Here we go. I promised we were working on part 9, didn't I? As with everything else in life, this took longer than expected. Let us know what you think of this section of part 9, constructive criticism is more than welcome. A big thanks to Claudia, our fabulous beta reader, for her help in straightening out our grammar and spelling problems., and


Pathfinder Part 9


By the time the court martial was to begin, three days after her first meeting with Jimena Alverez, the Coalition had lost its first system to the United Kingdom of New Russia. Admiral Erin Callejo wasn't even supposed to know about it, but the on duty Marines had been sneaking her regular updates. System PX-436 didn't even have a full name. The attack was being called a" minor set-back" on the Coalition news networks. Unknown to the general public, however, it had contained a major Coalition forward supply base.

Now they can attack us from our own forward supply base. We should be out counterattacking right now with the Fourth Fleet. Instead, I'm stuck here.

With a disgusted sigh, the Admiral tossed aside the report and straightened her uniform. The Lieutenant was supposed to be here any moment to accompany her to the first hearing.

Erin had yet to hear anything from Commander Guillermont and she was starting to worry about what was taking the Commander so long. Unless he'd run into unexpected problems, he should have gotten a message to her by now.

Adding that to the list of problems in her mind, she glanced at the chronometer and headed for the doors. Which suddenly slid open as she approached them, admitting a harried-looking Lieutenant.

"Oh good, you're here."

The Admiral raised an eyebrow.

" Yeah, well, umm…" Blushing, Jimena amended, "Where are you going?"

"I was beginning to wonder if you were going to show up, Lieutenant. There is a hearing today, you know."

"Sorry. I have some information about the people sitting on your court martial. It looks like a who's who of the hawk party."

Erin had been expecting the Freedom Party to somehow manage to stock the court martial board with their own members. "Whom do we have?" motioning the counselor inside the room.

"Admiral Vienna, Councilor Charon and rounding out the list is Thomas Witworth. It seems his son was on the Pegasus. I'm thinking he has a bone to pick with the Republic."

Snorting softly at the Lieutenant's information, she started back towards the doors.

"Not the Republic, the United Kingdome," corrected the Admiral as they stepped outside. "Councilor Thomas Witworth's son, Thomas Witworth the second, was the Executive Officer on Pegasus."

The two Marine sentries stationed at her door came to attention and escorted them down the hallway.

A conference room had been converted for the purpose of her court martial and Erin smiled slightly at the impromptu arrangement. Someone had been in a hurry to put her on trial.

"No chance we can get them removed, I suppose?" She whispered to the junior JAG officer, as they watched the little procession enter.

"Tried already," mutter Jimena out of the side of her mouth. "That's why I was late. I was getting my ass chewed out for 'insulting the integrity of the great men on the Council' and all that rubbish."

The Admiral stifled a chuckle as the opposing board made their way across the room. Dark eyebrows crept skywards at the sight of three, very senior JAG officers who took their seats across from them. "Pulled out the big guns, did they?"

"Oh, yeah. I still have no idea how they got away with assigning me. Somebody really wants your head on a platter, Admiral." Jimena put her stack of readers down on the defense table.

"But, I'm the best there is. I just need to show everyone. Winning your case will prove that." The younger woman said confidently, missing the slightly doubtful look that Erin gave her.

The Master Sergeant in charge of the ad hoc courtroom came to attention near the front. "All rise for the Honorable Members of the Board." Dutifully, the Admiral rose to her feet along with the few observers in the small courtroom.

No civilian reporters here, that's for certain.

The Council members seated themselves and motioned for everyone else to take a seat. Because of Erin's rank, a special court martial was required and instead of military judges, members of the Council actually presided over the proceedings.

The Master Sergeant remained standing as the rest of the courtroom sat down. Holding up a data pad, the hawk-eyed man formally started the proceedings.

"Admiral Erin Callejo, former Commanding Officer of Coalition Space Force, Fourth Fleet, is charged with the following: Failure to obey a general order, noncompliance with procedural rules, misbehavior before the enemy, aiding the enemy, improper hazarding of several vessels, murder of crewmembers resulting from an illegal action, conduct unbecoming an officer, and General Article 134."

Erin forced herself not to react as the charges were read out in open court.

Jimena whispered out of the side of her mouth, "When put like that, it sounds so bad." Erin suppressed a snicker.

Councilor Witworth glared at the two of them as if they were misbehaving children. "What does your client have to say for herself, Lieutenant?" demeaning the JAG officer's rank.

"Not Guilty of all charges, your Honors." replied Jimena, not at least cowed by the man's tone and fierce look.

He snorted in obvious contempt and ponderously got up out of his seat, the other two members of the board following. "We'll begin hearing testimony tomorrow then." The Master Sergeant leaped to his feet, calling out the end of the day's activities.

"That's it?" Erin watched the board members leave. She'd expected more to happen today than just the plea.

"Yep," Jimena packed up her data pads. "Just a lot of posturing on the first day. Don't worry. It goes downhill from here." the Lieutenant wiggled her eyebrows.

"I wish you wouldn't say things like that since this is my career we're talking about," Erin said, rising to her feet as the opposing council walked past without even a glance towards Jimena. "Not your biggest fans, are they?"

"They just don't know me yet. I'm really quite lovable." assured Jimena. "And yes, I know it's your career. It's my career, too. We'll be going down together, Admiral. Now stop worrying. I'll get us out of this."

Erin opened her mouth to tell the young officer to stop saying things like 'going down together' when a Marine stopped at their table. "Sorry Ma'am, I think you dropped this." He handed Jimena a data pad, saluted and headed out of the conference room. The Admiral raised an eyebrow in silent question.

"Oooh…clandestine notes. I love it," whispered Jimena gleefully.

Erin was starting to wonder just how seriously her counsel was taking this case. "Well?" She prompted, nodding towards the data pad as they headed back down the corridor towards her quarters, once more flanked by Marines.

"Later, Admiral."

Both of the Admiral's eyebrows went up at that, but she didn't say anything until they were both back in her quarters.

As soon as her doors had shut, she turned around quickly. "It's later. Now, what is it?" It was obvious that she wasn't used to being told to wait by a Lieutenant, even if said Lieutenant was her counsel.

The Lieutenant squinted at the note. "Do you know a Commodore Guillermont?"

Erin did her level best to remain impassive as she moved into the kitchen unit and fetch herself and her guest a cup of coffee. "Yes, why?"

" 'Cause, this note is for you." The Lieutenant handed over the pad.

Taking the pad, Erin scanned its contents quickly, her eyes narrowing as she read through its contents. With a quick tap, she accessed the official reports that Guillermont had added to his note.

"I don't suppose you have any idea what this is, do you?" Then after a moment's deliberation, the Admiral offered the pad back.

"Nope, but I will, if you let me take this with me. Did you want to duplicate it and keep your own copy here? Just in case. You might have to get a new lawyer and all. I might get hit by a air bus." Jimena winked.

"Don't joke about that." Erin snapped as she set out the lawyer's cup of coffee. "Yes, I want a copy of it. For your information, what you are holding is notice of an accident in one of the orbital colonies. Which resulted in an entire family dying when their habitat was mistakenly flushed with reactor coolant. Any guesses as to the last name of the family?"

"No idea, Admiral."

"Exposito." The Admiral spoke the last name succinctly, stirring a bit of sugar into her coffee. "Do you know whose family that was?"

"Um, a distant cousin's?" hazarded Jimena, not understanding where the conversation was leading.

The Admiral gave the Lieutenant a look that was usual reserved for Ensigns who managed to mess something up on her command deck. "The Captain of the Pegasus was Maria Vazquez Exposito."

"So, it was her family that died." Jimena knew the Admiral was going somewhere with this, but she didn't know where.

The Admiral smiled grimly, leaning forward to make certain she had Jimena's attention. "Any clue who owns the orbital platform that they died on?"

"Nooooo." The younger woman wished the Admiral would stop playing games and just get to the point.

Taking up the pad again, the older woman read from it. "The Whitehead Orbital Colony was established and remains in the ownership of, the honorable Witworth family, through a holding company." She paged down through several reports and handed the pad back to the lawyer. "If you take a look at the death report, the Exposito family died one week after news of Pegasus's disappearance."

"Aaaannnnd?" The Lieutenant clenched and released her hands in an effort not to throttle her client. She hated smart-asses even if they were Admirals.

The Admiral smiled, raising the cup of coffee to take a sip before she answered. "And…what if there is proof that their deaths weren't an accident?"


Maria stormed into her cabin. There was a senior officers meeting in ten minutes, but she needed… no, had to get off the bridge before she killed the Captain. Taking up the first thing that came to hand, she hurled a glass trophy from the academy at the far wall with a scream. The shattering sound it made helped a bit, but not much. With another frustrated yell, she launched herself onto the bed, punching a pillow. Wincing in pain as she pulled places still hurting from the jolts and bounces of the past few hours, she collapsed onto the bed, glaring at the opposite wall.

That arrogant bitch! I can't take it anymore! I'm going to kill her!

An insistent buzzing from the communications panel caught her attention and she slammed her fist down on the accept button. "What?" Maria snarled, startling Davie who visibly shrank back from the screen.

"Umm… Ma'am… Skipper... well, it's just that... I mean, maybe I should tell someone else..."

Forcing herself to relax a bit, she gave the young man a reassuring smile. "No, that's okay, Davie. What is it?"

Still looking nervous about having his head almost handed to him, the Ensign cautiously answered her. "Well, it's just that I've got a report of some sort of big party in the mess hall. All the SAR people and a bunch of off- duty Marines seem to be there and there's drinking going on."

Maria closed her eyes and sighed. Of course Flash and her people were there. They were probably starting to deal with their grief. A nod and she stood up. "Understood. You may have to delay the staff meeting. I'll go check it out."

"Thank you, Skipper."

With a sigh, she punched in another access code. Carl answered her call almost immediately.


"Just wanted to warn you that there's a party going on in the mess hall with Flash's people and some Marines. You may have quite a few drunk people headed your way in a while."

They shared a look of understanding and he nodded. SAR teams were a close-knit bunch anyway.

"I'll keep an eye out for them, Skipper."

"Thanks, Carl."

She paused before heading out, gently touching a portrait that hung by her bedside. It was a family holo that had been taken just before she'd taken over as Captain of the Pegasus.

"Keep safe. I promise I'll get back to you. I swear."

Avoiding the shattered shards lying near one wall, Maria headed out for the mess hall.

Svetlana strode quickly down the passageway towards the galley. The sounds of a full-blown party echoed down the passageway. They almost drowned out the voices in her head still screaming at her for kissing the Commander.

Her Marines had alerted her to the party, suggesting that she come down, do a few shots and then put the revelers to bed so they would be able to stand up for the formal service tomorrow.

So, the Captain was going to a party she didn't want to deal with, accompanied by a headache that wouldn't quit. Not to mention a big old monkey called 'guilt' riding her back about the incident in the war room.

But a very small part of her was curled up like a cat that had just finished a bowl of cream; fat and happy with what happened with the feisty little Spaniard. Maria challenged her in ways that Alyona never could or would.

Maria was halfway down the corridor when she spotted the Captain headed towards her. Grinding her teeth, the auburn-haired woman lifted her chin and completely ignored Svetlana. Instead, as she turned the corner first, she focused on the doors to the mess hall from which she could hear the sounds of a party even through the closed doors.

Svetlana bit down on her apology as the smaller woman blew past her without even acknowledging the Captain's existence.

The first officer stopped dead in her tracks as the doors to the mess hall slid open. Unfamiliar music washed over her in almost a physical wave, causing her to take a step back. The mess hall was packed with off-duty crew, both Coalition and UKNR. Holding court in the center of the mess hall was Flash with her SAR team, along with several people that Maria recognized as Marines. They had a bottle of clear liquid on the table between them and even as she watched, the entire group lifted shot glasses.

"To Rodriguez!"

Then they downed the shots.

"Oh no, not Vodka." Maria groaned.

"And what is wrong with Vodka?" a voice growled from behind her.

Maria refused to look behind her. Instead, she completely ignored the voice and it's owner as she stepped inside.

"Yeb voo" replied the dark-haired Captain to her second-in- command's back.

"Go fuck yourself." Maria muttered, stepping between two crewmen while trying to make her way towards Flash.

Some of the crew were already starting to get boisterous and inebriated. Despite herself, she was impressed.

They've only been at it for an hour! These guys know how to get a party hopping.

With a glance over her shoulder to see if the tall, pain-in-her-ass was following, Maria unapologetically shouldered her way to where Flash was pouring another round of shots. Some of her worry over the bad mix of alcohol and fresh grief dissipated as she spotted Master Chief Rozov. From the glances a group of crewmen were giving him, the Russian Chief had apparently already stepped in to keep order at least once tonight.

"Stratchvichey, my friends," called out Svetlana. "I hear that you are raising glasses to our fallen. I have come to pay my respects." The Captain's voice rolled over the crowd and was met with cheers as the drunken crew interpreted her words.

Maria could feel the charisma rolling off the figure behind her and gritted her teeth. I hate her, I hate her, I hate her... she chanted like a mantra, trying not to give into the woman's powerful presence. She had wanted to give the first speech, but of course the annoying bitch would beat her to it. With the way her luck was going, the Captain would try to lead the official ceremony tomorrow morning as well.

Then, I'll have to kill her for sure.

Accepting the shot that was placed in her hands by a somber Flash, Maria resigned herself to waiting this one out. Svetlana, 'the bitch', as Maria once again began calling her, had grabbed the attention of everyone in the room. Everyone, Coalition and UKNR alike, looked at the tall, dark-haired woman expectantly. Despite herself, Maria watched her closely as well, ignoring the stirring inside her, as she saw how casually this woman commanded everyone's attention.

The Captain raised her glass high in the air as the rest of the people in the room quieted down and followed her example. "Since humans have taken the first faltering steps into space, the universe has exacted a price from us for giving up its secrets. Today, we have added friends and shipmates to the sacrifice the universe demands for our continued existence among the stars. We thank Thompson, Rodriguez and Martin for their willingness to serve in a dangerous job with little thanks, and promise to never forget what they have done for us. Salud!"

With the others, Maria tossed back the shot, grimacing as it burned its way down her throat. Catching Julia's eye, she touched the chief SAR tech on the arm in sympathy.

"Let's get your people rested up, Flash." The shorter woman tossed back another shot and to Maria's surprise gave one of the Marines a hug before nodding.

"Okay, guys, let's get some rest. We don't want to show up hung over for the service tomorrow."

That and they couldn't afford to have their entire SAR team drunk if the saboteur managed to sabotage something else.

Giving Flash's shoulder a pat, Maria helped steer the crowd out the doors of the mess hall. Some of them were grumbling, but the majority had done what they wanted to do, raise a glass to lost crewmates.

Four crewmembers, two from the SAR team, were trying to cause trouble by refusing to leave. They were clearly still feeling the sharp sense of loss over dead friends. Evidently they'd been pounding down the drinks pretty fast and furious and Maria could tell they were quite intoxicated. She was starting to head that way when Petty Officer Kurin from the UKNR crew beat her to it with four impressively burly Marines.

Even as drunk as they were, the crewmembers didn't feel like tangling with those odds. With the Marines to "escort" them to their bunks, they had little choice but to leave for their quarters.

"Does a half an hour give you enough time to get ready for the staff meeting, Julia?" Flash offered Maria a wane smile as she headed out the doors.

"I'll be there, Skipper."

Then they were all gone, leaving Maria and Svetlana alone in the large, empty mess hall.

"Commander..." the Captain began before Maria held up her hand.

"Captain, you can stuff it up your ass. I may have to work with you, but if it doesn't have to do with the ship or crew, how about you just pretend I don't exist?"

Maria left the mess hall without waiting for a reply, leaving Svetlana standing there holding her glass, alone.


He was losing it.

Day after day, the stress of hiding among these traitors and trying to overcome the enemy was taking its toll. He'd been given this assignment because some pencil pusher back at ONI had decided he wasn't stable enough for a true combat deployment.

He'd show them! It was a pity Witworth had proven to be so ineffective, but at least the man had shown true loyalty to the Coalition. Too bad he'd had to eliminate him before they had forced the former XO to talk.

He was going to make certain the Republic bitch never survived to bring Pegasus back to her people. Oh, he knew what she was up to. And Exposito, she might be pretending to believe that lying Republic bitch, but she was still a traitor, just like the rest of the crew, since she was working with them!

He was going to do his sworn duty and make certain that the ship never reached the Republic, one way or the other.

Thankfully, he had a surprise hidden for just such an eventuality.

With a wild look around his quarters, he grabbed a shovel and stepped outside.


Bear was a happy man at the moment. The most recent crisis had been adverted, the two crews were working together much better now, and his latest batch of vodka was ready for a taste test. Whistling, he made his way down the passageway towards the hydroponics bay.

The large man had to hand it to the Coalition people. They had an impressive greenhouse going on in there. The Kingdom's hydroponics section was quite efficient, and did exactly what it was supposed to do. But it lacked.... aesthetics. The greenhouse, the term 'hydroponics lab' fell so short of the reality, on Pathfinder was like taking a little bit of a planet into space with them. The Admiral did a wonderful job in tending the gardens.

Bear, once again, was welcomed by the smell of rich growing things as he entered the lower deck greenhouse. He didn't see the Admiral as he wandered through the rows admiring everything he saw. Eventually, he arrived at his still. The UKNR officer had just bent down and was busily checking the tubing before pouring himself a small sample of the contents when he heard cursing and thrashing. Poking his head up over the leafy ferns he had hidden his still behind, Bear located the source of the noise.

It seemed that Admiral was throwing a fit of large proportions.

"Stupid, fucking cunt!" bellowed the old man as he started uprooting plants and tossing them aside as he dug into one of the soil planting areas. "How many fucking lives does she have?"

Bear froze in shock. Did the Admiral just say what he thought he said?

"I'll blow the whole damn ship up this time! The fucking traitors all deserve to die!"

'Govno!' Bear thought. I need to notify the Captain. Spying a com unit on the wall behind the furious man, Bear moved from his hiding spot behind the plants.

"Admiral," he said as he stood to his full height and approached the startled man. "I think the Captain would like to have a word or two with you," To his astonishment, the old man tried to charge Bear, but the younger, bigger man grabbed him and tossed him to the ground. "I don't want to hurt you, but if you don't stop, I will." he cautioned the older man.

The man refused to stop struggling, so Bear finally slugged him, feeling bad as he did. The Admiral slumped bonelessly to the ground. It was obvious that the old man had lost it, although the UKNR officer had no idea what might have caused it. The blonde haired man left him where he was and approached the wall unit.

"Captain, come in." he said into it. No response.

Bear punched the button next to the unit. "Captain, this is Commander Borozdin." There was not even a crackle. The hairs on the back of his neck rose as he pushed the button again. He heard movement behind him and he turned just in time to catch sight of the Admiral aiming a small pistol-like device at him.

Then his world went dark.


By her looks, Flash had gone to see Carl and he had given her something to help her sober up. Maria nodded to the head SAR tech, noting the sadness in the blue eyes that met hers. Patting Julia on the shoulder as she passed her, Maria settled into a chair.

Just a little while ago, she had been heading these staff meetings. Glancing around the table at the other officers already gathered, she was struck by how much had changed over so short a time.

Who knew we'd be working with a Republic crew? A month ago I would have laughed at anyone who suggested such a thing.

She caught Sparky's eye and nodded slightly to her old friend who was sitting near Kuzmin. Things were still strained, but at least she and Sparky weren't at each other's throats. Maria sighed and hoped that things would get better between them again.

The doors to the conference room slid open and Svetlana strode in. Everyone in the room turned toward the Captain, and while the Coalition officers didn't stiffen to attention like their Republic counterparts, they did nod in respect. Cool blue eyes met hers for a fleeting second. Maria felt her irritation with the other woman build.

Then again, some things never do change. Bitch.

Svetlana looked around the room and acknowledge the nods or the stifled, automatic reactions of her crew. She studiously ignored the glowering First Officer at the end of the table.

Speaking of First Officers....

"Has anyone seen Bear?" she asked looking around the table. The laid-back man never missed a meeting.

Kuzmin, still uncertain about her status with her ex-lover, cautiously spoke up from where she sat next to the Chief Engineer. "I saw him on the way here, he was headed towards the greenhouse." A slight pause, "Captain."

Svetlana nodded her head to acknowledge Kuzmin's answer, but otherwise didn't look directly at the blonde. "Ok, so he's gone to check his still. Is there an intercom or something in there?"

Maria raised an eyebrow slightly towards the Engineer. Sparky didn't like Svetlana, but she was still the Captain. She made a small face at Maria, but straightened up in her seat.

"There's one in the hydroponics bay, but I think the Admiral keeps deactivating it. Says he hates the blasted thing."

Svetlana glared angrily at the Engineer. "And you let him keep disconnecting part of the ship's communication system?" snapping at the multi-colored hair freak. "Well then, boys and girls," she looked around the table. "Looks like we are going on a field trip to find our missing friend." As Carl started to protest, she continued. "I'm afraid that if I let the rest of you out of my sight, you'll pull a disappearing act as well, so pack up your data pads."

Maria scrubbed a hand across her face. Feeling compelled to defend her friend from this annoying woman she spoke up. "He keeps on doing it no matter how often Sparky yells at him, Captain. She's lodged complaints about it, but he is an Admiral and no one's going to stop him if he wants to shut down an intercom."

"And who was in charge of this ship, First Officer?" Svetlana purred dangerously. "Now get going."

The UKNR officers had already stood up and were gathering their data pads. Furious at the insinuation and insulted that she was being treated like a child, Maria slowly got to her feet. Most of the other Coalition officers gave her a sympathetic look as they filed out.

Maria gave the Captain a scaling look and then followed the rest of the officers out of the conference room and onto the bridge.

"Davie, you have the Com." She called out sharply to the confused communications officer as all of the senior officers headed for the lift.

"We'll be looking for Bear." She added sardonically, in response to the question written across the young man's face.

"Um, yes, uh, yes ma'am," replied the confused tech.

It was a tight fit, but they all managed it. Although, it did mean that a few people got a lot closer to others than they normally would have. Maria smiled to Thompson as she scooted close to the senior scientist, doing her best to avoid being pressed up next to the Captain. Suddenly, scenes from every glimpse she'd caught of Svetlana's body played through her mind.

Oh god. This lift better get there fast!

Svetlana was perversely enjoying the tight squeeze. The feel of the redhead's body slightly pressing into her own took her thoughts...elsewhere. And everything would have been pleasant until she noticed that Kuzmin and Sparky were taking up the space normally required by one person. One, very skinny person. She glowered at them. Seeing the look, Kuzmin jerked and tried to move away; Sparky just lifted her chin rebelliously and pulled the Weapons Officer closer.

A sharp pain in her ribcage let the Captain know that Maria had noticed her scowl, too.

Leave them alone bitch! I think I'm going to kill her right here.

The executive officer gave the Captain her own version of a fierce glare after she jabbed her. She had done her best to keep Sparky from becoming involved with Kuzmin, but now that her friend was caught up with the Weapons Officer, she would do her best to protect them. Unless said officer hurt Sparky, in which case, all bets were off.

Thankfully, the lift decelerated and came to a full stop before Maria had to think much more about whose personal space she had just invaded.

With a general grumble of relief, the senior officers streamed out through the open doors into the arboretum.

"You think you can stop me? You stupid, fucking Russkie! I'll kill you all!" The nearly incoherent swearing by the Admiral was shockingly loud after the mostly silent lift ride. Maria glanced quickly towards Svetlana and then hurried towards the source of the screaming. It appeared to come from the back of the bay, past all of the hydroponics sections. The redhead started to run towards the area where the Admiral kept his flower gardens.

It took Svetlana a moment to translate the words. The level of hate spewed out made most of what was said unintelligible to her. She locked eyes with the Major and several of her crewmembers. With hand motions, she sent them off in various directions to try and flank the raving Admiral. Then she followed after her First Officer, leaving the Coalition crew in front of the lift.

After a moment's hesitation, the rest of the Coalition officers, led by Sparky, hurried after their former Captain.

Maria burst around a curtain of roots grown in liquid nutrients and skidded to a stop, shocked at the scene in front of her. The Admiral, covered in dirt, was standing in a large hole in the middle of his flower garden. Behind him, sprawled out on the ground, lay Bear. She couldn't tell if the large man was breathing.

"Admiral? What the hell are you doing?"

He's lost his mind!

Svetlana almost ran over her First Officer as she charged out to where the crazy man was ranting near her downed friend. "Hold it right there!" she ordered him.

"You!" The Admiral's face was contorted in hatred; a mockery of the calm, older man Maria was used to. Aiming the pistol he had in one hand at the two of them, he held up the thin box in the other. "Take another step and I detonate it!"

Both officers halted, taking the threat seriously.

"What have you done to Commander Borozdin?" asked Svetlana evenly.

Maria glanced downwards, swallowing when she saw the metal cylinder that was still partly covered in potting soil and the numbers scrolled across the interface. She felt her blood run cold as she realized what it was. Taking a slow step backward, she whispered under her breath. "It's a military warhead, thermonuclear, I think, and it's armed."

The Admiral laughed, waving the pistol around, obviously having lost his grip on sanity. "What I'm going to do to all of you, that's what!"

Svetlana swallowed hard. "Why is there a thermonuclear warhead buried in your greenhouse, Commander?" she hissed through her teeth, never taking her eyes off the ranting man.

Damned if I know!

Maria really wished she had an answer for that. Behind him, the auburn-haired woman could see movement as Marine Major Dononova and Lieutenant Commander Romonov tried to slip around behind the old man.

The Admiral felt their presence at the same moment. Whirling, he brandished the pistol and what was obviously a detonator. "Get back or I blow it right now!"

The officers froze in their place, pistols ready, both prepared to spring for the madman if they got a chance.

"Is that a dead man's switch on the detonator?" whispered Svetlana, twitching as she tried to get her instincts under control. " If not, I'd like to take him down."

Maria had no idea if that was a dead man's switch. She didn't even know what one looked like. "How the hell should I know? She whispered back through clenched teeth. "I was trained as a SAR Tech."

"Great. You're a lot of help." Svetlana mumbled.

Maria glanced back at the sprawled man and let out a small breath of relief when she noticed Bear's chest moving. "Bear's alive."

"Horosho," grunted Svetlana in relief. Crouched behind the dancing madman was Dononov. She caught the Major's eyes and silently indicated her wish of taking out the Admiral. The Major's eyes widened and she shook her head slightly.

"I think that has a dead man's switch on it. Means tackling him is out," muttered the brunette to her First Officer. "Try talking to him,"

Opening her mouth to argue, Maria caught a glimpse of the Captain's face and decided it wouldn't be prudent at this moment. Keeping her hands out in front of her body in what she hoped was a non-aggressive manner, she took a step forward. "Admiral?" Wild blue eyes swung back towards her as he half turned to watch her approach. "I don't know what you're planning, Sir, but how about talking about it?"

"Talk? Talk with a traitor? With a collaborator? Never! Die, Bitch!"

Maria hoped that Svetlana had a back up plan, because this one didn't seem very promising. Behind her, she could hear the sound of more people gathering. Things were starting to get out of hand.

"Admiral, what are you talking about? We're simply helping one another to get home. No one's a traitor here."

She wasn't entirely certain she believed herself, but she did her best to try and convince him of that. Maria wished she had a moment to contact Carl and see if the Admiral had any severe mental conditions on file that she didn't know about.

"Could you just shoot the tall, Russian bitch, Admiral?" came a voice from the back. "I'm sure that would solve everything rather quickly." Sparky pushed her way to the front.

Maria whirled in her place, mouth opening in shock as she heard her best friend's voice. "Sparky!"

"Look, if she wasn't here, you'd be in charge, Maria. Wouldn't that be better, Admiral?" asked the engineer reasonably. The UKNR officers stiffened at the insult and even Kuzmin glared at Sparky. The rest of the Coalition officers looked shocked.

The Admiral was watching Sparky speculatively as she stepped past Maria, around the warhead and walked up to the hole he was in. He kept the pistol trained on her as she approached, but he let her come near him.

Maria's eyes widened slightly in understanding as she met her friend's eyes.

"Sparky, you traitor! I can't believe you'd betray me like this!"

"Fuck off, Maria! You locked me in my quarters 'cause I refused to follow your little 'happy, happy, joy, joy plan'." she turned to the Admiral. "I'll pay you to shoot the Russian Captain." she looked at Bear, "Him, I liked."

"I liked him, too," admitted the older man. He brought the gun back up. " But he was a sneaky Russkie!"

Maria could almost hear Carl whispering the words 'psychotic break' as she watched the wildly swinging emotions play out across the Admiral's face. Forcing herself to sneer at the Chief Engineer, she shouted back, "I always knew you'd stab me in the back the first time you got a chance!"

Without moving her head, she eyed Svetlana standing next to her. Maria could feel the waves of tension and anger rolling off the taller woman, seeing her tightly coiled muscles, obviously ready to spring at the Admiral when she got the chance.

They only needed an instant.

They never got it.

The Admiral swung the gun around and aimed at Svetlana. The tall Captain sprang sideways; grabbed her startled First Officer and then dove out of the way, hitting the floor hard as she protected Maria from the impact. Sparky lunged for the detonator, missing as the Admiral danced backwards.

In a move that would have been impressive in a man half his age, the Admiral jumped to the side and slammed the butt of his pistol down on the back of Sparky's head as she grabbed at the detonator. Even as she started to collapse, he sprinted for the nearby door to his quarters, moving faster than Maria would have thought possible for the elderly man. She wasn't the only one surprised by his burst of speed. Dononova squeezed off a round, missing him as he dove into his quarters. The doors slid shut immediately behind him.

"Are you all right?" Maria demanded, getting up off the warm body beneath her. Swiftly, she checked Svetlana for any sign that he'd hit her.

"Da," the Captain groaned. "Now can I shoot your engineer?" she asked as she slowly stood and looked around for the lunatic Admiral.

Maria's eyes widened. She'd completely forgotten about Sparky.

"Sparky?" She looked frantically around for her.

She shouldn't have worried; Kuzmin was already holding the fallen engineer. A medic was a step behind her. Judging by the vehement cursing, the Chief Engineer was fine. The Captain stalked over to them. She noticed Carl, in a full run, heading to where Bear lay.

Thank goodness he came with us.

"Thompson!" The head scientist jogged over to her. "Yes, Skipper?" Maria pointed at the warhead. "Can you jam his detonator?" Before she'd finished speaking, the gangly scientist was bobbing his head and breaking into a sprint back towards the lift to the bridge.

"Freak!" Svetlana addressed her nemesis. "Can you disarm the bomb?" She motioned to thing buried in the ground. "I'm sure Lieutenant Commander Kuzmin," the Captain ground out, "Can help. After all, she is a Weapons Officer." The brunette barely glanced at her former lover.

Shrugging off the medic who was trying to keep her seated, the Chief Engineer struggled to stand with Kuzmin's aid. Holding a compress to the bloody gash on the back of her head, she swayed on her feet. "Help me to it, Alyona?"

Maria headed towards where Dononova and Romanov were trying to get the doors to the Admiral's quarters open. Judging by the swearing in Russian, they weren't having very good luck at it.

Deciding to leave the two aggravated Marines with their door problem, Maria went over and crouched down next to the warhead, watching Kuzmin and Sparky study it. "What do you two think?"

Sparky shook her head, instantly regretting the move as it sent fresh waves of pain and nausea radiating through her body. She held her hands up to her aching head.

Kuzmin answered Maria's question for her lover, speaking quickly and precisely with an accented lilt, "It is the warhead from a mark 6 Coalition tactical thermonuclear weapon. It has a double redundant trigger mechanism and a seven-megaton yield. He has jury-rigged a remote detonation system which I don't know if I can remove."

She turned her attention back to the warhead. Maria bit her lip pensively and looked around for the Captain.

Svetlana was pacing next to the disconnected com. "Is there a working comport around here somewhere?" demanded the Captain with aggravation.

Nothing seems to be going right today. I should have stayed in my quarters.

Gorsky hurried towards the Captain, offering her a portable com unit as well as her side arm. Svetlana took the devices from the pilot.

"Davie, I need you to call in some more Marines to the arboretum. Make sure they have suits on. And send a medical team. We have a bit of a situation down here."

Referring to the powered hard suits the Marines wore in combat, the Captain could almost hear the young man's swallow.

"Yes, Captain."

Maria waved to get the Captain's attention. "Ask Thompson if he's managed to jam that detonator?" she called out.

Svetlana asked the scientist, rolling her eyes at the answer she received through the com. With a tight grin, she turned to face her XO.

"He hopes so."

To her amazement, Maria found her lips curling in an answering smile. "How reassuring." Turning back to the two women working on the warhead, she pointed to it, "Thompson thinks he's managed to jam the detonator."

Kuzmin, having followed the visual interplay between Maria and Svetlana with interest, nodded once. " Horoshow. That solves one problem."

Maria tilted her head questioningly. "One problem?"

Sparky answered her this time, tapping the display on the warhead. "It's counting down."

Maria closed her eyes.

Why couldn't something be easy, just for once?

Dononova's efforts to open the Admiral's door finally succeeded and the two rushed in followed by Gorsky and Svetlana.

"Empty," bellowed Svetlana followed by sounds that sounded like cursing in Russian. Svetlana keyed the communicator. "Thomas, can you track the signal through the ship? The Admiral had a backdoor, it seems."

"Sorry, Captain, I'm jamming the entire spectrum that his detonator was likely to use. I can't pinpoint where he is unless I stop jamming."

The rest of the Marines began entering the area; their large powered armor suits making them an imposing presence. To her surprise, Maria recognized the Marine in one of them as Lieutenant Beauchamp.

Behind her, she could hear a commotion as Dononov managed to locate the hidden passageway through which the Admiral had escaped and Romonov using the portable communicator to call for help to open the hidden hatch. The Captain seemed to be supervising that situation, so Maria focused her attention back on the efforts to disarm the warhead.

Turning to Sparky and Kuzmin, she took a deep breath. "Right. So, it's on a timer. Can we just jettison it out an airlock?"

Kuzmin was shaking her head before the Spaniard finished. "He has added a motion sensor, moving it will cause it to detonate."

Maria thought of several very inventive curse words. "Can you two disarm it?"

"Yes," replied the Weapons officer. "The real question is, can I disarm it before the time runs out."

Not the most reassuring thing that Maria had ever heard. "Get whatever you need."

Inside of the Admiral's quarters, the two UKNR Marines had stripped everything away to find the hidden hatchway through which the Admiral had fled. They were currently discussing ways to cut through it, or perhaps use a shaped charge to blow it open. They hadn't reached a decision by the time Flash arrived. Ignoring the work around the warhead, she hefted the heavy plasma torch used by SAR techs to cut through starship hulls and stepped into the cabin.

"Someone call for some help? Step aside girls and watch how it's done." With a crooked smile she stepped up to the recessed hatchway, flipped down her darkened goggles, and started cutting.

Svetlana was impressed by the little SAR tech's initiative. Now if all of the Coalition officers had her spunk.

Everyone in the arboretum jerked as the high-pitched whine of the plasma torch cutting through metal plating filled the air. Sparky cursed as she nearly cut the wrong circuit.

"Can you keep the noise down over there?" she bellowed. "I'm trying to concentrate here."

Flash merely grunted and leaned harder against the torch, cutting through the hatch as fast as she could. Since SAR Techs were timed on this exact same maneuver during their yearly recertification, it didn't take her long.

"One door coming up." With a kick she sent the nearly perfect circle crashing into the compartment behind the hatch.

Maria was thankful when the high-pitched whine ended, although the loud clang that followed didn't help her nerves much. "What can I do to help you two, Kuzmin?"

"Go away," was the almost in unison response.

The XO blinked in surprise, then sighed and left the two bent over the warhead. It was very difficult to step back, but she had to trust them to know what they were doing. Instead, she went to see how the Captain was doing in the Admiral's quarters, coughing a bit on the melted metal smell as she entered the room. "Sparky and Kuzmin are working on the warhead."

"And don't want anyone standing over them," finished Svetlana. "Fine, feel like joining a fox hunt?" The expression on the Captain's face might have been a grin. Most of her teeth were showing, at least.

"I don't understand why he's doing this." Maria muttered, standing to the side while the two Marines crawled through the hole Flash had made.

The chief medical officer ducked inside the room just long enough to give them a hurried update to Bear's condition. "I've got him stabilized and we're moving him to the med bay now. I'll know more when I get him on the table and start surgery." Then he was gone, running after the stretcher carrying the large man.

"I will skin that man myself," growled out Svetlana, itching to shove her Marines out of the way and take the lead.

Romanov slowly slithered through the hole first, making it about halfway through before he froze. Softly, the sergeant called something back in Russian. In reply, Dononov went to her knees next to the hole and slid him a tool pack. Picking up on the sudden tenseness in both the Marines, Maria whispered to Svetlana.

"What did he say?"

"The Admiral left a present behind. There is a trap that Romanov must disarm before we proceed." answered Svetlana, trying not to hover over the Major's shoulder too much.

Maria frowned. None of this made sense. "He was a desk jockey, how does he know how to make bobby traps? Or arm a warhead?" she whispered, thinking more out loud than anything else.

Svetlana slowly turned and eyed her First Officer. "Maybe your old office corps had more varied training than you do now. Or maybe, he wasn't just a 'desk jockey' as you put it."

Romanov grunted and slipped the rest of the way into the space beyond, having disarmed the trap. Dononov followed, pistol ready and a small flashlight in her other hand.

Maria shrugged in answer to Svetlana's thoughts, not certain of anything at the moment. Instead she took the portable com unit and called up to the bridge. "Davie? The Admiral had some sort of secret passageway down here. Can you get Thompson to look and see if you can tell where it could lead?"

He answered almost immediately. "From our schematics, that should have been a solid wall." Maria closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "Thompson, I know that's what the schematics say, but that's not what's down here. Flash cut us a doorway, now where does it lead?"

There was a moment's silence, then the head scientist responded. "He could probably have gotten into any of the service conduits from there, the nearest one is J-17."

Maria glanced sharply towards Svetlana. "He could go straight towards Engineering from there."

"Govno!" cursed Svetlana. "To Engineering. Move, people, move!"

The two power-suited Marines standing next to them headed for the door and ran down the hallway, their augmented limbs making short work of the distance. If they had tried to follow them by crawling through the service tunnels, the advantages of the power suits would have been severely reduced.

" Commander, Major, arm yourself and follow me."

Maria stared blankly after Svetlana as she dove through the hole into the space beyond with Romanov and Dononov.

Huh?? What about me? And what am I going to arm myself with?

One of the two remaining Marines left behind to secure the area, figured out her expression and offered her his service pistol. With a wane smile, she took the unfamiliar device and crawled through the hole after the Captain. The space beyond was barely big enough for the four of them. It shouldn't have existed at all though. The wall that she'd just crawled through should have been flush up against the service conduits. The space was in the middle of where two service tunnels connected. It was going to be a tight squeeze. The conduits were just big enough for one person to crawl through at a time.

Dononov had out a small scanner, the same one she'd been using when the Captain had been assaulted. With a small grin of satisfaction, the Major nodded towards the left hand conduit. "His body heat left a trail going this way, Captain."

"Good job, Major. Maybe you should get a job as an Investigator when we get back," the Captain joked.

Judging by the expression on Dononov's face, becoming an Investigator ranked just below mucking crap for a life. Maria grinned, waiting as Romanov crawled down the passageway first.

The Major followed and Maria wouldn't dream of trying to get in front of the Captain. After letting Svetlana go first, she crawled up into the conduit. The view in front of the Captain's behind was an unexpected benefit.

For the love of god, get a grip on yourself!!

A tiny voice evilly answered. You'd love to get a grip on that instead, wouldn't you?

Now quite certain she was losing her mind, Maria followed them. It was a tight fit for Romonov, the largest of the four of them; the sides of the tunnels were lined with pipes carrying everything from plasma to biological waste. But, it took them less time than she had expected to reach the end of the conduit. In the lead, Romonov signal behind him as he spotted the open end.

Cautiously, the Lieutenant Commander moved up to the lip of the conduit and peeked outside. Immediately, he drew back and started making hand signals to the two behind him.

Unable to see a thing around the people in front of her, Maria waited as patiently as she could, trying not to feel claustrophobic. The pistol was an unfamiliar weight in her hands and she kept shifting her grip on it.

"How far are we behind him, would you estimate, Major?" asked Svetlana in a hushed voice.

Major Dononova, able to see Romanov's hand signals craned her head to the side and whispered back to Captain. "He's on the other side of the opening. Romanov says he's shot the on-duty Marine and he's trying to rewire something."

Maria tapped Svetlana on the calf, moving forward so she could whisper as well. "This conduit comes out in the auxiliary life support Control room."

"Does Romanov have a clear shot?" she asked the Major.

The Major quickly signaled Romanov, passing on the Captain's question. Maria waited tensely, the temperature in the small space continuing to rise from their body heat.

Sweat dripped down her face and down her back. It brought back memories of the time when she, the Captain, Sparky, and Kuzmin had been trapped in the plasma containment room. With a start, she realized she still had her fingers on Svetlana's calf. Blushing, she quickly jerked her hand back.

Romanov cautiously peeked over the rim of the opening and then signaled to the Major, who in turn, turned back to the Captain and whispered in Russian.

"He's behind a control panel, but Romanov thinks he has a shot."

"Take him down," ordered the Captain.

"Wait," hissed Maria. "We need to question him."

"I'd rather have a ship and a mystery, than no ship, and the possibility of solving something. Take him out!" Svetlana ordered.

The Major signaled to Romanov, who nodded his understanding. Creeping forward, he positioned himself at the edge of the opening, standard issue Marine pistol in hand. The Admiral was moving back and forth between two control panels, frantically typing in commands. Taking aim, Romanov was about to pull the trigger when the Admiral looked up at exactly the wrong time. With a yell, the old man leapt to the side just as Romanov shot. The bullet missed, slamming into one of the control panels producing a shower of sparks.

The Admiral took cover behind one of the computer stations, shooting at the opening. Romanov let out a yell of pain and fell out the opening of the conduit when the bullet sliced through his shoulder.

The Admiral jumped up to see if the shot was mortal and Major Dononova, who had moved to the opening to protect the fallen Romanov, took a shot. The sound of gunfire was deafening in the small confines of the conduit and Maria winced with each shot, fighting the urge to clamp her hands over her ears. The Major's shot caught the Admiral just as he was taking aim at the fallen Romanov in the chest, sending him crashing backwards to land sprawled on the deck.

With a deft leap, the Major was out of the conduit, her pistol still aimed at the fallen man. Svetlana was right behind her, with Maria scrambling after them. Leaving Dononova to cover the fallen man, Svetlana knelt by her wounded officer, pressing her hands to the bleeding wound in his shoulder.

"Are you okay?" she asked her communications officer after seeing he was still conscious.

With a weak grin, he nodded, wincing as she tried to staunch the flow of blood. "Yes, Captain. Sorry I missed."

Maria climbed down out of the conduit, took in the scene and headed to the nearest communications panel. "Medical emergency, deck four, auxiliary life support Control room!"

"That's all right. You distracted him enough for the Major. The poor Major's feelings would be hurt if you had gotten him. You know how the Marines love to save us Navy types." Svetlana joked while trying to raise the young man's spirits as his blood pulsed between her fingers.

"Medics are on the way." Maria told them both, wrenching aside an access panel to grab the medical kit that was kept behind it.

Standing next to the fallen Admiral, Major Dononova stared down at the dying man without expression. She'd seen enough battlefield wounds to know that the large, sucking wound in his chest was fatal. Frothing, bright red blood foamed at his mouth with each labored breath until finally, his chest stopped moving.

"The Admiral will not need the Medical team," said Dononova. She nudged him with her foot. "Why did you do it?" she asked him dispassionately, not really caring one way or the other.

Maria had her own questions concerning that. Ripping open the med kit, she yanked out a compress and helped Svetlana push it against Romanov's wound. "Do you think he's the one who killed Witworth?"

"I don't know what to think anymore," responded Svetlana. "But it wouldn't surprise me."

Things happened in a blur from there. Medical personnel, along with several Marines still in powered combat armor, swarmed into the room. Lieutenant Commander Romanov was quickly stabilized and carted off to the medical bay. The Major had the Admiral's body removed and a thorough search of his quarters initiated.

Through it all, Maria watched silently, unsure what to think or feel about a man she thought she had known for years. It wasn't until after they'd taken the Admiral's body and Maria was asking for an update on Bear's condition that she remembered to ask about Sparky and Kuzmin.

"Kuzmin deactivated the bomb, with Sparky's help, Skipper." Davie said happily, grinning at her from the com display. Wearily, she nodded and closed the screen, glancing to where the Captain was talking with a few of her officers.

"Tell Sparky to finish the repairs so we can enter Nova drive and then we'll find the source of those alien signals." Svetlana finished up handing out assignments to her crew.

Maria nodded to the crewmembers as they filed out, leaving her and the Captain alone. The auburn-haired woman spoke up. She felt compelled to talk with the taller woman.

"Carl says that Bear had a collapsed lung and two broken ribs, but he should be fine. He just came out of surgery."

Svetlana closed her eyes in relief. Her friend was okay. "I'm glad to hear that."

Maria hesitated, not certain what else to say to the other woman. In the end she just nodded, cleared her throat and turned to head for the hatch. "I'll go make certain that Kuzmin has the warhead secured."

"You do that. If I see Sparky, I might do something...rash. And that might not be a good idea at the moment." The Captain then cracked a wry grin and remarked, "Everything seems to be going so well right now."

The Spaniard paused, smiling back tiredly. "You call this going well?"

"The ship is in one piece. I believe we caught our saboteur. And you're speaking civilly to me". The Captain winked at her First Officer. "I think to ask for more at this point, would be tempting the Fates."

Despite herself, Maria grinned at Svetlana. "We wouldn't want to tempt the Fates, now would we, Captain Molovsa?" Still grinning, the Commander left and headed for the arboretum.

Svetlana sighed and banged her head lightly against the bulkhead. "Someday, I'm going to get that woman to say my damn name right."

The com unit next to her chimed for her attention as the Captain rested her forehead against the cool metal wall. Groaning, she accepted the communication. Major Dononova's face stared out of it, a grin forming as she took in the Captain's face. "You must have just talked to the lovely Commander Exposito. You have that look on your face."

The Captain growled. "Report!" she barked at her Major.

With a twitch of her lips, the Major banished the grin, although her eyes still sparkled suspiciously. "I have the preliminary results on the Admiral's DNA. They were... interesting."

"Go on." Svetlana resisted the urge to bang her head against the bulkhead some more.

"The Admiral's DNA is the same as the DNA found of the person who attacked you. As well, it matches that of the DNA found on the hypospray that was used to kill Witworth. The interesting part is, he doesn't appear to be the Admiral."

The Marine shifted, showing the corpse behind her laid out on an autopsy table. "The DNA profile for the Admiral in the computer banks doesn't match that of the person we have. A full body scan seems to point towards, whoever this was, having undergone massive surgery several years ago. My guess is that this was an operative placed on board to take the place of the Admiral and to keep a watch on these civilian explorers."

Svetlana was in shock.

What kind of government goes to such extremes to keep their people under control?

"Who knows this information?"

"Myself and Doctor Eduardo Montcalm, the second-in-charge of the medical bay." The Major answered.

Svetlana thought for a moment. "Keep a lid on this. I need to run it by Commander Exposito. I think this might be too big of a shock for the Coalition crew right now. Finding out the depth of treachery by their government could be harmful for all of us."

The Major nodded, closing the connection. Leaving Svetlana staring at the black screen, wondering about what other surprises were in store for the crew of Pathfinder.


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