Willow Rosenberg had heard the word "aghast" all her life, but never really thought about how someone would look in the throes of that emotion.until that moment.
Murdock prepared himself for her reaction to his pronouncement. He had hoped she would take it with Vulcan-like stoicism, but his own experience - and Charlie Devereux's "cheerful" diagnosis - told him not to bet the farm planet on hope.
She let out a sound somewhere between a sob and a laugh. "What, are you kidding me? Not allowed? They actually have rules about this?" Somewhere in that speech, she realized that she was on the thin edge of hysteria and attempted to swallow it back.
Murdock's eyes were sympathetic, which in itself threatened to put her over the edge. Her comment about rules actually struck him as funny, but he would rather at that moment eat his phaser than dare laugh at her. "As a matter of fact, over the last several decades, we've had-well, Starfleet has had a number of temporal, uh, 'incidents,' shall we say? Actually, for 'incidents,' read: 'just short of major catastrophes.'" He attempted a wan smile, but he was playing to a tough crowd, and knew it. "Anyway, Starfleet has since codified a... Temporal Prime Directive, which basically says that we not disturb the integrity of our timeline if at all possible."
It was a testament to Willow's intellectual fortitude that she was able to formulate possible loopholes to her situation. "But, Captain, if I don't go back, that will change the timeline, right? I wasn't supposed to vanish, I mean, get transported through time to end up here? Was I, sir?"
Murdock took a deep breath. "I don't know about 'supposed,' 'not supposed,' anything of that nature. What I do know is that history records that one Willow Rosenberg, lieutenant (junior grade), assigned U.S.S. Hannibal, disappeared in some sort of unusual ion storm... and never returned."
But... but... but I did return! I mean, I'm here, doesn't that count as 'returning'?"
"Not really, no. Ninety years have passed since you've disappeared, Willow. If you were to go back to the time you left, ninety years of history gets undone."
Willow took a deep breath and put on her most earnest expression. "Sir, if you're concerned that I'm going to reveal what I know about the future of Starfleet and the Federation... and I would think you would be, I mean, I guess I would be, I mean, if I were you, I would be worried about what I would say, or actually, you would say, if you were me in this situation--"
Murdock held up a hand as he stood up and crossed in front of his desk, to sit on the edge next to the young woman. "The last thing I'm worried about is your integrity. I'm sure that if you gave your word as a Starfleet officer not to reveal anything you've seen on this ship to anyone, you'd keep it. But unfortunately, that's not good enough."
Willow's jaw dropped as she thought she figured out what Murdock meant. "You mean, erase my memory? Just in case I happened to run into some evil telepath who might find out information about the future?"
Murdock shook his head. "I'm afraid you're missing the point again. Even if we did what you suggest - memory suppression - the mere fact that you were present where you were not present before would have an effect on the timeline." He paused, reached out a hand and clasped it over hers. "In ways both significant and subtle, you touched people's lives, effected events. Their lives touched other lives. The events you affected, had an effect on other events. Throwing you back there, even without foreknowledge of the future, will have an effect - I'm sorry, I keep using that word - on the timeline."
"You mean, one of those 'butterfly effects' that were so scientifically trendy around the turn of the millennium?" Willow asked, genuinely curious if a little skeptical.
Murdock nodded. "It's entirely possible that you're going back would make no difference, or might even result in a more favorable outcome for the Federation... not that we're exactly complaining these days. But, ultimately, we can't take the chance that the outcome wouldn't be disastrous. I'm sorry." He straightened then, giving her hand a brief squeeze before releasing it and returning to his chair behind the desk.
Willow narrowed her eyes. "Captain, who exactly do you mean by 'we'?"
"'Whom,'" Murdock corrected automatically, before rolling his eyes in self-mockery. "Actually, I've been in consultation with the Starfleet Judge Advocate General's office, as well as the Department of Temporal Investigations-"
"Department of Temporal Investigations? We have that now?" Willow blurted out, before realizing that interrupting a superior office was not exactly according to protocol.
Murdock, however, chose not to make an issue of it. "Yes, we do, for some years now. As I said, Lieutenant, Starfleet has seen more than its share of, well... how shall I put this..."
Murdock chuckled. "Good a term for them as anything else."
Willow seemed to shrink within herself. Up to now, she really hadn't considered the possibility that she was going to have to stay in this time. Now, with hopes of relating an edited account of her little adventure to Buffy and Xander dashed (This would definitely top that time on Iotia she was clinically dead! she had thought to herself at one point), she would have face the ramifications of being removed a century from her native time.
"So... I'm stranded here?" she finally whispered.
Murdock couldn't help but be a little put out by that remark. "Well, this isn't exactly a desert planet, Willow. You have several options open to you. For instance, you can always return home, to Centaurus."
Willow couldn't quite keep a derisive huff from escaping her lips. "Sir, I didn't talk to my parents much in the twenty-third century. They probably didn't even notice I had disappeared, being so busy with symposiums and conferences and all. Do you know they didn't even come to my Academy graduation? They just-"
"All right, Lieutenant. You need not go back to Centaurus. After all, you're still a Starfleet officer." The captain picked up a PADD from a holder on his desk. "I've done all the, uh, paperwork, as we used to call it. Subject to your approval, of course, your commission can be re-activated, with no loss of rank or privileges."
"Really?" This was the best news Willow had heard in a while. "So, I can still keep my rank... but what about a ship? Unless..." She trailed off hopefully.
He smiled. "As it happens, the Hannibal is lacking a science officer for the bridge. Oh, we do have scientists aboard, Starfleet as well as civilian-"
Auburn eyebrows shot up at that. "Civilians? On a starship? Do we routinely carry passengers around, sir?"
Murdock chuckled again. "No. Some of our officers and crew have families aboard. Starfleet instituted this policy some time ago, to help alleviate the stress of separation. Anyway... what was I-Oh! We don't have anyone aboard right now who's trained in bridge operations. They're all, uh, 'lab rats,' shall we say?" Willow grinned at the old Fleet slang. "So, I pulled a few strings, and got you for the position of science officer... again, if you want it. You're not under any obligation whatsoever."
Willow shrugged. "Well, Captain, seeing how, like, the old Hannibal lost me, it's probably some kind of cosmic karma or symmetry or double-entry bookkeeping that brought me to this Hannibal."
Murdock seemed to grimace, rather theatrically. "Don't let Commander Kolrami hear you say that. She'd probably agree."
"Kolrami? Why not, sir?"
"She's a Zakdorn - never mind, you'll find out. So, what do you say, Lieutenant? Among other things, you'd be crossing off of my many problems and their name is Legion."
Willow stood up and stuck out her hand. "You got yourself a science officer, sir."
"Swell!" Murdock took her hand with restrained enthusiasm. "Now, there is the unavoidable learning curve you're going to have to overcome... which in your case is going to have to cover ninety-odd years, not only in scientific advances but also in spatiopolitics and Starfleet regulations."
Willow paled. This wasn't sounding so fun anymore. "You mean I'll have to go back to the Academy?"
Murdock took a half-second to consider. "Oh, I doubt that. I think we can accomplish any retraining you need right here. Particularly if your scientific acumen is as remarkable as your record purports - and as impressive as Captain Cumberland made out in his evaluations of you."
Willow was about to go pshaw and make other noises of self-deprecation, when another thought occurred to her. "Oh! Uh, that reminds me... um, I, I want-I need to find out about Buffy and Xander." Judging from the expression on Murdock's face, clarification was definitely in order. "Sorry, sir. I meant Lieutenant-well, she was a lieutenant at the time, for all I know she eventually made admiral, yay her! - sorry again, sir," she apologized again at the captain's half-exasperated, half-amused face. "Lt. Elizabeth Summers, and Ensign Alexander Harris."
Murdock's breathed out. He knew this was coming, and there was really no way around it. He reached over and took another PADD from the holder and handed it to her. "Lieutenant, I... took the liberty of doing some research. When we confirmed your identity, my operations officers did a search for some of your... acquaintances, back on the Hannibal. Yours, I mean, not this one." He saw that she was about to access the information contained in the device's memory, and gently put a hand over the screen. "You might want to read that when you're alone," he added softly.
She looked up at him, and read in his usually inscrutable eyes the awful truth. "No..." she whispered.
"Willow..." he began, not wanting to leave things as they were at that moment, him seeming like some perpetual bearer of bad news, wanting to establish a better relationship with his new officer (and marveling to himself how much he wanted her to value him, on such short notice).
She didn't quite pull away from him, but her body language changed, and the temperature in the ready room, while it didn't drop to freezing, nevertheless lost whatever warmth there had been before. "Captain, I..." Willow had to swallow back the hopeless, helpless tears that she wanted to shed, but not in front of this virtual stranger. "I really need to read this, and-and with all due respect-"
"Dismissed," Murdock said with a sigh. Willow rushed at the door so fast it barely had time to split open before her nose impacted it. As it hissed shut behind her, Murdock sank back into his chair. Out of old habit, his eyes inclined upwards as he said, "Bad enough I get all of Starfleet's oddballs from this century, Francisco. Now I'm collecting your strays. Thank you ever so much."
Willow got on one of the bridge turbolifts, and spent nearly half a minute wondering why it wasn't going anywhere before remembering she hadn't given it any instructions. "Uh, take me somewhere."
"Please specify destination by deck or room nomenclature," the computer voice replied.
Willow growled in frustration.
"That is not a valid destination."
"Well, how the hell am I supposed to-" Willow cut herself off, before the computer could try to answer what was clearly a rhetorical question. "Is there an empty conference room or lab on this ship?"
"Conference Room Four is currently unoccupied."
"Great. Take me there already!" In answer, the turbolift beeped and with a whoosh started down the shaft.
Sitting in her office, Tara was completing a case report on a crewman she had interviewed that morning when the overhead comm blurted out, "Murdock to Lt. Maclay."
With a mystified expression, she tapped her commbadge. "Maclay here, sir. Is there something wrong?"
"Lt. Rosenberg might need a sympathetic ear. I just gave her some information on her... former colleagues, and something tells me she's not going to take the news well."
Tara rolled her eyes. And you're surprised by this? You just drop this bombshell on her and think "she's not going to take it well?" Does this pass for "diplomacy" in Command School? "I'll have a talk with her, sir. Do you know where she is?" she asked.
Murdock had come out onto the bridge during his conversation with Tara. "Actually, we're working on that now. Hang on." He turned towards the Ops position. "Gelfa, can you track her down? She doesn't have a commbadge yet."
"I'm aware of that, Captain," Kolrami replied with an almost-inaudible sniff. "I keep track of every commbadge issued to Starfleet personnel on this ship. What I'm doing now is accessing the internal sensor array in order to track any biosignature that does not have a commbadge and is not in our database of civilian personnel." The Ops board responded to her ministrations with a cacophony of beeps and whirrs. "Ah. Deck Four, Section 11-Bravo. Conference R-"
"Room Four," Murdock finished with her. "What? I know this ship like the back of my hand. Maclay, she's in Conference Room Four. Would you please see to her?" He then spared a quick glance at the back of his hand.
Though he was not sure why, Murdock had the distinct impression that Maclay was smiling. "On my way, sir. Maclay out."
Approaching the outside the conference room, Tara's empathic senses were overwhelmed by waves of grief, distress and horror, an avalanche of emotion that threatened to knock her off her feet and smother her. She took a few deep breaths, trying to center her inner being as her mother had taught her long ago, long before...
The hand she held in hers was cool and dry, so familiar yet lacking in the quiet strength Tara had known from infancy. The arm, once thin and graceful but now emaciated, lay on the bed next to the chair Tara had sat in for hours, days. Up past the shoulder clad in silk was the face she loved so much...
Tara shook her head violently. Now was not the time to indulge in past pain. Someone needed her in the present. Sighing, she headed towards the doors and watched them part.
The conference room was just light enough for Tara to pick out the table with the chairs grouped around it. In one of the chairs at the far end sat the young woman in the antiquated Starfleet uniform, the maroon jacket that was so militaristic seeming rather comical on this particular science officer. All she needs is a fur hat and a saber by her side, Tara thought with amusement, then discarded the idea. The last thing Willow needed, judging by the wracking sobs convulsing her, was to be given fashion tips.
The conference room doors hissed shut, alerting Willow to the fact someone had entered the room. Her tear-streaked face jerked up to see Tara standing by the door, holding a PADD under one arm, looking uncomfortable and trying hard not to look as if she was. "Oh, uh, hi, Tara, I, uh..."
"I-I'm sorry. I know this is a b-bad time, but-but I, uh, wanted to check and see if you were all right." Tara mentally slapped her forehead for sounding so hesitant. Just what was it about Willow that reduced her to a blathering idiot?
Willow attempted a smile. The effect should have been ghastly, although Tara, hardly the most objective judge, found it endearing nonetheless. "No, I'm okay. Really, I'm dealing with..." She paused only to breathe, but that was enough to shatter any verbal momentum she might have had. Her face twisted as it fell into her hands; her shoulders shook as she started weeping again.
Tara crossed over to the small table next to the wall and found a cloth. She handed it to Willow and brought over a chair to sit next to her. Hesitantly, Tara placed her hand on Willow's wrist, keeping her grip gentle, conscious of any discomfort she might pick up. It was an effort to keep Willow's despair from overwhelming her control. Breathing deeply, she put her other hand on Willow's shoulder.
After a few minutes, Willow subsided again. She looked up at Tara's face, receptive and patient. "Sorry," she whispered, trying to control her hitching breath.
Tara shook her head. "Don't be. You've b-been through a lot, and you feel so out of place..."
Now Willow shook her head. "It's not that," she said, picking up the PADD that Captain Murdock had given her in his ready room. "It's... Buffy and-and Xander, I mean, I kinda figured, well, ninety years, but... but..." she trailed off as fresh tears cascaded from her eyes.
Tara took the PADD from unresisting fingers and accessed the information within, first calling up the record of Ensign Alexander Harris. Apparently, about four months after Willow's disappearance (by Tara's quick mental calculation), Harris had resigned his Starfleet commission and returned to his homeworld of Centaurus...
"So, uh, Xander was from Centaurus, too. Did you know each other, I-I mean, before you were on the Hannibal?"
Willow nodded. "We grew up together, in Sunnydale - oh, that's the small town we came from. It's just outside of McIverton, which is on the west coast of New America, Centaurus' biggest continent. Usually, when my parents went off-planet to some seminar on Earth or Vulcan or whatever, they left me with Xander's family." Willow smiled. "He was so floored when I told him I was applying for Starfleet Academy. He said that I would just get into trouble without him around - probably right, as he was always getting me out of one scrape or another."
Tara grinned. "Sounds like a good friend."
"Yeah. I was so amazed when he showed up with me to the entrance exams... made a big fuss about 'giving me moral support,' then he goes and takes the exam too. I don't know which one of us was more amazed that he passed, but he was always smarter than most people ever gave him credit for. Including him." A pause, then a whisper. "Including me."
"So he went with you to the Academy..." prompted Tara.
Willow nodded. "He still had trouble with some of the courses. He really had a problem with tensor calculus..."
"Which part?" Tara asked. She recalled how brutal some of the higher mathematics courses at the Academy were.
Willow looked amused for the first time. "The tensor calculus. But, actually, he had a real gift for spatial relationships, and he could reroute a plasma conduit like makin' a ham sandwich." She looked towards the far corner of the room, seeing not the decorative prints but vignettes of memory. "That's where we met Buffy - at the Academy, I mean. She was my roommate, and Xander went totally ga-ga over her five nanoseconds after meeting her. You didn't exactly need a tricorder to measure his pulse and blood pressure, know what I mean?" She frowned a bit, prompting Tara to ask something not completely in line with her professional ethics.
"W-were you jealous of her?"
"No!" replied Willow sharply. Then, rolling her eyes, she clarified, "Okay, I admit, it kinda peeved me that Xander made such a huge deal out of her. But, she never led him on, and she really wasn't interested in him, except as a friend. And she was just the nicest person, I couldn't enjoy hating her and who the hell needs that?" She smiled wistfully. "The three of us were kinda like the Three Musketeers... or maybe the Three Stooges, I dunno. But we stuck together through the Academy, and then we, uh, ended up on the Hannibal together."
Tara wanted to clear up a couple of points; for one, how they managed to have all three of them assigned to the same ship right out of the Academy; for another, who these "Three Stooges" might be. An obscure biblical reference? she conjectured. However, the need to console Willow overrode minor curiosities such as that. "What happened to Xander after you, um, left?"
The struggle for Willow to control herself was all too obvious. She gestured half-heartedly towards the PADD. "It says there... he went back to Sunnydale, became a civil engineer, got married, had half a dozen kids, two dozen grand- and great-grandkids..." Willow shook her head, trying not to break down again. "He... died three years ago..." Another round of tears made her trail off.
Tara squeezed Willow's hand. "He must've been about a hundred and twenty years old. Th-that's a pretty good run, even these days," she added, with a wan smile. She looked down, unsure if her instinct to go forward at this point was accurate. "I-I-I'm sure h-he held on as long as he could."
Willow turned her face towards Tara's, confusion pushing grief to the back burner. "Wha-I mean... Huh?"
"I-I just m-meant," Tara stammered, wondering if there was some way to beam the foot in her mouth out into space, "he would never have given up hope, y'know? I bet that every day of those eighty-nine years, he expected you to... you would just show up on his doorstep."
Willow managed to grin a little at that. "Yeah. That'd be one for the photo archives: 'Hi, Xander, I'm back from the Great Beyond and need a place to stay; got an extra room?' And then his wife would say, 'Honey, who is this? An old girlfriend of yours?'" Despite herself, Willow began to chuckle at the mental image.
Tara couldn't resist. "'Why no, honey. This is my old friend, Willow,'" she intoned in a deep singsong voice. "'I told you about her... the one who got lost in a temporal anomaly!'"
That cracked Willow up. Tara joined in, amazed that for once her attempting humor (usually ending in disaster or at least cringing silence) met with success. Willow tried to control herself long enough to ask, "Do you..." Laughter. "You think his, uh, his wife would've bought that?"
After gasping for breath, Tara answered, "Not in a billion years!" For a full minute longer the two of them pretty much lost it. Something in the back of Tara's mind asked how long it had been since she had laughed, really laughed, and got no answer.
Finally, the laughter tapered down to hitchings and gaspings. Willow winced and put a hand on her stomach. "Oooh, ow-ee."
"M-my mama used to say that was a sign th-that it's been too long since you laughed," Tara said, wiping her eyes as a last giggle escaped her. She looked up at Willow, only to see the stricken expression. "Oh, I'm s-sorry, I didn't m-mean..."
Willow shook her head, waving Tara off. "Yeah, I know, it's been ninety years since my last case of Kids-at-Camp Giggles, don't sweat it." She gestured towards the PADD again. "It's just... at least, Xander, he had a pretty good life, so I don't begrudge him... not being around. Really, it's okay, I..." She visibly forced herself to go on. "But-but, Buffy, she..." Abruptly she stood up out of the chair and crossed to the far wall. "She... she..."
Tara stood and walked over to Willow, stopping just over an arm's length away. "Willow, what happened?"
"Some... some kind of Romulan secret offensive or something... about a year after I-- Buffy managed to intercept these Romulan agents..." Willow's speech began to shatter as emotion overrode her self-control. "Didn't read all the, you know, little details... oh, God, she..." With the last of her control, she forced herself to speak. "She saved a colony near the Neutral Zone, but she d-d-d-"
Tara breathed out, sensing the depth of Willow's pain and grief. "God." She took a half-step forward. "Willow, she gave her life to save others. She probably knew the risks and-and accepted them. You know that she would have taken that on willingly..."
Willow rounded on her then, fury etched on her face. "But I wasn't there! I wasn't goddamn there! She died because I wasn't there to watch her back!"
Tara stepped back, but her resolve did not retreat. "Y-You can't know that, Willow. Buffy might've been by herself; you might have been somewhere else entirely..."
"No!" roared Willow. "We were supposed to be together, it was my responsibility to keep us together; because of me, Xander left Starfleet and Buffy... Buffy..." Rage and grief warred through her very being.
Tara crossed her arms, altering her stance and demeanor, injecting a more professional tone into her voice. "You can't take responsibility for her, Willow. She was a grown woman, and Xander was a grown man. You all knew the risks. And besides, did you really think the three of you would be on the same ship forever? It doesn't always work out like that. And it wouldn't have been necessary." Her tone softened as Willow's anger subsided. "You wouldn't have needed to stay on the same ship to be friends for life. Sometimes, people drift apart, they can drift so far apart, but distance doesn't always have anything to do with it. Sometimes just the opposite."
Willow nodded wearily. "I just feel so... I feel like I've been left behind. And, I don't know how I can just go through my days without having them to talk to at night, y'know?"
"I know," replied Tara, her mind flashing for an instant to the memory of the figure on the bed, "but, y-you make a special place for them, in your heart. Just as, I know they did the same for you." She stepped forward again, into Willow's space, feeling her breath and her distress cascade over her.
Wet green eyes looked into calm, sympathetic blue. "Tara, I... I don't know if I can do this. Just, start over."
"You-you can." Tara placed her hands on Willow's shoulders. An sudden impulse to brush her lips against Willow's, an impulse that skewed well outside the boundaries of professional etiquette twirled through Tara's mind. With a sad determination, she squashed the impulse. "We make the places we land in our own. You can do this. You can be strong; you are strong."
Willow asked, in the voice of a child, "Strong like an Amazon?"
"Strong like an Amazon, right." Tara smiled slightly, then drew Willow to her. The young woman let herself collapse into her arms. "It's going to be all right, Willow," she said, feeling Willow sob against her, tears coming at last from her own eyes. "I s-swear to you, it-it's going to be all right."
The slightly moon-faced man paced up and down the cramped room, glaring at the smaller dark-haired man working at the console. Isodecimal codes flashed on the screen, which the small man seemed to garner information from but...
"What is that gibberish?" the Maquis leader finally asked, exasperated.
"It's not gibberish," said the man at the console. "It's gobbledygook." He smirked in appreciation of his own quip until he saw the expression on his superior's face. "Relax, Warren, I've almost got it."
"You said that an hour ago!" Warren made a visible effort to control himself, then continued. "Jonathan. I did not leave Starfleet for the Maquis to sit quietly in some nameless planetoid watching you joyride on the computer!"
Jonathan couldn't help sneering. "I think you mean 'hotdog.' You know, Warren, you're not the only one who left a promising career in Starfleet behind." Jonathon looked off to an imaginary tableau. "I was going to command my own starship someday..."
"Riiiight. Probably bring down the Borg all by your widdoe self. But, uh, before your pick up your Christopher Pike medal, could you please get me the information I want?"
Jonathan stared at Warren for a second, then, by incremental millimeters, turned back to the console.
"Hey, what's goin' on in here?" The dark-haired, dark-eyed woman strode into the room, sauntering with the expertise of the long-time saunterer. "Are you boys fighting?" she asked solicitously, batting her eyes.
"Do you ever knock, Faith?" Warren growled, glaring.
She gazed at him. "Y'know, I'd say you were sexy when you're angry," she said, ignoring his question, "except you're not." She then went over to Jonathan, sitting at the computer. "Fearless Leader giving you trouble, big guy?" she asked, ruffling his hair playfully.
"Nothing I can't handle," Jonathon retorted, but in a somewhat softer tone than before. He turned back to the computer, keyed in a few final instructions, and watched at the codes resolved themselves into clear text and diagrams. "Viola."
Warren leaned in over Jonathon's shoulder. "You got 'em! Never doubted you for a second, buddy." He took half a second to flash an ironic grin at his erstwhile colleague, then looked at the screen. "Good. Access points, security protocols... which don't amount to much-"
"What did you expect?" answered Jonathon. "It's a Federation public-access data archive, free for use by anybody, well, maybe not the Cardassians or the Romulans. But it is able to link to Starfleet secured databases, if you know how to use its mainframe properly." He rubbed his hands in a self-congratulatory fashion. "It took me a while to figure out the proper access protocols, though. And we will have to take a trip and do it on site, up close and personal."
"You mean, actually go there?" Faith inquired.
"Can't we access it remotely?" Warren added.
Jonathon shook his head. "Not for what we're - or rather, you are looking for," he amended, looking at Warren. "I can't get us a secure link... not without broadcasting our location to Starfleet Security."
Warren sighed. Looking at Faith, he muttered, "Tell your groupies to pack their bags. We're going on a field trip." He leaned over and tapped the screen, the top of which was labeled:
Faith smiled, her eyes full of fire and dangerous ideas. "Wicked."