Return to Equilibration Prologue


Author: CaptMurdock
Rating: PG-13
Disclaimer: The characters of Willow Rosenberg and Tara Maclay, as well as Buffy Summers, Xander Harris, Faith, Warren Mears, Jonathan Levinson and Charles Gunn, or the reasonable facsimiles that I employ in this story, are the property of Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy productions. The setting for the story is within the universe of Star Trek, created by Gene Roddenberry and owned by Paramount Pictures, Inc. No infringement of copyright is intended. The other characters are the creation of either myself or several colleagues who don't care what I do with them. In any case, I'm a firm believer in Kasden's Law. YMMV.

Captain's Yacht U.S.S. Leonardo da Vinci
Stardate 50247
Earth Year 2372

Lieutenant Tara Maclay had just finished braiding her long blonde hair when the annunciator piped up. "Murdock to Lt. Maclay."

She tapped the commbadge and replied, "Yes, Captain?"

"We're within five minutes of rendezvousing with the ship. Why don't you come up and see your new home?"

Tara smiled. It was a thoughtful gesture on his part. Maybe eloquent as well. "Thank you, sir. On my way." She closed the commline and took one last look in the reflected image in the closet door. Satisfied, she tapped at the control pad next to it, making it fade into dull grey metal, and exited the tiny cubicle that had been her quarters for the past two days.

While it was no luxury liner, the Leonardo was definitely more spacious than a shuttlecraft or even a runabout. Two decks deep, with accomodations for up to six passengers, by Starfleet standards it was almost swank. Tara counted herself lucky to have managed to catch such a nice ride to her new assignment.

After interning as a counselor for three years at Starbase 134, Tara had taken some leave time on Aldebaran III, waiting for the Bozeman to pick her up and transfer her to her new ship. Unfortunately, sampling the local cuisine at New Aberdeen's best seaside restaurant, Tara had become violently ill.

"What a way to find out I'm allergic to Aldebaran shellmouth!" she had muttered to Captain Murdock, during one of their conversations along the journey. He had chuckled and winced in sympathy, as had Lt. Commander Jodell DaKar, the Trill chief engineer who had gone on leave with his captain to Casperia Prime. It was on the way back from leave in the Leonardo that they had swung by the Aldebaran system to pick Tara up.

It had been two very pleasant days with the two men. Mind you, DaKar had mildly hit on her, but did it in such an offhand way that she was not offended, and seemed willing to accept a polite brush-off. His medium height and build made him rather non-threatening, and his dark hair and chocolate-brown eyes - a shade darker than the epidermal spotting that ran symmetrically down the sides of his face - apparently garnered him enough female - and probably male, too - companionship that his ego could without the "devastating blow" of her rejection.

He and Murdock seemed to be close, although the exact nature of their relationship eluded her. Her horseback judgement (to use her father's phrase) was that Murdock preferred women pretty much exclusively. DaKar's preferences were a little looser around the edges, particularly since...

"You-you're a joined Trill, aren't you?" she had asked him once, when the two of them were standing watch in the cockpit of the yacht while Murdock was asleep. Mainly he was standing watch, keeping an eye on the helm's automatic setting while Tara sat at the ops station, helping him run diagnostics.

He turned back towards her, bemusement crooking his eyebrow and the corner of his mouth. "Now, what makes you say that?"

Tara considered her answer carefully. The main reason was that her empathic senses, owing to her one-quarter Betazoid heritage, had picked up on the embedded personalities within his symbiont, something like a "halo" effect around the core of his consciousness. However, she was not entirely comfortable with letting people know that she was able to pick up the emotions and sometimes even the thoughts of other people...especially as it made other uncomfortable.

So she settled on a secondary clue to his nature. "Well, your speech patterns. E-every so often, they change unexpectedly, like-as if different people were speaking through you. Something... something like when a person is fluent in many different languages, they tend to use words from more than just one language. Y-you follow?"

He beamed at her. "Very astute, Lieutenant. As it happens, Jodell is the seventh host of the symbiont DaKar. Which makes me, the latest model!" He and Tara both chuckled. "Not to mention, the most agreeable," he added offhandedly.

"And the most modest, too," Tara stuck in, brightly. DaKar answered with a cheeky grin, giving her the courage to plunge ahead. "How long have you known the captain?"

He took a moment to consider, half a moment, in her opinion, too long. "I came aboard as chief engineer when he became captain, four years ago."

That wasn't what I asked, she thought, wondering why he was being evasive. However, she felt that this was not the time to pursue the matter.

She climbed the short ladderway to the cockpit, finding Captain Ulysses Samuel Murdock in the conn position. "Good morning, Lieutenant," he said over his shoulder. "Sleep well?"

"Uh, yes, sir. You have a very nice yacht."

"Yeah, if I could fit a swimming pool in, I'd never have to leave it."

Tara laughed, overcome with the visual of the lower deck flooded halfway to the overhead and the captain diving off the ladder. While most Starfleet officers could hardly be called humorless (even Vulcans could be counted on, once in a while, for something approaching "dry wit"), Murdock had a gift for the off-the-cuff gem and a killer sense of timing. At the same time, his humor never seemed, at least to Tara, to be forced. It always seemed to come from the keen sense of observation that the captain possessed.

She found him intriguing in many ways. His curly brown hair and neatly-trimmed goatee had a few threads of gray in them, marking his transition from "good-looking" to "distinguished" (Tara's mother, long since deceased, had always remarked that only women truly get older, while men just get more distinguished). About one point seven meters tall, he had incredible physical presence, though he didn't have the constantly imposing nature that Starfleet captains seem to have surgically implanted when they get their fourth pip. Tara found him charming, personable, almost sweet. She had to repress the urge to check his ID to see if he really was a captain.

At the same time, she found it difficult to truly sense anything about him. Although Tara had long since committed herself not to rely solely on her mental abilities, she would have felt a little bit better if she could get an idea of what he was feeling from one moment to the next. Not that Murdock was trying to block her, at least as far as she could tell. There was just so much there. It was the mental equivalent of trying to walk across the floor with millions of marbles scattering hither and yon at high speed. Tara had never experienced anything near to this, so she had no frame of reference for a diagnosis. I wonder what Mom would have made of him, she wondered.

"Take the ops position, please," he said, turning back to piloting the yacht. He had already taken them down to sublight, as the stars were no longer rainbow-streaking past the viewport. "We've reached the position where the ship is going to-Ah, here they are," he amended as the proximity alert beeped.

A large, dark shape suddenly appeared nearly right overhead, making Tara flinch involuntarily. Good God, that's close! As it pulled ahead of them, she got a better perspective of the ship: it was a Nebula-class exploratory cruiser, with a huge saucer section mated directly onto the oval drive section, with underslung warp nacelles. A large pylon, rising up aft of the saucer from the very back of the drive section, supported a triangular weapons pod. The soft red glow of the main impulse engine at the stern contrasted with the bright blue given off by the plasma in the nacelles.

"There she is... the starship Hannibal," Murdock intoned with obvious pride. "Home."

Home. Tara thought that word sounded nice. After leaving the Norpin colony where her family lived, and after the Academy and her internship at 134, Tara would have liked to find a place she could call home.

Behind them, DaKar came up the ladderway and gazed out the viewport at the ship. "Hmmm. Looks like they've managed to keep it in one piece without me." Tara heard Murdock quietly snort and mutter "Engineers..."

"Hannibal to Leonardo." The call came over the speaker, a cultured female voice, which had a slight accent that Tara could not quite place.

"Leonardo here. Nice to see you here, Number One. I realize we're a little late, but we had a passenger to pick up at the Aldebaran system."

"We got your message, sir. Dr. Devereux is anxious to meet his new assistant."

Murdock smiled at Tara, then addressed the speaker again. "So, how did the coup go in my absence? Take over the ship yet?"

Tara looked sharply at DaKar, who winked back at her, indicating that this was some kind of private joke.

There was a definite hint of amusement in the woman's - the executive officer's - voice. "The revolution was successful. All political prisoners were released, and I've just finished redecorating your ready room."

The captain's jaw - or former captain's jaw, as the case may be - dropped in shock. "You didn't throw out my original pressing of 'Hey, Jude', did you?"

"Of course not." Beat. "I'm using it for a drinks coaster."

Murdock mimed being shot through the heart, then responded in mock outrage. "Okay, that's it. I'm coming back aboard before there's anymore such tomfoolery. Match bearings, please."

The XO finished chuckling, then said, "Ready for docking, sir. Manual sequence at your discretion." A pause, then she continued in a slightly quieter tone. "Welcome home, sir. Hannibal out." A muted chirp sounded as the commline closed.

The Leonardo increased speed until it drew ahead of the Hannibal again, then decelerated as it slipped under the saucer section. Murdock prepared to dock the yacht at its dedicated niche in the ventral center of the saucer, just forward of the main deflector.

Tara was no pilot, but she understood how hazardous a manual docking was. "H-Have you done this often, Captain?" she inquired gently.

"Never had one lesson," came back the cheerful, flippant reply. Tara's eyes widened; then, she saw DaKar smiling at her. Turning towards him, she saw him mouth He's kidding. She nodded back in appreciation. "You have a class-three ops qualification, don't you, Maclay?" the captain added, his eyes intent on the conn instruments.

"Um, yessir. But, uh, Commander DaKar is here, and he can-"

"No, thank you, Lieutenant, I'd just as soon have you handle the ops routines for this, if it's all the same to you." The casual tone of his response nevertheless left Tara firmly convinced that he wanted her to run the ops station. It was true, she did have the basic knowledge of operations management, at least for routine matters and aboard auxiliary spacecraft like shuttlecraft and runabouts. She wasn't sure about her ability to help with a manual docking, though. Still, Captain Murdock seemed determine to throw her into the deep end of the pool. She quickly scanned through the ops subsystems menu to see what she needed to do.

Murdock guided the Leonardo below the saucer section, using the RCS thrusters at minimum power to make minute position and orientation corrections. He had decided to see if Maclay could handle herself in an unusual situation. After checking to see that he had the yacht correctly lined up, he called out, "Deploy anti-static baffles."

Tara ran over the controls again until she saw the proper indicators. "Baffles deployed, aye," she replied, after touching the proper buttons and seeing the readouts change. The baffles would absorb and redirect the electrostatic differential between the two hulls, to prevent any unexpected discharges. With the traveling that they had done in the last few days, there might be enough juice on the yacht's hull to light up a dozen shuttles - or a couple of unfortunate crewmen.

There we go, Murdock thought, seeing the three-dee graphic on the monitor. Starship and yacht were lined up. A quick tap with the Z-axis thrusters, and they drifted upward. With precision that Tara would have called uncanny, the Leonardo da Vinci docked into the Hannibal.

Running down the standard protocols, Tara performed the necessary steps to ensure that the yacht was docked. "Mooring clamps in place. External power on-line. Initiating warp core shutdown."

Murdock visibly relaxed as the conn panel indicated that they were fully docked. "Home again, home again, jiggety-jig."

Gathering their respective personal luggage, the three officers went to the aft dorsal hatch, the main point of egress to the Hannibal proper. After being keyed open, the hatch rose to reveal a vestibule containing an officer in sciences-blue, past middle age but still hale and hearty. Although what was once a shock of red hair had been supplanted by white, the grin and the laugh lines belonged to a much younger man.

"Why, Dr. Devereux!" Captain Murdock exclaimed. "Permission to come aboard?" he then intoned, his formality mostly for form's sake.

"Permission granted," the doctor said, a hint of a bow accompanying the return. He then held out his hand. "Welcome home, Sam."

"Good to be back, Charlie." The two men shook hands with the vigor of old friends.

"How 'bout you, Jodell? Keeping my boy out of trouble?" Devereux asked the engineer.

The Trill shrugged. "I suppose, but he has such a talent for it -"

"Oh, really?" the captain interjected with incredulity. "Who was it that had to get bailed out after-"

"Let's not be petty!" came the sharp comeback, followed with a quick "Uh, with all due respect. Sir."

Murdock favored him with a stern look for a second, then burst out with laughter. Tara giggled before she could cover it under protocol, turning it into a cough. The three men turned towards her, bemused.

"Well, where are my manners," Murdock said, smiling. "Lt. Tara Maclay, Dr. Charles Devereux, ship's counselor."

"Nice to have you aboard, Lieutenant," Devereux said, careful not to shake her hand too vigorously, although her fingers told her that he retained a large measure of his youthful strength.

"It's rea-really nice to meet you, Doctor," Tara said, unable to hide her nervousness.

The elder raised his eyebrows. "You think so, do you? Obviously I've been the victim of some rather vigorous propaganda perpetrated by these two on your trip."

"Captain Murdock and Commander DaKar've told me nothing except you're a sweetie," she blurted out before she could stop herself. The other two men exchanged looks that hovered somewhere between mortification and bemusement, just stopping short of mouthing A sweetie? to each other.

"An honest one," Devereux purred. "Refreshing."

Tara had to steel herself against impulse to duck her head and try to hide behind her long hair. What helped her keep her head up was the knowledge that her hair was braided, as per regulations, and couldn't have hidden a mouse.

Devereux seemed to take pity on her. "Well, we better get you squared away, before you have to deal with a couple hundred lunatics. I'll show you your quarters, then we'll head to my, well, our office. Sam, our usual, uh, debriefing later?"

Tara definitely caught a flash of reluctance, which Murdock did an admirable job suppressing. "Wouldn't miss it."

"Um, are-are you sure these aren't your quarters, sir?"

The quarters to which Devereux escorted Tara were larger than any she had occupied in her tenure in Starfleet, be it Academy digs or even Starbase 134. She knew Nebula-class starship had great accommodations, but man... Besides the amount of space, which was almost obscene, the quarters were on the outer skin of the ship, affording viewports with a view of the stars, which were once again streaking by at warp speed.

"No, I have quarters about as nice as this, one deck down and in-board. These used to be occupied by our former science officer, until she transferred off."

Tara had been looked out one of the ports, when she heard. "Oh, but you should have gotten these quarters yourself..."

"Nah. I've gotten my digs set up just so; the thought of moving and setting up her doesn't appeal to me. 'Sides, I know what space looks like; I've no desire to see it every time I go to bed." He crossed over to her, smiling a little and feeling (as Tara sensed) a little embarrassed. "I pulled a couple of strings, and - well, consider this my way of saying 'Welcome aboard, glad to see ya, hope your time here is a good one.'" He shrugged like a teenager asking a girl for a date, and her heart went out to him.

"Thank you," she replied shyly. "I, um, I h-hope so to." The intensity of the moment was getting uncomfortable for them both. Tara walked towards the head to break the awkwardness. Walking past the vanity-divider, she walked into the head proper to find...


Devereux walked in, grin in place. He had a feeling this little surprise would go over well.

"A-A bathtub?" Tara turned to him, incredulous. How could he have known what a bath fiend she was? Maybe those Starfleet psych profiles are more in-depth than I thought... "Oh, this is too much! I can't-oh, could I? No-"

"Relax, Tara. Our former science officer liked to take baths, so she had it installed."

Sounds like my kinda lady, Tara thought naughtily. She covered by "changing the subject": "Th-that reminds me: what about the new science officer? Didn't she, or he, have first crack at these-"

Devereux shook his head. "We haven't had a real science officer for a few months. Not that we don't have an assemblage of the best scientific brains in the Federation, but you know how Starfleet bureaucracy works: anything short of an emergency-"

"- takes an eternity," Tara finished the old saying.

Devereux's office was not quite what Tara expected. But then, she reflected, neither was he. The room was decorated more like a private home than a psychiatrist's office, with long couches, comfortable armchairs, coffee table complete with large bound books consisting of mostly photographs, bookcases filled to nearly bursting with old-style paperbacks, floor lamps that provided illumination rather than the overhead ship's lighting, seascapes in oil on canvas and in scrimshaw... He told her that these furnishings came from his family home in Cape Cod, on the east coast of North America on Earth.

He settled into one of the armchairs and picked up a PADD, scrolling through it as he gestured for her to sit down. "There's a small office adjoining this one, that I'm going to let you have. No sense in us knocking into each other, right?" She grinned as she sank into one of the very comfortable couches. "I've been catching up on your case record and those monographs you wrote. Pretty impressive."

"Thank you."

A slight beat, then he continued. "Do those Betazoid senses of yours get much of a workout in your therapy sessions?"

Devereux had dropped this bombshell so casually that she almost answered him automatically. Wide-eyed, she stammered back, "H-H-How did you kn-know? I-I-I."

"Tara, your service record goes back aways, as far as family relations goes. You didn't think that the fact that your maternal grandmother was born on Betazed would escape notice forever, did you?" His demeanor, somewhat clinical if not downright harsh, softened a bit when he saw her look down towards the floor. "Look, what I really want to know is, how much do you rely on your... abilities, when you're counseling a patient?"

Tara's head snapped and her eyes locked on his. "No! I-Doctor, I only use m-my empathic abilities as, well, a tool, for diagnosis. But I try not to rely on it, as there are a lot of times when it gives me conflicting information, or if, let's say the patient is from a species that I can't read. Then, I-I have to rely on my training and knowledge to help them. In fact, I read once about a Betazoid counselor who temporarily lost her empathic abilities. She apparently relied on them so heavily that she felt useless and nearly resigned." Tara shrugged. "I'd rather that not happen to me.

Devereux was pleased that she could defend herself so adroitly, which answered concerns he had had about her at first. "Good answer. I think you're going to do just fine."

Over the next hour, the two of them went over Tara's duties for the next few weeks, which mainly consisted of performing initial evaluations of new crewmembers that Devereux had been unable to complete due to his workload.

"Good enough," Devereux said, tapping on the PADD he held. "You can start the first of these at oh-eight-hundred tomorrow. Give you the rest of the day to settle in and all that."

Tara smiled. "Thank you, Doctor."

He stood up and strode over to a handsome wood endtable, upon which rested a rather incongruous deskscreen and a framed photograph. "Why don't you make it 'Charlie' when we're in here, okay, Tara?" He gave her upraised eyebrows.

She nodded. "O-okay. Charlie. I take you prefer being called 'Doctor' to 'Counselor'..."

"Hell, yes. Never liked that term. A century ago, starships occasionally had 'staff psychiatrists' but Starfleet Medical apparently thought term was too 'aggressive' or 'off-putting.' Whatever. So I ask people to address me by my academic credentials, 'cause God knows, I earned 'em. Sent in all those cereal box-tops myself, I did."

Tara's brow furled; she knew he was making a joke, but the reference zoomed over her head at warp speed. She walked over to the table and glanced at the framed picture. The woman pictured there was quite lovely, with strawberry blond hair, light-green eyes, high cheekbones and very full lips. "Is this your daughter?" she asked him.

Devereux made a sound somewhere between a cough and a chuckle. "Ah, no. That wife."

Was. Tara got the distinct impression that divorce was not what separated them. If Devereux had been about the same age as the woman apparently was in the photo, then he had been widowed a long time ago, as Tara could see no more recent pictures of her in his office.

She was about to express her sympathy when she felt a wall slam down somewhere inside him. He turned away, moving towards a cabinet of dark walnut wood. "I think this calls for a bit of a toast, don't you?" he said, masking the old grief with his usual joviality. He brought out a bottle of almost colorless liquid and two small glasses. Pouring a dram into each with the skill of the frequent elbow-bender, he offered a glass to her and held the other. "What shall we drink to, Tara?"

"Um, to a... fruitful partnership?" she offered. She caught a whiff of the drink in her hand and it made her head spin. "I-Is this alcohol?" she sputtered, feeling like a total rube.

"'Course it is. That synthehol stuff, well, drinking that's like kissing your sister!"

Tara blinked. That comment got her piqued, although she really wasn't sure why. God knows she had heard worse in her day. "I wouldn't know, Doctor, I don't have a sister."

To his credit, the older man shrugged, set his glass down, went back to the cabinet, came out with a fresh glass and a different bottle with a clear, sparkling fluid in it. "Suit yourself, I'm easy. This is Altair water," he added, pouring her a glass. "It's bubbly, but not bubbly. Guaranteed not to knock your neural net offline." He handed the water to her, took from her the glass with the booze and poured its contents into his glass. "As you said, to a fruitful partnership. And as my-" Devereux stopped himself, reached out and turned his wife's picture face down to the table. "As my Klingon friend said, to the pure life!" With that, he knocked his drink back. He then carefully set the picture back up, the finale of an old ritual.

Tara found the water quite refreshing. She then watched as Devereux explained that he had to go see Captain Murdock for that "informal briefing" he had mentioned earlier. He took a small case from the cabinet, opened it briefly to inspect the small bottle and glasses stored within, and sealed it shut.

Tara couldn't resist. "Charlie, um, is it your standard protocol to try and, uh, get your patients drunk when you counsel them?"

Devereux grinned. "A long time ago, someone once said, 'A man will often say something to his bartender-"

"-That he'd never say to his doctor," he finished in the captain's ready room sometime later. From the opened travel case, Devereux had poured a finger of Saurian brandy into two glasses. One glass he held in his hand. The other reposed on Murdock's desk, amongst the clutter of PADDs, computer screen, and odd knickknacks from the captain's travels.

Besides the viewport, the dominating sight of the room was the large photovisual print on the wall to the left of the desk. It depicted a castle, alien in architecture, domes and parapets melded together, reposing next to a silvered sea. A large moon, brown and cratered, bisected by the horizon, provided an otherworldly backdrop.

"You know, I've heard that before," Murdock replied to the counselor's quip. He leaned back in his chair, idling contemplating a report on his deskscreen, not truly ignoring Devereux - and the reason he was here - but not really giving him an opening either. "What do you think of Maclay? Think she'll do all right?"

"Oh, yes," Devereux replied immediately. "She's gotten high marks from all her professors, she's written some pretty good monographs on the structure of metaconsciousness, and her therapeutic records are first-rate."

Murdock nodded. "Sounds good. Only... do you think she's had some personal self-confidence issues?"

A small smile. "Picked up on the stammer, too, huh?"

The captain nodded again. "First time I've heard someone do that in a while. You think she's up to this job, Charlie?"

Devereux waved off his concern. "Oh, quit worrying. She only does that when she's talking about herself - yes, I've kept track. Personality quirks like hers can only increase her ability to empathize with her patients. And frankly, with the pesky bunch we've got running around on this ship, she'll need all the empathizing she can get."

Murdock rolled his eyes. "Tell me about it. Where does Starfleet get 'em and why are they always sending them to me?"

"Probably 'cause of the name on the outside of the ship. With every captain from George Banacek to Francisco Cumberland-"

"The Space Case Himself," Murdock intoned with mock solemnity.

"-the old Hannibal had a reputation for being the Wackiest Ship in the Army. Yes, it was also brave, courageous, saved the Federation time and again, blah blah blah."

"Yeah, well, whenever Enterprise was too busy to do it."

"You be quiet, I'm discoursing. But always with a reputation for getting things done in unusual ways. Starfleet didn't mind so much in those days. 'Cowboy diplomacy' and all that. They sure enough had the commendations to prove it. So is it so strange that, perhaps subconsciously, Starfleet Command is trying to generate that same, oh, call it 'eccentric synergy' that the old Hannibal had on the new one?"

"Well, it's giving me a headache!" Murdock said, a pained (and not entirely feigned) expression on his face that made Devereux chuckle in sympathy.

"You? I'm the one who has to integrate all these diverse personalities into a workable whole! See, that's why I need Maclay so bad. You, now you have a first officer who can take over for you in a pinch. Dr. Govarr has physicians down in sickbay in case he's swamped - hell, he's even got one of those Emergency Medical Holograms! Press a button, instant doctor! DaKar, plenty of technical support down in Engineering. Virtually every department on this ship has plenty of personnel - except mine. Whose to keep me from going nuts?" He drained his drink in one shot and refilled his glass. "Who counsels the counselor?"

"If Lt. Maclay's primary job is to keep you sane, she's going to be busier than I thought," Murdock quipped.

"You're hilarious. How was Casperia Prime?" Devereux asked, changing the subject in mid-stream.

Murdock shrugged. "It was great. I had a fantastic hotel, round-the-clock room service and more peace and quiet than I have had in a long time."

"Mmmm, sounds exciting," Devereux replied, taking a sip from his refilled glass. "Sitting in your hotel room all day and night. What a vacation."

"Look, if wanted wild-and-woolly details, go ask DaKar. He took enough of a sampling of Casperia Prime's, um, entertainment for both of us. Now me, when I want to relax, I relax." He paused, then leaned forward again as a memory came to him. "Oh! I did take in a show. The Karidian Players, they did The Importance of Being Earnest. In Rigellian-style garb, no less."

Devereux blew air out of his pursed lips. "Should'a gone to Risa."

"I've been to Risa. Too touchy-feely for my taste."

"The 'touchy-feely' is part of the charm of the place. No, Sam, hold it. When you were on Casperia Prime." Devereux hesitated.


"...didn't you meet anyone nice?" he continued in a lilting tone.

Murdock answered back in the same lilt. "Yes, I met several nice people. Charlie, cut the gas and tell me what's on your mind."

"Okay, what's 'on my mind' is that you go on leave, without my having to forcibly pry you off the ship, and on a planet with lots of people, female-type people, you probably didn't ask a nice lady if she wanted to have a drink with you! Right?" Murdock sat mute and a plea of nolo contendre was entered to the court. "I've heard of being alone in a crowd, Sam, but you take the hasperat!" he added, referring to a Bajoran delicacy.

Murdock rolled his eyes as Devereux pressed his point. "When was the last time you spent some quiet time with someone else in the room? You can't be a hermit forever, Sam." Murdock gave Devereux a blank look that the counselor had little trouble interpreting. "Yeah, okay, fine. You didn't tell me, though, that you took a vow of celibacy!"

"Aw, come on, Charlie! I was married once. I told you about that. You it ended." The captain didn't quite shudder, but his discomfort about the memory still showed. "I don't want to do that again."

"So you'd just rather be lonely? Right? Is loneliness such a joyous feeling for you, that you want to just indulge in it?"

"It's a thirst," Murdock replied, his voice becoming strangely sepulchral, as if someone else were speaking through him. "A flower, dying in the desert."


Murdock shook his head, returning from whatever memory had briefly possessed him. "I'm not lonely, Charlie. I have everything I need here."

"Really?" Devereux replied, not buying it for a second. "Tell me this: when was the last time you had somebody-okay, you don't want a wife, girlfriend, or Significant Other. But when was the last time you had somebody in your life that you cared about? That you wanted to take care of?"

Murdock's eyebrows looked as if there were about to do a one-and-a-half gainer off his forehead. "Are you kidding me? I've got eight hundred people I have to take care of!" He waved an arm in implication of the Hannibal's complement.

Devereux shook his head. "That's not what I mean, and you know it. You work your ass off, play your ass off, make yourself the social butterfly down at the Tart 'n' Drum or at Calavicci's, display the famous Murdock wit to all and sundry, but you don't let 'em in here," he intoned, pointing to his heart.

"And why don't I?" Murdock asked wearily.

"Because you're afraid that they're all going to get taken away from you."

Devereux had chosen his words carefully. They penetrated the shields that Murdock had placed around his mind ever since the day that another had said something to that effect, someone who was the embodiment of Murdock's worst fears. The words opened a door in Murdock's mind, one he tried desperately to keep shut, releasing a terrible image that now floated in front of his image he was terrified of ever seeing in a mirror.

"Bridge to Captain Murdock." The page from the ship's first officer shattered the moment, to Murdock's relief and Devereux's frustration.

"Go ahead, Number One," Murdock answered, leaning forward, shooting at look at the counselor who folded his arms and looked away.

"Long-range sensors have picked up some kind of spatial anomaly in sector 327, about six light-years away. It could be a wormhole, or a subspace vacuole. Shall I alter course?"

Murdock seemed to decide instantaneously. "Yes, do so. Inform me when we get in range. Murdock out." After the channel-closed chime sounded, Murdock leaned back in his chair and gazed at Dr. Devereux.

Knowing the moment had gone, Devereux chose not to pursue the topic further. "You going to drink that?" he inquired casually, indicating the glass on the desk next to the captain.

By way of answer, Murdock reached out, snagged the bottle, unstoppered it, picked up the glass and with a precise, delicate movement, poured the drink back into the bottle. He put the stopper back in, slid bottle and glass back over to Devereux, and said in a most pleasant tone, "Some other time, perhaps."

Girl, you have died and gone to heaven, Tara thought as she sank back into the tub with a hedonistic wriggle, letting the warm water envelope her head and shoulders. An Aaah of pure animal pleasure escaped her lips into the steamy air.

After leaving Devereux's office, Tara had gone to Sickbay for the mandatory examination given to all new crewmembers. Upon entering the complex of rooms, she had come a cropper of the chief medical officer, Dr. Govarr. Although she had seen his name on the senior personnel manifest, she hadn't realized he was a Tellarite until.

"Oh!" she said, as this pig-bear apparition had suddenly jumped out of nowhere in front of her. Actually, she had been looking down at the floor, lost in her own thoughts, and almost bumped into him.

"You are Lieutenant Mock'lay?" he had growled at her, in a voice that seemed to come from about three decks down.

"Y-Y-Y... I, uh, yes, sir. Doctor, I mean," Great job, Maclay, now how about once more with the Universal Translator online!

"Sit. There." A large three-fingered hand pointed to a diagnostic table. Wondering if he was going to dissect her, Tara sit on the table, knees practically welded together as he gathered a tricorder and other scanners and brought them over. He looked her up and down as if choosing a cut of steak in a restaurant. His large nostrils distended for a second - he was actually sniffing her!

"You're a hybrid!"

Tara was so taken aback that she forgot to be offended by his tone, one that her father would use for his draft animals on the farm. "How did you know?" she asked skeptically. Does everybody on this ship read genealogies?

"Your scent," he replied gruffly, opening the tricorder and running the peripheral scanner over her. "It's different from a normal human. Yours is much more.tangy."

"I'm tangy?" she asked, caught in the neutral zone between bemusement and disbelief. She caught the eye of the nurse assisting the doctor, a middle-aged Bajoran woman who gave her a surreptitious smile.

"Mmmm... well, without running a genetic scan... and where's the fun in that... let's see, enlarged hippocampus, redundant substructures in the isocortex.Betazoid heritage, at least one-quarter. Classic signs."

After that, and a quick discussion about her allergy to Aldebaran shellmouth (which the doctor had a huge chuckle about, giving her a mild case of embarrassment), the doctor pronounced her fit for duty and released her. Having nothing to do for the rest of the day, Tara opted to try out her new bathtub - and the comprehensive menu of soaps and bath oils available via the replicator.

Half floating in the warm, scented water, Tara felt tension drain away from the last few days that she barely recognized that she had had. She felt good about her new posting, her new superior (his drinking might need a little looking into) and just life in general. After years of enduring the complete lack of affection from her father, the disdain of her brother and cousin, and of failing to make any friends in either the Academy or Starbase 134 (although she acknowledged that some of that might have been her own diffidence) here was the opportunity for a new start. The good first impressions that she had made with Murdock, DaKar and Devereux were very encouraging, allowing her the hope that her past poor record of relationships was due to not meeting the right sort of people.

Tara rose up slightly out of the water, feeling her wet hair gather itself up onto her scalp and neck, and reclined against the padded side of the tub. She breathed in the heady vapors coming off the bathwater as she dared to imagine meeting That Special Someone, the someone that she could spend her nights with to discuss her days, someone she could love and feel love from. A female someone, definitely.

Tara had discovered early on that she was gay, her interest in women pretty much exclusive. While it no longer carried the stigma that it had in centuries past, and given that its... practitioners had the same legal rights to marriage and family as everyone else, homosexuality was still more the exception than the rule. People like DaKar, people whom Tara thought of as "well-adjusted polymorphs," tended to enjoy more company than those who strictly preferred their own sex.

Her soapy hands moved over her legs, her abdomen, her breasts as she lay back thinking. Of course, her preferences thus far had run towards the generic humanoid model that she herself belonged to. She might find that in more alien psychologies, she might prefer males. Tara was willing to concede that possibility.

"Govarr," she said aloud, "now there was a definite spark there." She giggled in self-mockery and sank back down. All in good time, and on her own terms.

All at once a definite feeling of tension insinuated itself in Tara's consciousness. It took a second for her to realize that it was coming from outside herself, that her empathic senses had picked it up.

From where? From who?

"Report, Number One," Murdock commanded as he stepped out of his ready room onto the bridge of the Hannibal.

Commander Olivia Sivasubramanian Faraday was vacating the captain's chair at his approach, passing command back to him and moving to stand near the executive officer station a few feet away. The handsome Sikh woman, her long dark hair pinned up on the back of her head, was long and lithe, like the dagger she preferred to carry on dangerous missions in addition to the standard-issue phaser. "We've come out of warp in the vicinity of the spatial anomaly, sir."

"On screen." Murdock took a long look at this distortion of space hanging in front of the ship. Doesn't look like much, but these things are tricky... "Full scan, people. Tell me this thing's address and phone number."

Lt. Commander Gelfa Kolrami had lived with more than enough of the captain's strange metaphors to even comment on them anymore. "It appears to be something akin to a Kerr Loop, with dark matter at the event horizon. I'm reading a massive chroniton signature."

"Chronitons?" Devereux piped up from his own station. "Great, that means this is a express route to Getting Lost In Some Godforsaken Time Period!"

Faraday nodded. "I hate those."

Murdock rolled his eyes. "If you two don't mind..." he said in an honestly-the-things-I-put-up-with tone of voice. "Gelfa, are we safe back here?"

The Zakdorn nodded, the bifurcated cheeks on either side of her face that looked like gills undulating slightly. "Oh, yes, sir. The chroniton emissions outside the event horizon are miniscule. It's the gravitons we have to worry-"

"Captain!" came the urgent cry from the Andorian tactical officer, Lt. Thelvran. "There's an object in the center of the anomaly!"

"Confirmed," Kolrami added, slightly put out at being interrupted but putting a damper on it. "It appears to be a small craft, possibly a lifeboat or a shuttle."

"Magnify," Faraday ordered. The anomaly seemed to jump right at them as the view shifted closer. Murdock peered at what appeared to be an old-style Starfleet shuttlepod. I haven't seen one of those things in...

"Any lifesigns?" Devereux asked. He almost hoped that there weren't, for the sake of any poor soul who had to be trapped in that maelstrom.

"One lifesign, very faint," Kolrami reported a moment later.

Faraday and Murdock looked at one another, a silent communication running between them. She knew his first instinct was to go in full speed and damn the photon torpedoes. He knew she was far more cautious and might have waited for alternatives to present themselves. In a second, each knew the other's thoughts and possible responses to their arguments...

Faraday turned to the ensign at the helm. "Close to transporter range."

"With all due respect, ma'm," Kolrami said, looking partway over her right shoulder, "this might not be a good idea."

Devereux glared at the Zakdorn at ops. "Why the hell n-"

In one of Fate's supreme instances of Superb Comic Timing, a wave of graviton distortion hit the starship, slamming nearly everyone down on their respective keisters.

Not bothering to hide the irony - or the smugness - in her voice, Kolrami answered, "That's why."

Tara felt herself shoot up from the bathtub about a meter and dropped down again with a resounding splash and an impressive plume of soapy water. After a few panicked moments, she managed to reorient herself sufficiently to sit up, coughing and sputtering up water. A few seconds later, she got her breath back sufficiently to ask, "What the hell was that?"

No one answered here, for which she was grateful as she still had a slight case of nudity. She scrambled - carefully - out of the tub, dripping wet and slippery as wet ice on wet ice. This would not do. Standing as straight as she could, arms from her sides, legs slightly apart, she instructed, "Computer, activate sonic shower: drying cycle!"

A second later, a burst of energy ran over Tara's exposed skin (that is to say, all of it), feeling like a cross between a mild electric shock and a hundred thousand ants tap-dancing a one-second chorus line. The process left her skin dry and tingly. It also left her tingly in a couple of places that it would not do to enumerate in polite company. Boy, that's kinda... naughty, she thought with a grin. With her hair still damp but fluffed out by the sonic shower, she was ready to get dressed.

She just stepped out of the head and gotten her uniform when the call came. "Bridge to Lt. Maclay." It was Dr. Devereux.

"Maclay here, sir, go ahead." Just don't ask me to activate the viewscreen for a another minute, she thought as she slipped on underpants and bra in record time.

"Report to sickbay, on the double! We may be transporting an injured person aboard."

"On my way. Maclay out." She jammed her feet into socks, pulled on the undertunic and practically jumped into her fatigues (she rather liked the new jumpsuit style of uniform, but it could be awkward putting it on, it being one piece). She gathered up her combadge, insignia and boots and ran out the door, figuring she could put them on in the turbolift.

Murdock noted that Dr. Devereux had sent Maclay to sickbay, nodding at his initiative. Whoever was on that shuttlepod might need assistance other than medical - especially considering Dr. Govarr's bedside manner...

After the first shockwave, he'd had ordered the shields up. On the plus side, they enabled the Hannibal to draw closer to the anomaly and the shuttlepod; on the minus...

"We can't lower the shields to transport anyone aboard without the graviton waves crushing this ship like a beer can," Murdock said aloud, his mind racing for options.

Thelvran looked puzzled, as he usually did whenever confronted with human idiom. His antennae wiggled slightly, indicating he was thinking. "Beer can crush a starship? I knew humans drank many dubious liquids-"

"Hey!" Devereux said indignantly.

"I think he meant 'bear'," Kolrami supplied helpfully. "That's an Earth carnivore reputed to-"

"Bridge to Engineering!" Murdock cried, partly to cut across the soliloquy. "DaKar, I need to lower the shields without killing us all... any bright ideas would be certainly welcome."

DaKar, who had been monitoring the situation from the Engineering complex in the drive section, consulted a couple of readouts and replied. "We can divert the shield energy to the structural integrity field, in effect supercharging it. We'd have the density of neutronium, sir."

"Sounds good," Murdock said. Kolrami and DaKar coordinated the effort, as Thelvran reported that the structural integrity of the shuttlepod was starting to fail. "Gelfa..."

"Locking on and transporting directly to sickbay, sir!" Kolrami said, her fingers flying over the ops board. Murdock let a pleased smile come to his face. Wacky as they were, his people were the best in the business...

His musings were interrupted by the sight of the shuttlepod imploding. He heard Faraday whisper a prayer, and felt himself joining in.

In sickbay, Dr. Govarr had directed Tara to stand to one side as he and his assistants gathered their instruments and supplies to one particular table. Suddenly the table seemed to erupt in fairy-sparkle as the transporter managed to snatch the shuttlepod's occupant from the jaws of death and deliver...


As the transport effect died down, as the young woman became solid again and Dr. Govarr could start his examination, Tara stepped forward to see this apparition made flesh. Her face was blackened and bloody from some flying debris and smoke, her red hair was slightly charred, and her outdated uniform, now being stripped off by medtechs, was grimy.

She's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen, Tara thought. All she could articulate at that moment was, "Oh, my."

Continue to Equilibration Chapter Two

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