Return to Equilibration Chapter One


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.

"Her name is Willow Rosenberg," Kolrami intoned, her thick but dexterous fingers dancing over the pads on the conference room table, calling forth the information from the computer. "Lieutenant, junior grade. Class of 2276. Born Sunnydale, Centaurus," referring to the fourth planet out from Alpha Centauri A, "She was a Starfleet officer who disappeared about ninety years ago."

"And she apparently hasn't aged a day since then? Now that's what I call a vacation," Dr. Devereux said offhandedly.

"Ah, that's what passes for humor amongst humans," Kolrami muttered, then looked over at Murdock and Faraday, "no offense, sir, madam." The captain and first officer, used to the Zakdorn's air of superiority, waved the slur off. "Anyway, this Rosenberg, in what I can only classify as a startling example of cosmic symmetry, was assigned to the original U.S.S. Hannibal, NCC-512." She brought up the service record on the large viewscreen in the conference room where the senior officers sat. It had been nearly a full day since they had managed to beam the young woman off the shuttlepod before it had imploded under the intense gravitational distortions of the anomaly, which had itself apparently collapse and disappeared shortly afterward.

"Really?" DaKar asked. "I don't remember her, but there were over two hundred on the Hannibal then. When was she assigned?"

"She was assigned there straight from the Academy on stardate 7406, and stayed there until stardate 7845."

DaKar converted the old stardates into standard years. "About four years then. That was after my time... well, after Kiera's time on the old Hannibal." DaKar's previous incarnation, Kiera DaKar, was a renowned Starfleet captain, who had once been a helmsman on the famous vessel.

"So this temporal anomaly," Faraday ventured, "basically swept her ninety years-

"Ninety-one years, eight months, eleven days, if you want to be more precise," Kolrami interjected. "Since I do not know when the anomaly re-phased back into our time continuum, I cannot be any more precise. The margin for error in figuring out the hours and minutes passes the threshold of-"

"Okay, I get that," Murdock said, waving her off.

DaKar asked, "What day of the week was it when she left?"

Kolrami answered without batting an eyelash. "Tuesday."

"Typical. Those are always bad."

"What the hell was she doing out in the middle of a temporal anomaly in a dinky shuttlepod in the first place?" Devereux cried in exasperation, desperate to change the subject.

In answer, Kolrami called up some more records. These looked different than the standard readouts, cruder and somehow more colorful, the iconography of twenty-third-century LCARS software. "Initially, the disturbance appeared to be nothing more than a low-grade ion storm. However, it looks like the ionization was merely 'noise' caused by the chronoton surge."

"It's unlikely that the sensors the old Hannibal had at the time would have even picked up the chronotons," Faraday opined.

"Especially as the existence of chronotons wasn't conclusively proved until 2354," DaKar added.

Kolrami nodded. "So when the event horizon of the anomaly phased into normal space, Rosenberg's shuttlepod was already inside of it. Lucky for her, as the graviton waves from the dark matter," she indicated several irregular shapes near the outer ring on the viewscreen, "would have crushed the pod fairly quickly. That is, if the massive temporal surge didn't age her into dust in a blink of a eye."

"Like being in the eye of a hurricane," Murdock observed. He turned slightly in his seat to address Doctor Govarr. "What is her current condition?"

"She's still unconscious, seventeen hours now," Govarr reported. "She had some minor lacerations and burns from an explosion in the pod, which required some minor surgery and dermal regeneration. She came through the procedure fine; she's in very good health, not surprising. She also received a moderate neural shock, which probably accounts for her still being unconscious. No doubt she'll come out of it when she's ready."

Murdock nodded, then looked over at his security chief. Although his Andorian features were typically unexpressive, the captain knew him well enough to tell that something was bothering Thelvran.

"Mr. Thelvran... your thoughts on this?"

Clearing his throat, Thelvran turned to the others. "I do not suppose that the rest of you have the... problem with the matter, that I have."

Faraday raised one dark eyebrow. "What would that be?"

Thelvran hated being the center of attention, especially as Govarr had the gall to look faintly amused. "You do not see the incredible coincidence here? A Starfleet officer from the original U.S.S. Hannibal disappears ninety years ago, only to suddenly appear almost literally on our doorstop!"

"Doorstep," Murdock, Faraday and Devereux all at the same time, then each giving a quick take at the unexpected unison.

DaKar turned towards Thelvran. "What exactly are you saying, Thel?" Of all of the senior officers, DaKar was the only one who could get away with a nickname like that for the proud Andorian.

"I'm saying," he said, his antenna stretching almost painfully erect, "that she could be an agent of the Revisionists."

All trace of humor evaporated from the conference table. All of them still had unpleasant memories of their last encounter with their time-twisting foes. Appearing perfectly human, recruited by aliens millennia ago to guide humanity's progress, only to splinter off to pursue their own agenda, the Revisionists in some ways were more deadly than the Borg.

Typically, Devereux saw the flaw in this idea. "So you're saying our old time-traveling enemies, who are perfectly capable of quietly inserting one of their agents onto any Starfleet vessel they choose, instead decided to stage this massive temporal disturbance that we could not help but notice? Maybe you call that 'subtlety,' but I don't."

"Good point, Charlie," Murdock said, nodding. "I mean, Rosenberg's disappearance is a matter of record, so if they were going to try to convince us that this is the same woman..." He trailed off as the complexities of the problem took over his thoughts.

"I ran a metallurgical analysis of the few shuttlepod fragments we could recover before the anomaly collapsed," DaKar said. "The materials and construction techniques match those in use at that time."

"I also did a thorough examination of the patient," Govarr said, shooting a challenging look at Thelvran. "Her DNA is baseline human, although her blood chemistry shows trace levels of r-levosulaphane." The blank looks he got around the table prompted him to clarify, "It is a chemical common on Centaurus, found in...

"Goobajacks!" DaKar piped up.

Murdock added. "A fruit native only to Centaurus." The stares he got from his officers piqued him. "What? I read lots of books, y'know?"

DaKar added sheepishly, "My third host was a physician."

Govarr continued, his gravelly voice even rougher with irritation. "Common enough when humans live in alien environments and ingest the food there. Also, she has a slight iron deficiency, as well as a minor neurochemical tendency towards Irumodic Syndrome in her late senescence. Given that the Revisionists tend to breed their agents for generations to remove any genetic abnormalities..."

"...they could hardly have made a duplicate of the real Willow Rosenberg who wasn't practically perfect in every way," Murdock finished. He saw Thelvran's antennae droop, as they did whenever the captain shot down some of his more outlandish ideas. For all his quiet demeanor and perfect manners, Thelvran could be more gung-ho than a squad of old-style Marines.

"Unless, of course," Kolrami piping up, "we are supposed to think that. They may have-"

"Oh, please let's not play the home version of Second Guess Ourselves," Murdock said with gritted teeth. He took a deep, calming breath. "Until we have some solid evidence to the contrary, let's treat this woman as if she is what she appears to be: a missing Starfleet officer in need of our help."

"Agreed," Faraday added, effectively ending that particular subject.

However, Thelvran couldn't resist one last entreat. "Do I have permission to pursue additional investigations... discreetly?" he added in a hopeful tone.

Murdock considered the matter a moment, then decided that caution wouldn't hurt. "Knock yourself out." The captain noticed out of the corner of his eye that Dr. Devereux was about to make a sarcastic comment on the phrase, and caught his eye with a ostentatious clearing of throat. The counselor wisely decided that discretion was the better part of humor. "Jodell, damage report?"

"Nothing a hammer and paintbrush can't take of."

"Fabulous. Charlie," the captain continued, "our new arrival may need some help, uh, readjusting..." He broke off as Govarr made a sound suspiciously reminiscent of a derisive snort. "You have something to contribute, Doctor?"

The Tellarite turned to Dr. Devereux. "You may have to stand in line before you can counsel your new patient. Your young protégé seems to have established a claim on her!"

"Tara? What are you talking about?" Devereux asked, eyes narrowing.

"I practically had to beam her out of sickbay last night, and as soon as her duty shift was over today, she showed up again. She's been keeping a vigil on Rosenberg ever since."

Murdock raised a set of eyebrows at that. "Has she been getting in the way of your staff?" He sensed Devereux about to protest on his junior's behalf, and held up a hand to forestall the inevitable retort.

Govarr hesitated a second. "No," he allowed. "She's just been sitting there, watching my patient."

"Has she neglected her other duties?" Murdock asked, turning to Devereux.

"Nope. She performed the first of the evaluations that I had assigned her this morning."

The captain shrugged. "Then what she does on her own time is her business. And it seems that she feels as if her skills might be needed in this case. I call that 'initiative,' or perhaps, 'enterprise,' but we're on the wrong ship for that." Several chuckles around the table greeted the long-standing running joke. "Anything else? Good, that's a wrap." A palm slammed down on the table in place of the non-existent gavel, and the meeting adjourned.

After the other officers filed out, Faraday lingered behind to speak to Murdock privately. "You're going to contact Starfleet Command... and by that, I mean the Judge Advocate General's office?"

Murdock nodded, standing up wearily. "You know I have to. And you know what they're going to say."

Olivia Faraday looked at her captain and her friend, wishing that she could take the unpleasant duty from him. He must have read her expression, as he then added, "Hey, Liv. That's why they pay me the big bucks."

The words on the PADD started to betray her, dancing in unexpected patterns as Tara tried to focus on them. She had been sitting in the same chair in sickbay for the past six hours since coming offshift. Rubbing her eyes had ceased to be of any use, as had the coffee she kept drinking.

She set the PADD down and stood, a little too suddenly as a massive headrush hit her like phaser-stun. Concentrating, she let the world swim back into focus, then arched her back and stretched the cramped abdominal muscles. She then - carefully - bent forward to touch her toes, stretching her back and letting a little blood back into her brain.

Feeling considerably better, she exhaled and walked over to the biobed, where the young woman she saw transported to sickbay lay still unconscious. Her face, cleaned and surgically repaired, seemed to shine in the dim lighting from above the bed. Her red hair was slightly shorter than it had been, given that some of it had been seared in the explosion and cut off. She was like a pixie from the myths of Earth's past, made flesh and blood yet still sparkling with light.

Tara's empathic sense could not discern anything concrete due to her coma, although it told her that there was still a living mind present. Something told Tara that this was indeed a powerful mind, intelligent, passionate, as beautiful as the face that it hid behind.

All at once a fierce, almost prickly aura insinuated itself at the edge of her consciousness. Even on short acquaintance, Tara knew who had entered the room behind her. "Hello, Dr. Govarr." She caught the faint flash of surprise before Govarr was able to suppress it. One side of her mouth quirked up into a smile as she turned to him.

"Are you still here?" he rumbled at her. "Don't you have heads to shrink?" He chuckled at his own joke, sounding like a grizzly bear choking on a wild boar.

"My cauldron is still on requisition, Doctor," she replied evenly, feeling a somewhat petty satisfaction at the rejoinder. Govarr cut off his mirth and checked the readouts. Tara had previously done so herself, but lacked all but the most basic knowledge to interpret them. She watched as the doctor, now shrouded in professional concern, checking the readings and ran a quick examination of the sleeping woman.

"There are no postoperative complications," he finally said, half to himself but also including Tara as well. "Mostly she is still suffering from neural shock. She will no doubt awaken when she is ready. Now why don't you go get something to eat?" The doctor cut off her protest. "I don't need you skipping meals and sleep and ending up here yourself. I have enough to do without you people dropping of hunger and fatigue due to carelessness!" Govarr realized he was close to shouting, modified his tone. "Why don't you see if Calavicci's can fit you in tonight? They have magnificent, what do you call it, Italian food." His pronunciation of "Eye-talian" almost made her laugh.

"Thank you, Doctor, but I want to stay awhile longer," Tara replied. The physician visibly bristled (and with his bristles, it was quite visible) but he waved his assent and strode back to his office.

Before he turned past the wall, he looked back at the young assistant counselor. "In case you're interested, and I have a feeling you are, her name is Willow Rosenberg. She's a Starfleet officer who disappeared ninety years ago, from the previous starship called Hannibal." He disappeared before Tara could thank him.

She walked back to the biobed where the young woman - where Willow lay. Leaning over the bed, she stared into the still face, watching the beautifully-sculpted nose distend slightly as it took in air. Ninety years, Tara thought. She's gotten so lost...

"C'mon, Willow," she whispered. "You need to wake up. We found you." For some reason, the phrase I found you tried to force its way out, but she held back. "We've been waiting a long time for you." She reached out to brush an imaginary stray hair from Willow's face... the eyelids snapped open, showing intense emerald eyes filled with pain and fear and bewilderment.

Where am I? And how did I get here?

Willow had been trying to answer these questions for the longest time, it seemed, and she had been getting nowhere. The fact that she could not see, hear or feel rather impeded her quest for knowledge.

Okay, let's go over this again.last thing I remember is being in the shuttlepod, in the middle of that ion storm, then the console explodes in my face... ow... Then I'm here in the land of Nothing doing nothing with nothing to do it with...

Oh my God... am I dead?


Can't say much for this whole 'afterlife' thing. I mean, I know that they explained all those 'near-death' experiences, all that 'go towards the light' stuff, as neurotransmitter dysfunction back around the turn of the millennium, but at least with the light, I'd be able to look around.

Wait wait wait... if I'm thinking all this stuff, I can't be dead, right? I mean, either I would know if I was dead, right, or I wouldn't be aware of being thinking all this stuff, and I'm not sure if I even made sense with that last - okay! Right there! You don't babble like that if you're dead! That, I'm pretty damn sure of!

All right. I'm alive. Yea me.

But where am I? Oh, God, now we're back to that. I still can't see anything-

Oh, God. They've buried me alive! No! Buffy was always telling me her worst fear was to be buried alive, she told me over and over again and now it's me, they've buried me ALIVE!

All at once, in the midst of her terror, a calming presence seemed to insinuate itself into her mind, banishing her fear and pressing her down into peace and stillness.

Wow. Okay, better now. Hey, I think I'm getting feeling back... ow, not completely good. But I think I'm lying in bed somewhere. Doesn't have that closed-in, coffin feeling either-What's that?

She seemed to hear words, now, but they were muffled and distorted. They, too, had a calming effect on...


She heard that, and seized on it. My name, she thought, that's my name, someone's calling my name! Maybe it's Buffy. She's probably sitting right there, waiting for me to wake up. Xander, too. So, I guess I better wake up.

With that, the instructions on how to open her eyes suddenly became available, and Willow Rosenberg opened her eyes to greet the twenty-fourth century.

Willow couldn't focus her eyes, and the figure in front of her was somewhat blurred. However, she could discern that this was not Buffy Summers; while the figure was definitely human and female, she was a bit too broad to be her slim, athletic friend. The hair was also not the right shade blonde. The uniform was strange, too: a black jumpsuit with blue shoulderlines, with a silver and gold badge just over the left breast.

Willow could just make out the woman's eyes, and while she did not have Buffy's hazel orbs, her eyes were a beautiful shade of blue. She saw the eyes widen with the realization that Willow had woken up. Then the young woman reached up and tapped the badge on her chest, which responded with an electronic chirp.

"M-Maclay to Dr. Govarr." A brief pause, then she continued. "Willow-Lt. Rosenberg is awake." She tapped the badge again and stepped closer to Willow. "How do you feel?"

It the first time Willow had legitimately thought about it. The act of speaking forced her to realize just how non-okay she was. "Head feels big," she finally managed.

The woman smiled. She had a very nice smile; Willow liked the way that one side of her mouth, then the other, would quirk upwards; very expressive. That way, if you only felt like half-smiling... "Well, it still looks head-sized," she said.

"Oh... good. 'Cause that would make, y'know, wearing pullovers and going through doors kinda awkward." The effort it took for that sentence temporarily robbed her of energy.

To her credit, the woman didn't immediately do a take and look at Willow like she was a freak. "I get that. I mean, I majored in Awkward."

Someone approached Willow from the other side of the bed. A rather large someone, covered with dark fur, with deep-set eyes over a large snout. Although Willow had occasionally seen Tellarites, she couldn't recall ever seeing one up close. The effect of this one suddenly hovering over her was startling.

The woman must have picked up Willow's surprise and discomfort, because she leaned in and clasped Willow's hand. "It's all right, Willow, he's a doctor."

The Tellarite positively bristled at this statement. "A doctor? I'm the doctor, at least around these parts. Govarr, chief medical officer," he stated. Abruptly, Dr. Govarr softened his tone. "Are you in any discomfort?"

Willow had had time to think about this. "My face - it kinda aches."

"I had to remove some metal and plastic fragments of some sort, from your shuttlepod, no doubt. There were no problems; all the damage was cosmetic, and I repaired that so there will be no scar tissue."

"Okay. Uh, so why is so hard from me to move?"

"You suffered a moderate neural shock. The effects will pass."

"Is that why my vision's blurry?"

"Your visual acuity will return in time?"

"Where am I?"

With a sigh, Govarr answered. "You're in sickbay, asking incessant questions of your doctor." He picked up a small cylinder from a side table and inserted a smaller transparent tube filled with amber fluid. Willow watched nervously as Govarr maneuvered the cylinder and pressed one end to the side of her neck. A sharp hissing sound came from the cylinder, one that Willow recognized as...

"A hypospray." Whatever the medication was, she started feeling better almost immediately. She looked over at the woman who stood over her, radiating concern. "You must be my nurse," Willow offered.

To her surprise, the blonde woman blushed and grinned (even as Govarr made a rumble of what Willow interpreted to be disgust). "Oh, n-no, I-I'm not a nurse. Um, L-Lieutenant Tara Maclay. I-I'm a counselor."

"Councilor?" Willow replied, confused. "This ship has some sort of council?"

Tara looked confused for a second, then understood the homonymic confusion. "No, this ship isn't run by a council. Actually-"

Govarr snorted in derision, almost making them both jump. "The way this ship operates, it should be run by committee."

"Now, now, Doctor," a new voice came into play, "you know that's just an ugly rumor going around here." The speaker was a tall, curly-headed man with a goatee, wearing the same type of uniform as Tara and Govarr, except the shoulder areas were cranberry red instead of blue. He strode over to the bed, an open, pleasant expression on his face.

Behind him was another human, older in appearance, wearing a variation of the uniform the other three wore: a blue suede-like open jacket with leather shoulder patches, over a gray undertunic. His grizzled countenance was one of a man who been everywhere, done everything, and had as good a time as possible in the process. He now added to the first man's remark, "Well, we would have had this rumor squashed, but we needed a show of hands first!"

The other human - whom, Willow could see now that the medication was taking effect, had more insignia than either Govarr or the elderly man - favored him with a mildly scandalized glance, then turned back to Willow. "I'm Captain Ulysses Murdock. You must be Willow Rosenberg."

"I hope so," Willow replied. "I mean, I don't know who I would be if I wasn't me, unless I get to choose from a menu, like, choosing a new outfit, but considering my taste in that area, maybe I better stick with being myself."

"Solid plan, Lieutenant," Murdock replied, bemused. "This is our ship's counselor - well, chief counselor, Doctor Charles Devereux."

Willow nodded to the older gentleman, but was focusing on the badges on all their chests. It was definitely the Starfleet delta, the "arrowhead" symbol, originally unique to the U.S.S. Enterprise, which the fleet had adopted in place of individual ship emblems a few years back. So, if they all were wearing it... "So this is a Starfleet vessel, then," she said, more a statement than a question.

"That's right," Captain Murdock confirmed. "We rescued you from the shuttlepod that you became trapped in..." He trailed off, unsure as how to continue.

Willow looked around the room, at the equipment and at her visitors. "Y'know, unless they've changed the uniforms and I just didn't get the memo, those are not Starfleet uniforms. Plus, I've been in sickbays before, and I've never seen one that looked anything like this, not even on a starbase."

Govarr rumbled. "I should say you haven't. This is-"

"M-Maybe we should give Wi-Lt. Rosenberg a chance to rest bef-before we go any further," Tara cut in, earning a glare from Govarr and an inquisitive glance from the captain.

Dr. Devereux, however, stepped in with admirable timing. "I think Lt. Maclay may have a point, sir. This might not be the appropriate time to, uh, bring Lt. Rosenberg here up to speed."

"Perhaps, Doctor," Murdock replied, turning towards the counselor, "but when do you think would be an appropriate time? A week from now? A month? A-"

"Excuse me!" Willow cut in, irritated beyond politeness. "Y'know, if it's true you guys rescued me, and I'm not saying it isn't, then I'm grateful for you saving my life. But I would really appreciate it if you didn't talk about me like I wasn't here!"

"Willow!" Tara warned. Willow gave her a sharp look, startled at this stranger addressing her so familiarly. Her urge to tell Tara to shut her biscuit-trap, however, quietly faded when she saw the genuine concern in the young woman's eyes.

Murdock, too, felt his annoyance at Rosenberg's outburst abating, and kept a lid on his indignation. She has, he reflected, been through a lot, and is going to go through a lot more. Give her some slack, old boy. He stepped forward slowly, partly raising a hand to politely indicate to Tara to back away. The look she gave him was not entirely free of the hurt she felt at being cavalierly dismissed, but he was not inclined to address it at that moment. She moved off to stand next to Dr. Devereux, leaving Murdock standing next to Willow.

"Lieutenant," he said, taking refuge in formality. "There is no easy way to apprise you of your... situation," he began heavily. "Uh, you were an officer on the Saladin-class starship Hannibal, correct? Registry number NCC-512, right?"

"Were"? Willow thought. Oh, this can't be good. "Um, yessir."

Murdock took a deep breath and plunged in. "Well, by an amazing coincidence, you now happen to be on the Nebula-class starship Hannibal. Registry NCC-71669."

Willow's brain took a second to run through some comfortable alternative scenarios: bad dream, coma, wacky alternative reality, telepathically-induced hallucination, Four Years' War flashback. None of these held water for more than a tenth of a second, particularly the last, as she was all of two month's old when the Four Years' War ended at the Battle of Axanar. She looked at Murdock, then Devereux, then Govarr (rather quickly) and finally Tara, who looked back with even more sympathy than the rest. Her brain trying to digest this information piece by piece, she repeated, "En-See-See-Seven-One-Six-" and got stuck there.

"Six-Nine," Murdock finished gently.

"That's a lotta numbers," she concluded lamely.

After giving Willow the details of her displacement in time, Murdock and the others were ushered out of sickbay by Dr. Govarr, who rumbled about his patient getting too much stress. Captain Murdock has asked Willow to come see him as soon as she was discharged, which Govarr said would probably be in the next twenty-four-to-thirty-six hours.

Over the next day and a half, Willow's recovery proceeded at an encouraging pace. Dr. Govarr, contrary to his self-styled bellicose image, proved to be rather congenial, at least by Tellarite standards. He was careful not to let Willow push herself too hard, especially when taking a brief walk with the assistance of the doctor and a nurse, who was of a race called Bajorans (which Willow had never heard of). He seemed genuinely pleased with her progress, although (as Willow's cynical nature attested) that could have been professional pride at his skill as a physician.

She did have one complaint: the food that Dr. Govarr let her eat, which edible, was rather bland. "Ninety years of progress, you would think that they could make sickbay food taste better," she muttered to Govarr.

The doctor shook his shaggy head. "That is intentional. If the food here was as good as anywhere else on this ship, no one would have incentive to leave!"

Willow conceded that point.

Two days and six hours after regaining consciousness, Willow was pronounced fit to be discharged by Dr. Govarr. She delayed meeting with Captain Murdock, however, until her uniform (or a reasonable duplicate thereof) was returned to her. I'm not returning to my own time in my skivvies, she promised herself.

She also wanted an electronic clipboard, of the sort in use aboard the Hannibal - her Hannibal - but they had apparently been obsolete for decades. One of the medical technicians had provided her with a PADD ("Personal Access Display Device," one of those cutesy acronyms that Willow always loathed). Although one did have the option of using a manual stylus to input data, Willow soon disdained such, having far too much fun discovering how far tactile algorhythms had progressed in ninety years.

"This is so cool!" she cried at one point, discovering how the PADD's built-in transceiver array could be used to access the ship's computer remotely.

"I'm glad she's having fun," Govarr muttered in his office, after listening to this girl coo over the mundane convenience for over an hour. "I'm going insane."

Finished with her notes, she found out how to use the intercom (she didn't have a commbadge, which she regretted as she thought those were the neatest innovation since artificial gravity) and informed the captain that she would see him at his convenience. He asked her to meet him in his ready room in fifteen minutes.

Most of that fifteen minutes Willow took up figuring out what a "ready room" was. She eventually got the bright idea of using her PADD to access the computer for an intraship directory. Reading the description of the ready room, Willow approved of the idea. I wonder if I came up with that... or if I will come up with that... or will have to came up with-God, time travel and English grammer are totally unmixy!

Taking the nearest turbolift of Deck 1, Willow stepped off and had to bite her lip to keep her jaw from hitting the deck. The bridge was easily half again the size she was accustomed to. There were more positions, some of which she could only give a educated guess at. Mission Ops? She had to school herself not to look around too much. Otherwise, it would that much more she would have to keep to herself when she went back.

Kind of a shame, Willow thought, 'cause it seems like a really interesting ship. I've met some really great people... Intriguingly, an image of Tara flashed through her mind, unbidden. Wish I could stay... but I got people who would miss me.

A tall, dusky human woman stood up from her seat and sauntered over to Willow. "You must be Lt. Rosenberg," she said pleasantly, though with enough force that Willow recognized that she was being engaged in conversation whether she cared to be or not. Given that the woman was a superior officer - three insignia on the collar of her undertunic indicating she was a commander - Willow was obliged to answer her.

"Yes, sir. Uh, ma'm. Commander!" She took the woman's outstretched hand and shook it, trying not to dislodge the other's shoulder in her nervousness. "I never know which one to use on a female superior officer," she added.

The woman smiled patiently. "I'm Commander Faraday, executive officer. Don't feel bad, Lieutenant. I sometimes get confused myself. I think Captain Murdock calls me 'Number One' because 'Commander' is too long, he doesn't like using 'Mister' for female subordinates, and he thinks 'Ms.' isn't formal enough." She released Willow's hand and raised an eyebrow. "Have you come to the bridge for anything specific? Anything I can help you with?" She didn't seem, to Willow, to be very sarcastic, but not overly solicitous.

"Oh, no, actually, I came to see Captain Murdock, that is, in his ready room, which is supposed to be right here," she pointed over to the exit aft of the bridge.

"That's where it is," Faraday agreed. "Go on in. The captain's expecting you." She lowered her voice, took a half-step closer to Willow. "You'll do fine."

Willow smiled. "It was nice meeting you, Commander." Before she turned to approach the ready room doors, she thought she saw a flash of confusion and sadness on Faraday's face.

There was a pad of buttons next to the doors. One of them was obviously the door chime. Pressing it, Willow heard a call of "It's open!" which apparently the doors were accustomed to, because they parted immediately.

Willow stepped into a room about four meters square. The captain set behind a desk of burnished wood, working on a PADD and looking at a deskscreen, the same kind she had seen in Doctor Govarr's office. The office (ready room, she reminded herself) was not as austere as she thought it was going to be. Memorabilia from many places and periods reposed on shelves and on the desk.

"C'mon in," Murdock said pleasantly. "'Mind the dancing girls, come up the usual way.' I'm finishing off some administrative trivia, so just have a seat for a minute and I'll be right with you." He indicated an alcove in the wall to starboard. "You can get coffee, or whatever you like, from the replicator."

"No, thank you, sir." She paused on her way to the chair. "Uh, sir, is it okay if I look around?" After he waved his acquiescence, she looked at some of the artifacts. Most had apparently come from Earth, by her limited judgment spanning the nineteenth through twenty-second centuries. Some of it was what her mother would call "kitsch," although Willow never entirely understood what that term meant.

One item that intrigued her was a disk of some black material, sealed in a polymer coating, with a five-centimeter hole in the center, around which a circular label had been impressed. The label had a drawing of a green apple. There was writing on the label as well, the most prominent words being:


"Hey, that's funny. They misspelled 'beetles' on this," Willow said.

"I get that a lot," Murdock replied with a smile. With a sigh, he put the PADD down and shut the deskscreen off. "Hoo boy. All those department heads and a first officer and still this much crapola filters its way up to me. Why don't we get started, Lieutenant?"

"Yes, sir." As she crossed over to the chair, her eye was caught by the painting of the alien castle and landscape. "Is that Rigel VII?" she asked, pointing to the painting and sitting down.

Murdock's expression somehow managed to combine wistfulness, amusement and a strange reluctance. "Ah, no. That's, uh, an obscure planet. Catalog designation... Holberg 917G. I had family there." Turning towards her and leaning forward, he adroitly changed the subject to that of their meeting. "Now, we have to discuss your... disposition. Doctor Govarr tells me you've made a full recovery, so there's no reason not to get down to brass tacks."

"I agree, sir," Willow replied, eager in spite of the fact that she wasn't sure what tacks, brass or otherwise, had to do with anything. "See, I've made some notes," indicated her PADD, "about how to send me back."

In a rare moment, one which Devereux would have cheekily proclaimed a historic occasion, Murdock was completely taken aback. "Send you... back?"

"Yessir, to 2280. I'm compiled everything I can remember on the Slingshot Effect, as the best option for traveling backwards in time. I mean, I know the anomaly that brought me here has collapsed, and we can't waste time - sorry, no pun intended - looking for another one like it, I mean, what are the odds, but I think what we can do is probably program a small ship, you've got these things called runabouts, they might be able to do the job, and then once back in the twenty-third century, once I'm safely off, it can self-destruct or something, whatever you feel is the best way to keep the timeline from being totally blown off track, I'm sure you don't want that, I tried to read some of the stuff regarding time travel, but the computer said that all temporal research was classified under command-level clearance, and I don't have that yet, but if we-"

"Hold it!" Murdock cried, feeling on the verge of neural overload. My God, did this child breathe even once during that soliloquy? "Now, Lieutenant, I appreciate your enthusiasm, and frankly, I'm impressed with your initiative in compiling and planning like this, but..." Try as he might, he couldn't continue for a few moments.

"Captain, what is it you're trying to tell me?"

Somewhere in him he found the fortitude to look her in the eye without blinking. "I'm afraid you've been laboring under a misconception, Willow. It's not a question of being able, theoretically, to send you back to your own-I mean, back where you came from.

"The problem is, morally, we're not allowed to send you back."

Continue to Equilibration Chapter Three

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