Return to Equilibration Chapter Six


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.

Memory Alpha Federation Data Archive

Jonathan worked at the master systems console with ever-increasing frustration, gritting his teeth as he tapped at the keypads. "Can't believe this antiquated junk..." he muttered, glaring at the data displays and snarling when they would not show what he wanted them to show, as if they had been manufactured specifically for the purpose of giving him migraines and ulcers.

Soon after the Admiral Byrd had landed, Faith and Warren had led the assault force, in conjunction with those from the other two ships, towards the center of the complex. He had trailed in their wake, trying not to think about the members of Memory Alpha’s rather minimal security detail, who were quickly overran, stunned... or worse. Jonathan tried to think about that as little as possible. After securing the main operations center, Warren had deposited him here, to make sure no further communications (after the initial, hurried distress call) were made, but mostly to dig through the computer's database for the particular files he was looking for.

All Warren would tell him was that he had discovered an ultra-secret series of transmissions, that Starfleet Intelligence had given this information a classification so high it did not even have a designation, far higher than even the quantum-torpedo research project. The exact nature and origin of this information was unknown.

"Great," Jonathan had said. "So we don't know what it is or where it came from. What makes you think that it's anything worth going after?"

"Oh, replicate a brain!" Warren had shot back. "Anything that the Federation needs to keep that secret, has to be worth more than latinum! Starfleet Intelligence would not use such measures for... for..." He had broken off, mentally searching for a pungent example.

"A cookie recipe?" Faith had sniggered.

"I dunno," Jonathan had replied. "Could be some killer macaroons."

Warren, employing resources that Jonathan could only guess at, had come up with an obscure designation for the transmissions: Curator. Jonathan could not find any hidden meaning, besides the incredibly obvious, in the name. His own discreet inquiries, directed at the few assets he still had in place in Starfleet, failed to enlighten him further.

Accessing the database as soon as he had bypassed the initial protocols, he had to employ several schemes to decrypt the high-level directories and find the Curator documents. Unfortunately, instead of being downhill from there, the job became almost exponentially more difficult. All files under the Curator heading were protected by unbelievably dense encryption schemes that stopped Jonathan cold. Where the hell did they get this stuff, he wondered as he tried yet another illicit program, the Ferengi Commerce Authority? He wanted to take the phaser rifle propped beside the console and fire a few bursts into the display to induce a little more cooperation.

He considered grabbing one of the technicians stationed at Memory Alpha, now being sequestered in the main refectory by the Maquis strike teams, and grilling him about Curator. After a few seconds’ cogitation, he abandoned the notion. No way any of these turkeys have anywhere near the clearance to access these files.

Still, his effort wasn’t a total loss. All knowledge was considered valuable in his eyes; you just had to have the ability to separate the signal from the noise, was all. Characteristic smirk in place, he set back to work...

Some minutes later, Warren and Faith sauntered in, having completed their impromptu tour of Memory Alpha and making sure it was secure, at least for the time being. The timetable that they had worked out called for them to hold facility for no more than a few hours, tops, before Starfleet had a chance to respond (though Faith was of the opinion that taking a starship out was not nearly the impossible task that some of the Maquis made it out to be). This plan, of course, depended upon Jonathan being about to squeeze out the info they were looking for out of the computer and still have time, as he put it, to stop for lunch... Faith looked a little mussed, but she was glowing with recent exertion. Some of the security guards, and even a couple of technicians, had taken it upon themselves to test Faith's formidable physical reactions and fighting skills. Several of these were now reviewing the data they had received, in the form of broken bones, concussions and multiple contusions.

"Have you got it?" Warren asked, brandishing his Cardassian phaser, somewhat depleted in energy after a few skirmishes. Faith's older-model disruptor was holstered against her leg. Though she could use (and had used) energy-weapons, hand-to-hand combat was still something of a thrill for her.

Trying to keep his voice level as possible, and without taking his eyes off the display, Jonathan shrugged and replied, "It's... coming."

"It's coming?!? When is it going to 'get here'?" Warren nearly howled.

"This isn't like making cheese sandwiches, Warren," Jonathan muttered back, defensively. "This stuff is protected by encryption schemes I've never even seen before. I've tried every 'unraveler' protocol I can think of, and none of them have so much as scratched these files." He looked over his shoulder at Warren nervously. "I can't open these files," he concluded with an apologetic tone in his voice.

Faith shook her head disgustedly. "All this way, and no payoff! God, I should have my head examined for signing on this traveling circus!"

Warren was not so phlegmatic. "You swore to me that you could break into this computer and find out what Curator is! Everything we planned, all the resources and assets we've gathered together, getting all available personnel to Memory Alpha... all of this was contingent upon you cracking these files!" His voice rose to dangerous levels and his grip on his phaser tightened perceptibly. Faith could see that at any second Warren was going to level his weapon and send a beam of deadly energy right through Jonathan’s head. She debated whether or not to intercede...

The potential target of Warren’s ire, however, held up a placatory hand. "Hang on, hang on. I didn't say that all was lost. I have managed to glean some information from all this," he said, indicated the console and by implication the computer archives. At Warren's perplexed stare and Faith's raised eyebrows, he elaborated. "As I said, the text of the Curator files still encrypted, and unreadable. But, I was able to extract the header information from some of the files. For instance, I was able to find out that the subspace transmissions this information was carried on, also went to Starfleet Intelligence, the Vulcan Science Academy, the Daystrom Institute, the Department of Tem..."

"I don't care where it went!" Warren interrupted. "None of those places... we don't have anywhere near the capability of breaking into successfully! And even if we did, we'd have the same problem with the encryption!"

Jonathan nodded. "True. But we might not have it where the Curator files originated." With a flourish, he tapped out a brief command on the console, bringing up a navigational display. "Which, by the way, is here."

Warren peered at the navigational coordinates and the planetological index on the screen. "That's where Curator is?"

Jonathan shrugged. "That's the origin point of the transmissions. I've double-checked. That's the place."

Faith leaned over to look at the display. "I don't recognize that star system."

"No reason you should," Jonathan quipped. "There's nothing there, except a dead planet circling a burnt-out sun. Of course, if you had something so secret that you wanted nobody to know about it..."

"...What better place to stash it?" Warren finished. He laid a comradely hand on Jonathan's shoulder, conveniently forgetting that he came within a micrometer of blowing his head apart less than a minute ago. "Jonathan, I take back... seventy-five percent of everything bad I've ever said about you."

"Jeez," Faith said, rolling her eyes, "Coming from you, Warren, that's practically foreplay."

The curly-haired man said nothing, but merely stared at the coordinates that Jonathan was even now downloading to a PADD.

"I have you now," he whispered, in an oddly sepulchral tone.

Exiting the turbolift, Murdock strode onto the bridge, still tugging his uniform into place, headed towards Lieutenant Althea Monroe, the Gamma Shift bridge duty officer. He was about to bark out "Report," when she turned and neatly handed to him, handle first, a large ceramic Starfleet-issue mug full of potent-smelling black coffee. He accepted the beverage with the air of a man accepting a glass of water after a week stranded in Vulcan's Forge. "Ah, Lieutenant. Take two sainthoods out of petty cash." Murdock took a long draught, savoring the Jamaican Blue Mountain (or, at least, the replicator's best reproduction thereof) and felt his brain jump-start. "Report."

"We've been unable to establish contact with Memory Alpha, sir," Monroe replied, trying not to smirk at her own initiative in getting her captain a quick pick-me-up. "I have contacted Deep Space 9 and Starbase 375, near the Demilitarized Zone, as well as all stations near the Romulan Neutral Zone. None of them report anything out of the ordinary, but they agreed to go to Yellow Alert."

Murdock nodded. "Long-range sensors?"

"At this distance, they don't tell us much, sir. The star that the planetoid orbits is still there, and there's no unusual subspace or gravimetric phenomena that might interfere with communications. The Memory Alpha planetoid itself is not detectable, nor would any space vessels that would be in orbit, sir."

Nodding again, Murdock glanced at the main viewscreen, noting the presence of individual dots of distant stars, as opposed to elongated streaks of superrelativistic light, which indicated that the Hannibal had dropped to normal space. Taking a more conservative sip of coffee, he asked, "Course to Memory Alpha?"

"Already plotted, Captain. We can be there in ten hours at maximum warp. And I've called the senior officers to the bridge, once we could not establish contact with Memory Alpha."

"Good... then, let's rock 'n' roll," the captain commanded. Lt. Monroe, familiar with her commanding officer's odd euphemisms, nodded and proceeded to tell the ensign at the helm to go to warp.

Murdock turned towards the turbolift doors as he heard them hiss open behind him. Dr. Devereux stepped out with the careful tread of a man who generally feels in control of his faculties, but doesn't want to take any chance of doing a Brody in front of his superior. He held a small plastic cup in one hand as he strode over to the captain, and shook out two small tablets into his other hand.

"Take these," the counselor said, offering the tablets to Murdock.

"Well, good morning to you, and what are you giving me?"

"Good morning, and thiamine. Consider it my prescription. Sir."

Murdock smiled and accepted the vitamins. "Who am I to argue with my doctor?" He popped them in his mouth and chased them with a generous swig.

"Yeah, yeah," Devereux replied, taking two thiamine himself. He gestured for the mug in Murdock's hand and accepted it from the captain.

Several seconds later, Devereux was certain he was going to cough up bronchial tissue. "Why in the name of God did you put coffee in a coffee cup?" he asked, once he had the power of speech again, handing the mug back.

"I'm sorry," Murdock said, hardly contrite. "Not 'Irish' enough for you?"

Devereux glared, then sighed and turned to business. "Have we received any information from Memory Alpha?"

"No. Once the senior officers are all here, we'll go into the conference room." Devereux nodded, turning as the turbolift doors opened again to admit Commander Faraday. The Sikh was twisting her long dark hair into a hasty braid, and her normally taut features seemed a little drawn, but otherwise she seemed fit.

"Sam... Charlie," she said by way of greeting. She accepted two tablets from Devereux and accepted Murdock's proffered coffee mug.

"Don't drink that," warned the counselor.

Faraday, however, chased the tablets down with a generous mouthful of coffee, followed by a satisfied sigh.

DaKar entered the bridge next, definitely looking as if he felt the effects of the previous evening. "Oh, God. I think at least three of my previous hosts are currently experiencing hangovers."

Murdock glared at Devereux. "You and your vino."

Devereux shrugged, gave the Trill three thiamine tablets, pointed to the mug still in Faraday's hand and said, "Don't drink that."

The turbolift door hissed again, admitting Dr. Govarr. "If you all aren't too busy fortifying your inefficient metabolisms..."

The four humanoid officers turned to give the Tellarite phasers set on Stink-Eye.

" there any information about casualties?" the chief medical officer concluded, in a slightly subdued tone.

Damn. Legitimate question. "Not as yet, Doctor," Murdock replied. "Once Gelfa and Thelvran arrive, we'll adjourn to the conference room." As if on cue, the Zakdorn and the Andorian exited the turbolift. "Speak of the devil..." Murdock remarked, only to immediately regret it when Thelvran rather self-consciously looked upwards towards his antenna. "Sorry."

By force of long habit, Tara had always been an early riser. Consequently, even after the night she had had, she awoke before the computer’s wake-up page automatically brightened the lights. Even so, it was several seconds before she remembered ...well, as much as she could remember...

Ohhhh, Goddd, tell me I did not do what I did do, she thought, absently closing her robe around her even as the implications of her state of undress were sinking in. She... she’s my patient! I’m her counselor! And that... that little episode in the bathtub, so not standard therapy! Although, maybe it ought to be... stop it, Tara!

She clambered out of bed, taking several deep breaths to calm herself. "Um, com... com..." She found that she still could barely talk coherently. More breathing while keeping her eyes closed help. "Computer, locate Lt. Willow Rosenberg."

"Lt. Willow Rosenberg is in her quarters," the computer replied.

Tara thought about calling Willow on the intercom, then decided that she’d probably still be asleep. She sat down in one of the chairs in the common room, putting her head in her hands.

What have I done? I’m probably the only person she can really open up to, and now... I may have abused that trust. She’s still a walking nerve-end because of what she’s been through. What if she thinks that I’m only trying to help because I want to... get intimate with her? I can’t deny that I want to. Dammit, Charlie warned me not to compromise my work... Great, I’ve not only managed to jeopardize my career, I probably irrevocably hurt the first woman I’ve ever fallen in love with.

Bitter pragmatism, born of a life of hard work and little emotional comfort, eventually reasserted itself. Tara rubbed her eyes dry, stood up, and headed for the closet and her uniform.

For better or worse, there was work to be done.

"As all of you no doubt are aware," Kolrami said, beginning her rather unnecessary prefatory report ("You might as well let her do it," Devereux had said, sotto voce, to Murdock, "she'll just get cranky if you don't."), "Memory Alpha is nothing more than a great repository for the accumulated knowledge of the member worlds of the United Federation of Planets, which now number in excess of one hundred fifty civilizations.

"The facility was established in 2266, and was intended to be the largest computer archive then in existence. In the last hundred years, advances in isolinear storage technology, as well as in subspace communications speed and clarity, have made Memory Alpha somewhat redundant, but the facility continues to get regular data transfers. And, it is still a central location for scholars and researchers who don't want to brave the Federation civil subspace network to download large chunks of information.

"The facility employs multiple computer cores that are interlinked by a series of subspace-"

Captain Murdock ostentatiously cleared his throat at this point. "Um, thank you, Gelfa. I think this might be heading into the territory of extraneous detail."

"'Extraneous'?" Kolrami replied, very obviously put out. "I doubt there is such a thing." However, a significant look from the captain and the first officer persuaded her to truncate her presentation. "Hmmm... well, other than a rather bizarre incident in 2269 with a disembodied collective consciousness claiming to be a remnant of the lost Zetaran civilization, Memory Alpha has never been the subject of a direct assault... until now."

Faraday nodded. "That is the peculiar part of this whole incident. As Memory Alpha is basically an open archive of information, what would prompt anyone to conduct an armed assault?"

By way of answer, Murdock nodded towards the security officer, who leaned forward, his azure features crinkling in thought. "The Federation, in the spirit of redundant documentation, does send highly classified material to Memory Alpha... however, such material is heavily encrypted, so that no casual user will access it."

Devereux didn't quite snort in derision, but his manner made clear his feeling towards this policy. "What's to stop people from simply downloading the information, spiriting it away, and cracking the code at their leisure?"

DaKar shook his head. "The encryption system also protects against unauthorized duplication of files; without the proper authorization, the computer won't let anyone copy classified files."

"So Starfleet sends top secret material that nobody can read, nobody can copy, but, hey, at least it's there," Murdock concluded sarcastically. "The bureaucratic mentality, fabled in song and story. All well and good, as long as nobody has the keys to the vault, so to speak."

DaKar shrugged. "The encryption on these files, I'm told, is pretty much foolproof."

"That's what they said about the Titanic," the captain muttered, half to himself.

Dr. Govarr looked confused. "What is this 'Titanic'?"

"I've heard about this... I believe it something that people are always arranging deck chairs on," Thelvran offered.

Before anyone else could pipe in another question, comment, remark, or anything else he was going to be sorry for, Murdock cut the discussion short. "Look, I'll rent you guys the video. Now, can we get on with this? Mr. Thelvran, security details?"

He nodded, once again all business. "Memory Alpha had only a minimal security detail stationed there, sir. We'll have to assume that any sizable force was able to overwhelm them and secure the facility."

"Any ideas on who this 'sizable force' might be?"

The Andorian shrugged, a somehow stilted gesture on his slim yet taut frame. "That is difficult to say for certain, Captain. The proximity of Memory Alpha to the Federation core worlds would tend to rule out many races currently hostile to the Federation, such as the Cardassians or the Romulans. On the other hand, there are few independent groups who could command the resources to successfully overrun the facility."

"The Orion Syndicate, maybe," Devereux opined, "though this doesn't seem their style, given their reputation for intimidation, extortion, and the old reliable 'concrete galoshes.' Outright raids don’t fit their past behavior... at least, not directly. They could be brokering a deal..."

"I vote Ferengi," Faraday added. "Could be private individuals looking to make a quick bar of latinum, or could be the Alliance getting bold in their old age."

"I disagree, Commander," Kolrami replied, her tone only just within the boundaries of politeness. "Even considering the Ferengi cultural mindset of profit, it's hard to believe that they would risk antagonizing the Federation so openly. They would have to do a cost-benefit analysis of the parameters of margin-of-profit versus probable losses in a Federation-Ferengi conflict. I do not see how they would conclude a strategic yield."

The first officer's dusky features hardened slightly, and she was about to make a sharp rebuttal to Kolrami's statement, only to be interrupted by Murdock. "I think we're chasing shadows at the moment. We'll, no doubt, find plenty of clues on-site. In the meantime, let's go over what we need to do when we get to Memory Alpha. Mr. Thelvran, go ahead."

"I think that we need to consider the possibility that the attack on Memory Alpha may be the foundation of an ambush, targeting this vessel."

Devereux rolled his eyes. "You always think it's a trap."

"Many times, it is," Thelvran countered evenly. "As your people often used to say, just because they're out to get you doesn't mean you're not paranoid." As soon as he said that, Thelvran realized he spoke the phrase incorrectly. "Wait... strike that, reverse it-"

"I get the idea, Mr. Thelvran, and you may have a point. It wouldn't hurt to keep our guard up... and who knows? Maybe we'll get a chance to test out some of those new security wrinkles we've thought up."

The Andorian positively brightened. "I look forward to it, sir."

"I thought you might. Dr. Govarr?"

"I've reviewing the personnel manifest of the facility," the doctor said, his gravelly voice cutting through the quiet sobriety of the conference room. "Memory Alpha has a permanent staff of forty; usually there are anywhere from thirty to seventy visiting researchers stationed there as well. Postulating a worst-case scenario, having a hundred or more casualties would overwhelm Sickbay. I would need to set up an alternate care facility on the ship."

Kolrami quickly consulted a PADD, then answered. "I can have Cargo Bay Five cleared out within thirty minutes. You should be able to set up the emergency medical support modules there."

"Thank you, Gelfa," Govarr said, nodding in her direction.

"Moving right along," Murdock continued, pleased at how smoothly his senior officers worked together in spite of their differing and often clashing personalities. "Mr. DaKar, what do you have to say?"

"Nothing of importance on my end," the chief engineer replied. As usual, he kept the ship's engines and systems ticking along as a matter of course.

"Terrific; keep it that way. Number One, you have suggestions for away teams?"

Faraday nodded. Consulting the notes on her PADD, she read off with a lyrical tone, "Two teams will beam down for the initial survey of the site. Team One will be led by Lt. Thelvran, with Lt. Commander Kolrami, Dr. Govarr, Dr. Devereux, and two security personnel. Team Two will have a doctor, recommended by Govarr, Lt. Rosenberg, two security men, Lt. Maclay, and..."

"Hold on a sec," Devereux interrupted. "With all due respect, Commander, I don't think it's a good idea for Tara - Lt. Maclay to participate in this mission, at least not on the away team."

"You don't think she's ready for counseling duties of this nature?"

"Oh, she's qualified to be a counselor, no question," Devereux countered. "But she doesn't have any field experience."

"She's gotta go out sometime, Charlie," Murdock said. "But if you think she can't handle it..."

"No," Devereux replied, a little sharply. "She can manage... Captain"

"Glad to hear it. Though now that we have the subject on the floor... I'm not sure about sending Lt. Rosenberg into the thick of things. I'm afraid she still..."

"She's already been certified fit for duty, sir," Faraday said, taking a certain pleasure in cutting her superior officer off. "And her record reflects a fair amount of experience with away missions. Some of the incidents cited make for, well, interesting reading."

"I'll bet. Anyway, you never did get around to saying who was going to be leading that second away team. Should I bother to dig out my dancing shoes, Number One, or are you going to insist, as usual, that it's your job?"

The silence that followed Captain Murdock's seemingly lighthearted question carried an undercurrent of tension. This was an old argument between Murdock and Faraday, stemming from their conflicting interpretations of Starfleet policy.

In the decades following the twenty-third century's so-called "Age of Heroes," the notion of starship captains beaming down into potentially dangerous situations had become rather frowned-upon by Starfleet. It had been argued that captains were too valuable to risk going on away missions; at the very least, captains were considered to be extraneous in situations not involving diplomatic negotiations. Starfleet wanted their top officers to be decision-makers, not risk-takers.

Some starship captains, Murdock among them, considered this guideline ludicrous. A leader, the rebuttal went, is supposed to lead. "'It's hard to lead from the rear'" Murdock said, quoting (he said) the legendary Captain Christopher Pike, "'the information is second-hand and the view is terrible!'"

The senior officers remembered one such incident, early in Faraday's time as first officer on the Hannibal. She had argued passionately, albeit respectfully, that she should lead the away team into a particularly hazardous situation. Murdock had gently countered that while he was unmarried and had no children, Faraday was not so unencumbered, and that she should think of the possible consequences to her husband and children before risking her life. Faraday had stepped back, almost as if physically struck, then calmly requested to speak to the captain in private. Once out of sight of the other officers, she had, not to put too fine a point on it, chewed his ass out for throwing her husband and kids in her face to manipulate her. She concluded her tirade by saying that if he ever, ever tried that loathsome tactic again, she would request an immediate transfer off the ship. Chastened, he humbly apologized and granted her request to lead the away team.

This was not the last time that the captain and the first officer argued about this, and Faraday did not always win the argument. Now, Faraday looked at Murdock, eyebrow raised, wondering if he was going to try to make a case for himself, or simply give the order and be done with it.

"All right, Number One," Murdock finally acquiesced. "You lead the second away team. But, no wacky stunts, understood?"

The comically paternal finger that he shook at Faraday did not mitigate the expression of disbelief she shot back in his direction which seemed to say, Who, me? You're the reckless one in this outfit.

In the turbolift, Willow couldn't stop adjusting her uniform, smoothing out imaginary wrinkles and constantly correcting the angle at which her commbadge hung on the front. Do I have the correct insignia? she asked herself for the fourth time. She reached up to feel the pips on her collar. Okay, two pips, one gold, one painted or marked black, which is correct for a jay-gee. Although, maybe I screwed up and put two gold pips on, and then people are going to think I'm trying to impersonate a full lieutenant... or, even better, I've got two black pips, then people will think I'm trying to create a whole new rank: the Vice Ensign.

That last thought made her grin, for the first time that morning. Willow had woken up feeling terrible, for reasons that (thankfully) had little to do with her alcohol consumption the previous evening. Waking up alone in her quarters did not produce any more answers to the questions she had waking up next to Tara. If anything, she felt horrible for running out on Tara; she was halfway through her course of self-recrimination when it occurred to her that she was due on the bridge in less than an hour. Showering and eating a quick breakfast, she put on her uniform and bolted from her quarters to the turbolift, which deliver her right to the bridge, where she hurriedly strode...

...almost running smack dab into Tara.

"Oh!" the blonde assistant counselor said, as Willow appeared in front on her as if by magic, or at least by transporter She had arrived on the bridge some time ago, and had gotten a quick précis of the current situation from Lt. Monroe. "Um, hi. I-I mean, good morning."

"Yeah, um, good morning. How are... you?"

Tara nodded, trying not to visibly gulp, which was going to be a trick as the word "Gulp" kept flashing in front of her eyes like a bad neon sign, at least in her imagination. "Oh, w-w-well, I'm okay. Really. Um. How are you?"

"I'm fine!" Willow almost cried, attracting the attention of the other personnel on the bridge. Chastened, she lowered her voice down to a conversational level. "I mean, I'm... fine. Y'know, Finey McFine."

Tara found herself suppressing a smile. "Good, good. I-I was wondering..." Tara trailed off as she abruptly lost the nerve to ask her about the previous evening in her quarters. She looked away, trying to get her insides on an even keel again.

Willow took the opportunity presented by Tara's train-of-thought derailment to look around the bridge. "Wait a minute," she said as something odd occurred to her, "am I really early, or are the Alpha Shift officers all missing?"

"Huh? Oh! No, they're all in the conference room, in a meeting, I mean. There's been some kind of emergency on Memory Alpha." At Willow's blank stare, she continued: "It's a Federation archive constr-"

"I know what Memory Alpha is," Willow riposted shortly. At Tara's stricken expression, she amended her remarks. "Sorry. Um, I mean, I remember what that is; in fact, I was there once, for... well, call it a research project."

Tara got a very complex impression from the emotional radiation connected to that statement, an odd mix of whimsy, nostalgia and melancholy. She remembered from her brief review of Willow's service record from the old Hannibal, as well as some statements from Willow herself, that there were several anomalies in the young science officer's past. Of course, given the overall reputation of the captain and crew of the old Saladin-class destroyer for getting into - and out of - bizarre and even ridiculous situations, she should not be surprised that Willow, along with her friends Buffy and Xander, would have a few interesting items in her "jacket."

"I see," Tara said, deciding not to pursue the subject at this time. Taking a deep breath, she decided that she would steer the conversation back to a more personal matter. "Willow, I think w-we need to talk-"

With damnably bad timing, the doors to the conference room opened, admitting the senior officers to the bridge. Captain Murdock, naturally, was at the front of the group. He caught Willow's and Tara's eyes immediately. "Ah, good. You two, in my ready room, if you please." Without waiting for an acknowledgement, Murdock went through the ready room doors.

As the senior officers relieved the Gamma watch, two young lieutenants stood frozen at the rear of the bridge, not quite daring to speak, confused and a bit nervous about being summoned by the captain. Wide-eyed, Willow cast a apprehensive look at Tara: What's going on?

I don't know! Tara mouthed back. Sighing, she cocked her head in the direction of the ready room and shrugged her shoulders. Shall we?

Nodding, Willow started towards the doors, muttering "'The wages of sin are death.'"

Tara's "Shhh!" was covered by the pneumatic hiss of the doors. Then there was just the two of them, Murdock behind his desk, and his odd collection of knickknacks.

"Take a pew, ladies," the captain said evenly. At their uncertain expressions, he amended his use of ancient idiom. "Please, sit down."

Looking at one another out of the corner of the eyes, Willow and Tara sat down, both fatalistically certain that the captain knew of their antics last night, and was now about to lecture them unmercifully about interpersonal conduct between two officers.

"As you both may know," the captain began, "there is a situation on Memory Alpha that we have diverted the ship to investigate." As he outlined the basic situation, the two women covertly breathed a sigh of relief. "Now, Lt. Rosenberg, I'm going to need you to monitor long-range sensors for the next seven hours, before we drop out of warp in the star system where Memory Alpha's located. Once we arrive, the plan is to send down two away teams, initially, to assess the situation. The two of you will be on the team led by Commander Faraday. Lt. Rosenberg, you have visited the facility, uh, some years ago..."

"About ninety-four, I think," Willow piped in, unable to resist.

"That ought to be... just about right," Murdock conceded. "Plus, your general expertise at the sciences, and with computers, will be of use. Lt. Maclay, you might be needed in your capacity as counselor. Dr. Devereux will be going down with Team One."

Tara nodded. "Um, yes, sir. I-I hope I can be of some us- Oh! I also took the Starfleet Emergency Medical course." About forty percent of active Starfleet personnel undertook this ancillary training, designed to augment the normal medical personnel on board a starship.

"Really?" Murdock inquired, quickly checking Tara's service record on his deskscreen.

"Really?" Willow echoed, sending an expression of frank admiration Tara's way. The blonde counselor sent back a slightly abashed grin.

The captain read the screen briefly, then shut it down. "Well, I knew you were something of a renaissance woman, Lieutenant, but you've managed to surprise me once again. Now, my question is, given everything that happened last night..."

Tara's sudden dread, that Murdock knew everything that had happened in her quarters, was mirrored by her sensing Willow's near-terror regarding the same thing. She felt the resurgence of nausea in the pit of her stomach, and would have bet a bar of gold-pressed latinum that her erstwhile compatriot had similar icky stirrings.

Murdock noticed that the two young officers both had (he thought nostalgically at the turn of phrase) deer-in-the-headlights expressions on their faces, but the pause in his question was hardly perceptible

"...are you two going to be able to stay sharp for the next eight hours or so?"

Tara recovered her voice first. "Uh, y-yes, sir! We'll be fine. I, I mean, I'll be fine, I can't really speak for Willow..."

"I'm cool, sir," Willow interjected with a Pshaw! demeanor. "No problem."

"You sure? Dr. Govarr can always give you something if don't feel up to this..."

"No, thank you, sir," Tara replied, drawing up some hidden reserve of bravado. "That's what coffee is for," she added cheekily.

Murdock gave her a slight smile, as if saying Good for you. He glanced back at Willow, who abruptly shook her head. "Um, no coffee for me, sir. Caffeine kinda makes me, y'know, a spaz."

The captain nodded, mock-soberly. "Right. No spaz. In that case, you two are dismissed for now. Commander Faraday is going to have a pre-game briefing for you all in about six hours, so keep an eye on the chronometer. Willow, I want you to feed her constant reports on any sensor contacts. I want as few nasty surprises on this mission as possible... though we're probably going to get some anyway. Off you go."

Seven hours later, Willow was finishing a quick dinner of chicken salad and iced tea in her quarters, when the door signal chimed.

She had conducted several long-range sensor scans during her watch on the bridge, as the Hannibal raced towards Memory Alpha at warp nine. Long before the heavy cruiser-explorer entered the sector containing the planetoid, Willow was able to determine that there were no ships in orbit.

"Nada," Willow had said, indicating the visual display at the science station, where she had spent the intervening hours trying to coax information from the long-range sensor array. She looked up at Faraday, Devereux and Thelvran, who were gathered around in an impromptu conference. "Sirs... well, madam and sirs... there's nothing there." She turned back to the display. "No ship of any description within ten light-years."

For all her professionalism, Faraday could not quite hide her disappointment. "Looks like we missed the party," she commented.

"Fashionably late again," Devereux quipped, dry as a martini.

Thelvran, however, shook his head. Though his antennae moved slightly back and forth, they did not whip around like Willow expected. "I do not think that we can assume anything at this point. The ships might still be there, cloaked or otherwise shielded against our scans."

"That's true, Lieutenant," Willow conceded, free of rancor. "I tried scanning along the extreme high and low ends of the subspace spectrum, kinda figuring that I might detect a harmonic of their warp engines. Not entirely what I would call, well, successful."

Faraday nodded. "We'll be able to scan more effectively when we drop out of warp in the system. In the meantime, everybody should take a break before we beam down to Memory Alpha... assuming there's nothing to prevent us from beaming down."

Willow had returned to her quarters, showered and changed, and ordered a light meal from the replicator. She was not acquainted with that many people on board ship; as long as she was likely to dine alone, she might as well do so in her quarters.

The door chime made her slightly apprehensive, for Willow was fairly certain who was on the other side. Still, no use being impolite... "Come in!"

The double doors hissed open to admit Tara. She stepped in shyly, ducking her head slightly as if careful not to bump it on the overhead, a good meter above her. "Hi," she said, her voice barely above a whisper.

"Hi!" answered Willow, her normal speaking tone almost nerve-shatteringly loud by contrast. "Um, I was just finishing dinner," she added, indicating the plate and glass, "can I get you anything?"

The blonde shook her head. "No, thank you. I ate a little, um, something... before I came here." C'mon, Maclay, grow some backbone in your old age, she admonished herself. "L-Look, Willow, I came to talk to you. About last night." She had to consciously remind herself to breathe after forcing the statement out.

Willow stalled for time by cleaning up her dinner dishes and shoving them back into the replicator for recycling. "Well, what exactly does that mean? I mean, do you regret anything that happened, you shouldn't, I mean, nothing really happened... did it? I don't remember anything, well, I mean, I do remember pretty much everything that happened... I think."

Tara wanted to smile at Willow's babble, but now was not the time. "Will, I think you..."

"Don't call me that."

"Wh-what?" The retort brought Tara up short.

Willow toned down the sharpness in her voice, but nothing mitigated the pain of old memories in her eyes. "Don't call me 'Will,' okay? That was... Buffy and Xander used to call me that."

"Oh," Tara replied in a small voice. "Sorry." Willow waved it off and was about to probably tell her to forget it, but Tara pressed on before her resolve had the opportunity to fail her. "I think you're a little uncomfortable about m-my kissing you. Um, in the bath. Y-you and me..."

"I do seem to recall that, 'cause, hello, there," Willow said, not entirely sure where this conversation was going... or even where it was starting. "Oh... wait, are you afraid that I was taking that kiss in the wrong way? I mean, it was just a, y'know, a fluke. It was... a bath fluke!"

"I'm gay," Tara blurted out, feeling her insides turn to cryonetrium.

"...or not."

Tara's gaze dropped to the floor, while she took a couple of deep breaths in a futile attempt to calm her nerves. The lingering silence from the redhead wasn't helping matters, nor were the chaotic eddies of emotion washing over her empathic senses. Tara had trouble sorting out all of the undercurrents.

"Uh... well, that's fine," Willow finally managed to say, her eyes a little on the wide side. "I mean, that's great. For you." Oooooh boy. Where's my celebrated glibness when it counts? "I mean, certainly there's –" Nothing wrong with it? Yeah, she'll be relieved to know that. "And it's not like I never met a –" Now there's a winner! Why don't I just tell her that some of my best friends are gay... except they're not. Or... weren't, at least not while they were among the living...

Seeing Willow struggle with her revelation, Tara regained some of her clinical poise. She stepped closer to Willow, stopping an arm's-length away out of some automatic sense of propriety. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have s-sprung it on you like that."

"No, it's okay. I'm glad, really... that you told me."

"You're freaked," Tara countered, trying to keep her voice free of accusation and for the most part succeeding. The interesting thing was, while Willow had been thrown by Tara's confession, there was also a nuance of a different emotion, something Tara could scarcely believe and could almost dismiss as wishful delusion: desire. For her. For plain ol' Tara Maclay. Her heart swelled of its own accord, paying no heed to the rational and rather self-deprecating muttering from her cerebral cortex. And then, on the heels of that particular sensation came...

Tara's abilities usually only worked with general emotional states; she could not read minds like a telepath. Her mother had been able to pick up her thought-casts and vice-versa; it was that most intimate and comforting form of communication that Tara missed most about her mother.

What she now received from Willow was far beyond anything she had gotten from other humans. Like a subspace visual transmission, an image coalesced in Tara's mind, of Willow herself... but not. Not the Willow Rosenberg she had come to know in the last few weeks. The uniform was not only antiquated, but it was also both more severe and more revealing in cut. It was Willow's face, all right, but the person that lived behind it was not the sweet and gentle soul standing right next to Tara. She could see coldness in the green eyes, and cruel calculation in the lines of the brow, and the mouth...

The smile that came from that mouth, so like the one she had kissed last night, was not the promise of tenderness and love, but the threat of sadism and lust.

What is this? Tara cried silently, involuntarily taking a half-step back. The emotional tags Willow had hung on this image were that of disgust, revulsion and fear... although the trepidation was not only of this false-Willow image, but of Willow herself. As if Willow, the Willow that she knew, was afraid of something this image represented, in herself.

Willow was now looking at her, trying to discern what Tara was feeling or thinking by reading her expression. As fast as she could, Tara composed herself, at least outwardly. She was both amazed that she had received such a strong mental impression from Willow, and the emotional content.

"I'm not freaked," Willow protested weakly, not only freaked but certain Tara knew she was freaked. She shook her head, hardly able to meet the other woman's eyes. "I just... I, you've given me a lot to think about. Not so much about you... as me. I need time... to sort things out... to figure out if..."

"...if you're able to sleep with m-me," Tara finished curtly. The stricken expression on Willow's face told her that she had gone too far. "I'm s-sorry, I-I shouldn't've..." Feeling like her tongue would totally snap off, or worse, that she might say something truly irreparable, she turned to leave Willow's quarters. At the threshold of the door's sensor-field, she stopped and half-turned back to Willow. "Look... I think there's something, I don't know, something... or someone, in your past, that you... have some issues with, about your... identity. Maybe I'm not the person whom you can talk to about this, but there is Dr. Devereux." A small, somehow bitter chuckle escaped from Tara at that. "At least, he'll be a little more... objective."

Willow did not reply immediately. The image that Tara had seen had been something Willow had struggled for some time to forget, as it represented a dark and dangerous event in her life, when she had come face-to-face with the idea that true evil exists in the human heart, and that she herself was not immune. After that encounter, her capacity for self-examination had threatened to go into overdrive; in an effort to maintain her sanity, Willow had consciously tried to forget the entire episode.

Now, as Tara walked towards the door, she called out to her. When the counselor turned fully around, Willow said, "Um, if it turns out that I can't, uh... well, I can't... we'll still be friends, right?"

Tara looked slightly shocked. "L-like that's even a question!"

Willow managed to look chastened. "Okay, then. And, um, if it does turn out, that, y'know, I... well, I think there's probably nobody on this ship that I'd rather tell the good news to."

Tara stood immobile for a minute. Then one corner of her mouth crooked upwards. Taking a deep breath, she said, "I have to go get ready for..."

"Right, right, me too."

"See you later?"

"Absolutely." After Tara left, Willow felt herself deflate like a pricked balloon. She was just glad she had an away mission to prepare for, to take her mind off of variables and unknowns.

Continue to Equilibration Chapter Eight

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