to communicate with anyone."

The Captain thought a moment, and then asked "Do you think that they haven't noticed us already then? We have picked up their signals, and since we don't know their sensor capabilities, don't you think they have noticed us as well? I am concerned that they might take popping in and hiding as a hostile maneuver, especially since we aren't sure if the cloak works on their ships."

"It worked when we first got here," Theodore pointed out, hesitantly.

Maria nodded at the head scientist. "Yes it did, on the Kursk anyway. Besides, shouldn't we have seen something out of them if they've noticed us here? Wouldn't you have sent someone to find out what a strange ship was doing near your solar system? I know if it had been us, we wouldn't have missed the exit from NOVA, even though we already know they use a different sort of drive system," the auburn-haired woman reasoned out loud.

"Okay, I can go with the ‘maybe they don't know we are here’ part of the plan. However, if you were in a wartime situation, which they seem to be as indicated by the hostiles we encountered when we first arrived here, wouldn't you shoot first and ask questions later if a strange ship just popped up in the middle of your space?" pushed Svetlana.

Maria glanced down the table at Sparky. The chief engineer shrugged ever so slightly, she didn't know where the Captain was headed with this either. "Yes, but then doesn't that just mean we should cloak immediately?"

Svetlana pinched the bridge of her nose in frustration. Help came from Lieutenant Commander Kuzmin. "I think, because you are not from our culture, you have missed the Captain’s point." The Weapons officer took a moment to make sure she had everyone's attention. "In our culture, even back to the barbarian times on Earth, it was considered honorable to wait outside the boundaries and let the strangers see you, and for them to determine if you were a ghost or spirit before engaging you in conversation. I think what the Captain is trying to say is, we should present ourselves just outside the borders and within sensor range, but out of weapons range, and let the aliens see us. Let them determine how to make contact."

The Coalition crewmembers stared at their UKNR counterparts.

The words ' that’s insane' was on the tip of Maria's tongue, but something in the Captain's eyes made her pause.

Letting out a breath she shook her head. "Maybe you're right. We," she nodded to her fellow Coalition officers "have always been trained to use stealth. The Pegasus wasn't armed. We couldn't defend ourselves even if we wanted to. So we relied on concealment to go where we wanted."

Ignoring the looks from her own staff she made a decision. "Let's try it."

Judging by Theodore's expression, agreeing with Svetlana on this was the last thing they'd expected her to do. She smiled grimly at Captain Montastyrskaya. "Unlike the Pegasus, Pathfinder is armed after all."

"First, drinking vodka, now ‘presenting’!" bellowed Bear. "We'll turn you into a real Russian yet," he slapped the smaller woman on the back in jest, nearly knocking her out of her chair. His slow recovery from the wounds he had suffered hadn’t taken any of the sting out of his slap.

"Thanks, Bear," she winced. "I think."

Trying to avoid rubbing her back, Maria raised an eyebrow in challenge at the dark-haired woman across from her. "What are your orders, Captain… Milana?" And she watched satisfactorily as Svetlana winced slightly.

"We follow my plan of making ourselves seen and waiting for the aliens to react." She stood up. "You are all dismissed with the exception of Lieutenant Commander Kuzmin."

"You heard her, people." Maria stood up, glad her shoulder was still working after Bear's little ‘pat’. "Move it." She grabbed Sparky's sleeve and nearly dragged the Engineer from the room before she could get herself into trouble.

Svetlana waited until all the others had left before she spoke. "Commander," she started formally, "I have something I need for you to do..." but a furious Kuzmin cut off the rest.

Alyona switched to Russian, the small blonde glaring at Svetlana. "You pretend I'm dead for weeks, and now you suddenly need me to do something for you?"

"Yes," countered Svetlana coldly. "This is how you wanted it, this is how it is. You are one of many officers on my ship. I will use you as I see fit."

"I see some things haven't changed," Kuzmin answered, closing her eyes at the cold words. "What is it you want, Captain?"

"Our friends from the Coalition seem to be keeping a rather big secret from us. Enough of one that the Admiral, or who ever he was, tried to blow up the ship rather than to have us learn it. At least that is what my XO believes." She watched Kuzmin's eyes widen at that bit of information. "Yes, she let that slip in a discussion we were having earlier today in my quarters."

The Weapons officer stayed silent, waiting for the rest.

The Captain stood up and started pacing. "The only places that Kursk's personnel haven't been in large numbers are the sensor room, the Med bay and Engineering. I think Theodore is too much of a twit for any major secret that they might have, plus ONI has a good handle on the Coalition's sensor capabilities for it to be there. I can't see anything worth dying over in the Med bay. So, that leaves Engineering. I know Bear was in charge of it for a bit, but you know as well as I do, that an engineering staff can hide things from a temporary head very easily." The tall woman looked at Kuzmin.

"And you," Svetlana stopped pacing in front of her former lover and leaned in and stated in a cold voice, "are in just the position to find out what they are hiding down there."

Understanding dawned slowly in Kuzmin's pale blue eyes. "You want me to be your Okrana?" using the name of the old secret police. "You want me to spy on Sparky?" Alyona exclaimed as a small part of her hoped she had misunderstood Lana’s demand.

"Yes." The Captain responded coldly. "Do you really think this affair will have a happy ending? Do you think your lover will come to the UKNR or that you will be welcome in the Coalition? Don't you understand that if we get back, they will go back to their homes and we will go back to ours, and that is still a very big if?"

Svetlana crossed her arms over her chest. "I will lay odds that they already have a plan to take over the ship once we get it back to our space, to take our weapons and cloaking device back to their command to try and save their own skins."

The slim blonde stared at her former lover, wondering when the woman in front of her had become such a stranger. "No." Alyona said, finally and simply. "Find some other way."

Svetlana slammed her hands down on the conference table in front of her Weapons officer. "Think about this, Commander. I am not asking you, I am telling you. Find out what they are hiding!"

Kuzmin stood up quickly and faced the enraged Captain. "And I'm refusing to follow that order," the small blonde spat out. "I won't let you tear Sparky and me apart."

The Captain pushed her officer back into her chair and snapped, "I am not doing this to break you up. I know you don't believe me, but frankly, I really don't care. She leaned toward Kuzmin’s face and snarled, "You will do this. You will not tell Sparky you are doing this. And, if my orders are not followed, I will turn you over to the Major. Are we clear?"

Kuzmin wanted to tell Svetlana to go to hell, but she couldn't. She was, in the end, still a loyal officer of the Republic. However much she despised it, she had been given an order. But, she thought angrily, no one said she had to make a serious effort at spying on her lover.

"Fine." Kuzmin snarled, as she slipped out of her chair and headed for the door. "But why don't you just torture the XO for information? Oh, that's right, because you have feelings for her," the Weapons officer spat out with contempt, "and your feelings are the only ones that count, right?"

The conference room doors slid shut after her parting words, leaving Svetlana alone.


Sparky was loitering near the conference room, waiting for Kuzmin to come out. She knew that Alyona and the bitch had issues to work out, but she worried about the tone that the Captain had taken with the Weapons officer.

The hatch to the conference room opened and Kuzmin came storming out. Sparky widen her eyes in surprise at the anger on the normally mellow officer's face. "Yona, is everything okay?" she asked her lover.

"Fine." Kuzmin snarled, barging past her lover, and ignoring the looks of surprise from the other bridge officers as she headed towards the lifts. She didn't want to have this conversation in front of everyone. The Marine sentries snapped to attention as she stepped into the lift the second the doors slid open.

Sparky rocked back on her heels at the snap, and then hurried after her lover. She barely made the lift before the doors slid shut. She glanced over at her seething lover and got even angrier with the Captain. "So what did the bitch want?"

Angry blue eyes stared at the Chief Engineer, softening as they realized that the anger shining in them was on her behalf. With a sigh, the slender Weapons officer forced herself to relax. Reaching over she hit the manual override on the lift, bringing it to a stop. Then she moved closer to Sparky, touching her lover’s arm.

For a second, as she stared up at the Chief Engineer's eyes, Yona almost gave in and told the other woman everything. Instead, she forced a small smile on her face and leaned up to press her lips to Sparky's. "Just a talk we needed to have," Kuzmin lied.

Sparky relaxed slightly. "Was she mean to you? I can make her bathroom visits a very bad experience if you want me to?"

The last of the anger faded away and Kuzmin shook her head. "No. Thank you, though." Smiling at the image those words evoked, she reactivated the lift. "Let's just go home."

The Chief Engineer of an Explorer class vessel had quarters just as large as those of the Executive officer. It was a little snug for two people, but Kuzmin didn't mind. It was still more space than she'd had onboard the Kursk.

As Sparky went into the head to shower, the Weapons officer wandered through the cabin listlessly. She was trying to get up the nerve to spy on the engineer. Glancing around, she noticed the computer console at Sparky's desk. It was the logical place for her to start fulfilling Svetlana's order. She just didn't know if she could bring herself to break her lover's trust like that.

After a few moments of vacillating, she grimaced and headed toward the desk. The sooner she did this, the sooner she could tell the Captain there wasn't any conspiracy.

Sliding into the chair, she quickly activated the console, biting her lip as the login screen appeared.

With growing speed, the Weapons officer began to work her way through the computer system’s defenses. They were formidable for a science vessel, but outdated by military standards. It only took a few minutes for her to bypass the login screen and gain access to the Chief Engineer's files. After making certain that the shower was still running, she started hunting for anything that would be out of the ordinary.

Quickly, she scrolled through file after file, skimming titles. Nothing caught her eye. Everything was mundane and even the service reports for the weapon systems they'd installed from the Kursk were as they should be. She was just about to turn off the console when she caught sight of something strange.

Frowning, she opened the small file and skimmed its contents. There wasn't much in it, a simple set of records documenting repair speeds of a new alloy. Something about them was off, though.

Hearing the shower stop, Kuzmin quickly sent herself a copy of the file and eased her way out of the system, erasing her electronic footprints as she went.

Sparky hummed to herself as she dried off. She had a sexy woman waiting for her in the other room, the Captain was pissed off and frustrated, and the ship was entering NOVA space soon. They might even find a way home. Things were good.

By the time Sparky stepped out of the bathroom, her brightly colored hair muted by the water, Yona was lounging on the couch. She smiled at the sight of her lover, forcing aside a growing kernel of suspicion with her. "We going to be able to NOVA soon?" she asked Sparky.

Sparky frowned at the question. What brought that up? She was there for my report. She crossed over to the couch. "Well, I guess, as soon as the repairs on the sails and hull get done. Why?"

The slim woman waved away the concern. "Just... I miss home, I guess." she said, trying to distract Sparky from the pointed query.

The engineer played off the comment. "Well, when we get there, I'll take you out for whatever food you want. Then to this little resort I know, where we can just disappear for a few weeks..." she trailed off when she realized what she was saying.

The blonde winced and looked away, unable to break the strained silence that followed. She didn't want to think about what would happen to the two of them when they got back.

"You do think we'll get back, don't you?" pressed Sparky as she sat closer to the blonde.

"Da." Kuzmin whispered softly, and then turned to stare into the engineer's eyes. "What will happen then?"

"We'll live happily ever after, of course," declared Sparky, flashing a big grin to Yona.

"We will?" the blonde asked, smiling despite herself. Sparky always did make her smile.

"Sure. We'll find a place outside both the Coalition and the Republic and we'll...ooof." Sparky grunted at Kuzmin hit her arm.

Laughing at the absurdity of that idea, the Weapons officer followed the smack by climbing into the Chief Engineer's lap.

"I wish we could," she said finally, pressing her head to Sparky's chest and listening to the other woman's heartbeat.

Sparky looked into the space over the other woman's head. "We will," she promised softly. "God help us, but I'll find a way to keep us together, I swear," as she kissed the top of Kuzmin's head to seal the promise.



"All decks reported secure for NOVA drive," Maria formally stated from where she was strapped in at her station.

Kuzmin glanced over at the Captain's spot, noting that Svetlana was also strapped in and calmly letting Maria run the show.

With a glance of her own toward the dark-haired woman, Maria continued her last minute checklist. "Helm?"

Lieutenant Gorsky ran a hand through short dark hair, before answering. "Course plotted and locked in."

"What about you, Romanov, we ready?" the XO asked. She had to crane her neck a bit to see Romanov sitting at his communications station with Theodore strapped in next to him at the science station.

It was going to be a relatively short NOVA jump to what they thought was the edge of the alien system. Even going at a slower speed so they didn’t tax the newly repaired NOVA drive, their ETA was still only a few days to the edge of the alien system.

"Da, Commander. All stations report they are ready for NOVA translation," replied the com officer. Theodore gave her thumbs up and Maria grinned back at the science officer.

A tap to her console opened a com channel with engineering. "Sparky? You ready down there?"

"Aye, aye Skipper!" came the cheerful reply. Maria could see Svetlana grinding her teeth at Sparky’s use of her nickname and hid a grin.

"Very well. Captain, all departments and decks report ‘ready’. Course is set and locked. NOVA drive on your command," the XO quickly said before Sparky managed to get the Captain to explode.

"Engage NOVA drive," said the Captain.

All along her hull Pathfinder unfurled her wings. The giant gossamer thin wings angled out from the hull, shimmering with energy as they powered up. The rumble of the wings spreading reverberated throughout the hull then stopped as they locked into place. For a heartbeat there was nothing. More and more energy was poured into them from the ship’s fusion reactor. Lightning rippled through space along their edges, building to a critical charge.

Maria clamped her jaw shut. She always hated this part.

The Universe went mad.

Pathfinder heaved as the ship’s drive tore a hole in the fabric of space and burst into another dimension. The vessel rode a shockwave of her own making into that universe, then caught and held herself in the swirling energy waves of the new space. Like a sailboat of old, the ship rode those waves, angling through them toward her destination. Slowly, Maria forced her body to relax.

They'd made a successful translation into NOVA space.

"Sparky, tell your people, ‘well done’," Maria said into the open com channel. She grinned as every readout on her board came up green.

"Better yet," added Svetlana, "tell your people who are off duty to report to the galley for food and drinks." She turned to the Communications officer. "Romonov, make a ship wide announcement, tell everyone there is a celebration going on in the galley, and all hands not on duty have permission to attend. And Bear? Try and salvage some of your better vodka and take it down to the enlisted galley. Have the Master Chief stand guard over it. No over indulgence."

"And the officers who aren't on duty can join me in the Officer's Mess. I'll break out the good liquor. No offense, Bear." She winked at her friend.

Maria blinked in astonishment, and undid her safety harness so she could turn and stare at the Captain. "A party?" she asked disbelievingly. Once again the annoying woman had caught her by surprise.

"I think it's a good idea since we are back on track in getting home. Let everyone know that their hard work getting the NOVA back up is appreciated."

Giving the Captain a strange look, Maria shook her head. "You keep surprising me," she said quietly so the other officers wouldn’t overhear her comment.

"You must think I’m some kind of cold-hearted bitch not to know how hard everyone worked after the fiasco with the downed sail, the bomb scare, and then putting this ship back together again." Svetlana leaned closer to the Spaniard. "I know. And that is why I am considered an excellent Captain. It’s not because I can blow up a lot of ships or that I had help from the fact I am royalty. I’m a good leader because I care about my crew and their welfare."

At that moment, staring into those intense blue eyes only a few feet away from her, Maria totally believed Svetlana. She never would have thought it possible, but she actually thought that the Russian did care about the crew. The problem was which crew? Kursk’s or Pathfinder’s? She sighed inwardly. She just didn’t know what to think when it came to the frustrating woman!

She stood up and acknowledged the Captain’s request, "I'll see about getting us some food for the Officer's Mess."

"Make sure the crew gets good food, too. No weird stuff. That adobo they had last week was abysmal," the Captain called after the smaller woman.

"You just don't like foreign things, do you?" Maria retorted as she stepped into the lift. As the doors slid shut, she cringed as she realized she had just flirted with the Captain. And on the bridge, no less. And, she realized, with a woman she was still determined to hate.


The celebration had been going on for a while before Svetlana entered the Officer's Mess. She had been wrapping things up in her quarters as well as checking to see that the cooks had edible food for the enlisted crew’s party. She had conferred again with Master Chief Romnov to make sure he understood his orders before joining the party. Plus, by now, Bear's vodka should have had a chance to start working its charm before she had to face a bunch of distrustful Coalition officers.

Maria had a glass of Bear's vodka in hand, but had managed to avoid doing more than taste it during the many toasts that the large man had insisted on. During NOVA, only a small watch was usually necessary, which meant almost all the ships officers were there to celebrate.

Suppressing a smile, Maria managed to slip away from where Carl and Dononova were arguing. The constant quarrelling had somehow turned into an almost friendly confrontational game with each other.

"Captain." The smaller woman nodded as the tall, dark-haired woman entered.

"XO," the Captain nodded back warily, taking in the room’s interactions. She noted the Major and the Medical officer’s arguing and wondered if they needed to be separated soon.

Following her glance, Maria grinned. "Don't worry, I think yelling at each other has become some sort of sick, twisted sport for them." Reaching over to the nearby table she picked up one of the glasses filled with clear liquid and offered it to her. "Bear's finest or so he told me."

"Which week?" muttered Svetlana as she tossed back the shot. The vodka burned on the way down and also took out her nose hairs with the potent fumes. The Captain started coughing and her first officer attentively pounded quite vigorously on her back. "Gah! What was that crap?"

"Bear's finest." Maria repeated helpfully. "I think Sparky's using it to degrease engine parts."

"No wonder NOVA succeeded," gasped Svetlana, still trying to breath through the damage to her throat.

Taking pity on the woman, Maria got her a plate of food and a glass of juice. "Here, try this, it shouldn't kill you. No adobo."

"Right," the Captain said suspiciously, but she took the glass and the food anyway and started to put away it quickly.

While watching the taller woman eat, the Spaniard found herself speaking before thinking. "What will you do if we get home?"

"Sleep for a week," replied the brunette promptly. "Then maybe take some time at the spa. By then, my cousin will have caught up with me and God only knows what will happen then."

Bear came up to receive kudos on his latest batch of vodka and caught the tail end of the conversation.

"Oh God, are we already on Anastasia stories?" he laughed and the rest of the UKNR crew started laughing with him.

"Anastasia?" Maria asked curiously and grinned up at the large man. "Oh, and by the way, Bear, great vodka. Svetlana, I mean, the Captain loved it." Maria blinked in dismay, her cheeks coloring at her slip.

The UKNR officers all chanted together, "Long live Crown Princess Anastasia!" and then started laughing uproariously. There were calls for Anastasia stories, and quite a few for the 'fire engine story'.

Svetlana kept turning redder and redder. "I can always have the Major shove each and every one of you out the airlock!" she threatened.

"Let's hear this 'fire engine’ story" Maria said in relief when she didn't get any immediate rebuke from her slip up.

"No!" said Svetlana through gritted teeth. Bear chuckled and slapped his friend on the back. "Don't be such a … how do you say it? Branch in the dirt?"

Svetlana shot her so-called friend an evil look and stomped over to the food table, muttering about a court martial as Bear laughed at her again.

The majority of officers, UKNR and Coalition alike, had wandered over to form a semi circle around Bear. But their eyes were on the Captain.

"Well, I don't know if you know this or not," Bear explained to the crowd, "but the Crown Princess and our Captain look exactly alike except for eye color. This could be because their mothers are twins, but who knows," Bear shrugged and took another shot of his ‘best’.

"So, most of the wild stories you hear about Svetlana, you have to wonder if it's really our Captain over there," Bear pointed at the hunched over figure in the corner, "or if it's Anastasia with colored contacts in."

Maria listened with interest. The topic of Svetlana's family hadn't come up since the four of them had been locked up together and nearly killed.

"Wild stories?" Maria asked with an encouraging smile. "What kind of stories, Bear?"

Sparky broke in. "Wait, you are telling me," she cocked a thumb over her shoulder, "she's related to the Queen?"

The XO turned and gave the Chief Engineer a pointed look. "Are you telling me you forgot everything said when we were in the plasma containment room?" she hissed.

"I just didn't realize how close the connection was," Sparky muttered back.

Turning back to Bear, Maria did her best to encourage the large man to continue. "You were about to tell us some stories?"

"Da, da. Anyway, the Princess gets a wild hair up her ass at times and ditches her guards, puts the contacts in and pretends to be her less royal cousin, Svetlana. She's pretty good, I think she's fooled just about everyone here, including Yona."

Kuzmin and the other officers nodded their heads in agreement.

"Did Svetlana ever pretend to be the Princess?" Carl asked from near the back of the group.

"Under coercion," supplied Kuzmin, speaking up with a grin, "Usually for the really boring State dinners."

"What's the Empress like?" asked another Coalition officer. The UKNR was as mysterious as the space they found themselves in now, and their natural curiosity was winning over the traditional distrust of the Republic.

"Well, she was an ass-kicking Admiral before she became the Queen," offered the Major.

"You should know more about that than me," grumbled Svetlana as she walked back to the crowd. "You were part of her personal guard."

That drew a few curious looks toward the Marine Major as well.

"We know about her being an Admiral. That much we learn in school." Maria picked up the question. "But, what is she really like?"

"She's my Aunt," shrugged Svetlana. "What do you want me to say? She's a bitch when you piss her off, but she repays loyalty with loyalty, and she thinks that the aristocracy is there to protect the commoners. That's their job and God help them if she doesn't think they are doing it right."

The other UKNR officers let out a knowing chuckle.

Maria glanced toward Sparky, raising an eyebrow meaningfully at her. That wasn't what they'd been told by the Coalition.

"There was this one time," Svetlana recounted, "a Baron wasn't taking care of his people. He was supposed to take the revenues and re-invest it back into his Barony. You know, make sure people had jobs, provide training if necessary, yada yada yada. Well, he bought stuff for himself instead and when it came tax time, there were no revenues to tax, because he had spent all the money. The Queen took a dim view of that," Svetlana shrugged, "he is no longer a Baron. He was made an example of and provided a lesson to the other Lords that they can be fired." She grinned evilly, "Especially if you’re backed up by your twin who runs the Navy and your husband who runs the Army."

Maria's eyebrows rose as she realized exactly how much power Svetlana's family must have inside the UKNR. "There must be some who abuse their power," she said, thinking of the Witworth family. "Power always leads to abuse, I’ve found."

"Exactly," nodded Svetlana. "At the moment, since it was my Aunt and my mother that forced the Revolution that led to the current constitutional monarchy, the power is concentrated with those she knows are loyal to her. Over the next few generations, the power will be spread out, as our government stabilizes."

"Enough politics, more stories!" roared Bear suddenly, sensing an approaching somber mood. "Never discuss politics or religion at a party!" He passed out glasses filled with his potent brew. "Now we will drink a toast!"

Wincing, Maria took the offered glass, setting her own still full glass, aside.

"Shto toie moomoo yebyash!" he roared, with the UKNR officers echoing him loudly and the Coalition officers struggling with the words.

The group broke up with a sizeable faction headed for the food that had been laid out for them. Catching up to Sparky, the XO whispered, "We need to talk again, soon. Real soon."




Carl was the last one to make it. Maria sealed the access hatch behind him as he crawled into the bowels of the ship. They were in one of the access chambers deep in the guts of Pathfinder’s sophisticated sensor array. It was a tight squeeze, but they wouldn't be interrupted here. Maria glanced around at the gathered officers, pleased to see that most of them there.

"I'm glad you could all slip away."

Sparky waved her hand dismissively. "They are more concerned about getting home than paying attention to us. Julia couldn’t make it though, she already had an S and R exercise scheduled with her people and it would have looked strange if she suddenly canceled it."

Theodore nodded, scratching at the back of his head as he spoke up as well. "We're all set for translating once we get out of NOVA, so it wasn't that hard to sneak out."

Maria just nodded to him, privately wondering if the scientist even knew how to sneak.

"We can't really get access to the Marines armory, but we can deny them access to it for a short period of time." said Sparky

"Slow down, Sparky. We have to decide if that's what we want to do first," the XO cautioned her friend. "We need to figure out what we want to do if this approach succeeds and the aliens somehow manage to get us home the same way they got us here."

The four officers eyed each other in the sudden uncertain silence that followed that question. Carl shrugged, Theodore played with a lock of his hair, while Sparky and Maria eyed each other with the engineer taking the first plunge.

"We need to figure out how to take our ship back. Did you hear? We have the Queen's niece commanding the ship! We can use her as a bargaining chip for our own skins."

"Sparky..." Maria started, eyes narrowing slightly. "Does that mean you're ready to give over ‘all’ of them to Coalition Naval Intelligence?"

"I'm sure that the Intelligence weenies will be more than willing to let the others go if they have the commander bitch," hedged Sparky, not willing to look Maria in the eyes.

The thought of handing Svetlana over for at best a public humiliation, at worse, a slow death brought a bitter taste to Maria's mouth. "No," she said, quietly but without any room for negotiation. "They've endured as much as we have out here. We probably wouldn't have survived without their help. I'm not going to just toss them to the wolves, especially not Svetlana."

Carl and Theodore exchanged glances, both deciding they might want to stay out of this for now.

Sparky's eyes widened. "The one person who has enough worth to the Republic to keep our skins attached to our bodies, to possibly keep your family safe, and you don't want to turn her over?"

"There has to be a better way then trading human lives!" the Spaniard retorted, shaking her head. "I refuse to become a person who will betray another person, who has only tried to keep this ship safe, I might add, to her possible death."

Judging by the look on Carl's face, the Chief Medical officer thought his former captain had taken leave of her senses.

Sparky looked at her commander in horror. "I am seriously considering asking Carl to relieve you of command for medical reasons."

Maria sat back stunned, staring at her three officers, people she called her friends.

"I believe there has to be a better way, as should each of you." Maria's eyes narrowed. "Unless of course, Sparky, your relationship with Kuzmin is just for sex and you won't mind at all handing her over as well. Because you know as well as I do that the intelligence people won't just take Svetlana and then send all the rest of her crew back home like nothing happened."

Carl opened his mouth to speak, trying to stop what was about to become a nasty fight.

Sparky jumped up, her face red. "How can you say that? Why would they keep anyone else besides the Captain? They’ll need to hand over the rest of the crew in order to keep the heat off so they can keep the bitch!"

"You think so?" Maria asked, snorting. "And you think I'm the naive one? Do you think they care about the heat? Are you forgetting how many times they've sent us into harms way in the past for information? They'd gladly sacrifice us all for this sort of intelligence coup, and you know it."

"Can't we just toss them off the ship in the lifepods?" Theodore hesitantly spoke up as the Skipper and Chief engineer glared at each other. "Then, their own people could, well, umm, I guess come pick them up?"

Sparky glared at Theodore. "With our remaining lifepods, the environmental systems would be seriously overloaded. They would have to be picked up within hours to survive."

"We were on the border when we left, maybe the, uh, the aliens could put us right back where we left?" Theodore said, wincing at the look Sparky was giving him.

"And you don't think search crews have been sent out to look for either one of our ships?" the multicolored hair woman asked.

Maria blinked in surprise, glancing from the scientist to Sparky. "You know..." the woman trailed off, thinking. "Is there any way to get all of them into the lifepods?"

Sparky thought for a moment. "If we had a catastrophic failure to the ship… that should cause an evacuation to the lifepods. Yeah, that would work."

Maria let out a slow breath as Carl nodded in agreement as well. She liked the idea of dropping them at the edge of UKNR space a lot better than using them as bargaining chips. She'd figure out a way to save her family without them. "Okay, good, now how do we go about doing it?"


The Captain in question was in the ship’s gym, trying to sweat out the last of her hangover. After a warm up run, the brunette had moved onto a weight bench and was currently trying to bench press her normal weight.

"Need a spot?" Major Dononova asked as she moved around in back of the bench the Captain was working out on. She materialized out of nowhere as if she’d been waiting for the Captain.

"Sure," panted Svetlana.

The Major added another ten pounds to each side of the bar with a somewhat wicked smile. "Wouldn't want you to get complacent, Captain."

"Right," grumbled Svetlana. "Glad you are here to look out for me," she grunted out with the effort of lifting the extra weight.

The Major kept an eye on how the tall dark haired woman was doing, and kept her voice light as she spoke, "They're planning something." Not specifying who 'they' were, but not really needing too.

"Of course. I'd be disappointed if they weren't. I assume that you will have specific information on what it is they are planning?"

"Of course," the Major answered, sounding a touch hurt that the Captain would even think she wouldn’t.

"Anything we need to worry about?" asked the Captain as she squeezed out another rep.

"No. I'll let you know if it turns into something serious," the Major answered, helping the Captain put the bar back up.

"Glad you are on top of it," wheezed Svetlana as she tried to see past the little stars that popped out when she exerted on the last rep.

"Now that that is out of the way," the Major smiled evilly, "Would you care for a friendly spar?"

Svetlana put her arm over her eyes and prayed for a sudden death or a shipwide emergency. Something that would be more merciful than the next few minutes.


Alyona tilted her head, trying to relieve an annoying crick in the side of it. The day had been spent in endless drills, running and then rerunning battle stations. There had been endless simulated combat drills as well, with teams manhandling the massive missiles into the tubes, along with practice firing of the laser canons. All in all it had kept the chief weapons officer hopping.

Leaning back on the couch the blonde frowned up at the ceiling of the chief engineer's quarters as a question that had troubled her most of the day surfaced again. "Sparky?"

The Chief engineer looked up from her workstation where she was reviewing the latest results of the Damage Control Drills. "Yes?"

"Where did you go this afternoon? I called down to engineering to tell you one of the power conduits ruptured again during tests and your people didn't know where you were?" the slim blonde turned so she could look at her lover.

Sparky looked blank for a second. "Oh, yeah. The computer panel in the SARs ready room was on the blink again and I was buried in the panel trying to trace the glitch. I keep trying to catch it when it's not working so I can figure out what's wrong with it. It never seems to have a problem when any of my techs arrive to fix it."

A small frown creased Alyona's forehead for a split second, then disappeared as the blonde leaned back against the cushions again. The seeds of doubt that the Captain had planted had sprouted nicely and were now well underway to causing her to question her trust in anything Sparky said.

"Oh," she said instead, quietly. "Well, we should be ready for whatever happens when we come out of NOVA. We tested every weapon system."

"Any problems besides that power conduit? Sparky glanced at her lover. "My crews and I had a hard time integrating your systems with our power circuits. It would be a shame if they start to blow at the wrong time."

It would be more than just a shame, and they both knew it. The entire crew of Pathfinder knew it too. If the systems blew out during a real battle the ship and her crew could end up heavily damaged, or worse.

Kuzmin shrugged, wishing she'd had more time to put the motley Coalition and UKNR composite crew through more training, and give the equipment more thorough tests.

"Not that I can tell. Not without test firing them, and since we can't get anymore missiles out here..." the weapons officer trailed off glumly.

Sparky nodded in agreement. Live fire exercises were the only sure way to tell if a system worked. You could drill and drill and drill and run simulations until your people could sleepwalk through their tasks, but until you have a 'live test' you never knew what could really happen. Since Pathfinder had no way of restocking its missiles, the Captain had made the decision that more drilling and simulation had to take the place of the live fire exercises. It all made sense to Sparky, however much she hated agreeing with the Captain.

Watching the multicolor haired woman out of the corner of her eye, Alyona again considered her orders from the Captain. She hadn't gotten much from the file she'd downloaded from Sparky's computer terminal; it didn't seem very interesting on the surface at least. But that didn't explain why the report had been under such strict security measures.

Tomorrow, the blonde decided, she'd give the report to the Captain and be done with it. For now though, "I'm going to go take a shower," she said, standing up and wincing at how sore she felt from the drilling.

Sparky looked up from her terminal and watched her lover cross the room. She then lifted an arm and took a whiff. "Hey, I think I need some help scrubbing my back," she called as she followed her lover into the head.

Usually Alyona relished the chance to get Sparky naked. Getting the engineer naked in the shower was even better. It led to very pleasant things. Right now though, all she wanted was to lean under the water spray and try to forget how she was betraying her lover’s trust.

Giving Sparky a tight smile, she closed the door with a whispered, "Um, I’d like some time alone, if you don’t mind." She winced at the words after the door had slid closed on Sparky’s shocked face.

Sparky stood there and blinked at the closed door, halfway out of her coveralls. She slowly shrugged her coveralls back on and walked back to her terminal in a daze. Alyona had never declined to participate in naked time.


The engineer sat in her chair and started twisting in her swivel while she thought things through.

Maybe I've been so busy plotting that I've neglected her.

The engineer pondered on this for a while, but her thoughts took her down a road that Maria had tried to point out, but the engineering officer refused to travel.

Or maybe...No! Alyona would not allow that bitch to use her to spy on me. Sparky's expression turned dark as she contemplated that thought. No, I've just been distracted lately and Yona has been under a lot of pressure.

I'll see if I can scare up some chocolate to smooth things over.

Deciding that all was once again right in her universe, or would be after a sufficient chocolate bribe, the engineer stood up, fastened her working coveralls, and left the quarters in search of the perfect chocolate confection to sooth any ruffled feathers.

By the time she was done with the shower Kuzmin had come to a decision. She'd go back into Sparky's computer one last time. If there was nothing there she'd tell the Captain and tell her she'd done her duty. That would just have to be enough for Svetlana because Alyona wasn't going to let her former lover drive a wedge between the two of them. Toweling off, her hair still damp, the weapons officer glanced around the empty quarters.

"Sparky?" When there was no answer she hurried to the computer station and quickly retraced her path into the engineer’s files.

Typing quickly, she started a systematic search of the rest of Sparky's files that she hadn't been able to get to the first time. It took time regardless how good she was with bypassing computer security systems.

Sparky entered her quarters ass first, trying to maneuver the large, badly stacked candy boxes in her hands and missed seeing Kuzmin sitting at her terminal.

"Yona! I've got a present for you," she called, and then promptly lost the battle with gravity and watched all of the boxes fall to floor, sprinkling chocolates everywhere. "Shit!" Sparky dropped to her knees and tried to pick up the pieces of candy before the 15 second rule kicked in.

The slim, blonde woman nearly had a heart attack as Sparky suddenly appeared, carrying a bundle of boxes. With panicked haste she exited Sparky's files in a flurry of typed commands, and then rushed to help her lover before the engineer realized she had been sitting at the computer.

"What is all this?" she asked, hoping her flush would be misinterpreted by her lover.

Sparky's attention was drawn to the gap that opened up in Alyona's robe as she knelt next to the engineer and started to help pick up the candy. "Huh?" asked Sparky in a daze.

The weapons officer smiled, her face heating again for a completely different reason now. "What is all this?" she repeated, holding up a box in front of Sparky's face.

"Well, it’s, a sort of apology for neglecting you," the engineer stammered. "You are my whole world Yona."


Alyona blinked, staring at Sparky's hopeful face.

Wonderingly, she reached up and touched the other woman's cheek, a slow smile crossing her lips. With a push she sent them both tumbling to the ground, eagerly assaulting Sparky's lips as she tugged on the engineer's uniform.

The hell with Svetlana’s orders was her last thought as she managed to get Sparky's shirt loose.

Much, much later, Kuzmin sleepily pulled the blanket over her body, snuggling into Sparky's bed with a pleased smile. Their lovemaking had been intense and left the blonde feeling satiated and very loved. Sparky had whispered that she'd needed to finish a few things before joining her in bed.

Leaving space for her lover, Alyona stretched out on the bed, reveling in the feel of the sheets against her skin and slid back to sleep.

Sparky took one last look over her shoulder at her lover before reluctantly leaving the bedroom and entering the main area of her quarters.

There were one or two last reports that had to be filed before she could join Yona. The engineer turned on her terminal and started to open the reports when a search icon caught her eye.

The search program was one that she wasn't familiar with. In fact it wasn't one that had ever been used onboard Pathfinder as far as she knew. A few typed commands and the engineer verified that it definitely wasn't a Coalition program.

Sparky could feel the beginning of a panic attack. 'Is Yona playing me? Is this some sick way for the Captain to find out all our secrets?'

In the bedroom Yona turned over, sleepily reaching out to where Sparky should have been but wasn't. "Sparky, you almost done?" she called out sleepily, wanting to hold her lover close.

Sparky felt a hot rage roar through her. 'I've been set up! She ground her teeth together. 'That fucking bitch! I'll show her!' The engineer got control of her anger. The weapon's officer couldn't suspect that Sparky had gotten wise to the insidious plot.

"Coming, honey," she called out in what she hoped was a normal tone of voice. She blinked back tears. Once they got back, Kuzmin could join that bitch under Intelligence's heavy handling.


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