Return to Equilibration Chapter Nine


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.

"Kolrami, trace the beam! Find out where they went!" Faraday commanded, striding over to the Ops station. The Zakdorn operations officer had just informed her that Captain Murdock, along with Lt. Rosenberg, Lt. Maclay and the three remaining Maquis (remaining consciousness, at any rate) had been transported off the Hannibal's bridge. Faraday had to repress the apprehension that sizzled through her body like phaser-stun.

Kolrami tapped in commands, reorienting the lateral sensor array to detect the residual transporter energy and get a directional vector. "Interesting," she said, after a three-second pause that felt like an eternity to Faraday and the eavesdropping Dr. Devereux. "My first thought was that they beamed to the Trieste, but according to this, it was a site-to-site transport, to the planet."

"That facility we detected earlier?" Devereux asked in a suspicious tone.


Devereux turned to Faraday. "Then they know... "

"Not necessarily, Doctor. We can still assume that they found the location the same as we did, and found the facility the same way we did."

"How can we assume that?" the older man asked, eyebrows arched in a caricature of skepticism.

"Because we're still here."

Kolrami turned from her board. "Am I missing something here?"

Devereux turned toward her. "Yes." Instead of asking precisely what, or making some sort of comment, Kolrami nodded and turned back to her console.

The turbolift doors hissed open, admitting Lt. Thelvran, still in his protective breastplate and helmet. "Reporting ship secure, Number One," he called as he pulled off the headgear, stepping in to relief Warnock at Tactical.

"Very good, Lieutenant," Faraday answered, allowing a tight smile to show. She turned back to Kolrami. "Any chance of locating the captain and the others, so we can beam them back?"

"Two reasons why we cannot, Commander," Kolrami replied, peering at her instruments. "One, someone has set up a transport inhibitor down there, preventing anyone from beaming in or out of a radius of one point eight kilometers... "

"What's the second reason?"

"The Trieste is powering up weapons and locking onto us," she finished, just before a shudder ran through CIC.

Faraday put her hands out to steady herself automatically, although the ship did not pitch very much from the impact. The Trieste, being a science vessel, was vastly underweaponed compared to the much bigger Hannibal. She turned towards the Andorian tactical officer. "Thelvran, can you disable the Trieste's weapons and engines? I'd rather the ship itself not be destroyed... "

"Piece of pie, Commander," Thelvran replied, sounding almost hurt.

Cake, she thought, Piece of cake. However, the first officer let the malaprop go for the moment. "Kolrami, I want two shuttles ready to go as soon as we can lower the shields. Thelvran, I need security details for those shuttles."

"What's the plan, Number One?" Thelvran asked, his blue face the picture of innocence.

"Pulling the captain's ass out of the fire. Or, as I like to call it, my life's work." Faraday's comment garnered her a look of disapproval from Devereux. At that moment, the counselor's condemnation of her attitude was the least of Faraday's concerns.

For a super-secret scientific outpost, the facility that Willow found herself in, along with Tara and Captain Murdock, wasn't terribly impressive. No three-story columns of swirly multi-colored plasma, no huge viewscreens with starmaps covering the known galaxy, no catwalks suspended above huge pits of machinery. Just the usual computer consoles and sensor readouts. At least these seemed state-of-the-art, compared to the antiquated technology back on Memory Alpha. Most of the data displays, at the moment, appeared to be turned off for some reason.

Along with Faith, Jonathan and Warren, there were about six other Maquis in the outpost, generally of the nondescript "bad-guy" variety: big, mean, but not terribly intelligent. Responding to an order given by Warren as soon as he materialized, three of the Maquis produced wrist binders and locked the three Starfleet officers' hands behind their backs. The binders were locked with an electronic remote-key that Warren parked on his belt.

Several of the Maquis, all men, cast leering glances at Willow and Tara. The blonde counselor kept a straight face, but Willow could tell that she was both frightened and mortified to be the object of such blatant male ogling. Willow, trying to emulate her friend Buffy's bravery, gave back a faintly sneering expression to the Maquis. She then shot a quick glance at Tara, who returned the look with a ghost of a smile.

Warren, who had gone into another room in the facility, had just returned. "All right, Captain," he said, addressing Murdock. "Now, maybe you can provide me with some answers."

Murdock shrugged affably. "Sure. Um, who's buried in Grant's Tomb... that would be, well, Grant. And, oh! Rosebud? That was the sled, although, frankly, why Charles Kane would choose to obsess about that, I'll never know... "

Faith came up behind Murdock and jabbed her disrupter into his back. "Wise up, smart-ass."

Murdock cast a contemptuous glance over his shoulder at the brunette. "Put that water-pistol away, sweetcheeks, before someone gets hurt."

"If you want to prevent someone from being hurt, Captain," Warren said, "I would suggest you answer me this: How did you know where to find us?"

Murdock felt that, in this case, the truth would suffice. "You did a good job of covering your tracks in the Memory Alpha databanks and in masking your warp trail. But you slipped up when you referenced the navigational database. Led us right to you."

Jonathan looked disgusted. "Ohhhh my God. Can't believe I missed something that simple."

In spite of everything, Willow could not help but feel sympathetic towards him. "It's always the simple stuff you miss. Don't feel bad."

"Even so," Warren continued, "you followed us here, instead of merely counting on the Trieste to stop us. You must have known there was something here vitally important. You do know about Curator, don't you?" He leveled his Cardassian phaser at Murdock's head. "Don't you, Captain?"

Tara interjected at this point, as something occurred to her; plus, she felt it worth a try to diffuse some of the tension. "Wh-why ask us? What about the station personnel? Where are they?"

Warren turned to her, his expression unreadable. "They're all in there," he said, indicating the other room from which he had disappeared for a minute. "They haven't been terribly cooperative. Actually, it's quite fascinating how resilient they are to the... methods of information extraction we've applied."

"You mean you've tortured them," Tara said flatly, gazing accusingly at Warren. Unfazed, he glared back at her with a casual malevolence that made Willow want to knock his teeth down his throat.

"Oh, nothing grandiose," Faith said, in response to Tara. "A few drugs, a couple of broken bones, just the usual persuaders." She clenched her fist ostentatiously, cracking her knuckles loudly for effect.

"But they're not cracking... or, at least, not cooperating," Warren added, smirking at his own joke.

Jonathan chimed in then: "I think it's some kind of hypno-conditioning. I'm not sure they could tell us if they wanted to."

"And that, along with the extremely tight security protocols in these computers," Warren concluded, indicating with a sweep of his arm the quiescent data displays around the room, "tells me that there is something on this planet that the Federation desperately wants to hide from... well, everybody else in the galaxy."

"I guess you're right, pal," Murdock said in an agreeable tone. "Got any ideas what it might be?"

Despite everything, Willow had to chuckle at the captain's disingenuous tone. Tara shared a glance with her, having a hard time suppressing her own smile.

Warren, on the other hand, was having a hard time finding the fun. "Actually, Captain, I was pretty sure you could provide me with the answer to that question." He hefted his phaser threateningly.

Murdock shook his head. "I'm not telling you jack. Blowing me away isn't going to get you any info, either."

Warren grinned. "You know, you're absolutely right." Murdock watched with a sinking heart as, just the way he anticipated and feared, Warren crossed over to Tara, reached behind her head, and savagely pulled her blonde hair down, forcing her head back. He then jammed his phaser under her chin, unmindful of the choking gasps emanating from...

"Tara!" Willow cried, moving automatically towards her and Warren. Jonathan, however, intercepted her, pointing his phaser rifle at her midsection. She glared at the smaller man; for his part, his expression was noncommittal.

Warren's gaze flicked towards Willow momentarily, then back to Murdock. "Tell me what I want to know, Captain, or this young lady will never have to worry about sinus congestion, ever again." He underscored his point by shoving his weapon even tighter into Tara's throat.

Focusing past the feeling of extreme discomfort from her scalp and neck, Tara could feel the concern blazing from Willow, wanting to wrap it around herself like a warm blanket. She picked a vague sense of uneasiness from Jonathan, indicating he was regretting that matters had progressed in such a barbaric fashion. Faith had an overwhelming contempt for the entire proceeding, hardly a surprise given the perpetual sneer that covered the girl's face, but there seemed to be some undercurrent of... something else... directed at Captain Murdock, possibly. Exactly what the feeling was, Tara could not at the moment articulate, although that had as much to do as being a finger-twitch away from death as any external ambiguities. Paradoxically, in spite of her physical proximity to Warren, she really could not discern much in the way of emotional resonance from him... although if Willow's theory was correct, this lacuna of emotion confirmed her suspicions.

From Murdock, however, she was able to discern, for once, amidst the mental cacophony that usually emanated from the captain, a great current of despondency... which made Tara's heart sink, as she knew with a great deal of certainty the source of his melancholy. She knew he could not divulge the existence of the Guardian of Forever, not to preserve his own life or even hers or Willow's. The risk to the Federation, to its member worlds, to the trillions of inhabitants of those worlds, was far too great to jeopardize for the sake of three lives. Murdock's despair stemmed from his inability to save Tara and Willow without endangering everything and everyone the three of them had sworn to defend... and even then, there was another tide of emotion, an almost paternal affection that the captain felt towards the two of them, an affection he barely recognized himself until now.

So when Murdock looked daggers at Warren and suggested that he perform an anatomical obscenity with a warp core, Tara felt more sad for him than fearful for herself, because she knew that a piece of him would die with her.

"Colorful, Captain," Warren replied. "Stupid, but colorful." His finger tightened on the trigger-switch of his phaser... "

"Wait!" Willow cried out, a call that nearly blew Tara's brain out in fear and desperation. "Wait wait wait... I'll tell you!"

Willow, no! Tara wanted to shout, unmindful of the fact that her friend was keeping her alive precious seconds longer. She glanced over at Murdock, still covered by Faith. The captain's expression hardened perceptibly, but he said nothing.

Warren had no such inhibitions, however. "Okay, Lieutenant. I'm all ears."

Willow licked her lips, glanced over at Murdock, shrugging her shoulders but wisely saying nothing to her superior. She looked back at Warren. "Slaver weapons."

Various reactions abounded not only from the principals, but from some of the other Maquis in the room. Murdock looked flabbergasted, although it was hard for Willow and Tara to determine whether it was outrage (real or feigned) or perhaps even admiration for Willow's audacity. Warren was so shocked that he released his hold on Tara's hair without realizing it. She breathed a quiet sigh of relief, wishing she had a hand free to massage her abused scalp.

Jonathan was the first to find his voice. "Slaver weapons? Are you kidding me? You know how rare those are?"

"Incredible," said Warren. "Those could give us unlimited power... "

"Whoa, hold the party a sec," Faith admonished. "What do you mean by 'Slaver weapons'? What Slavers?"

Murdock answered first. "About a billion years ago, they were a race who had conquered most of this portion of the galaxy. All we know is that some of their subjects revolted against them, and they eventually died out. But they had developed technologies far in advance of ours, including stasis fields that could stop time inside them for a thousand millennia."

"But they also had weapons," Jonathan said, his characteristic half-smirk in place. "Hand-held weapons that could probably knock a starship out of orbit. Some Kzinti discovered one of those weapons over a century ago near Beta Lyrae. It destroyed their vessel and itself without a trace."

"Right," Willow confirmed, warming to her subject. "Well, there's a whole cache of Slaver technology on this planet, just waiting for someone to come along and, uh, dig in. One starship came this way a century ago and-"

"Oh, don't jerk my chain!" said Warren, a sudden expression of suspicion on his face. "If this treasure-trove of Slaver weapons has been so highly classified for a century... how is it that you know about it? You're hardly a fleet admiral."

Willow gulped, at least mentally, although Tara was able to "hear" it. However, she figured that if she was going to swim in dangerous waters such as these, she might as well dive in headfirst. "Well, uh, actually, it's kinda funny, but to make a long story short... "

"This outta be good," Faith murmured.

"... I was here, a century ago, when the, uh, Slaver weapons were first discovered."

Despite himself, Warren found himself not dismissing this out of hand. "Really. You're very well preserved for being over a century old."

"Lt. Rosenberg has only recently arrived in this time period," Murdock supplied helpfully, feeling like a bystander. At what point did I lose control of this situation?

Jonathan suddenly gaped in astonishment. "Of course! I kept wondering why you looked so familiar... you're Willow Rosenberg!"

"I am?" Willow replied in confusion. "I mean, I am, yes, but... you know me?"

"Know you? You were one of the best 'sneakers' in Starfleet! When I was a cadet, that sneak you did to get you and your buddies assigned to the same ship... .that was legendary!"

In spite of everything, Tara could not resist giving Willow a mildly scathing look. "'Sneaker'?"

Willow rolled her eyes. "Let's not get into it now."

Jonathan, meanwhile, was busy convincing Warren "I remember that she disappeared about ninety years ago. But I know what she looks like from visual records. This is her."

Warren slowly nodded. "And if what she says is true... All right, Lt. Rosenberg. You can lead me to this cache of Slaver weapons." He reached over and grabbed Tara's arm. "Your friend here is going to keep us company... and ensure that you will not do anything foolish." He turned to Faith. "Keep Murdock here. If and when his playmates get past the Trieste, we'll need him as a hostage, or at least to slow them down." He gestured to Willow with his phaser. "Lead on, Lieutenant."

"Warren! ...or whatever your name is-" Murdock snarled, stepping forward seemingly heedless of the weapons trained on him.

"Save the pointless machismo, Captain," Warren replied, tugging Tara by her arm.

"We'll be okay, sir," Tara said, making a fairly good effort to keep the trepidation out of her voice.

"I know what I'm doing, sir," Willow added, keeping her voice neutral.

That's what I'm afraid of, Murdock thought as Faith steered him over to a worktable against one wall of the common room. Realizing there was nothing he could do for Willow and Tara at that moment, he decided to take what action he could to improve his own chances, at least to stall until help from the Hannibal arrived.

Harry tried teaching me how to slip out of handcuffs, he thought ruefully, but I never could get the knack of it. Guess I'm going to have to do this the hard way. The trick, of course, was to do this without giving away, by facial expression, what he was doing with his back and arms against the wall. Although the other Maquis, including Jonathan, had drifted over to the other end of the room, Faith was keeping a somewhat informal watch on him.

Deciding that distracting her would be the best course (and having never been the Strong Silent Type himself), struggling to keep a level tone in his voice, he said, "You do know your buddy Warren is not what he seems, right?"

"I'm pretty sure it's this way," Willow said, having absolutely no idea where she was going. Once outside the facility, the panorama was severely depressing. The dark skies overhead (was it night or day? With such a weak sun, it was hard to tell... ) did little to leaven the dreary landscape of broken rock and dusty ruins, which stretched out in every direction to the limit of visibility. The thin keening of the wind, whistling through ancient half-decayed columns and crumbling remnants of structures, made Willow think of campfire ghost stories and ancient video horror tales. It was just cold enough to be uncomfortable; however, she did not think Warren would be considerate enough to let her beam back up to the ship for a jacket.

The Maquis leader had retained his grip on Tara, keeping her and himself about four meters behind Willow. He looked around impatiently. "What is all this? These ruins can't be Slaver architecture... that would make them over a billion years old. They'd have long since decayed to dust."

"Uh, yeah," Willow conceded. "These were built by another species, long after the-" she almost mentioned the true occupant of this planet, but stopped herself in time, "-the Slaver weapons were left here."

"Fine," Warren snapped. "I don't really care for an archeology lecture, thank you. All I want is the Slaver weapons, so I can take them-" He cut himself off sharply.

"To Cardassia?" Tara turned towards him as she said this. Warren kept his face neutral, but she could feel his shock at her statement. "Your people are not the easier for me to read, but given time, I can pick up your emotions. They feel different from a human's."

"We knew one of you was a Cardassian," Willow added, turning back towards the him and Tara, "we found your DNA at Memory Alpha. Those ribonucleic tags would probably fool a tricorder scan, but they kinda punked out against a properly calibrated molecular analyzer."

"See, I didn't put it all together until I heard you call him by name," Murdock said to Faith, who was listening with a mostly genuine air of derision, "Willow's analysis told me that there was a Cardassian among you. Plus, I had the advantage of a classified report from Starfleet Intelligence, concerning your 'friend.'"

At this point, Jonathan, who had been pretending to not be eavesdropping, strode over. "There's only one flaw in your grandiose tale, Captain. I knew Warren Mears, well, okay, as a casual acquaintance, when he was an engineering ensign on the Livingstone. Although, now that I think of it, it was surprising to find that he had defected to the Maquis, but... " A cloud momentarily moved over the small man's pinched features, then quickly dispersed. "I cannot believe he was a Cardassian all those years, without somebody in Starfleet noticing...

"Yeah, I figure even you guys aren't that gullible," Faith added, smiling at Murdock.

The captain, however, was far from done. "Actually, that's what the classified report explains. Y'see, there was a real, human Warren Mears, that you knew from the Livingstone. And yes, he did go AWOL from Starfleet, either to join the Maquis or he just had a hot date-"

"Don't bet on Door Number Two," Faith said with a smirk.

"Only, he somehow ended up on Klaestron IV, dead by phaser blast. His body was identified by Starfleet Intelligence. My guess is, the Cardassian Obsidian Order saw this as an opportunity too good to pass up." As he spoke, his arms subtly strained behind his back as he leaned against the wall.

"An opportunity for what?" Faith asked, her skepticism diminishing in spite of her best efforts.

"I was surgically altered to replace the real Warren Mears, to infiltrate the Maquis," 'Warren' explained, as he prodded Willow to continue leading him to the cache of Slaver weapons. "I have to say, it was easier than trying to pass me off as a Starfleet officer. Your people may have no stomach for conquest, but you're grindingly thorough about security... not to mention medical protocols."

Tara nodded. "You'd have given yourself away in no time aboard a Federation starship. But with the Maquis..."

"Which is kinda made up of the dregs of the galaxy anyway," Willow interjected, walking ahead of them. She was becoming more unsure of which direction she was leading 'Warren,' and she wasn't sure if this was a good thing or not.

"There was an organization on your world in times past," 'Warren' countered, "called the Foreign Legion, which as I recall was made up of expatriates, murderers and other so-called dregs, but was nevertheless a viable fighting force. Anyway, I am none of those things. I am an operative of the Obsidian Order, a patriot fighting for the greater glory of Cardassia."

"By attacking defenseless colonists?" Tara said, her gentle tones underlined with steel.

"The colonies along the DMZ are small potatoes, Lieutenant," the disguised spy sneered back, gripping her arm tighter in retaliation. "Since the Maquis count amongst theirs members so many ex-Starfleeters, many of whom still have access to sensitive material, I had an inroad to some of the Federation's deadliest secrets. The Maquis, especially misguided fools like Jonathan, did most of the work for me." He smiled at Tara, who did not find the expression endearing, especially as she knew what truly lay under the bland face. "One of the mission directives the Order gave me was to find out what Curator was. Thanks not only to the Maquis, but to your friend there," he indicated Willow, desperately trying to stall for time, "I've succeeded beyond my wildest imaginings!"

"I am so not buying this," Faith said, not as convincingly as she might have hoped. Jonathan had already gone away, his perpetually wan expression further creased with nagging doubts. "You're just trying to stall for time until your little buddies get here." She turned and started to walk away.

Now or never, old boy, Murdock thought to himself as he performed one more furtive torsion with his bound arms. "Well, you're right about that," he called out brightly, "but there is something else you really, really need to know."

Faith turned back to him, rolling her eyes but nevertheless striding to within a meter of him. "Yeah? And what would that be?"

The fist that came around from behind his back was too fast for her to avoid, tagging her with incredible force on the side of her jaw in a flawless uppercut. She was unconscious too quickly to even wonder how he had gotten loose...

"You need better handcuffs," he quipped as he tossed the bent binders, stretched by inhuman strength until he could slip out of them, onto her prone form, and charged up from the table.

Jonathan turned at the sound of Faith hitting the floor and saw Murdock charging toward him like a Klingon targ on a death-hunt. His phaser rifle was still in his hands, but the sight of one hundred kilograms of human juggernaut made him hesitate for a split-second... and as they say of those who do, he was lost.

Bending low, Murdock scooped up Jonathan bodily, uttering a gutteral cry like a Viking berserker. The other Maquis turned en masse, some of them drawing weapons, but they saw Murdock charging toward them, partially shielded by Jonathan's body, and froze. A moment later, the captain and his erstwhile passenger collided into the group of them, knocking most of them to the floor.

Murdock's moment of triumph was short-lived as he disappeared beneath a phalanx of swinging fists and feet.

Uh oh, Willow thought as she rounded a large, broken column...and saw a rounded, archlike stone monolith. From what she had learned 'sneaking' into a Federation data archive last century, she was sure that this was the Guardian of Forever. Ohhhhh, great. Led him right to it, didn't I? For the past fifteen minutes, she had been trying to lead Warren along a random course...

A couple of meters away, Tara could feel Willow's chagrin and apprehension, and tried hard not to fidget involuntarily.

"What?" 'Warren' inquired, seeing Willow stop and look around, not sure if it was in confusion or something else. He pushed Tara forward, past Willow into the small clearing in front of the monolith. He looked at it without much interest, scanning the surrounding structures. "Well? Where is it?"

Willow gulped. "Where's what?" she asked brightly, thinking that he had somehow penetrated her deception.

The pseudo-Maquis rolled his eyes in exasperation. "The Slaver weapons! The cache of weapons, technology!"

"Oh! Well, I think we, uh, made a wrong turn," Willow said, sounding lame in her own ears. "We have to go back this way..." she added, indicating the way that they had come.

"Wait!" the disguised Cardassian commanded, his eyes narrowing in suspicion. "I think you're stalling. Why?" He pointed his phaser menacingly at Willow, whose eyes were widening in fear.

The Maquis team in the facility figured, once the element of surprise has passed, that they would be able to overwhelm the Starfleet captain fairly quickly. After all, it was six to one odds, in their favor...

This concept lasted right up to the point that Murdock had disabled or otherwise rendered unconscious half of their group. His general hand-to-hand combat style wasn't terribly exotic, being a variation on Her Majesty's Basic Knuckle-Busting. Still, his punches had a lot of power behind them, far more than one would have expected from a human of Murdock's age and build. Plus, he tended to shrug off a lot of punishment he received in turn. They might have tried to use one of their energy weapons on him, but Murdock had contrived to knock any such weapons out of the immediate area.

Two of the Maquis had managed to get hold of each of Murdock's arms, while a third man, a rather large fellow by name of Percy, endeavored to render the captain unconscious by any means necessary...mostly, right in the face.

"C'mon, Percy, put 'im away!" one of Murdock's temporary captors growled, while keeping a death grip on the captain's wrist and bicep.

Gritting his teeth, Percy answered, "What do you..." (while slugging Murdock) "...think I'm...." (WHAM!) "...tryin' to do?!?" (POW!)

"Hey, leave 'im alone, he's doin' fine," Murdock quipped woozily. Even his endurance had limits, and Percy was no lightweight; getting pounded with rights and lefts from this bruiser, he was in serious danger of losing this fight.

Gotta time this just right, he decided as Percy clasped his hands into a double fist and prepared to swing a final haymaker. Now! Just as Percy swung, Murdock shoved himself left, pulling the Maquis man gripping his right arm along with him...right into Percy's blow, which caught him on the side of his head.

Suddenly freed, Murdock's right arm whipped around to seize the other man's arm on his left wrist, twisting it into immobility. He then kicked out at the approaching Percy, striking him in the knee, causing him to fall back. This gave Murdock time to punch his other opponent in the gut, then bodily propel him into the nearest console head-first. Once that was accomplished, the captain put Percy out of commission with a few well-placed jabs.

"And stay down," Murdock muttered as his last opponent sank to the floor. He breathed a huge sigh of relief, then gingerly touched his face. His teeth seemed to still be in place, but his face felt like raw hamburger. He could feel the rest of his body turning into one big bruise. Taking a deep breath, he looked around the humanoid debris on the floor for a weapon; if he was going to go after the ersatz Warren, and rescue Willow and Tara to boot, he'd better go packin'...

Perversely, there weren't any phasers or disruptors on any of the unconscious Maquis, at least on this side of the room. He would have to search the other side of the room. Standing up, he turned around...

...and found himself staring down the muzzle of Faith's disruptor. The brunette was standing two meters away, her left cheek slightly swollen, a nasty look in her brown eyes.

"Aw, heck," Murdock muttered.

"Y'know," Faith began conversationally, "if it's anything I hate, it's being sucker-punched." She gingerly touched the spot that Murdock had hit. "And I can't even remember the last time I was hit that hard. So what's your deep dark backstory?" Her rather breezy manner did not quite hide a genuine curiosity.

Murdock, apart from strangely mixed feelings of apprehension and flattery, found himself interested in her. Not everybody shrug off his Sunday punch so fast... "Well, I could ask the same thing about you. You're not exactly an off-the-rack job, either." He paused, rubbing his chin as if he was a university professor considering a number of scientific theories. "A couple of quick're either a Revisionist agent, or a descendant of one of the lost Eugenics Warriors."

"Wrong, and wrong, Genius Boy," Faith retorted smartly. Something in her manner, suggested to him...

"You don't know, do you? An orphan..."

"I wouldn't say that. I mean, I never met the actual parentals," she amended off-handedly, "but I did have a family. I mean, the guys who raised me were, well, let's just say, good family men."

Her emphasis on the word "family" made her meaning all too clear to Murdock. "The Orion Syndicate."

She smiled, in reminiscence or in appreciation of her clever pun. "Treated me like a real princess, they did." A sudden frown creased her features. "Well, that is, until it became, like, wicked obvious that I wasn't going to be," she glanced down at her own ripe figure, "'one of the boys.' Then they decided I should pay back their years of hospitality. Flat on my back, with my-"

"I get the picture," Murdock interjected, not unkindly. He couldn't help but feel sympathy for this girl. "I take you, um, 'tendered your resignation,' and ended up her in the Maquis, where they don't ask a lot of questions..."

"Well, I found out early on, I have mad skills in the ass-kicking department, and these guys sort of accepted my resume on, heh, faith," she chuckled. Coming to a sudden decision, she retrained the disruptor on him. "Look, it's been fun, but, y'know how it is, places to go, people to bust upó"

"Hold the phone, Gunslinger!" Murdock said, holding up his hands and not having to feign nervousness. "What's the rush? We were having a nice conversation, getting along just fine, now you just want to blow me away? Where's the fun in that?" He clenched his fists and assumed a comic-fighting stance. "How about a little exercise? One-on-one?"

Faith erupted in a rather girlish peal of laughter, which Murdock found both appealing and off-putting. "Oh, I read this book. This is where I throw my gun away, and we duke it out, mano a mano, right?" Her expression was the epitome of derision.

"Yeah, that's the book."

She smiled wryly at him, and Murdock would have bet even money that she was going to pull the trigger on him. Then, Faith lowered the disruptor, engaged its safety, and threw it behind her across the room, where it clattered to the floor. Shrugging off her jacket, revealing her well-muscled arms and shoulders, she said, "Y'know, actually, you're pretty cute for a Starfleet geek. I hate to have to kick your ass."

Murdock smiled. "Well, if I may be just as candid, you're fairly tasty yourself. I hate to have my ass kicked."

Letting her jacket drop to the floor, Faith suddenly rushed forward, throwing a fusillade of punches and kicks at Murdock. The captain blocked each in succession, while admiring the speed and power behind each. "See, you're pretty good, but with a little training-"

That's when the kick that Faith didn't telegraph came, the roundhouse spin kick to Murdock's jaw that knocked him flat. She stood over him in a defensive stance, cocky smile in place.

The smile faded as she looked into Murdock's eyes as he got up. The cool, unruffled demeanor was replaced by an almost feral aspect, as the tight lid that Murdock usually kept on his temper started to come loose like a overstressed pressure cooker. He wiped at his mouth with his thumb and, seeing the blood smeared there, looked at her with a savage grin and drawled, "Why, Ms. Jones... you're adorable."

For one of the few times in her life, Faith wondered if she wasn't in over her head.

'Warren' stepped closer to the stone arch, dragging Tara long while keeping his phaser trained on Willow. "What is this? At first, I thought it was just some piece of architectural junk, but..." His eyes narrowed. "It's too smooth. It almost looks like it was carved, or...molded." He looked suspiciously at Willow, who did her best to look nonchalant. "What is this?"

As soon as the question left 'Warren's' lips, a stentorian voice issued from the monolith, accompanied by a flashing light emanating from the stone: "I am the Guardian of Forever!" In spite of himself, and all the training given him by the Obsidian Order, 'Warren' could not help jumping back and uttering a non-unflappable "GAAAAH!"

Tara, only slightly less surprised, nevertheless seized the momentary advantage, by shoving herself back against the spy, her fingers scrambling towards his belt...and the electronic key to the binders. By blind luck, as much as any other factor, she managed to hit the correct sequence, and her hands were suddenly free. She turned to grapple with him, trying to wrest the phaser from him.

'Warren' was still surprised by the unexpected pronouncement and too close to shoot Tara. Unfortunately, his advanced hand-to-hand training reasserted itself. Jerking his hand back away, he swung the phaser at her, cracking her across the temple with the muzzle of the weapon. Tara's eyes rolled up and she sank to the ground with a grunt.

'Warren' stepped back from the collapsing counselor and shifted his aim towards Willow. However, Willow's binders had snapped open at the same moment at Tara's; once freed, she had started running towards their captor. By the time 'Warren' had disabled Tara, Willow was able to let fly with a fairly good snap kick, connecting with his forearm and causing the phaser to fly away over the ruins.

Willow followed up with a quick jab to his midsection, and was rewarded when he doubled over and woofed air. However, 'Warren' blocked her next punch, grabbed her arm and twisted himself around, using her momentum to throw her over his shoulder and to the ground.

Willow landed hard, momentarily losing her breath. Sensing rather than seeing Warren move toward her, she kicked upwards, and was rewarded as her boot connected with 'Warren's' shoulder, knocking him back long enough to roll to her feet.

Even as she faced off against him, glancing around desperately for the phaser or any other weapon, Willow knew that, given her opponent was larger, stronger and better trained, and she was unarmed and alone, it was only a matter of time.

Faith had, by this time, more than proved that her 'resume' was genuine, as she was basically beating the stuffing out of Murdock.

Not that he was not making a good showing. After ducking a spectacular roundhouse kick of hers, Murdock responded with two lightning-fast jabs to the face that knocked Faith down. She shook off the blows, however, and flipped to her feet, renewing her attack. Murdock tried repeatedly to hit her again, only to have block or avoid his shots with amazing speed and then counter with brutal force.

While Murdock may have had the advantage of superior strength, it seemed Faith had the edge on speed and agility. After several minutes of, mostly, his blocking her feet and fists with his body and head, the contest was probably going to be won by whomever had the greater endurance.

Faith was surprised to find herself actually breathing hard, and her arms and legs starting to ache. What the hell is keeping this guy up? I swear, I've knocked out Klingons faster than this! She shook out her arms to loosen them up, seeing Murdock wipe his hand across his bloody mouth, and felt renewed confidence. He's about had it. Faith saw, as he resumed a fighting stance, that his balance was off, and he was having trouble with his vision. Time to end this. Sorry, pal, it was fun, but...

Murdock blocked the kick she had used as a feint, drawing him into a perfect setup for her killer right hook...

...which he avoided by stepping back, grabbing her wrist and pulling her around, spinning her into him. Murdock grabbed her around the waist and lifted her so her feet were no longer on the ground. Time, as the rabbit said, for a little "stragedy"...

Releasing her wrist, he savagely jabbed his thumb under her ear, going for the carotid artery, hoping to cut off the bloodflow to her brain. Faith wiggled like a trapped tiger, making it difficult to hold on to her and keep the pressure on her neck, especially when she had the presence of mind to grab his right arm and try to pry his hand away. With her desperate strength, and his own fading, Murdock feared that he was waited too long to try this maneuver, that she was going to get free and he wasn't going to be able to beat her, that Tara and Willow were going to die and he couldn't help them...

And then Faith suddenly went slack in his arms, like a warm sack of oatmeal. Even as the remaining rational part of his brain tried to tell him that this was a trick, that she was playing 'possum, his arms involuntarily let her drop to the floor. Fortunately, she showed no sign of getting up for a refresher course of Kick the Captain, for which was grateful, as his head started to swim.

He managed to stagger over to a worktable, taking deep breaths and trying to clear his aching head. Get a hold, boy, he admonished himself. Willow and Tara are out there with that Cardassian sonofabitch, and they probably need your help. So get your ass out there. He straightened up, once more fully in command of his faculties.

A half-minute search produced an old-style phaser in working order. He looked around at the unconscious Maquis, then at Faith, still out cold. He noted with satisfaction that she was breathing, though shallow and slow. He could not help but notice her ample bosom swelling with each inhalation, and some very un-officer-like and un-gentleman-like thoughts went through his head.

Murdock shrugged, internally and externally. "Some other time." He exited the facility, looking for tracks.

Calling on every trick Buffy had ever taught her, Willow actually managed to keep 'Warren' off-balance for a lot longer than she thought possible. He was starting to look a little groggy around the edges...

Then her own fatigue caught up to her, or perhaps she got careless. Whatever. A poorly-aimed kick enabled the Cardassian to grab her outstretched leg and heave her off-balance, causing her to fall to the dusty ground. Before she could catch her breath, 'Warren' picked her up bodily to her feet and threw her right at the stone archway of the Guardian.

Willow just managed to stop herself from cracking her head on the stone, but the impact still stunned her, giving her no time to recover before 'Warren' strode over, spun her around, and grabbed the front of her uniform in one fist.

Cocking his right fist behind him to deliver a final blow, 'Warren' sneered, "Say good-night, bitch!"

A pale hand, seemingly delicate but pretty powerful nonetheless, gripped his wrist before he could strike. Tara stood there, the blood on one side of her face not dimming one iota the blazing radiance of her blue eyes. "Good-night, bitch," she answered conversationally as she slammed her knee into 'Warren's' groin.

Apparently even the Cardassian male physiognomy had that particular liability, as he immediately reacted. Willow, buoyed by fresh adrenaline, sent her own knee upward, to catch 'Warren' right across his descending face. He reeled backward, his head spinning.

Tara and Willow each grabbed one of his shoulders. Willow curled her left fist, while Tara's right, palm up, fingers curled, prepared to smash him with her power focused on the heel of the hand.

With amazing synchronicity, they struck. The impressive CRACK! of the double punch was followed by the impressive thump of the soi-disant Maquis hitting the dirt and sliding at least a meter, down for the count.

"Ow, ow, ow! Happy, but ow!" Willow cried, rubbing her aching knuckles. Buffy had always made this look so easy and fun...

"I know," Tara said, massaging the heel of her hand. "I'm not good at this, either. I think we, um, need to leave the rough stuff to Thelvran and his buddies."

"I'll vote for that. Are you okay? Your head..." Willow trailed off as she inspected the side of Tara's face, where blood had matted the blond hair.

"I'm fine. It's barely more than a cut, really. Head wounds always look gross... How's about you? He didn't h-hurt you, did he?" Tara cast a surprisingly venomous glance at the unconscious spy.

"Not really. More dirty than anything else." Willow made an effort to brush the dust off her uniform. "Anybody know where there's a bathtub around here?" she asked cheekily. Abruptly sobering, she added, "And, uh, thanks for making like, y'know, the cavalry there..."

"Hey, nobody messes with my-"

"With your... what?" Willow inquired gently, when Tara abruptly truncated herself. Looking into the blonde counselor's eyes, Willow suddenly felt warm, as if she was wrapped in a blanket and held close in the arms of someone she loved.

For a timeless moment, the two women stood there, not speaking, sharing a communication on a level beyond that of the pure mind. Time seemed to creep forward slowly as hands reached up, two women slowly drew one another near, two pairs of eyes closed, heads tilting in unspoken unison, a step further and...

The sudden noise made them spring apart, expecting one or more of 'Warren's' Maquis cohorts to spring into action... only to find their captain staring at the scene he found before his eyes.

Murdock wasn't sure where to look first, at the unconscious Maquis on the ground or the stone monolith. Or possibly at his two young officers, who were... what? He couldn't quite decide, so the matter was tabled for the moment.

"I seem my timely arrival was not a moment too soon," he quipped. He was impressed. Two unarmed, handcuffed (although that didn't seem a factor anymore) officers, not even security-trained, managed to take down a member of the Obsidian Order. "Not bad." He lowered the phaser that he had been leveling since leaving the science facility. "Are you two okay?" He walked over to them, his eyes drawn to Tara's head wound.

"It looks worse than it is, Captain, I... oh, God," Tara said, as when she saw the extent of Murdock's damage, which included a split lip, a bruised cheek and one eye nearly swollen shut. "Captain, your face!"

"Yeah, I know, I was born with it," he replied, and was rewarded with a most insubordinate rolling of eyes from the both of them. "I had a little workout with Faith and her All-Boy Orchestra." He started to smile, then stopped as his abused face revenged itself. "Unh. Not the most fun I've had lately." His eyes wandered over to the stone archway; after a second glance, he realized what it probably must have been.

"That's the, uh, whatchamacallit?"

"The Guardian of Forever," Willow confirmed.

"It talked," Tara added.

Murdock studied the monolith for a few seconds. "Hunh. Y'know, for some reason I was expecting...a mile-long valley filled with hundred-meter-tall talking statues. This just kinda seems... I don't know... cheap." He shrugged, then emitted a quick laugh that just as swiftly turned into a groan. Willow and Tara smiled at him sympathetically.

An indistinct sound from the direction of the facility made the three of them turn, Murdock about to warn the junior officers to take cover whilst he sought a defensive position, when another shout of "Captain!" followed by "Lt. Maclay! Lt Rosenberg!" reassured the three that the cavalry had arrived.

Murdock was the first to spot Thelvran leading a party of security personnel, Gunn bringing up the rear with his everpresent phaser rifle. Tara picked up a quick flash of irritation from the captain, who muttered, "Nice team spirit, Morty," under his breath. She didn't catch the reference, but she figured that he was irritated that Thelvran took so long to get there.

However, by the time the Andorian had made his way to the clearing in front of the Guardian, Murdock had apparently worked out his annoyance. "Good to see you, Mr. Thelvran," he said, with genuine relish. He noticed the security guards glancing at his face. "Don't sweat it, gang, it only hurts when I live. Status report?"

"The Hannibal is secure, sir," Thelvran recited, his clipped tones nonetheless betraying a professional satisfaction. "We have taken all the Maquis on board into custody, including the team on the bridge after you all beamed out. Casualties were light; Specialist Valek suffered a broken jaw, and Specialist Ele'ar received several cracked ribs and a fractured sternum."

"Ouch," Tara commented.

"We managed to disable the Trieste; then, Commander Faraday ordered Lt. Commander Kolrami to lead an away team to board the Trieste. Since the transport inhibitors were preventing us from beaming down here, I led two security teams down here in the Yamamoto and the Huxley."

Murdock nodded. "Any word from the Trieste?"

"Yes, sir. Commander Faraday informed me that Kolrami's team was successful. The Maquis had apparently only a skeleton crew in place. The ship's personnel were anesthetized but essentially unharmed; Dr. Govarr should be able to revive them readily."

"And the, um, science facility?" Murdock asked. He knew he was treading on uncertain ground, as Thelvran and his people weren't cleared to know about the Guardian; however, there was no telling what sort of clues there might be somewhere in the facility. Besides, it was not as if he could simply order them not to be curious...

"We found the station's personnel, sir, in one of the anterooms. Some of them had received some injuries, that I take to be results of, well, extreme persuasion. However, no permanent damage seems to have been done. In any case, we secured the Maquis that you apparently left for us." He gave Murdock a look of frank admiration, then glanced at 'Warren,' still out cold on the ground. "Nice work, Captain."

"Well, thanks, but he wasn't mine. You can thank Ali and Frazier over there," he said, pointing to Willow and Tara, who looked, respectively, inordinately pleased and mildly embarrassed. "They conducted that, uh, negotiation."

Thelvran nodded, then gave the captain a puzzled look. "This 'Ali' and 'Frazier'... they were good negotiators?"

Murdock smiled (carefully). "Some of the best, Mr. Thelvran." He indicated the unconscious Cardassian. "Book 'em, Danno," he said jovially.

Thelvran was about to inquire about the phrase when Gunn clapped him on the arm. "S'alright, Chief, I got it." Detailing two security guards, each of whom looked able to break 'Warren' in half (especially the female guard), Gunn strode over to 'Warren' and proceeded to cover him with the rifle while the other two picked him up and bound his wrists behind him. "You have the right to remain unconscious. Anything you say isn't going to be worth listening to anyway..."

Murdock watched this for a moment, bemused, then turned back to Thelvran. "I hope the guards you left there are extra careful. The woman is a lot stronger than she..."

The Andorian's confused expression made the captain trail off. "Captain... there was no female Maquis there, and I accounted for all the facility's scientific personnel."

"How many Maquis were there?"


Murdock looked over at Willow. "There were, I think, nine, counting him, right?"

Willow nodded abstractedly. "Uh, yes, nine. So there should have been eight. That makes two unaccounted for."

"Oh, Screaming Lord Sutch! C'mon," the captain barked, heading back towards the facility in a dead run. Thelvran and several others headed off with him, including the two half-carrying 'Warren.'

Gunn stayed back, keeping an eye on Tara and Willow. "Um, hang on, what's the plural of 'ma'm? Anyway, I think we should go along with."

"Yes, Mr. Gunn, thank you," Tara said, smiling.

"Um, yes, but never end a sentence with a preposition," Willow added with a cheeky grin... which faded as she suddenly blinked and staggered, leaning against a broken column.

"Willow?" Tara rushed toward, preparing to catch Willow if she fainted. Gunn, too, was setting himself, even setting his rifle down against a piece of wall. However, Willow straightened in almost immediately, shaking her head firmly.

"Whoa... just got dizzy there for a second. Maybe that big puncharoo had a delayed reaction there. Look, I'll be okay, I'm right behind you."

"Are you sure?" Tara asked, gently touching Willow's shoulder.

"Sure I'm sure. I'll just be a minute, Tara."

Tara nodded and smiled, then turned to head back towards the facility. Gunn picked up his phaser rifle. "If you're not there five minutes after us, ma'm, I'll head back here." As casual as he sounded, Gunn had a serious air about him.

"No problem. Grab yourself a cup o' coffee."

On the far side of the planet, heading on a bearing diametrically opposite to the Hannibal's position, the Admiral Byrd leapt into warp.

In the main wardroom off the bridge, Faith woke up on one of the transom couches with a splitting headache. She blinked in surprise; she had expected to wake up in the Hannibal's brig behind a force field. She sat up quickly to see who else was on board... then regretted it as her head rebelled against her. Groaning, Faith rubbed her temples to restore as much brain function as she possibly could until she felt well enough to stand up.

A minute or so later, she made her way onto the Byrd's bridge, to find Jonathan at the helm. "Hey," he said in greeting. "How ya feeling?"

"Not bad, y'know, nothing that a head transplant wouldn't cure," Faith averred. "Where are we? I mean, heading, I know you and I are-"

"Back towards the Demilitarized Zone. I know there's a Maquis cell somewhere near Minos Corva. We can probably crash with them."

Faith nodded. "Anybody else make it out?"

Jonathan stared hard at the controls. "No. Basically, I laid low after Murdock took out the others and then... once he left, I dragged you outside and hid us nearby. I knew the security team from the Hannibal would turn off the transport inhibitor once they got the facility-"

"And then, instant beam-up. Pretty slick, Slick," Faith commented. She took a step nearer to him. "How come you took the trouble to carry me out? You didn't need me to get away; hell, I would have just slowed you down..."

"Yeah, well, you're not the greatest conversationalist in the galaxy, but you beat talking to myself." Jonathan cast a glance over his shoulder to see her wry expression, then turned back. "Why you go back there and sack out for a while? I can handle things here."

"You got it," Faith replied, returning to the aft compartment and laying back down. She reached up to her face to rub the spot where Murdock had hit her. She smiled again, a surprisingly non-belligerent, even pleasant beam.

"Some other time," she purred.

As she watched Gunn and Tara move off, Willow's countenance changed from nonchalance to a grim determination... and a slight sadness. She hated lying, especially to Tara, and was simultaneously amazed that she pulled it off, given the blonde's empathic abilities. Well, she's empathic, not omniscient. I just hope she can find it in her heart to forgive me.

Willow turned back and walked towards the stone monolith. Taking a deep breath, and saying a quick prayer under her breath, Willow attempted to address the Guardian of Forever.

"Um... hello? Guardian?"

The arch flashed light, and the deep voice, which reminded Willow of a intercity shuttle attendant she had known from her childhood on Centaurus, replied "Greetings, Willow Rosenberg."

Taken considerably aback, she answered, "You, uh, know me?"

"Since before your sun burned hot in space, and before your race was born, I have awaited... your arrival."

"How could you be await- Oh. Of course. You're a time portal! Probably able to see the future, or any possible future. 'Course, I don't know how you'd- What the hell am I doing? And why am I asking you?" Willow shook her head in irritation, quickly regretting it as the mild headache she had became aggravated. "Okay, focusing here... Guardian, if you knew I was coming... then you know what I want."

For a long moment, the time portal said nothing. Then, the ruins that could be seen through the center of the arch became obscured, as if a sudden fog had erupted. This fog, however, started coalescing into images of... robed tribesman herding oxen and goats across plains and mountains.

"Behold," the Guardian rumbled, trembling the very air around it, "your past."

"Cool," Willow whispered.

One of the security guards, dispatched by Thelvran outside of the facility to look for any signs of Faith or Jonathan ("That little weaselly guy... he's gone too!"), came back in a minute later, with a tricorder bearing signs of residual ionization...

"They transported out," Murdock muttered.

"They must have done so when I deactivated the inhibitor," Thelvran added, looking woebegone. "I'm such a witnit!"

"Nitwit," Murdock corrected automatically. "Belay that, Lieutenant. This is my fault." He turned to Tara, who had just come in with Gunn. "My brilliant scheme managed to get us captured, you and Willow nearly killed, and me almost beaten to a pulp." He sighed. "I love it when a plan comes together."

The self-conscious irony of his statement, coupled with the general air of defeat in both him and Thelvran, prompted Tara to intervene. "Sir, if I m-may... we captured at least most of a Maquis cell, and prevented them from-" she paused to choose her words carefully, given that Thelvran and the others were listening, "-from, um, committing a serious breach of Federation security. And nobody on our side got killed. I would call that... an above-average day."

Murdock slowly smiled, reached out a hand and gripped Tara's arm affectionately. As he did, Tara looked at his face... and wondered.

Maybe it was just the light inside the facility was different than the crepuscular gloom outside, but his face didn't appear as hurt as before. The cut on his lower lip did not look nearly as bad; the bruise on his cheek had seemingly faded from dark purple to barely lavender. And his eye now merely looked slightly puffy, as opposed to nearly swollen shut. Tara knew for a fact that he had received no medical attention; when one of Thelvran's men had approached him with a medical kit from the shuttlecraft, Murdock waved him with a curt "I'm fine. Go help her," meaning Tara. (A quick pass with the dermal regenerator had taken care of the minor head laceration, making her feel much better). He shouldn't be healing that fast on his own... should he? Maybe I'm wrong. Should ask Willow; maybe I saw it worse than it was outside...

The thought of Willow made her look around to see if she had made it back here. At the same moment, Murdock beckoned the man holding the medical kit, thinking he should give Willow a quick once-over. The captain and the counselor came to the same conclusion. "Where's Willow?" Murdock inquired of Tara.

"Sh-she said she was feeling a little dizzy, and that, um, she'd be along in a minute." Murdock nodded absently. "You think she might be in trouble, sir?"

Murdock shrugged. "I don't know. Of course, there's nobody here but us chickens, Counselor, not counting the-"

At first Tara thought the captain was censoring himself for security reasons. That is, until she picked up the wave of sheer horror emanating from him that made her gasp for air. Half a second later, the same thought occurred to her, and she turned to stare into Murdock's eyes. "The Guardian!" she whispered.

Murdock nodded. "She's going back to the twenty-third century."

Continue to Equilibration Chapter Eleven

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