UES Enterprise. Concealed behind Theta Iota 6-F. 17th May 2151. The warning light ceased their flashing. The klaxon fell silent. A voice boomed over the tannoy, "Beowulf One is away." Then silence. Polly Partridge stared at the spot where the landing craft had stood, just moments ago. "I have friends on that ship." she said softly, to no one in particular. Her shoulders were slumped, and her eyes glistened with tears. "Yeah." Maria Hernandez said. "Me too." She meant the words as a show of solidarity, an attempt to lift the scientist from her sudden depression by showing that she was not alone. To her own surprise, she realized she meant it. Partridge gave no sign of having heard. "They could get hurt. Or worse." She leant against a nearby shuttle pod, lifting a leg and reaching for the ankle. Hell, she is upset, Hernandez thought. Going to wear flat heels. Right, better snap her out of this mood she's in, and quick! Grabbing Partridge's arm, Hernandez spun her about and marched her towards the exit hatch. "Come along, we mustn't dawdle about here! We are needed on the bridge. Lots to do!" she said with forced enthusiasm. "Careful!" Partridge said as she was bundled into the main passageway. "I nearly tripped." That gave Hernandez the opening she'd been looking for. "Really? I thought you could walk in heels. You'd better flatten them then. I'm in a hurry and can't wait around for you, stumbling around in those silly things." Looking affronted, Partridge said "Oh I can walk in heels alright. I can run in them. You just set the pace, Missy, and I'll be there." That's good. I push her and she pushes back. Let's raise the stakes a little. "Yeah, right, sure. I'll see you on the bridge. When you get there, eventually." Turning from the other woman, Hernandez set off at a fast stroll, ducking under a low conduit, stepping over a network of pipes. As she reached the next bulkhead she heard a rapid tap-tap-tapping from behind. "Whoah, every part a moving part!" muttered Crewman Jacobs, coming through the bulkhead hatch and seeing Partridge's approach. He noticed Hernandez and looked mortified. "Ah, Ma'am, ah, sorry Ma'am, I...er..." "Never mind Crewman, never mind. Just try to keep your thoughts to yourself in future." "Yes Ma'am." As soon as Partridge had caught up with her, Hernandez continued her fast pace along the next section. She was pleased to note that Partridge was able to keep up. OK, that's distracted her from the risks the others are taking. Now, let's keep her mind occupied. What what she want to talk about? "So, Polly, you never did tell me, why do you wear that sort of thing?" "Ooooh, do you want the short answer, or the long? The short answer is, I like this sort of thing." Hernandez glanced across. "That doesn't really tell me much. What's the long answer?" Partridge seemed to be looking back across the years. "I've told you about my childhood. Would it surprise you to learn that it left me a little mixed up? When I was at University I....well, I was never diagnosed, but looking back on it I think I was on the edge of a nervous breakdown. I...I didn't really know who I was." "That must have been..." Hernandez searched for words "...distressing." "Distressing. Yes. I was, not to put to fine a point on it, miserable. Lost in a slough of despair. Lots of people, lots of influences, all telling me which direction to go in. But not the same direction. I got...confused. That's not something I'm used to. I don't like it." Hernandez began thinking that this had been a mistake. She wanted to cheer her up, not remind her of an unpleasant past event. She opened her mouth to change the subject, but Partridge spoke first. "But then, as I was at my lowest ebb, something happened. I was sharing student digs with a few other girls, and one of them, Claire, noticed something was up with me. She didn't know how bad I was, no one did, but she could tell I was feeling down. She said she had something that would cheer me up." "This isn't going to be a story about what girls in college get up to, is it?" Hernandez asked with a raised eyebrow. "Because I'm really not interested in that sort of thing." Partridge shot her a sideways look and smacked her arm. "Get your mind out of the gutter Commander. No, Claire was studying the history of media, films and television. She'd found some old science fiction, what people in the twentieth and twenty first centuries thought life would be like in our time. Most of it was hilarious. But there were a few things that still stood up dramatically, even today." They passed through another hatch. Hernandez noted that even though Partridge was breathing heavily, she was now setting the pace. "So, I started watching that sort of thing in my spare time. And then I noticed something. There was a certain...type of character that turned up in some of those productions. The Avengers, the Matrix trilogy, Underworld. A woman, cool, calm, confident. Supremely in control. And dressed in something figure hugging and shiny." "And that's who you wanted to be?" "Oh yes, more than anything. And much to my surprise, I soon got my chance. One of my other flatmates, Doreen, was studying materials technology, but wanted to be a fashion designer. She saw some of these films. A month later I was wearing a catsuit, in front of a panel of supposed experts. They were unimpressed. An hour after that, I stood in the manager's office at the local bank. He was impressed. Very. We walked out with a small business loan. Inside of six months Doreen's new fashion house was making a profit. She offered me part ownership, but that wasn't for me. Instead I did some modelling work for her, which helped pay off my own student loan very nicely, and I get anything I like from her range. Just between us, she only keeps making the catsuits for me. They're not a big seller, but I do like them." Hernandez asked "And it helped you? Dressing up like that, it gave you a sense of identity?" "It did. There has been a lot, and I mean a lot, of speculation and hypothesising and theorising, by psychologists both amateur and professional. But, at the end of the day, what it all comes down to is that I am happy. And on the subject of psychologists, you're not too bad yourself, Maria." "What do you mean?" Partridge grinned. "A bit of exercise? Getting me to talk about myself? Just what was needed to lift me out of my mood." **** The Bridge. Haleh Moshiri was in the centre chair when they entered. She saw Hernandez and stood. "Status report?" the XO asked. "We are maintaining our location concealed behind the moon. Power levels are seriously depleted, we are running on impulse power only. The warp core remains at hot shut down, it can be brought on-line at five minutes notice. However, the engineering department report that, with the crystal damaged, it can only operate at twenty, maybe twenty five percent of rated output, and only for a few minutes. "We have a sensor drone up over the horizon, so we can keep an eye on things. Both contacts have entered the upper atmosphere of Theta Iota 6, and we've lost direct track of them. Assuming they maintain their approximate course and speed, they should meet in about seven minutes. Also, Mr Kaufman has noticed something odd at the projected rendezvous point." Hernandez said "Well, whenever I hear the words 'something odd' I automatically think of Professor Partridge. Professor, why don't you take a look at the sensor records." "Certainly." Moshiri continued. "Beowulf One has passed over the horizon, but we can maintain communications via the sensor drone. While they are in transit we can use the narrow beam laser, so there is negligible risk of detection. Once in the atmosphere we'd have to use radio. Even with burst transmission that risks giving our presence away." Hernandez knew this, of course, but she kept silent. She had made enough mistakes at the start of the mission, she didn't want to alienate anyone now. "Do you want the Conn?" Moshiri asked. Hernandez shook her head, gesturing the other woman back to the chair. She then ran a check on the Gunnery station, cursing softly as the results came through. Enterprise had to put a lot of energy into maintaining it's position in defiance of orbital mechanics, meaning there was little left over to charge the capacitors for the plasma cannons. After a moments consideration she rerouted the power so that only the smaller three fifty gig cannons would charge. That would give them some firepower at least. Once they were armed she could start on the big guns. She then changed the torpedo warhead load. Tubes one and three, facing forward, carried atomics. So did tube five at the aft. But atomics were too dangerous for close up work. So tubes two, four, and six now carried the prototype focused fragmentation warhead. In principle a direct hit could do near atomic levels of damage without the risk to the firing ship. But, like so much on Enterprise, it was untested under real battle conditions. There was little more she could do at the moment, so she went over to the Helm console. "Ensign, how's she flying?" Mayweather looked up from his controls. "She's been better Ma'am. She's hurting. Enterprise is a tough bird, and if we have to fight, she'll fight. But...it might not be the wisest thing." Hernandez snorted. "Travis Mayweather, talking about wisdom and avoiding fights? Now I've seen everything!" "I've been hanging around with these UESPAs too long." Partridge was waving for her attention. "Commander? Maria? Yooo-hooo!" Hernandez leant closer to the grinning helmsman. "OK, she does her job well enough, but she doesn't quite fit in on the bridge of a starship, does she?" "Heh, not quite." he replied. "What have you found?" Hernandez asked. "Ah, well, it's your Mr Kaufman who found it." Kaufman nodded. "The point where the two contacts are meeting. There's slightly higher than usual atmospheric activity in that area." Hernandez looked between the two of them, slightly nonplussed. "And?" "Well in itself that's unimportant." Partridge pointed out. "There's always a certain amount of variation in a gas giant. We are tracking seventeen other areas with similar activity right now. But even so, that still makes up less than three percent of the entire surface. Now either it's a massive coincidence that there should be activity at the rendezvous point, or there is a reason that they should be meeting there." Hernandez thought about this. "It could be that this activity is easily detectable in the atmosphere. If you are planning a clandestine meeting, it helps if you both know where to go and how to get there." "So they don't get lost in the fog? So to speak." Kaufman suggested. "That's good Maria, that's very good. You're beginning to use that brain of yours, and think logically. Mind you, that's entirely due to my influence of course, you mustn't take any credit for it." Kaufman chuckled, but went silent when he saw the look Hernandez gave him. Partridge went on. "The most recent data tells us something interesting. A few minutes ago the rendezvous point passed onto the night side. It's showing a lot of heat. A lot. It didn't show up before as the whole area was in direct sunlight. If we were watching directly we could have spotted this earlier, but the sensors on the remote drone aren't as effective. And none of the other active areas are showing any hot spots." "What does it mean?" Partridge pulled a strange expression, cocking her head, lifting her eyebrows, turning the corners of her mouth down whilst putting her lower lip out. A sort of shrug of the face. "Well, obviously, there's some sort of heat source down there, but as to what it could be..." She shook her head slightly. "Alright." Hernandez said. "We'll contact Beowulf One by laser, let them know what we've learned. And hope it's of use to them. Moshiri, I'll take the Conn." Sinking into the seat, she asked herself What the Hell are they getting into?