From long habit, Tara Maclay was an early riser. Well before the computer chimed and raised the lights in her quarters, she awoke to find Willow Rosenberg next to her, still asleep, as she had awoken to find her lover next to her for most of the last two months.
Rolling over, Tara maneuvered her arms around Willow's body, sliding over and under the soft skin and resting between gentle curves, gently pulling the two of them together. The redhead murmured softly, shifting slightly with the new warmth at her back as Tara's breasts pressed against her shoulder blades.
Tara luxuriated in the feel of skin on skin, simultaneously chagrined that the two of them had slept au natural. Not that she was ashamed of that, or even that it was against regulations, per se. It was just expect that, as Starfleet officers, they were somewhat expected to remain "decent" at all hours, as much as possible.
"After all," Willow had remarked on one occasion, "we might need to repel a Jem'Hadar attack in our jammies."
Tara had smiled at that. "Frankly, I think the Jem'Hadar would be repelled most effectively by your use of the word 'jammies'." She'd gotten a pillow in the face for that one, which had led to full-scale hostilities, which thankfully was settled without loss of life, except for one of their pillows.
Besides, last night had been a special occasion... a reunion, of sorts. Really, it had been all her idea...
"Are you breaking up with me?" Willow had cried out a few nights ago in Tara's quarters, when Tara had suggested they try sleeping apart once in a while. "Why? Tara, what did I do? What did I not do? I don't understand, this is-"
"Willow, shush!" Tara's expression had combined equal parts of bemusement and exasperation. Well, all right, maybe the bemusement was ahead somewhat.
"Okay, shushing now..."
Tara had had to struggle not to laugh at Willow's Contrite Face. She reached over and took her lover's hands, drawing them to her chest in an expression of affection. "Sweetie, being with you has been the best thing that's ever h-happened to me. I don't think I've ever been this happy."
"Well, me neither, baby. So why... ?"
"Willow, I love going to bed with you, and I love waking up with you in the morning. It-it's just, I-I don't want it to, y'know, grow stale. D'you g-get it?"
Tara's empathic senses had picked up Willow's dawning comprehension (and incredible relief) even as she smiled. "Yeah, I do. You wanna keep that, sort of, glow, that God-it's-wonderful-to-be-alive feeling, before we turn into the Old Folks at Home. Y'know, cheating at bingo together and forgetting to take our pills..."
Hearing Willow put her feelings into different words had given Tara's anxieties a new slant. "Actually, th-th-this is kinda selfish of m-me, isn't it?"
"No, it's not," Willow had countered firmly. Then she had reconsidered. "Okay, a little, but you know, that's not necessarily a bad thing. I mean, I'm not sure I want to, uh, be with, an absolute saint. 'Cause, you know, the sinners are much more fun."
Tara had rolled her eyes. "That's what I get with you listening to the captain's 'classical' music selection at the Tart 'n' Drum." She smiled then. "So, w-we're okay? I-I mean, you're okay with this, right?"
"Sure. I mean, I got lots of reports I can peruse, scientific journals to catch up on, all sorts of stuff to keep my busy little brain happy." Willow stood up from the chair in the front room. "So, I guess I'll mosey on to my quarters..."
Tara had stood then and grabbed Willow's hand again. "No need to rush off." She gave her sexist lopsided grin.
After she and Willow had had "one for the road," she had used her free time that evening to catch up on some crew evaluations for her superior, the senior counselor Dr. Charles Devereux. Tara had dinner with Willow the next evening, which was very pleasant, and she had again returned to her quarters alone.
Several hours later, even after reading more psychology journals than she had ever read since Starfleet Academy, Tara still could not sleep. After a glass of warm milk (her mother's balm for insomnia) failed to do anything, she was considering going down to Sickbay to see if they could prescribe anything, when the chime at her door startled her.
She padded out to the front room and called out, "Yes?" The door opened to reveal Willow, clad in her pajamas and robe. The sheepish expression on her face was so cute...
"Hi," Tara had said. "Wh-what's wrong?"
Willow half-shrugged. "I can't sleep, Tara."
Tara sagged, partly in defeat, but mostly in relief. "Oh, thank God! Neither can I!" She rushed over to Willow's waiting arms, kissing her deeply even as eager hands started pulling the nightgown from her body.
Clothes flew like a warp-core explosion. The two of them had barely made it to the bedroom before succumbing to one another.
Now, the next morning, Tara sighed as she pulled Willow closer to her. The redhead murmured again, as she often did in sleep. It had taken a few nights for Tara to get used to Willow suddenly spouting some nonsensical phrase at oh-something-hundred hours. Several times the blonde had shaken her lover awake, afraid that she was in the throes of some horrible nightmare, usually involving frogs, clowns or Gilbert & Sullivan, if not some ghastly combination of all the above.
"It's in the food synthesizer," Willow was muttering sleepily.
Tara grinned, nudging the stirring form beside her. "Willow, you're dreaming. Wake up."
A slight shift in the mental radiation that Tara received... "All DNA, assume standard orbit."
"Now you're faking," the blonde rejoined.
"A little," Willow admitted, opening her eyes and turning over to face her bedmate. "Hi."
"Hi." Tara leaned over for the morning kiss, as well as the obligatory dour expression for the "morning breath" that not even twenty-fourth-century technology (and the Hannibal's virtually germ-free environment) could entirely eliminate. Tara, at least, was philosophical in accepting this as a minor drawback in an otherwise heavenly arrangement.
A cheery beep heralded the computer raising the lights to a muted glow as it announced "Oh-five-thirty-hours."
Sighing, Tara released Willow and rose from the bed. "C'mon, sweetie. Time to get up."
Groaning, Willow countered, "Don't wanna..." sounding like a recalcitrant toddler.
Tara rolled her eyes. Left to her own devices, Willow would, Tara had no doubt, be out of bed at exactly the requisite hour, do her necessary morning routine, and report for her shift unfailingly on time. However, since being with Tara these last two months, the science officer has seemingly dumped all the responsibility of getting her rear in gear in the morning onto Tara's shoulder. So I guess I'm 'Mom' in this little scenario.
Maybe I like that.
However, she was not going to let Willow get away with it unscathed. Bending down and grasping the bedclothes, Tara yanked them off the bed, leaving Willow exposed in her skin. "Gaaahhh!" The redhead shivered theatrically, apparently forgetting the precise temperature-controlled environment in their quarters.
"Sorry, sweetie, but the gymnasium awaits." Tara dropped the bedclothes on the deck - they would make the bed later - and padded towards the vanity dresser for her workout togs.
Willow grimaced. "What's on the schedule at the Torture Mill today?"
"Chekkah practice with Thelvran."
"Ohhh, great. Andorian chop-socky. That hurts worse than the regular chop-socky. Hey, why don't we do swimming today. You know, wet watery goodness, without all the stinky sweat..."
"We did swimming yesterday, Will." Tara had already gathered up her white gi, and tossed Willow hers.
"Slavedriver." Sulking like a five-year-old child, Willow struggled into the gi.
Actually, once the two of them got to the gymnasium, and had done the preliminary stretching and practice-falling, Willow was the more aggressive of the two when Lt. Thelvran, their teacher and ship's security chief, had them demonstrate the chekkah moves against himself. She often used martial-arts moves that her friend Buffy, her roommate at Starfleet Academy and on the original USS Hannibal, had showed her years before, which combined with her natural reflexes made the science officer somewhat more formidable than she looked. Not that it did Willow any good; while the Andorian was not nearly as intense in the training sessions with the regular crew as he was with his security staff, the exercises inevitably ended with Willow, with Tara usually beside her, ass-over-teakettle on the padded deck, out of breath and wishing she could have stayed in bed.
"I am sorry, Lieutenant," Thelvran said, his blue face long with genuine regret. "However, I must say that you are not bad at all. Have you ever considered switching to Security?"
"Gee," puffed Willow, casting a sidelong glance at Tara, who similarly was trying to figure out which way was up, "Have I ever."
Frequently, they would see some of the other senior officers wandering through the gymnasium. Dr. Devereux had recently thrown himself back into his fitness regimen, in the process showing how much of the strength he had retained from his long youth. Olivia Faraday, the first officer, cut an impressive figure (and she had one, too, as both Willow and Tara remarked) as she exercised; on one memorable morning, the middle-aged Sikh had engaged Thelvran in a "friendly" sparring match that had Willow muttering privately to Tara that she wished she could have sold tickets to this match.
On more rare occasions, they saw the captain using a small, private alcove. It was just enclosed enough to separate it from the rest of the gym, without being complete inaccessible. Tara thought it odd that Captain Murdock, who was so open and accessible himself, would be so reticent in this way. Willow countered, when the two of them were alone and her partner has expressed this sentiment, that it might have had something to do with Murdock being a lot stronger than he looked...
"Did you happen to notice the setting on the gravimetrics machine he was using?" Willow had asked they had innocently walked on him using the machine, which involved lifting one's weight while in an artificially-heightened gravity field (a small feat, considering all the gravity on a starship is artificially generated). Tara had shaken her head. "He had it on five gees."
"Whoa-oa," the counselor had replied. That was like carrying four people who weighted exactly what you did on your back at once. Most humans barely got much past two gees.
The other memorable incident was when they had heard two different voices coming from the alcove. Their curiosity getting the better of them, they had drifted over to find the captain wearing a t-shirt and (hilarious!) silk boxing shorts, facing a similarly-clad young man with dark skin and a confident expression. They both wore large padded gloves and circled one another in the confined area defined by the jury-rigged holoemitters and engaged in sparring, verbal and otherwise.
"I be takin' you down, man," the holographic man jeered, his fancy footwork never ceasing, shoulders dipping at random moments to dodge imaginary blows to the head. "'Cause I'm so fast, I'm so foxy and I'm so pretty!"
"If you wanted to dance, pal," Murdock rejoined, "I'd put on some James Brown. Now, did I program you to bore me to death, or are we gonna box?"
"Hey, Brother James, he got some good dance moves," the captain's opponent conceded, finally putting his guard up, "but nothing on me... but, hey, speakin' of pretty," he added, apparently noticing Willow and Tara peaking into the alcove.
The captain made the mistake of turning his head towards the two, leaving himself open to a quick left jab. It didn't knock him down, being little more than a love-tap, but it made his opponent grin. Shaking his head, Murdock intoned, "Computer, freeze program." After the holographic boxer had obediently become a statue of light and force-fields, the captain turned again to Willow and Tara. "Can I help you?" he asked, a little nettled.
"Sorry, sir," came Tara's diffident reply.
"We were, um, just wondering about your friend there," Willow added, giving her best eager-young-space-cadet grin.
Murdock shrugged. "Just reviewing my footwork and stuff. Now, if you'll excuse me..." As they left, they could hear him reactivating the hologram, who resumed taunting the captain with a singsong, "Float like the butterfly, sting like the bee... you're goin' down, 'cause you ain't as pretty as me..." The two barely made it out of the gym before coming down with a terminal case of The Giggles.
This day, however, was much less eventful, if not less bruiseworthy. After their workout session, they went back to Tara's quarters for some breakfast and some quiet time together. Willow's waffles with goobajack syrup went down as quickly as Tara's mushroom omelette. Then the two headed for the sonic shower.
Doffing their workout clothes and tossing them in the general direction of the autovalet, they stepped into the shower together, only partly to save time, nor was it entirely for erotic reasons. Not that there was no intimate talk or touch to be had as the pair scrubbed one another, applying soap to those hard-to-reach places... or even those not-so-hard-to-reach-but-oh-so-fun-to-touch places. This was their time to shut out the rest of the universe, if only for a little while, to ensure that they each sent the other off to her day in the best of moods. Given the hazardous nature of duty and life in Starfleet, they both knew that on any day, this might be the time that would be saying good-bye.
"Do you know how much I love you?" Willow asked, her arms wrapped around Tara as the water and sonic waves gently lashed the two of them.
"I never get tired of you telling me how much," Tara replied, one hand caressing the redhead's face. "And it's not nearly as much as I love you." She frowned as the computer's chime heralded the beginning of their allotted time in the sonic shower. She sighed. "Will..."
"I know. Time."
After they had dried, changed into their uniforms and started applying makeup (Willow had admonished Tara, who had always been very minimalist, sticking mostly with a little lipstick: "You wanna hang around with a hot mama-yama like me, you're gonna have to look your best."), Tara had picked up a low-grade anxiety radiating from Willow. It seemed to be more of an anticipatory nature than a world-shattering concern. Still, it nagged her. Willow had never kept secrets from her (not that she was any good at it, being the loveable blabbermouth that she was) and Tara was just insecure enough to let it get to her.
It was also somewhat frustrating that she could not pick up anything more concrete from Willow when, the first night the two of them had made love, they had formed a psychic link in the process. For some hours afterward, Tara could actually hear Willow's thoughts and, astonishingly, vice versa. They had both remarked (without using their voices) that this was both cool and uncanny, as Tara's Betazoid mental abilities were rather diluted by her human heritage ("Terrible, having bad blood like that," Willow had quipped, vox solis) and Willow had no psychic abilities, at least according to any test she had had in her life.
However, the link had seemingly faded down to a bare minimum; Tara could frequently pick up Willow's emotions at a much greater distance than she could from other individuals, but that was about the extent of it. At least, when they were not in the throes of passion, when the link tended to become stronger...
As she applied mascara to her eyelashes, Tara casually asked, "So, wh-what's up for tonight," barely stumbling on the "what."
Seemingly, Willow did not pick up on Tara's nervous stammer; however, the emotional radiation that Tara was picking up escalated a half-octave. "Oh, you know, dinner, I guess. I think I can get us into Calavicci's," she added as she brushed blush on her cheeks, referring to the full-service Italian restaurant that was the pride of the Hannibal.
Tara started, nearly poking herself in the eye with the mascara applicator. "Really? How'd you manage that?" Calavicci's often required advance reservations, given that the chefs had to actually prepare the food using ovens and such.
Tara rolled her eyes, gave her face a final inspection and stepped back. Willow similarly did a once-over and smiled at their reflections in the mirror. "Better than mortal man deserves," she declared, putting her arm around Tara's hip.
In response, Tara turned to put her arms around Willow, drawing her in close. The redhead responded in kind, breathing in Tara's scent (both natural and applied, a combination of hyacinth and something uniquely Tara) and rubbing the wonderful shoulderblades. "Gotta get to the bridge," she murmured against Tara's shoulder, "do some stuff before the meeting."
A couple of weeks ago, Captain Murdock had instructed Willow to attend the weekly senior officers meeting; as science officer, Willow was the head of a department of the ship. On some ships, Science was handled entirely by Operations, placing it under Lt. Commander Kolrami's purview. Although Willow did report to Kolrami, she did enjoy a degree of autonomy (as much as any officer or crewman did on a starship) and directed the activities of the various science teams and laboratories, subject to the wishes and whims of the Command and Operations divisions.
Tara nodded. "I have to meet Charlie before he goes off to that. Then I have evaluations to process, patients to see, busy busy busy." She leaned forward and bussed Willow firmly. "Get outta here; I still have to do my hair."
"Booting me out to the cold, cruel starship; what kinda girlfriend are you?"
"Maybe I'll show you, if you manage to get us into Calavicci's." Tara had not had any real - that is, unreplicated - food since the captain's welcoming dinner (the night of the Bath Fluke, as Willow had labeled it). The replicator's best effort at manicotti did not come close to Celeste Calavicci's handmade masterpiece.
"Oooh," Willow purred. "Can't wait." A final peck, and Willow exited Tara's quarters, leaving Tara to wait until Willow had gotten away to a respectable distance Two months after the two had initiated their relationship, they still felt discretion was paramount.
Not that they were fooling anybody...
"Late night, huh?" Dr. Charles Devereux asked, after Tara stifled her third yawn since arriving at his office for their usual morning briefing.
"AARRrrrummm... um, yes, I-I mean, well, yes, it was," Tara replied, after shaking her head to clear it .
"Uh huh," the older man said; the expression on his face was not a leer, but it could have been a close cousin. "I did notice you caught up and then some on these crew evaluations. I mean, our work is important, but you have to have time for..."
"...for... what?" Tara prodded when Devereux trailed off, simultaneously wondering why she was opening the door like this. He had a way of getting under her skin that, while irritating, definitely enabled her to overcome a lot of her natural diffidence.
"For yourself. For other interests. For social activities."
Social. Oh, yeah, social. Actually, Tara, in Willow's company, was a lot more outgoing socially than she had ever been in her life. The two of them had gone out of eat (not at Calavicci's, unfortunately, but at the Tart 'n' Drum and at the ship's self-service replimat) and more than once had been joined by some of the other Hannibal crew.
One memorable evening, Willow and Jodell DaKar, the Trill chief engineer, traded hilarious stories about Francisco Cumberland, Willow's former captain on the old U.S.S. Hannibal almost a century ago. DaKar's previous host, Kiera, had been a helmsman some years before Willow had signed aboard ship. Tara had laughed harder than she had in quite a while on hearing DaKar's account of how Cumberland had goaded some Klingon captains in order to lure them away from attacked a peaceful scientific outpost; all she later recall of the tale was Cumberland apparently asking one Klingon captain if he had nude pictures of his mate, and if not, would he be interested in purchasing some. "At that point," DaKar had avered, "I decided it was time to update my will."
Tara smiled briefly at the memory, then dragged herself back to the counselor's office. She looked at Dr. Devereux, who seemed to be putting his professional face on, and decided to plunge in uncertain waters...although not headfirst. "Can I ask you a question?"
You just did, Devereux nearly quipped, mainly from habit, but he restrained himself as he noticed Tara's demeanor changed. Although she was outwardly composed, he could tell that she was nervous about what she wanted to discuss. He knew how much it took for Tara to open up like this; given that she was rapidly becoming as close to him as the daughter he had never had - and that Tara was helping him deal with the guilt and regret of not having a family - he would not abuse her trust in him.
"Let's say w-we have two people," Tara offered, when Devereux had assented, "they've just started a... relationship. And, um, right now, th-they're still in those, uh, initial stages, where it's very passionate, you know what I mean, right?"
"That hot, sweaty, can't-wait-till-ya-see-'em, tear-your-clothes-off stage? I've had some acquaintance with it," Devereux answered with mock gravity.
Tara frowned at him in mild rebuke, which was considerably leavened by the crooked corner of her mouth betraying her amusement. "Okay, now, um, wh-what happens when that whole stage... ends?"
Devereux leaned back in his chair, now in full Counselor mode. "Well, it never entirely goes away, Tara. Yes, it does get replaced with other things... trust, commitment, the knowledge that, God willing, this is the person you want to be with for the rest of your life, and with whom you hopefully build a home and a family. And even if that doesn't work out-"
Tara's empathic senses picked up the sharp, emotional pain that Devereux still carried, the only remnant of his wife, Rachel, long dead.
"-the commitment and trust becomes its own thing, becomes real and permanent, in a way that the passion never really does. Passion is fire, kiddo. A lot of times it may be what keeps us warm, keeps us alive, but you can't build a house solely from it."
Tara smiled. "Thanks, Charlie. I mean," she amended hastily, and probably futilely, "if, if someone asks me about this, now I know what to tell they. Them."
Tara glanced at the chronometer. "Oh. It's almost time for the senior officer's meeting."
Devereux nodded. "Uh huh. Which brings me to something else I want you to do." At Tara's unasked question, he added, "Come along with me. You can sit in."
"The s-senior officers meeting? But-but, I'm not-"
"You're a ship's counselor, they all know you, and it's good practice. You're just going to be an observer," he said, standing and walking from behind his desk. She stood up, too shocked to protest further, except...
"I-I have a couple of appointments, right after this..."
"I rescheduled them," Devereux threw back over his shoulder as he walked towards the door, expecting her to follow in his wake. "Consider this part of your education."
Tara rolled her eyes as she followed him out of the office and headed towards the turbolift. What is it with people on this ship always throwing me in the deep end?
At 1100 hours, Captain Murdock called the meeting to order.
At the head of the table, in the conference room off of the Main Bridge, was the captain. First Officer Faraday sat on his left, with Operations Manager Lt. Commander Gelfa Kolrami next to her; after the Zakdorn came the Trill Chief Engineer Jodell DaKar. Another chair, usually empty, now had Dr. Devereux.
In Devereux's usual place, to the captain's right, Tara sat rigidly, trying not to look as if she wanted to sink through the deck. Bad enough that Devereux decided to tell her about this on the spur of the moment...
"Lieutenant Maclay," Faraday had said as Tara and Devereux walked into the conference room, the last to arrive. "This is the senior officers' meeting."
"Yes, ma'm- sir, I kn-know," she had blurted in reply, tearing her gaze from Willow's comforting face.
Devereux had piped in, "I thought that having Lt. Maclay here, strictly as an observer, would be good experience for her, Commander."
"That's as may be, Doctor," the Sikh woman had replied evenly, "but you are required to clear with myself or Captain Murdock beforehand, and I-"
"Y'know, actually, Number One," Murdock had interjected, just as Tara shot a look at Devereux which could have cracked cast rhodinium, "Dr. Devereux did clear it with me... I neglected to inform you. My bad."
Faraday's sidelong glance at the captain indicated, at least somewhat within the bounds of protocol, that she wasn't buying that one for a second. If some of the expressions and traded subtle smirks going around the table were any indication, it wasn't going to be on anybody's best-seller list.
Nonetheless, the first officer knew better than to make an issue of it. With a smile that had seemed genuine (and, Tara felt empathically, was), Faraday had addressed Tara again. "In that case... welcome aboard, so to speak, Lieutenant."
"Why don't you take my usual spot, there?" Devereux had indicated the chair to the captain's right. Tara felt as if she was being sent to the Academy superintendent's office. Murdock smiled, probably guessing how she felt (Who's supposed to be the card-carrying empath around here - him or me? Tara had thought with mild rancor), and merely commented on the confidentiality of the proceedings.
"Oh, yes sir," she replied. "Kind of a watchword in my business."
The meeting began with Dr. Govarr, the Tellarite chief medical officer on Tara's right, detailing the status of Sickbay, which consisted solely of the report of Crewman Mendoza in the Isolation Care Unit for Vegan choriomeningitis. To Govarr's right, Lt. Thelvran, the Andorian chief of security, gave his update on new security procedures; apparently the Maquis incursion of the ship two months ago gave Thelvran the idea that his security forces could be even more efficient...
"What do you want, Thel?" DaKar asked. "Your guys nabbed the Maquis almost before they finished beaming over!"
"They still managed to at least temporarily overwhelm the Main Bridge and Sickbay, two of the most vital areas of the ship," Thelvran answered, his antennae twitching with feeling.
At the mention of the attack on the Bridge, Tara felt a spike of emotion from Captain Murdock - too quickly suppressed to be identified, but significant nonetheless. It didn't seem to be annoyance about the attack itself. She made a note for Devereux to ask him about it later.
"Yes, I know," Govarr rumbled. "I had to subdue two Maquis by myself!"
"No doubt you gave them one of your Tellarite home remedies," Thelvran had countered. DaKar chuckled at that, stifling his mirth when Faraday gave him a look. Willow practically had to bite her lower lip to keep from doing the same. Govarr bristled, a low growl coming from deep in his barrel chest. Tara was glad she was not sitting between the two. However, her empathic senses did not pick up any real hostility from the Tellarite, unusual for such a volatile race. Andorians, too, tended to be an aggressive mindset, but Thelvran's psyche seemed quite relaxed as well. Tara would later conclude that the two of them, while not friends, had grown so accustomed to one another that nowadays their bickering was purely force of habit, almost a formality.
"Boys," the captain intoned, "behave." Govarr subsided as Thelvran nodded, not quite able to keep the satisfaction off his face.
DaKar reported that Engineering was ticking along as usual, with an aside about some drills that he scheduled for his people in assembling the back-up warp core that sat disassembled in the aft Engineering section near the stored antimatter pods. Kolrami reported on the status of the ship's various resources, from holodeck usage to replicator power to shuttlecraft maintenance, which threatened to continue on until the captain or first officer cut her off. Tara had the feeling that a game had evolved here, with Kolrami seeing how long she could report on Operations before she got slammed to a stop.
Devereux gave a succinct report on the state of the crew's mental health. "Situation normal. Everybody's insane."
"Oh, thank God," Murdock muttered, responding to the running joke. He turned to Tara with mock solemnity. "Any outbreaks of sanity, you're to report it immediately.
"Yes, sir!" Tara replied with equal gravity, tapping a (fake) instruction into the PADD she was making notes on.
Willow gave a quick précis of the various Science subdepartment's projects, ending with a comment about Stellar Cartography's planned long-range survey of the Icarus IV comet: "It kinda got shut down when we changed course unexpectedly. I asked Commander Kolrami about that, but she..."
"Understood, Lieutenant," Murdock interjected. "Actually, since the main item on our agenda for this meeting has to do with our course change, let's press on.
"Starfleet has ordered us to proceed to Adigeon Prime to investigate possible instances of illicit genetic engineering being performed."
There were several indrawn breaths around the table. Tara's empathic sense got quite a workout gauging the levels of surprise radiating from various people.
Willow, not unsurprisingly, was giving off waves of confusion. "Y'know, been kinda out of the loop for a while, but I thought genetic engineering was still forbidden by the Federation Constitution."
"It is," Dr. Govarr answered gruffly, "as well as by the Seldonis III convention-"
"-and the Second Khitomer Accords," Murdock finished, "except under such circumstances as, uh, help me out, Doctor?"
"'Except where such conditions exist that the person in question is afflicted with a genetic disorder that may prove life-threatening beyond reasonable expectation of successful rehabilitative therapy.' At least, that's what is stated in the Starfleet Medical Code of Ethics under the relevant heading, " Govarr averred.
"Right," Murdock agreed. "Anyway, Starfleet Intelligence has gathered reports that genetic engineering has been performed on Adigeon Prime; our mission is to verify these reports, and, well, induce the local government to put a stop to it."
"They're not members of the Federation, are they?" Devereux inquired.
By way of answer, the captain motioned to Gelfa Kolrami, indicating that she should take that question. The Zakdorn cleared her throat and launched into her presentation. "To answer your question, no, Doctor, they are not. Adigeon Prime is a non-aligned world, outside not only the space listed as Federation territory, but also that claimed by the Cardassians, Ferengi and Tzenkethi. Although it has no indigenous intelligent species, it has been settled as a colony for almost two centuries, by various humanoid species, including but not limited to Ferengi, Dopterians, Xepolites, Zebalians, Flaxians, Tiburon, Klaestrons and other races," Kolrami sniffed at this point, "somewhat on the fringes of what we would call civilized society."
"Who does she mean by that?" Willow whispered to DaKar.
"Humans, probably," the Trill murmured back quietly.
"Remarkably, the planet's culture is relatively stable; it depends on trade with most of the major powers in the region, but it also boasts deposits of thorium, uridium, kelvanite, and borite," Kolrami continued. "Between the mining and the trade, the inhabitants enjoy a relatively high standard of living. There is, even, a minor tourist establishment, revolving around a natural phenomenon involving a high-pressure geyser that supposedly smells of peppermint.
"The planet itself is, obviously, Class M, approximately .95 standard gee, two small moons. It is the sixth planet in a system of fifteen; several outer gas giants harbor deuterium-mining facilities, which no doubt contributes revenue to the planet's economy-"
"Gelfa, I think we're getting into extraneous detail here," Murdock cut in.
"You always say that," Kolrami muttered darkly, before subsiding.
"How long has Starfleet Intelligence estimated that the genetic engineering has been performed on Adigeon Prime?" Dr. Govarr asked.
"About twenty years, at least," Murdock answered.
"And they're just now getting around to it?" Willow inquired.
"In light of the recent difficulties we've had with the Dominion," Faraday replied, "Starfleet Command feels that Adigeon Prime might be a potential stepping stone for our new adversaries. Since the Jem'Hadar reproduce by cloning, the facilities on that planet might be used to breed thousands of soldiers in a matter of weeks."
"Not to mention, any 'improvements' the Dominion might want to make in their warrior class, Adigeon Prime might harbor the capability to do so," Thelvran added.
"So what does Starfleet want us to do?" Devereux asked, leaning back in his chair laconically. "Go up and ask them politely to stop tinkering with chromosomes and play nice with the other kids?"
"More or less, yeah," Murdock replied. "Actually, Starfleet was... a little vague in how they wanted us to, how shall I say it, proceed on this mission."
"Hoo boy," the counselor muttered.
"What does that mean?" Tara asked, momentarily forgetting that she was meant to be only an observer.
However, no one commented on this as Devereux answered. "It means that Starfleet is basically sending us out with our collective fanny hanging out, with the express purpose of seeing who's going to shoot it off."
"Oh," Tara replied, chastened and somewhat annoyed.
"Leave it to the geniuses at Starfleet Command to come up with a plan like this," Faraday added, sounding both nettled and amused.
"I, for one, enjoy this sort of mission," Thelvran piped up enthusiastically. "A chance for some real adventure!"
Murdock smiled, as always bemused by the Andorian's gung-ho attitude. "I'm happy that you're happy, Lieutenant. Anyway, I'm certainly open to suggestions; I do have an idea that I want to sleep on first before I expose it to the light of day and possible ridicule. Gelfa, what's our ETA to Adigeon Prime?"
She consulted a PADD and made a quick calculation before answering. "Seventy-four hours, present speed, Captain."
"Good; that gives us a little preparation time. Onto the next item... " Murdock picked up his own PADD and gave it a quick perusal. Raising an eyebrow, he set it back down and addressed Tara. "Lieutenant, we now come to something that is highly classified. Would you please excuse us?"
"Yes, sir," Tara answered, saving the notes on her own PADD and pushing back her chair. She noticed Willow preparing to get up as well, apparently in anticipation of being asked to leave the conference room as well.
"Not you, Willow," Murdock called. "I need you here."
"Oh. Okay, Captain." She and Tara flashed see-you-later smiles at one another as the assistant counselor left the room.
As soon as the doors hissed shut behind Tara, Murdock leaned back in his chair, an almost predatory smile on his face. "So, Willow... does she suspect?"
Willow answered with a sickle-sharp smile of her own. "Not a thing."
Several hours later, after Alpha Shift had been relieved, Devereux went to find Murdock. When the computer informed him that he was in the gymnasium, he was hardly surprised. The counselor sighed; he knew the captain had been obsessed about something for the past couple of months, ever since the Maquis attack. Devereux knew that getting whatever was bugging Murdock out of him was going to be like pulling teeth from a cow. Without pliers.
Sure enough, the captain was dressed in the same kind of silk shorts and sleeveless pullover that he affected whenever he ran this boxing program in this half-assed mini-holodeck he and DaKar had gadgeted together. Devereux wondered briefly if Murdock had discussed his problem, whatever it was, with the Trill, given their history together. He toyed with the idea of asking DaKar and getting the story out of him, rather than dealing with Murdock so directly.
Unfortunately, Devereux mused as he watched, from a discreet distance, Murdock maneuvering opposite his holographic sparring partner, the same talkative fellow that Willow and Tara had glimpsed on another occasion, as big a blabbermouth as DaKar is, he's pretty tightlipped when it comes to Sam. Even if Sam told him... which I doubt... Jodell's not gonna spill. Guess I'm going to have to do this the hard way. Boy, if my job was any more fun, I wouldn't be able to live with myself.
The holo-boxer nailed Murdock with a nice right hook and danced away from the counterattack. "C'mon, baby, what I'd tell ya? Stick and move, stick and move!" The boxer kept up his commentary even as Murdock pelted him with jabs, some of which connected, some not. "You ain't glued to the floor. Move your feet, and keep to the beat! Float like the butterfly, sting like-"
"Yeah yeah yeah," Murdock muttered as he bounced lightly on the balls of his feet, blocking another hook, answering with a couple of rapidfire jabs. Devereux, knowing better than to interrupt, took a seat on the nearby bench, watching the sparring and being once again amazed at the speed and power the captain possessed. Most of the jabs and punches the captain threw, and received or dodged in turn, were faster than Devereux could follow. It made the counselor tired just to watch.
Finally, after about three minutes, a bell sounded from nowhere in particular, signaling the end of the "round." "That's time," the holoboxer said, breathing somewhat heavily - or at least, simulating it convincingly. "I gotta lotta more, man. How 'bout you?"
"Later, pal. I have to talk to my friend here," Murdock replied, concentrating on breathing deeply and indicating Devereux on the bench. "Computer, save program and quit." With an acknowledging beep, the computer returned the electronic genie to its bottle. "What's up, Doc?" he asked, addressing the counselor, who rolled his eyes at the quip.
"Actually, I think that's my line, Sam. More to the point, who's been pissing in your corn flakes for the past few weeks?"
"Don't mince words, Charlie, just say what's on your mind!" Murdock used his teeth to tear open the fastener to the padded glove on his left hand, stuck the glove under his right armpit to pull his hand part way out. He wiggled the hand and finally flicked his arm violently to throw the glove against the opposite bulkhead. Blowing out a breath in frustration, he undid the right-hand glove, more carefully with his unencumbered left, and pulled the glove off, letting it drop to the deck. He sat down heavily on the bench beside Devereux, though he avoided looking at him.
Devereux shrugged off Murdock's ire. "I mean, you've been training with your partner, there, most mornings and most evenings. Why all the training? Got a shot at the title? Hey, do you know how to get to Madison Square Garden...?"
"'Practice.' Gee, Charlie, the last time I heard that one, I was shooting a Great Auk while sitting on my pillow stuffed with passenger pigeon feathers."
"You've been at this since the Maquis attack two months ago. Personally, I thought you acquitted yourself fairly well in that whole fracas. You took out, how many, four, five guys on the bridge, and another six down on the Guardian planet. Hardly what I'd call wimpy, Sam."
Murdock shrugged diffidently while picking absently on the protective tape on his hands. "I suppose..."
"'Course," Devereux continued casually, "there was that one Maquis, the young lady who managed to trash at least two of our security guards hand-to-hand, and then you had a little trouble with her down on the planet." Devereux gave the captain one of his trademark piercing gazes. "This isn't about you almost having your chronometer cleaned by a woman, is it?"
Murdock huffed rueful laughter. "Don't flatter me, Charlie; I almost got my chronometer cleaned by a girl." He then added in a neutral tone, "Not that we're supposed to care about such gender-oriented distinctions-"
"-in this day and age," Devereux chorused with him. "Uh huh. Any explanation for that, Captain?"
"Well, what do you think's been bothering me? She was fast, Charlie; I couldn't even see half the punches she laid on me. My face felt like a Klingon tap-danced on it. And she's got the constitution of a dinosaur; I waylaid her with my Sunday punch, and it only took her, maybe, ten minutes to get back on her feet. Y'know how unusual that is?"
"Very," Devereux concurred. "You think she might be a product of genetic engineering?"
Murdock shook his head. "We got some genetic fragments from her on Memory Alpha and other places...mostly, my face," he added, wincing at the memory as Devereux chuckled. "Willow and Govarr went over it pretty thoroughly. It didn't have the usual, um, 'markers', they said, that genetically altered material generally has. So, no, Faith came from Mother Nature's-"
"That's her name. At least, what the other Maquis called her." He was about to continue when he noticed Devereux's intensive scrutiny. "What?"
"Did you know your face changed when you said her name?"
"No, it didn't."
"It changed, I tell you. You got this, I don't know, an almost dreamy expression when you said her name."
Murdock now looked distinctly uncomfortable. "You're imagining things."
That was when Devereux knew he was onto something. He decided on a slightly different tack. "I read Tara's report about the incidents on the bridge and the science facility on the planet. She gave a fairly detailed description of Faith... made her sound, well, fairly attractive."
Murdock nodded absently while mopping his sweating face with a towel. "Then I have to say Tara's got good taste in..."
He broke off when he saw the expression of And-The-Light-Dawns on the counselor's face.
"You're attracted to her! So that's it!" Devereux crowed in unabashed triumph.
"Go away!" Murdock snarled, getting to his feet and striding a meter away.
"Oh, she must be something, to get your undies in this much of a bundle! Last time I saw something this bad, DaKar went ga-ga over that visiting Bajoran physicist. I thought he was going to start wearing one of those funky earrings they all carry around!"
Murdock turned back, ready to let fly with a protest on how far offbase the counselor was, along with a comment on his illegitimate ancestry. Devereux's expression, that all but said "Yes?" in the most solicitous tone possible, kiboshed that plan.
After a moment, Devereux decided to take pity on his friend. He got up and walked towards him slowly. "Sam, it's not such a crime, y'know. You're a starship captain, not a priest. You're having erotic thoughts about a beautiful young woman. Enjoy your fantasy!"
"It's not just that, Charlie," Murdock muttered. "Okay, she is intriguing, and yeah, she's gorgeous, in that I-could-spread-her-on-a-cracker kind of way. Long brown hair, eastern Mediterranean coloring, and the biggest pair of..." Murdock stopped as he realized that his hands were forming vague shapes at chest level. He dropped his arms to his sides as he continued, "...brown eyes you ever saw. But... there's something more to this." To Devereux's unanswered question, he plunged on. "What if Faith... what if she's... like me?"
Devereux stared open-mouthed for a good three seconds before answering: "What?"
Excitedly, almost teenager-giddy, Murdock turned to Devereux and words began to pour out in rapid fashion. "Her speed and strength, they may be the by-product of what made me what I am. What if she's like me and just doesn't realize it yet? It's not as if I found out when I was twenty-something, it took me a long time to notice-"
"Sam; Sam! Hold your horses a second. God, you sounded like Willow there, for a second..."
"Oh, thank you, Doctor."
"How could she be... like you? It's not as if the circumstances of your... condition happen every day. You had the advantage of your father, to pass along his genes. And even then, you were the only one out of the five children who-"
"Yes, yes, I know, my brothers and sisters didn't, they were all normal, at least outwardly. So were all their children... and their children's children, and so on. So, yes, succeeding generations would have the specific genetic sequences being recombined over and over again with other DNA. But! But, there is the question: what if, say, ten, fifteen generations down the line, two people, both descendents of my siblings, from divergent branches...what if they had a child, a child where the same genetic sequences recombined?"
Devereux nodded slowly in an expression of understanding. "So," he intoned slowly, "she's what happened... when cousins married?"
"Yes... dammit, Charlie!" Murdock exploded when he got Devereux's quip. He stalked over to the other side of the alcove, wiping the back of his neck with the towel. He glared at the counselor. "Y'know, as I recall, you were the one who was anxious for me to get a girlfriend!"
"I didn't tell you to get a date with Madame X!" Devereux shot back. "Sam, even if what you're saying is true, that she's related to you in some odd way...this girl isn't exactly the kind of girl you take home. She's a Maquis! From what you said in your report, by her own admission she was raised by the Orion Syndicate. She's practically a criminal and a terrorist!"
Murdock shrugged. "Well, it's those little flaws that keep a guy interested."
Devereux rolled his eyes. "I give up. You have about an hour before the thing. You going to be ready?"
Murdock smiled. "I wouldn't miss this for..."
"...a date with Madame X?" Devereux answered cheekily. He was then obligated to evade the boxing glove thrown at his head.