Return to Equilibration Chapter Seven


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.

With a rainbow burst of superrelativistic particles, the Hannibal dropped out of warp space into the Memory Alpha system.

In the command chair, Captain Murdock sat, trying not to let the whipcord tension he felt show on his face. As they always taught him in command school, never let them see you sweat. Of course, it was one of those rules that were great on paper but hell to practice in the field.

The ship was on red alert, expecting trouble and loaded for bear. Although quarter-hour sensor scans failed to detect any ships near the planetoid, nobody wanted to take the chance that the mysterious attackers had not been able to pick up sensor-countermeasures equipment on the black market.

"Full scan, people," Murdock intoned, having received reports that the ship was at General Quarters and that shields were up.

"No sensor contact with any vessels in this system, sir," Thelvran reported from Tactical.

"The Memory Alpha installation itself appears intact," Kolrami said, scanning the planetoid at the Ops position, "but I can't raise anybody on ship-to-surface channels. Their primary power seems to be offline, but I am reading life-support system operating at low levels."

Willow piped up from the Science station. "Captain, I'm detecting residual subspace distortions... three distinct traces, in close orbit over the planetoid." She tapped at her control console with relish, immediately at home in dealing with a scientific, technical problem. "These warp signatures, definitely, three different types of vessels. And not just classes of ships, sir, I'm talking completely different planets of origin..."

"Noted, Lieutenant," Murdock replied, with a hint of a wry smile. He couldn't help but admire her enthusiasm. Ah, youth... "Can you give me any indication as to where they might have gone?"

"Working on that now, sir," the young science officer replied crisply, entering further instructions into her station.

"Captain," Kolrami reported, "I'm getting lifeform readings, of indeterminate number and type, from Memory Alpha. Somebody is alive down there."

"I'm unable to tell from here whether anyone down there is armed, sir," Thelvran added.

"Looks like we're going to have to do this the old-fashioned way," Faraday said from the executive officer's chair, looking wryly at the captain. Murdock seemed uncharacteristically pensive; usually he was Captain Jump-In-With-Both-Feet of the Starship Impetuous. Not always, she reflected, but usually. What is worrying him so much? she wondered, then shrugged inwardly. No doubt he would tell her in his own good time. As she rose from her chair, she looked across to Dr. Devereux, sitting in his usual place. He, too, was regarding Murdock with additional scrutiny; he caught her eye and, with a raised eyebrow, indicated that his thoughts were traveling in a similar direction to Faraday's.

After a moment's contemplation, Murdock finally addressed his first officer's comment. "All right, we'll proceed with our original plan. Thelvran, Number One: assemble your away teams and prepare to beam down."

"Captain?" Willow called from her station. Murdock rose from his chair and crossed over to the Science station, with Faraday and Devereux in tow. Willow tried not to grimace at having all the senior brass converging on her; she suddenly felt as if she was in the bottom of a well. She turned back and pointed to the visual data display. Explaining the abstract-art-looking swirl on the display, she said "There's a high concentration of tetryon particles in the local subspace domain, sir... sirs, ma'm," she added with a small shrug. "It's causing a harmonic disruption to the residual warp signatures from the ships, so I can't get a directional vector from them. I don't know if such a high concentration exists in nature, especially as I've only learned about tetryons in the last few weeks or so, so I'm hardly what you'd call an expert..."

"At ease, Willow," Murdock said, leaning closer to the display. "You're right... tetryons tend not to concentrate themselves like this naturally. But... flooding a given area with tetryons tends to disrupt subspace sensors, effectively masking warp trails like these here. We've seen this sort of thing before, so it narrows down our list of suspects " He straightened up and shared glances with the counselor and the first officer. "Survey says..."

"...Maquis," the three officers chorused.

In Transporter Room One, Thelvran's team was double-checking equipment and weapons. The security chief, in addition to scrutinizing his own phaser, took the time to check everyone else's ordnance. The medical pack that Dr. Govarr carried was, by mutual consent (if one could call sharp glares and low growls "mutual consent") outside Thelvran's purview.

Devereux was holstering his phaser. Unlike the modern phaser weapons that everyone else carried, his was an old-style "pistol" phaser, of a type not in use for decades. It was an eccentric anachronism, somewhat in character for the crotchety counselor.

Thelvran looked at Devereux's sidearm with a bemused expression. Proffering a modern phaser, handle-first, Thelvran asked, "Don't you know how to use one of these?"

Devereux looked blankly at the weapon. "Only for dusting."

Faraday had her team assemble in Transporter Room Three. Willow had gone there from the bridge with the first officer, to find Tara already there. They had exchanged awkward smiles as they looked over the equipment with which they would beam down to Memory Alpha. Willow would carry a tricorder as well as a phaser, and a hand beacon for those dark rooms they would no doubt find. Tara had the beacon and the phaser, as well as a medical pack slung over her shoulder (somewhat superfluous, given that Doctor Sivek, the Vulcan intern assigned to this team by Dr. Govarr, would be carrying a medpack); she would mainly be helping with triage.

Willow sidled over to her, unsure whether it would be more uncomfortable trying to avoid her or to approach her. She drew her phaser (after prudently checking that the safety interlock was engaged) and experimentally handled it. "I'm not sure I'm used to these fancy new phasers," she said quietly to Tara.

For her part, the blonde counselor smiled wanly. "I hope there's no need for, um, violence. I'm really not good with the whole..." She extended her arm and twitched her thumb convulsively on a non-existent firing button.

Willow was fairly sure Tara was miming firing a phaser, but she could not resist being deliberately obtuse. "...thumbwrestling?"

"Oh, I-I'm actually good at that!" Tara beamed with pride. "Thumbwrestling Champion o-of the Norpin colony."

"Oh, good," Willow said, returning the smile. "So if these... Maquis, or whatever they call themselves, if they have any, y'know, evil thumbs, I'll have you to protect me."

Tara almost laughed, but suppressed it at the last instant. "'Evil thumbs.'" She stole a glance around the transporter room, currently accommodating the other members of the away team. Besides themselves, Commander Faraday and Dr. Sivek, there were two security guards, whose uniforms had the mustard yellow shoulder epaulets of Operations. The taller of the two, carrying a phaser rifle with studied nonchalance, was someone Tara had seen around the ship on occasion. His dark skin and shaven head, along with the small, closely-trimmed beard he wore, gave him a somewhat furtive appearance, as if he preferred living in the shadows and only came out them reluctantly. Tara got an unusually strong "vibe" of anticipation from him; clearly he was looking forward to some action. On his uniform collar, Tara was mildly surprised to see, not the pips of an ensign or "jay-gee," but the enclosed chevron of a petty officer.

The security p.o. caught Tara's eye. "Ma'm," he said in greeting, nodding slightly and allowing a hint of a smile to bend his lips.

Tara was about to introduce herself when Commander Faraday asked the room at large, "Everyone ready?" There were nods all around. She tapped a button on the transporter console. "Bridge, this is Transporter Room Three. We're ready, sir."

"Very good, Number One. Try not to step into any obvious traps down there, please," Murdock answered, tongue firmly in cheek.

Faraday smirked. "Well, if there are any incongruously-placed rugs down there, I'll assume that they are covering pitfalls and not step on them."

"And you said those old Three Stooges films had no use as training exercises!" The captain's voice abruptly became serious again. "We'll be sending both teams down simultaneously; Thelvran's team will be beamed down to the residential area, yours to the operations/support section. You'll meet up in the main computer complex, at the center of Memory Alpha Be careful."

"Always, sir. Out." With an after-you gesture, she directed the others to the transporter pads; by prearrangement, the three people in the back would be facing the opposite direction to the three in front, to make sure that the rear was covered immediately after transport. Tara, Willow and the security p.o. were in the rear; as she made her way to the back, Willow caught a look at the sheathed dagger attached to Faraday's belt. The first officer noticed Willow's glance and said, "Family heirloom."

Willow nodded, taking her place on the transporter pad. She had to keep herself from snickering when she heard the p.o. say softly, "That's my kinda family."

Faraday either failed to hear this or chose not to. She addressed the transporter operator: "Energize when ready."

At the signal from the bridge that the shields had been lowered, both away teams vanished from their respective transporter chambers in columns of sparkling silver.

Every time Willow had been through the transporter on the old Hannibal, she had the unpleasant sensation, albeit illusory, that her teeth were going to rattle themselves right out of her skull. Mind you, idiosyncratic reactions to being transported were myriad; given that the subject was being converted, on a quantum level, to organized patterns of energy, it was inevitable that many people would have minor, purely psychological symptoms as a result.

This time, Willow did not experience the feeling of dental dissolution. While a part of her marveled at how transporter technology had progressed over the decades, a barely conscious fragment could not help but mourn; this was just another indication of how far removed she had become from her old life.

Then, as the annular confinement beam cut off, at the end of the transport process, Willow's ears popped with the difference in air pressure. She smiled slightly. Some things never change.

The away team had materialized in the engineering complex, which housed the main fusion reactor and the large power-transfer conduits that powered Memory Alpha. The light was dim, apparently reduced to emergency illumination. The reactor seemed quiescent, although several indicator lights were blinking on and off.

Willow brought out her tricorder and activated it. By prearrangement, she set up high-speed data links with not only the ship, but Kolrami's tricorder at the other end of the complex. The second security guard was also setting up a similar link with his opposite number in Team One. With such communication in place, both teams could share information and warn one another about possible threats, as well as keep the Hannibal apprised of any developments.

While Faraday tapped her commbadge and spoke with Lt. Thelvran, Tara took out her hand beacon and played its beam around the room. There didn't seem to be anyone, friend or foe, in the room; both her eyes and her empathic senses seemed to agree on this. Her nose, however, was telling her about a peculiar, pungent smell in the air...

She brought the beacon down to the floor to her right. About a meter away was a young man, face frozen in an expression of shock, eyes glazed over in death, unblinking in Tara's beam. What made her gasp, and her gorge rise helplessly from her stomach, was the eight-centimeter hole in his chest. The flesh and the material of his coverall was burnt crisp on the outside of the hole, but partially liquefied due to cellular disruption in the middle.

Violently nauseous, Tara dropped the beacon and ran over to a large vertical conduit on the opposite side of the room. Clutching the column briefly, she sank to her knees and vomited her last meal onto the deck, feeling her stomach being squeezed like an overripe fruit. Hot tears cascaded from her eyes, both from the extreme discomfort and the shame of losing control in front of her shipmates.

A small, cool hand was placed on her forehead, helping to hold her head up; another hand was holding her braids back, away from her face. Tara could not as yet spare the breath to thank her benefactor.

Finally, the nausea subsided, and Tara sat back on her haunches... to find Willow kneeling beside her. "Feel better?" the redhead asked, with no trace of sarcasm. She fumbled briefly in the medical kit still slung over Tara's shoulder, came up with a sterile cloth. "Wipe your mouth and spit," she recommended.

Tara nodded miserably as she set about cleaning herself up. "Stupid..."

"Don't feel like that. You should'a seen me the first time I went on one of these things."

Tara's brow furrowed. "You threw up, too?"

Willow shook her head. "Fainted. Probably would've busted my head if Captain Cumberland hadn't caught me."

One side of Tara's mouth quirked upward. "Thanks."

Willow blew air of her pursed lips. "Yeah, well, least I could do... for a friend." She stood up, offered her hand to Tara, who took it with gratitude. The two of them walked back to the rest of the group, who were standing around in an effort to look nonchalant. Tara picked up sympathy from Faraday, as well as from Willow and (a pleasant surprise) the security p.o. From the other security guard she received a mild feeling of disdain, though from the Vulcan she got, typically, no emotion worth mentioning.

Faraday seemed to come to a quick decision. "Why don't you beam back to the ship, Lieutenant," framing it somewhere between a suggestion and an order.

Willow was about to protest on Tara's behalf (she, herself, was about to meekly agree) but was beaten to the punch by, surprisingly, the security p.o. "I think she'll be okay, Number One. She just caught by surprise. Happens to all of us," he finished, somewhat pointedly.

Tara could tell that Faraday, on the verge of restating her intention of sending Tara back to the ship, was remembering times in her past when a senior officer took a chance on her, possibly against better judgement. The first officer took a half-step forward. "You feel up to this, Tara?"

She noted that Faraday had used her first name. Instead of answering the question, she merely said, "You might need me... Number One."

Faraday nodded, as a call came through her commbadge. "Murdock to Commander Faraday. Everything okay down there, Number One?"

"We're all right down here, sir. We found one casualty, apparently a technician, male, human. Dr. Sivek says the death was caused by a type-two disruptor. Lt. Rosenberg will send you scans and coordinates of the body, sir."

"Acknowledged, Number One. Proceed with caution. Hannibal out."

Faraday looked around to her team. "Let's head towards the central complex." A few nods and ayes answered her.

Tara sidled up to the petty officer. "Thank you, um..." She wasn't sure if she had heard his name.

"Gunn, ma'm," he answered, with what seemed to be a characteristic ghost of a smile. Fortunately, what smile he did have touched his dark eyes, leavening his otherwise deadpan expression. He shifted the phaser rifle in his hands and nodded in the general direction indicated by Faraday. "Let's jam."

Tara found herself dimpling at the somewhat colorful slang as the away team headed off into the heart of Memory Alpha.

"Stay sharp, people," Faraday admonished as her group left the engineering complex and entered the main corridor that led to the operations center. Gunn took the lead, his phaser rifle at the ready, placing himself between Faraday and any potential threat. She gave him a look at his presumption, but said nothing, merely drawing her own phaser.

Willow and Tara walked in the approximate center of the group, the former taking readings and relaying them to the ship and to Kolrami while receiving data in return. They had not seen any other bodies besides the one Tara had come a cropper at the beam-down point, though they did find other signs of the battle that had surely taken place some hours before. Dark, carbonized scoring on the walls and ceilings of the facility gave mute testimony to the carnage.

"These blast patterns are from several different weapon types, Commander," Willow reported. "Types-two and -three disruptors, at least three kinds of phasers... pretty eclectic assortment of firepower, if you ask me."

"The Maquis tend to collect weaponry as they go, Lieutenant," the first officer answered. "So far, what we've seen has been consistent-"

Tara's sudden gasp made everyone stop in their tracks. Faraday swung around and stared into the blonde counselor's eyes. "Are you all right?"

Tara nodded, distractedly. "There's someone nearby," she said after a second's pause.

The other security man looked at his tricorder, shook his head. "I'm not getting a lifeform reading," he muttered, hardly bothering to hide his irritation.

"Neither am I," Willow added, then tapped twice on her device, "but there's a conduit five meters in front of us where oxygen is spontaneously turning to carbon dioxide." She cast a don't-teach-Grandma-how-to-suck-eggs look at the security man. "Lots of ways of shielding bioelectric signatures from standard scans, y'know?"

Tara didn't allow herself the luxury of looking vindicated. Instead she crossed over to a panel set in the wall down next to the floor. "He's behind here..."

"Hold on, Lieutenant," Faraday admonished. Gunn was already covering the panel with his rifle. "This could be a hostile..."

"It's all right," Tara insisted, casting firm looks at both Faraday and Gunn. The dark man didn't look convinced, but stepped back to allow her to loosen the panel to access the conduit, leaving his weapon ready to retaliate should she prove wrong. Faraday nodded her consent, signaling the others to hold steady and keep watching the rear. Willow bit her lip and consulted her tricorder again; she wasn't detecting a weapon, but that was not always definitive, given the diversity of weapon characteristics in this century...

Tara, on the other hand, had a pretty good idea as to the nature of the person hiding in the conduit. She pried off the panel and shone her hand beacon in...

"Oh, God!" It was something between a shout and a whimper, filled with terror and fatalistic resignation. "Please, don't... I-"

"It's all right!" Tara said, shining the light briefly on herself. "I-I'm Lt. Maclay, from the starship Hannibal. We're here in response to your distress call."

The relief from the man was almost palpable. "Oh, thank God. I'm Jeryn Newley, second technician. Listen, these people, they came in using falsified identities, then they started shooting up the place, and then they were herding everyone together, but I managed to hide in here..."

"Good idea. I mean, we almost missed you entirely. Are you hurt? Why don't you come on out, Jeryn? You'll be safe with us..."

"N-no... I can't." Newley shook his head miserably.

Tara crawled partway into the conduit. While it wasn't a tight squeeze by any means, she was still amazed that Newley had managed to stay in this small space for hours without getting a little claustrophobic. She stopped a meter away from him and assumed as sympathetic (but professional) demeanor as she was capable of. "I don't blame you. I-It's a little scary out there. These are all people you worked with, and you might be afraid to face them because you feel guilty-"

She finally realized that Newley was shaking his head and waving his hand in order to indicate how far off base she was. "No, no, no... it's nothing like that." His expression was, if anything, sheepish. "My foot's stuck."

Tara shone her hand beacon to where his pointing finger led, to his right foot which was indeed jammed in between an optical-data network line and an electro-plasma conduit. She had to nibble the inside of her cheek to keep from braying laughter right in Newley's face. When she felt that she had sufficient control of herself, she said evenly, "Why don't I give you a hand?"

"Would you, please?" Newley replied pathetically. "'Cause I gotta go to the bathroom something fierce."

As it turned out, that was probably the most excitement Team Two had in their mission, before they linked up with Thelvran's team in the operations center. From there it was a simple search to locate the bulk of Memory Alpha's staff, sealed in the main refectory behind phaser-welded doors. Most of them were unhurt, and the exceptions mainly had minor neural trauma from phaser-stun, along with a few sporting contusions and broken bones. Govarr and Sivek found it necessary to transport only a few cases to the Hannibal for more extensive treatment.

Tara and Dr. Devereux had their hands full debriefing the remainder of the staff, watchful for any signs of post-traumatic stress. A small part of Tara found it odd to have her comforting people who had many more years of deep-space experience than she had. Nonetheless, she felt satisfied putting into practice in the field what she had learned at the Academy or had used in the relatively controlled conditions of a starship.

Willow, too, was kept busy for quite some time, as the Maquis - the staff's descriptions of the marauders had confirmed the captain's suspicions - had blasted the computer consoles after they gotten whatever information they had come for... or not, as the case may have been. It was Willow's job, in conjunction with Kolrami and Thelvran, to determine whether or not the Maquis had penetrated the computer's security protocols and made off with any sensitive information. Also, working with Dr. Govarr, she was ordered to do a forensic analysis of the operations complex to pick up any physical trace of the intruders for the purposes of identification. Fortunately, she was able to recruit several science technicians from the ship to assist in what would be a back-breaking chore; even so, there was an incredible amount of information that Willow would have to sift through in a fairly short time.

Easy, Willow thought to herself ruefully, easy as... really hard pie.

She finally hit upon an idea to access Memory Alpha's computer: use the Hannibal's computer...

"We can sync our computer in parallel with Memory Alpha's core," Willow said in the conference back aboard ship, with Faraday, Kolrami, Thelvran and DaKar seated in the chairs listening to her brief presentation. "This ship has three computer cores, right? Drop one of the cores out, probably one of the ones in the saucer section, and have the other two take the computing load. I mean, even one core is enough for all essential operations, right?"

DaKar nodded. "Pretty much. The three cores operate in parallel, updating each other every forty-three milliseconds. We routinely drop them out in a cycle for routine maintenance about once a month."

"I'm not sure as to whether this is an appropriate use of ship's resources, " Kolrami countered. "In an emergency situation, we might need the total computing power of this ship against a hostile force. We can still access the Memory Alpha data core remotely and use its own central processor to re-trace the Maquis' intrusion into the archives."

"But... with all due respect, Commander, that will take too long," Willow protested as gently as she was able. Taking a deep breath to calm herself, she continued, "Between the time-lag from the remote link, and the fact that Memory Alpha's CPU is far less powerful than the Hannibal's the process could take days!"

"It could mean the difference in catching the Maquis before they successfully carry out whatever plan they might have," Thelvran added.

Kolrami and Willow were both about to speak at this point, but were both stayed by Faraday's raised hand. "Normally, I'm loathe to supersede Gelfa's authority when it comes to coordinating this ship's departments and resources. However, Captain Murdock designated finding the Maquis, after caring for the Memory Alpha personnel, as our highest priority." She focused on Willow, her soft voice firm with command responsibility. "Carry out your plan, Lieutenant. Ensure that nothing you do will impair this ship's ability to function in a crisis."

Willow came to attention. "Aye, Number One."

Faraday turned to the others. "Gelfa, Jodell: you two work together to drop out one of the cores and place it at Lt. Rosenberg's disposal. I want Level 1 protocols in place; we don't want any little surprise viruses making us fly backwards. Dismissed." As her junior officers made for the door, she added in a quiet voice, "Commander Kolrami, a moment more, please." She waited while Willow and DaKar left the conference room, then turned to her colleague and friend. "Why do you dislike her so much?"

A less blunt person than Gelfa Kolrami might have prevaricated. Being who she was, however... "She thinks that she can just... pop in here, from her primitive century, and remodel from scratch every protocol on this ship according to her design. Merely because Lt. Rosenberg has some natural insight for science and technology, that doesn't mean she can reinvent warp drive." The Zakdorn sniffed in disdain.

Faraday crossed her arms and struggled not to laugh. "You're jealous of her!"

Kolrami did not even bother to deny it. "Why shouldn't I be? It's bad enough that she's nearly as intelligent as a Zakdorn - which is positively shocking in a human - but she is far more than I will ever be." The downcast expression on her puffy face was sad to see.

"I don't believe that. The captain knows that you make this ship run as well as it does-"

"It's not a question of how well I do my job, nor of your misplaced faith... however much I appreciate it, Olivia." Kolrami sighed. "My people are great natural collators, historians, cartographers and even strategists. But we have no creativity, as such. Concepts such as art, music, poetry... these things were virtually alien to us until we discovered other races." She looked at her superior officer and friend, a wistful countenance on her usually stern face. "Olivia... you humans have such natural disadvantages. You don't have outrageous mental faculties, you aren't as physically strong as many races, and you don't heal as fast nor live as long. But, sometime, long ago, you refused to accept your lot in life. You strived to be something more than you are... and against all odds, against reason itself, you succeeded." Kolrami shook her head. "Your people, unlike mine, learned to dream."

Willow was banging away - not literally, thankfully - at the Science station on the bridge when Tara arrived there several hours later. The assistant counselor had spent hours with the Memory Alpha staff, not only providing emotional support but also trying to glean any information on the Maquis' plans.

"Willow," she said in greeting, squatting down next to the science officer.

"Hey. Where've you been?"

"Interviewing. Lots and lots of interviewing. After the first fifteen or so people telling you that they were frightened for their very lives, clinical detachment becomes much easier."

Willow grinned. "I'll bet. Did any of them have any useful information on our bad guys?"

Tara shrugged. "Only that the Maquis were definitely looking for a specific bit of information, as opposed to, um, trolling around for any good tidbits."

"Well, that checks out," Willow conceded. "From what little I've been able to get from, pardon my Fabrini, the antiquated piece of crap that Memory Alpha uses for a datacore, they were trying to break into one certain part of the protected files. Unfortunately, because they deliberately fragmented the file directory, I have no way of knowing exactly which files they tried to crack, or if they succeeded. Though I doubt that; the encryption on these files is primo."

"'Primo?' Is that a technical word?" Tara asked with a deadpan expression. She abruptly turned serious again. "Well, we kinda have to assume that they found something... otherwise, they would have headed back to the Demilitarized Zone, right? Uh, unless they did, and we can't tell because they covered-"

"No, no, we do know they headed in a completely different direction, even if we can't pinpoint it enough to plot a course. Unless, of course, they took the sort of scenic route, like, going from Earth to Vulcan by way of the Andromeda Galaxy."

Tara nodded. "So, if they did head somewhere else, someplace they knew to go to, and they weren't able to decrypt the files, how would they know?"

Willow frowned deeply in thought. Tara could almost see little indicator lights blinking on and off in her head. "So, they learned something about the files themselves, rather than the information contained within. Like, who wrote or collated the information... or where..." She broke off.

"Where the files were sent from?" Tara prodded gently.

Willow nodded distractedly. A smile broke out lightning-quick. "The navigational database!" She tapped in commands which were relayed through the link to the Memory Alpha computer. Within seconds, the information was displayed on the console. "This is it! The last record accessed in the navigational database, which according to the time index had to have been read while the Maquis were occupying the station! Tara, you're a genius!"

Tara put on a modest expression. "Aw, shucks, ma'm."

Willow smiled back. "Couldn't'a done it without ya." She studied the coordinates on the screen. "This is even deeper into Federation space... although a bit aways from the core worlds and the regular trade routes. Hang on, maybe I can cross-reference what files came from this location." However, she paused with her hands over the control pads, as if lost in thought.

Tara picked up something from Willow's mind that she had trouble articulating to herself. It felt like the sort of phantom itch one gets from an old experience, or like the proverbial bad knee on a rainy day. "Willow? Is something wrong?"

The science officer blinked, shook her head as if to clear it, then shook it in answer to Tara's question. She searched the Memory Alpha datacore using the navigational coordinates as a reference point. "Hmmm," she said after a short interval. "Seems we have a winner here. The files that came from this location... and wow, there are a lot of them... are all under the heading of 'Curator'."

"Curator? Like, as in, of a museum?"

"Yeah, I guess, but look," Willow said, putting up the index and pointed to the description of the planet, "there's no museum there. Actually, there's not much of anything there. The planet is uninhabited, it's the only one in its system, the star is way past its main sequence, it's just a dead world-"

All at once, a memory clicked into place for Willow. Part of it was the description that she heard herself say of the origin of the transmitted files. The other thing was the name of the collected information: Curator. Willow, with her unceasing fascination with logic puzzles, had been toying with the word as soon as she had read it onscreen. "Curator:" usually means custodian of a museum, but it didn't necessary have to. It's also another word for-

The wave of emotion that Tara felt from Willow was so powerful that for a few seconds it defied her ability to describe it. Only when she saw the blood drain out of her friend's face did she recognize the feeling as sheer horror. Perversely enough, there was also the strangest sense of nostalgia, as if whatever was causing Willow's fear also had a link to her past.

"Ooooh," Willow said, something between a whisper and a moan. "This is not good."

Feeling concerned and a little frightened herself, Tara gently gripped Willow's arm. "Willow? What is it? What's wrong?"

The young redhead looked like she almost wanted to laugh. "Wrong? I think we're beyond 'wrong' here... our next stop, 'catastrophic.'" She tapped her commbadge. "Captain Murdock, can you please, uh, come to the bridge. Thanks." Without waiting for an acknowledgement or a question, she closed the line.

A few seconds later, a bemused Murdock, followed by a curious Dr. Devereux, who had been briefing the captain on the Memory Alpha personnel, came out of the ready room and walked over the Science station. "Willow... and Tara, hello. Now, what can I help you with that Commander Faraday-" he indicated the first officer sitting in the command chair, "-isn't able to?"

Willow knew she had committed a breach in protocol but was too anxious to bring it up. "Captain, I found out where the Maquis are going!" Briefly, she outlined the methodology she used to find the information and showed him the coordinates.

"Okay, then, good work, Lieutenant," Murdock said, nodding at her ingenuity. "So these files, under this 'Curator' heading, originated here?" He indicated the schematic of the system on the Science station screen.

"Yes, sir," Willow answered.

"Were you able to access the files?" he asked.

"Um, no, sir, the encryption is still in place. If you care to try…"

At Willow's suggestion, Murdock crossed over to the Science station. "If you two will excuse me a moment," he said to Willow and Tara, who moved a discreet distance away. "Computer, create a Alpha-1 secure link to the Memory Alpha computer."

"Alpha-1 security link established," the computer promptly replied.

"Computer, access all files under the Curator heading, authorization Murdock-delta-tau-seven, and transfer them to my ready room screen."

The computer whirred and beeped for a couple of seconds, then chirped disapprovingly. "Unable to comply. Access to files under Curator heading is restricted. Zeta Bravo clearance is required."

"Whoa," Devereux said, looking over Murdock's shoulder. "'Zeta Bravo' is the clearance code that Starfleet Command place on heap-big secret mojo. Like, the quantum torpedo research project, only higher." At Willow's quizzical look, Tara's equally inquiring brow, and Murdock's bemused expression, he added, "I have friends in low places."

Murdock turned back to Willow. "Lieutenant, do you think the Maquis was able to penetrate the security encryption?"

"I, well, I'm not sure, sir," Willow said, looking nervous, "but-but I doubt it. I think I could have detected that. In fact, I'm pretty sure."

"But... if this was what the Maquis was looking for, and they found out where it was without looking at the files, then maybe they don't know the exact nature of 'Curator,' whatever that is," Murdock mused.

"It's entirely possible that someone in the Maquis might have come across a passing reference to Curator in a relatively low-level communiqué," Devereux added. "If they thought it might be something worth going after-"

"Why would they want something to use against the Federation?" Tara asked. "Their enemies, primarily, are the Cardassians. We try to prevent them from violating the treaty, which they resent, but I can't imagine they would pursue an aggressive act against, well, their own people, even if they have renounced Federation citizenship."

Willow had been keeping silent during this exchange, growing more and more uncomfortable by the second. Tara noticed this due to her empathic senses but said nothing about it up to this point; eventually, Murdock became aware of her anxiety as well. "Lieutenant, something tells me you have a better idea about what the Maquis want with Curator than-"

"No! I mean, I don't know if they even know what Curator is, sir..."

"...but you do," Murdock finished as the science officer trailed off. "You don't need to read those files, because you know exactly what Curator is, right?" When Willow did not answer right away, he folded his arms and peered downward into her eyes. "What, are you falling asleep on m-"

"Captain, I can't tell you," was her terse reply.

Murdock looked about as flabbergasted as anyone had ever seen him. After several seconds of double-takes and jaw-droppage, he recovered and said, "In order to avoid some unnecessary silliness, I'm going to assume you mean that you do know, or think you know, but can't tell me for some esoteric reason. Am I in the ballpark?" Willow nodded, looking guilty but nonetheless resolute. "Go to my ready room and wait for me there." Looking like a shamefaced schoolgirl sent to the headmaster's office, Willow turned on her heel and went as directed. Murdock watched her go silently, then went over to the Operations station. "Gelfa, are there any Starfleet vessels near the coordinates Lt. Rosenberg retrieved?"

After accessing the Science station logs and cross-referencing them with Starfleet patrol assignments, Kolrami had the answer. "The Trieste, sir. It's passing through that sector in about two hours."

Murdock chewed his lip, thinking. "Send a coded message to the Trieste; my compliments to her captain, and inform him the Maquis are coming to town. See if he can hold them off until we get there. What's our best time?"

"At maximum warp, six hours. But, Captain, the Trieste is a science vessel, not heavily armed. They may not have sufficient offensive capability to-"

"Noted, Commander. Send the message anyway. Number One, let's rock and roll."

"As you wish, sir," Faraday answered. "Are we informing Starfleet Command-"

"No. Dr. Devereux, you're with me." As the first officer gave the orders to proceed at maximum warp, the captain went into the ready room with the chief counselor in tow. Tara, at the last second, walked in behind them. As the doors shut, Murdock walked towards Willow, who had been sitting on the couch and now leaping to her feet. He glanced at Devereux, noting for a second that Tara had come along for the ride, and turned back to Willow. "All right, Lieutenant. Since I've ordered the Hannibal to the coordinates you found, and therefore sticking our collective head into the lion's mouth, maybe you'll do me the courtesy of telling me what we might find at the end of this particular rainbow." Murdock's voice, starting out in a conversational tone, acquired a nasty edge along the way.

Willow took a deep breath, as there was no easy way to do this. "Captain, please believe me, I know I'm asking a lot on faith here, but I cannot tell you what I know."

Keeping a rein on his temper with great effort, Murdock made a conscious attempt not to grit his teeth. "Why the hell not?"

"I gave my word, sir."

"To whom?"

Willow was not able to meet Murdock's eyes. "Captain Francisco Cumberland."

Hands on hips, Murdock paced a step or two away from Willow. "Francisco Cumberland knew what this... Curator is, and he told you not to tell anyone?"

"Yes, sir."

Inhaling a deep draught of air, Murdock closed his eyes briefly, then opened them to spear Willow. "Cumberland's not your commanding officer anymore. I am. And as your CO, I am giving you a direct order-"

"Please, don't, sir." It was the plea of a child.

Murdock did not relent. "You are aware that if you don't tell me, you'll be disobeying a direct order of your commanding officer. That is a court-martial offense. So is potentially endangering the lives of your fellow crewmembers. Is that what you want?"

Tara could see Willow was wavering; however, she knew that trying to browbeat the information out of her was the wrong approach. Willow Rosenberg would throw away her career and her freedom to keep her word. "Captain, wait." She stepped between Willow and Murdock, forming a barrier between the two. "This isn't a question of trust, on her part. She sees a no-win situations and she's trying-"

"Lieutenant, you're here at my sufferance," Murdock cut her off, "and if you can't keep quiet, you can leave." The emotional flames that threatened to singe her mind mirrored the anger in his eyes.

Devereux stepped to Murdock's side. "You want to chastise my staff, Captain, fine. But you do it through me."

The captain swung on the older man. "I will 'chastise' whomever I wish, and in whatever manner I wish!"

Out of the corner of her eye, Tara could see Willow grit her teeth in disgust, a repugnance of the male ego that Tara felt as well. Seeing that her superior was about to retort angrily, she stepped in hard: "Gentlemen! Can we focus on the problem, please? With all due respect, sirs, you can whip 'em out later." Ignoring the double-take from Murdock and the bemused grin from Devereux, she turned towards Willow, stepping a little into her personal space. "Willow... I know that keeping this promise to Captain Cumberland is like having a little piece of him to keep for yourself. But if he promised you to keep this secret in the first place, then Curator, whatever it is, must be something... bad. Right?"

Willow shrugged. "Well, it's... dangerous, sort of."

"Okay. Then, if the Maquis get a hold of it, then it could cause a lot of, um, trouble... damage... loss of life... am I warm?" At Willow's nod, she went on. "I would think Captain Cumberland would want you to prevent that. I-I mean, based on what I've read about him..."

Willow's eyes seemed to fill with tears, but they didn't quite fall. "I suppose I knew it all the time."

"Yes, but you had to struggle with it first."

Taking another deep breath, Willow looked at Captain Murdock, who had been standing against his desk. "Captain, I'm sorr-"

"Save it, Willow," Murdock interjected, though in a more conciliatory tone. "You were saying...?" he prompted.

"Well, the planet that we're heading towards, that is, Curator is actually, uh," Willow began, falling into babble-mode, "gosh, now that I think of it, you're probably going to find this hard to believe..."

"Chop it off and say it," the captain said in great exasperation.

"It's the Guardian of Forever."

The ready room was silent, except for the distant, almost subliminal hum from the warp engines. Murdock blinked, stepped closer to Willow, glanced at Devereux and Tara, and then asked, "The Who of What?"

Continue to Equilibration Chapter Nine

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