Return to Fearful Symmetry Chapter One

Fearful Symmetry

Author: CaptMurdock
Rating: PG-13. Warnings for violence and some spicy talk.
Disclaimer: The characters of Willow Rosenberg, Tara Maclay, Charles Gunn or the reasonable facsimilies 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. The song in this chapter is copyrighted to Beth Slater Whitson.

Transport ship S.S. Van Gelder
En route to Adigeon Prime

The old man kneeled on the deck of his small private cabin aboard the transport, breathing so slowly that an observer might be inclined to grab the nearest medical scanner to see if he was still alive.

The ancient lungs filled with air to capacity with mathematical precision, giving oxygen, the fuel of life itself (carbon-based, that is) to the cells, drawing out carbon dioxide and exhaling. As the body's supply of oxygen increased, the senses expanded, except for the eyes, which were closed in meditation.

He could hear the tiniest noises, the rumble of conversation from the transport's bridge as the flight crew traded routine information and stale jokes. He could smell the tang of sweat from half a dozen different species, the sour-milk smell of the lubricant tetralubisol in the engineering section. He could feel the slightest vibrations in the deckplates beneath him, discern a slight misalignment of the gravity-net, feel the crew walking about the corridors.

Even the warp field, which surrounded the outside of the ship, allowing them to outrace light itself and twist the very fabric of space beyond the dreams of Einstein, he felt in his bones.

The Master of Onada had set himself to clear his mind, to prepare himself for the coming ordeal. He knew that going up against Kaiser Muldoon would not be easy. Muldoon would probably have henchmen, allies... possibly even enhanced physically as he was.

You get all the fun jobs, the voice of his old friend Max, long dead, came unbidden to him, even in the depths of his mind to which he had descended. The quip had hardly a chance to fade into echoes when a cascade of memories tried to crowd into the old man's consciousness. He attempted to banish them back, unsuccessfully, then gave an inward shrug. Perhaps he needed to let his thoughts run their course...

He spent the first two weeks at his grandmother's home in Japan sulking, furious at his parents for leaving him here while they traveled from one assignment to another across the Alpha Quadrant. The Federation's premier computer experts, superseded only by Richard Daystrom himself, Hosato and Alejandra (he rarely thought of them as "Dad and Mom," in any of the dozen languages that he already spoke fluently) were always in demand. After the first five years in McMurdo Sound, the three of them had spent years traveling to the various consulting jobs... Vulcan, Andoria, Tellar, the Rigel colonies, Deneva, even some colony worlds on the fringes of the Neutral Zone. It had been quite an education for a young boy in whose first love of linguistics had blossomed into a healthy appreciation for cultural anthropology.

Then, abruptly deciding he needed "some stability," Hosato and Alejandra had dumped him on Earth. Earth was boring. He already spoke most of the languages still extant on Earth, including Spanish (from his mother) and Japanese (from his father) and, outside of a few places like San Francisco, home of Starfleet Command and the Academy, you could count the aliens you would meet on an average day on the fingers of... well, okay, two hands. Plus, his grandmother's house - actually, it was almost a mansion - was located in a minor seaport in a country that, despite two centuries of warp drive and contact with hundreds of species, was mired in a tradition of centuries past.

His grandmother, Shikiku, was eighty-something years old if she was a day, although still remarkably active. Active, hell; the woman could crack walnuts in her hands and do handsprings like a Olympic gymnast a quarter her age. He didn't think much of her, and she didn't seem that interested in him, except to make sure he did his schoolwork and chores.

Only once did she speak of anything remotely conversational: "What is it you wish to be?"

He was so surprised that she was talking to him like a person that it took him several seconds to answer. "I want to be a starship pilot."

She nodded. He wasn't sure at the time whether this indicated disapproval or not.

He had seen other members of the household, which seemed to number over a hundred, all apparently near and distant cousins of his and Shikiku's, scurrying about on various esoteric rounds. Some of them seemed to function as guards. Others, some near Shikiku's age, functioned as both instructors to the younger men (and some women, though very much a minority) in hand-to-hand combat, and as majordomos who took care of much of the household business. He heard the oldest referred to in conversation as "elders," the young-adult-to-middle-aged as "night tigers" (that took him a few days to understand, as the dialect was not modern Japanese). Several times, he heard the others refer to his grandmother as sensei: "Master."

It was after that that he first learned of the House of Onada.

U.S.S. Hannibal

"Willow, stop vibrating!" Tara admonished as she brushed out her hair while staring critically in the vanity mirror.

Willow's voice came from the common room of Tara's quarters, where she was waiting to take her to Calavicci's. "How would you know whether or not I'm, like, vibrating. Conjecture, pure conjecture."

Tara smiled. "This is me you're talking to, sweetie. If I let you have caffeine, you would vibrate so fast that you could phase through the bulkheads."

"Oh, like anybody could do that. That's just plain silly. I mean, assuming your molecules could phase through a bulkhead, you'd probably be pulled through the deck by the artificial gravity! And then, of course, you'd keep phasing, deck after deck, until by sheer momentum you'd zoom out through the keel of the ship-"

"We have a keel?"

"Well, the bottom, but I'm sure there's a technical term for it. -and there you are, floating in space trying to suck vacuum like a huge dummy."

Tara smiled as she finished brushing out her hair. "My point exactly. Caffeine should be labeled as a controlled substance, given only under prescription." She stepped away from the vanity/dresser and into the bedroom proper. She was wearing a light-green dress of diaphanous material, with a dark-green bustier that accentuated her stunning figure, and a pair of strappy sandals on her feet. Tara luxuriated in being out of uniform; as comfortable as Starfleet uniforms could be, the sense of regimentation grated on her more than she cared to admit. It feel good to wear something "girly."

Willow may have felt the same way, as she was now dressed in a lavender dress, with a slightly scooped neck that showed the cleavage that Willow denied having but Tara enthusiastically established. The boots she wore had three-centimeter heels that erased Tara's slight height advantage. Not that that was a source of great contention between them; as Tara was fond of saying, the two of them were always the same height... laying down.

Willow grinned as Tara came into the room. "Oooh, very yummy," she purred, putting her arms around her lover. "I may have to ditch my evil plans for tonight and keep you here, all to my nasty little self."

Blonde eyebrows arched, more in amusement than concern. "You have evil plans for me tonight?"

"Betcha-by-golly-wow, missy. I guess we'll just have to save getting frisky for later." Willow took her hand and led her out of her quarters. Tara wore her trademarked crooked smile, thinking, Evil's... good.

Once out in the corridor, however, Tara felt a nervous inclination to disengage her hand from Willow's. Up ahead, a couple of crewmen were walking towards them, one with a PADD in hand. By unspoken agreement, they let go of each other's hands. The crewmen nodded to them both in greeting, which they reciprocated.

Tara turned ruefully towards Willow. "I-I'm sorry. I just get, um, get..."

"I know, I know," Willow replied, trying to sound breezy about the whole thing, but Tara could pick up that she was a little more nettled than she let on. "We're officers. Have to set a good example for the troops and all that. Who knows what effect holding hands might have on discipline, y'know?" She glanced over at Tara in the midst of her mini-rant, and saw that her companion was doing a great job of examining the carpet on the deck. "Hey, c'mon. I'm not mad."

Yes, you are, Tara was within an ace of saying, but held her tongue. She looked up and smiled at Willow. "I'm sorry. Can we just go eat?"


Strangely, the entranceway to Calavicci's was dark. Willow frowned. "That's strange. Could they be closed or something?"

Tara shrugged. "I dunno. Maybe... but I thought you said you had reservations..."

"I did. I mean, I do. Let's go see." Before Tara could admonish her not to, Willow had stepped forward towards the doors, which parted upon her approach. The science officer stepped forward into the darkened vestibule, motioning Tara to follow her. The young counselor hurried in, involuntarily jumping as the doors hissed shut behind her.

"Will, what's going on? Should we call security?" She made to tap the combadge affixed to the front of her bodice. A hand shot out of the door to grab her wrist; it took Tara a gulp-worthy half-second to realize it was Willow.

"Hang on; let's check this out ourselves." Willow pulled her along for a few steps before letting go, leaving her in the dark by herself. Tara could just make out the wicked gleam in the green eyes before they disappeared into the gloom.

"W-wait," she stammered, trying to force her eyes to adjust. Instinctively, she dropped the shields that she kept around her empathic faculties, trying to pick up Willow's thoughts and figure out what she was playing at. Immediately, Tara not only picked up Willow's emotional radiation, but that of several other people in close proximity. What the hell...

Suddenly, the lights came up, half-blinding her. Tara barely had time to try to shield her eyes with one hand when her ears were assaulted with a cacophonous "SUUURPPRIIIIIISSEE!!!"

Tara looked around the restaurant, seeing a grinning Willow, the senior officers and various other crewmembers cheering and applauding, the restaurant decorated with festive streamers and banners and tables loaded with brightly-wrapped boxes. Her mind simultaneously rebelled at the idea of what all these people were doing here, and attempting to remember the date on both Earth and Betazed. Wait a minute... it's early November on Earth... and the middle of the Betazed season of Zha'sa'leen...

"Oh, God," Tara muttered, when she finally found her voice. "Did I actually forget my own birthday?"

Tara glared at Willow in mock outrage. "You set this up?"

The redhead grinned shyly. "I had a little help," she averred, indicating the captain dressed in his usual casual black turtleneck and slacks.

Murdock muttered, "And if you think it was easy, throwing all the usual suspects out of this ptomaine trap for a birthday party-"

"Hey!" The strident voice of Celeste Calavicci, matron of the Hannibal's resident Italian eatery, cut across the room. "Watch what you call my ristorante!" Her accent thickened theatrically over the last few words.

"Sorry, Mama," the captain replied contritely. He stepped forward and clasped Tara's hands in his own. "Willow told me that your birthday was coming up, so I asked Mama if we could have it here. I wasn't sure if you wouldn't have rather had a holodeck program set up-"

"N-no, sir, this is great," Tara answered, squeezing his hands in return.

The older woman stepped forward and addressed Tara. "And don't think it was any trouble on my part, young lady. There's always time to celebrate the important things here."

"Th-thank you, Mrs. Calavicci," Tara murmured, still somewhat overwhelmed. She looked around the restaurant again, at the buffet tables practically groaning under the weight of the bowls and plates of aromatic entrees, at the group of senior officers in casual dress, at several crewmembers who had been patients of hers. She felt flushed, feeling the need to take a couple of deep breaths to keep from fainting.

"Why don't you sit down for a sec, kiddo?" There was Devereux, taking her gently by the elbow and steering her to a nearby chair. Even as she smiled and thanked him, she couldn't help but glance at the glass in his hand. He caught the look, gave her a shrug. "Hey, I'm not flying anywhere tonight. I'm allowed to indulge in a little firewater, right?"

She smiled back. "None for me, thanks. I'm unsteady enough as it is."

Willow brought her a plate. "It's buffet style tonight. Let's dig in."

"Hot damn, I heard that!" Murdock cried cheerfully. "We'll organize the queue by rank, starting at the top - YEEEOOW!" He was interrupted in his food-procurement mission by Celeste grabbing him by his ear.

"Not so fast, you. The Birthday Girl goes first!"

"This is assaulting a superior officer!"

"I'm not in Starfleet, Sammie. Tara, you go right ahead."

Tara selected fettuccine, garnishing it with broccoli and slathering it with a generous helping of alfredo sauce. A couple of soft baked breadsticks completed her raid.

The conversations whirled around her as everyone ate. Jodell DaKar and Thelvran were arguing, gently, about some aspect of their upcoming mission. Olivia Faraday was regaling Murdock, Willow and Devereux with an account of her visit with her husband and children a week ago. Between bites of food, Tara acknowledged various peoples' good wishes and congratulations.

Devereux sidled over to you. "Not feeling left out, are you?"

Tara shook her head and smiled. "I like to observe other people in social situations."

"That's usually a code phrase for 'being alone in a crowd.' Who are you trying to kid here, girlie?"

Tara huffed. "Charlie, don't headshrink me. It's my birthday."

"Okay, okay."

Nettled, Tara looked around the room again, noticing the absence of two of the senior officers. "I don't see Commander Kolrami or Dr. Govarr? Were they held up, or..."

"They're probably not going to make it, Tara" Murdock answered, wandering over with a plate of severely-diminished veal parmesan in his hand. "They did send along gifts. at least, Gelfa did, I'm pretty sure..."

Thelvran also came over. "Actually, neither the commander nor the doctor are what you would call, 'party beasts.'" The Andorian chuckled at his joke, missing the blank looks on the faces of his colleagues.

"Animals," Devereux mumbled.

"Excuse me?"

"The term you're looking for is 'party animals', Thel," DaKar supplied helpfully.

"Oh." Thelvran looked crestfallen, his antennae drooping, as he always did when his malapropisms fell flat.

Tara's heart instantly went out to him. "It was still funny, though." She touched him on the shoulder, engendering a smile from the azure face.

Willow sprang up out of nowhere. "Let's open prezzies!"

Given the shortness of Tara's tenure so far on the Hannibal, a great many of the gifts tended to be of the hit-or-miss variety, in the twilight zone between whatever-possessed-you and never-knew-I-needed-one-till-I-got-one. Even so, many of those were quite lovely: a sarong from Faraday, in green-and-earth-tones; a beautiful waterscape from DaKar, actually painted by one of his previous hosts...

"What is it again?" Tara asked Thelvran, looking in the box. She turned it this way and that, but getting new angles did nothing to decipher the nature of the object.

"A B'hiva," Thelvran replied. "And, I assure you, it is virtually unused. No dropouts, no lost meaning."

Tara put on her most winning smile. "It's lovely. Thank you."

Murdock's present was the sort of hard, rectangular shape known the galaxy over. "Couldn't be a book, could it?" Tara asked, tongue-in-cheek, giving a quick shake. She tore off the wrapping paper to reveal a hard-bound copy of Gideon Sinclair's The Crazy Years, probably one of the best reference works about turn-of-the-millennium Earth popular culture written in the last two centuries. "Neat! I love these kind-" A handwritten scrawl on the title page made her eyes go wide. "Signed?!? This is an autographed copy?"

Murdock shrugged. "I guess. I'd forgotten, to tell the truth. I was using it for a beer coaster," which had to patently untrue, given the pristine condition of the book, "and I'd thought you might like to have it."

"Ohhhh, is..." Tara choked up, her vision blurring uncontrollably.

"Aw, c'mon, Tara," Murdock countered, embarrassed, handing her a napkin to dap her eyes. "It's not the Hope Diamond, or... Klingon aphrodisiacs..."

Tara laughed at that, breaking her urge to cry and the awkward moment. Murdock and the others laughed as well, although Faraday rolled her eyes and Celeste half-heartedly scowled.

"Okay," Murdock announced when he caught his breath back. "Time for cake!"

Luigi Calavicci, the maitre'd of the restaurant, wheeled out the enormous sheetcake on a mobile table. The cake was ablaze with candles. Tara caught a flash of anticipation from the middle-aged Italian, then caught a glance between him and the captain.

Her musings on what the two of them were scheming about were interrupted by Devereux. "Lots like some serious fireworks there, kid," he said, indicating the candles on the cake. "Need some help with that?"

"I think I'm going to need a phaser," she answered ruefully. Even the two dozen candles (appropriate for her age) seemed like a lot. She answered Willow's encouraging smile with one of her own; then, holding her hair back to avoid any embarrassing combustions, she inhaled a deep breath and blew out...

...nothing. The candles remained as incandescent as ever. "What the hell?" She took in an even deeper breath and tried again, hoping she was not getting stray saliva all over the beautiful icing. Still, the candles remained stubbornly lit.

Willow's puzzlement equaled Tara's. "I don't get it, why- Wait. All these candles, they sure aren't generating a whole lotta heat..."

Tara then noticed that the captain's face was turning red, and her empathic senses, usually hit-or-miss with Murdock's mind, was registering a great deal of amusement. Carefully, she waved her hand over the cake. It passed through the candles themselves, as well as the flames, with a slight shimmer. She turned to Murdock, hands on hips, with the sternest expression she could manage. "Holographic candles?!?"

Murdock broke down and guffawed, to the exasperation of Tara, Willow Celeste and Faraday. Devereux, DaKar and the other guests tried hiding their smiles, but didn't succeed very well. After half a minute, the captain recovered himself. "I'm sorry, Tara. Just couldn't resist the gag. Here, let me take of it...Computer, delete candles." With a beep, the faux candles disappeared.

Luigi piped up. "He made me do it," indicating Murdock. "It's not my fault." Murdock sneered goodnaturedly.

"I think that the captain is getting revenge on everybody for his last surprise birthday party," Devereux averred.

"But I wasn't even here then!" Tara protested gently.

"Oh, as if you wouldn't have been in on it," Murdock muttered, his supposed pique mitigated by the smile he failed to conceal.

"What happened?" Willow asked, as she started cutting the cake and dishing out plates with Celeste.

"He tried to get off the ship beforehand, but we caught him," Faraday said, take a plate with a slice of cake and a fork.

"I was not trying to escape... I was taking the Leonardo out for a quick trip-"

"To the Delta Quadrant," DaKar stage-whispered across Murdock's "explanation."

"Go swallow a symbiont."

Willow and Tara giggled at the interplay between the officers and friends. Clearing her throat, Tara, amazed at her own great daring, asked, "So, um, Captain... this last birthday... how many does that make?"

Barely had the words come out of her mouth before Tara sensed the sudden tension level increasing almost exponentially from the senior officers...though not from Murdock himself. Smirking slightly, he answered, "Seven hundred and thirty-six."

Devereux coughed, ostensibly choking on his drink. Most of the other party guests chuckled. Tara and Willow exchanged a look, before Willow piped back, "Well, you look good, sir. Must be all those vitamins you take."

"Naaah... good make-up man. Excuse me." Murdock moved off as the girls tried to make sense of his last quip.

Tara finished her slice of cake and looked over to the entrance. Surprisingly, there was a late arrival...Charles Gunn, a security specialist who had recently been promoted to chief petty officer. She was rather shocked to see him here; he had never struck Tara as the social type.

Kinda like me.

Tara walked over to where Gunn was trying to blend in with the décor. "Hey, Gunn," she greeted him, knowing that he never liked to be addressed by his first name. "I'm glad you came."

"Well, yeah, I just-well, I wanted to, y'know, wish you a happy and all that..." He thrust a small gaily wrapped package into her hands. "I got you a little... something; if you don't like it-"

"I'm sure it's great. Come and have some cake and food." Tara had to really tug on his oak-hard arm to get him to move towards the buffet and dessert tables. There he stoically endured greeting from the other party guests. Tara could sense his discomfort, but there was another feeling, this one directed solely at her...

"Can I borrow her for a few? Thanks," Willow said, taking Tara by the arm before anyone could object towards a space cleared in the center of the restaurant, where several tables usually stood. Willow glanced back in Gunn's direction; Tara noted that he was looking at her but trying to make it look as if he wasn't looking at her. "You know he has a crush on you, right?"

"Yeah, I sensed that," Tara murmured. "For a second there, I thought I was cured... 'the boys like me,'" she drawled like a Southern belle of centuries past, the back of her hand to her forehead.

"Hey, am I gonna have to fight to keep you? 'Cause, y'know, not large with the butch."

"Don't sweat it, sweetie... what exactly are we doing, anyway?"

"Dancing." At Willow's hand-cue, the resident Calavicci's musical trio struck up accordion, violin and mandolin. Luigi stepped up as they began to play, and started singing:

I am dreaming Dear of you, day by day
Dreaming when the skies are blue, When they're gray;
When the silv'ry moonlight gleams, Still I wander on in dreams,
In a land of love, it seems, Just with you.

Tara was occupied in trying not to step on Willow's feet (and vice versa), but she knew that everyone was looking at the two of them dancing slowly together. Then, in succession, Murdock, Devereux, Faraday and DaKar joined Luigi "on stage:"

Let me call you "Sweetheart," I'm in love with you.
Let me hear you whisper that you love me too.

"Well," Tara shrugged, "so much for being in the closet." Truthfully, she had never felt such acceptance. As the senior officers chorused along with Luigi, as Willow smiled at her, the last of Tara's anxieties about their relationship vanished.

Keep the love-light glowing in your eyes so true.
Let me call you "Sweetheart," I'm in love with you.

The party continued, quite pleasantly, for some time before the captain cleared his throat ostentatiously. "People, you know how I hate to break up a wingding as good as this one..." He paused for the sighs, mostly pro forma, from the crowd of officers and crewmen. "....but tonight is a school night, and we do have a somewhat tricky mission ahead of us." Nods of assent, reluctant nonetheless, acknowledged Murdock's statement.

"That's okay, sir. Thank you, everybody," Tara said, looking around the restaurant at both the guests and her presents, which represented quite a haul. "Captain, do you think I could borrow the transporter for a little site-to-site beaming? Otherwise, I'm gonna have to make several trips..."

"I think we can detail a work party to help you stow your boodle there, Lieutenant," the captain averred, accompanied by several chuckles around the room.

"Leave that to me, sir," Gunn volunteered, his normally impassive face sliced with a smile.

"I'll leave it in your capable hands, Mr. Gunn. Tara, Willow, a moment of your time before you leave." Murdock directed the two of them over to a secluded corner of the restaurant, far enough away from the other party guests and from the waiters cleaning up the remains of the party food. "I'd like the two of you to report to my ready room tomorrow, at ten-hundred hours. There's an assignment that I have in mind that might call for your...respective skills."

"Relating to our mission to Adigeon Prime, sir?" Willow asked.

"Is this part of that idea that you 'needed to sleep on', Captain?"

Murdock. "Right on both counts. I'll see you two manana. And do try to get-" The captain broke off, as if reconsidering - or re-editing -- what he was going to say. "Um, good night."

Gunn was good as his word; several crewmen had packed up Tara's presents and, with the help of a handy antigrav sled, carried them to her quarters neat as one pleased. After they had arranged everything to Tara's - and Willow's - satisfaction, the crewmen were dismissed with Tara's profuse thanks. Gunn remained behind an awkward moment longer, then made his own departure, with Willow's polite but steely gaze hastening him on his way.

"Don't be jealous," Tara chided her.

"Jealous? Me? Who's jealous? I'm not jealous. I'm just doing my duty as The Girlfriend to make him aware that you are, oh, how do you say, off the market. I mean, I would have to be really insecure, just because, well, he's a man, and he's attracted to you, well of course he is, you're beautiful and he's not blind and am I just digging myself a hole here?"

"With two shovels and a photon grenade, sweetie. But I still love you. I love your babble and I love the fact that you are jealous. I shouldn't but I do." Tara sidled over to Willow and kissed her firmly.

Willow smiled, putting her arms around the blonde and pulling her close, lengthening the kiss. For a solid minute the two of them knew nothing but each other, felt the promise of intimacy to come, the promise of a lifetime together.

Willow finally broke the kiss, much to Tara's displeasure. "Hold that thought, baby," she said, disengaged herself from their embrace. She headed toward the vanity/dresser that separated the bedroom from the head. "Oh, and take off your clothes."

"'Oh, and take off your clothes.' Nice of you to work that in somewhere," Tara muttered back, more good-naturedly than annoyed. She undid the closures on her bodice, inhaling in relief as the mild constriction went away, as did the uplift on her breasts. You could almost park a coffee cup there, she thought. Removing the dress left her in panties, as the bodice made a brassiere redundant. "What are you doing in there?" Actually, the question was mainly rhetorical, as she could hear the water running into the bathtub. Tara picked up her dress and put it in the autovalet to be cleaned.

'Hold on, hold on," came the answer from the head. After a second, Willow came around the vanity. "Hey, when you asked the captain how old he was...did you think he was, y'know, serious.

Tara shrugged as she doffed her panties and stepped towards the vanity. They had discussed this subject before...

"How is it possible, Tara? Tell me. The images I saw in the Guardian, those were Captain Murdock, but centuries ago!"

"You can't be sure of that, Will." It had only been a couple of days since Tara had felt comfortable using that nickname, the interval in which she and Willow had deepened their relationship beyond friendship. Part of her was still in disbelief that this beautiful creature, who had arrived in this century as if by magic, had fallen in love with her, plain old, shy, awkward Tara Maclay.

"Tara, c'mon, you saw the one where he was standing right next to Francisco Cumberland, my former captain on the old Hannibal! And he was younger than when I knew him, so that had to be over a hundred years ago. And there's our Captain Murdock, not a day older! So, please, let's hear the Perfectly Rational Explanation that I know you don't have!"

Tara exhaled, crossed her arms and looked down for a second. She really didn't want to fight with Willow, not so soon after.... "You're right, sweetie, I don't have an explanation...other than the one you have."

"Exactly! So, how did he get this way? I mean, did he drink some magic potion, or get kidnapped by aliens and get experimented on, or is he even human? After all, there's lots of humanoid species that have lifespans..."

"Willow," Tara tried to interject.

"... far longer than us. Why all the pretense then? And, if he's been creeping around since, what, the 1700s, maybe assuming other people's identities along the way, do we even know he's the 'Ulysses Murdock' who went through Starfleet Academy, what do we really know about him?"



"Do you trust him?"

The silence that followed the question was brief. The answer that followed the silence was heartfelt, resolute. "With my life."

Tara reached forward and took Willow's shoulders, wonderful shoulders that she loved to rest her head on and massage and nuzzle. "Then that's all that matters, isn't it." She smiled then, watching Willow mirror the expression. "He'll tell us when he wants to tell us."

"I don't know," was Tara's reply as she padded towards the head. She noted that Willow had removed her clothes as well, though she was now wearing her robe. "I suppose, from what you've told me, that seven hundred and change ought to be just about-"

"Actually, not in the mood for serious scientific inquiry right now," Willow countered, taking Tara's hand and guiding her...

...towards a spectacle of soft light and shadow, with myriad candles providing illumination instead of the standard overhead lighting. The bathtub was three-quarters full of fragrant, bubbly water, making Tara's nose twitch with delicious scents of citrus and chamomile.

"Oh, Willow," Tara purred in appreciation. "This is wonderful."

"Yeah, yeah, c'mon, get in," the redhead said, chivvying Tara into the tub. The water was at the upper limit of comfortably warm; Tara had to proceed downwards slowly to be able to acclimate herself. She finally made it down to sit on the bottom, feeling lightheaded from the warm water and the scents therein. She almost could have gone to sleep right there.

Willow kneeled down at the side of the tub, rolling up the sleeves of her robe. Tara raised an eyebrow. "Aren't you joining me?" They had often taken baths together, the first time before they had become lovers.

"Not just yet." Willow picked up a large bath sponge and applied creamy soap to it. She reached over to wash Tara's back, making large circles from shoulders to waist.

Tara groaned with pleasure. She continued to do so as Willow washed virtually every accessible inch of her, shampooing her hair, rubbing her feet and legs, and just generally making Tara feel great. Although she felt more relaxed than she had in a while, sleep was now the farthest thing from her mind.

Willow had gotten quite wet, and her robe was getting more than a little clingy, something Tara was finding increasingly enticing. She reached over to undo the robe's sash, but her hands were pushed back. "Oh, no," Willow muttered. "Not yet." Tara huffed, a little frustrated. "Lean back," Willow ordered.

Slightly nettled, Tara did so. Her irritation started to recede as she realized that Willow's hand was doing something other than bathing her, as she felt delicate fingers traverse her neck, her chin, down her throat, tracing her collarbone before dipping down and exploring the valley of flesh between the two mounds, making tiny circles in the two most sensitive spots...

"Oh, God, Will, yes..." Tara gasped as her vision started to go, her nervous system starting to overload, her hands gripping the sides of the tub, her legs seeming to stretch away forever even as her toes curled.

"Ohhhh...some interesting phenomena I'm observing here," Willow said in her best Science Officer voice. "I think I should explore deeper."

Yeah, I think you should too, Tara would have said, had she been capable of coherent speech. The anticipation of Willow's hand dipping deeper into the water, rappelling off her abdomen, finally delving between her legs, was almost as enticing and frightening as the act itself. Tara's vision cut out entirely as she cried out in pleasure. Her hands slipped off the sides of the tub; fortunately, Willow was holding her up...albeit from an unusual position.

Miniatures tsunami were generated by Tara's increasingly frantic motions, as her body responded to Willow's ministrations. The redhead had to shake water from her hair, drenched by a particular vigorous motion from her girlfriend as she kicked and writhed and moaned. She began to feel her own nerve endings fire up, as Tara's empathic talent synched with her own mind. The bond they shared once again came alive.

After an infinitesimal eternity, Tara could endure no more, and exploded and clenched and cried and died. After several minutes, during which she had to replenish her blood's oxygen levels, she wiped water, or perhaps tears, from her face, regaining her ability to focus her vision on the face near her own, the face she loved so much. Then she had to laugh.

Willow smiled though the soap suds covering her face. "Somebody got a little vigorous with splashing the water around." She made an attempt to brush off the suds, ostentatiously so. "So...good birthday?"

"Best birthday. There's only one thing missing."

Willow's eyebrows arched. "What could you possibly be missing?"

"You." Sitting up a little, Tara reached up and pulled the sodden robe from Willow's body, revealing the slim figure, before pulling her into the bathtub on top of herself.

Long into the ship's night, the two of them vigorously loved one another. The tiled floor became very wet.

Adigeon Prime
40 light-years from Federation space

Compared to Farius Prime, which could have been called, in another time and place, "a wretched hive of scum and villainy," Adigeon Prime looked like a small slice of paradise.

Of course, a seasoned space traveler, one who might become annoyed at naming planets "This Prime" or "That Prime," would say that the differences between the two worlds, or rather their larger cities, were mainly cosmetic. Farius Prime looked like you could get your throat slit ten meters from the spaceport on the way to the nearest watering hole; however, while you still might get your throat slit on Adigeon Prime, at least it was in far more pleasant surroundings.

The buildings generally were in a much better state of repair, the utility systems well-maintained and more than adequate for the population, transient and otherwise; the manufacturing plants located far away enough from the metropolitan areas to keep the air clear of pollutants (though near enough so that workers could easily get to and from the factories via public transportation); the shops carried not only staples but plenty of luxuries.

Of course, one only had to turn a couple of corners to find the seamier side of town. It wasn't hard to find the streets where cheap taverns, massage parlors (whose practitioners may or may not have been licensed by any accredited medical agency) and "social clubs" pretty much took up the commercial space. These were the areas that some of the tourist trade avoided like the Tarellian plague...and others actively sought out.

Avarice was as old as the stars...and nearly as widespread.

In a penthouse suite some hundred and forty stories above the streets, standing next to a window that commanded a view of both the sprawling towers and the far-off, sun-kissed mountain ranges, a man gazed out and contemplated the long-range plans that he had formulated long ago.

The information that he had just acquired via his network of agents had thrown some unexpected twists in his path. Still, all that was required for his plans to come to fruition was adaptability, which any intelligent man had in abundance. Since he was, of course, far more intelligent than the average human, he would adapt to these unexpected circumstances and triumph.

His name was Kaiser Muldoon.

An old phrase fluttered through his mind: King of All He Surveyed. In Muldoon's case, this was not literally true: he held no formal office on this planet, nor were his personal resources that great. However, those resources he did command, scientific as well as martial, might soon grant him such power as those of the ancient sovereigns on Earth and a hundred other worlds. Not that such kingship interested him, not anymore. In his younger days, a century ago, such sovereignty might have been attractive, worthy of his great intellect.

Muldoon was well past his prime, but thanks to the genetic engineering that had created him, still looked hale and hearty after thirteen decades. His handsome face, lean and well-lined, was set off by a prominent brow and deep-sunken yet brilliant grey eyes. His slim physique concealed the physical power that, while attenuated by age, still commanded more than that of normal men.

A chime at the door announced a visitor, one Muldoon expected; most unexpected visitors would not have made it this far past his private security. At his command the doors snapped open to admit a vision of dark beauty.

At first glance, she would be the embodiment of any man's - and several women's - licentious wishes: tall and slim, with hips made to sway with each step and a figure to match. Blond ringlets framed a face that...

Here is where it started to break down. The woman's face, structurally speaking, was certainly lovely, by most humanoid standards - but there was a cruel cant to the cheekbones, a twist to the mouth, even an arrogance to the nose, pert as it was, that would cause all by the most unwary to draw back with concern for their safety, their fantasies concerning this woman vanishing out of concern for What She Might Do to You After.

The eyes, traditionally (on Earth and many other worlds) the windows of the soul, perhaps flashed most to all who might see the inner darkness that this woman embodied. That her eyes matched those of Muldoon was no accident: he designed her that way.

"You rang, boss?" she said, sauntering across the room with an arrogant stride.

Muldoon was long past caring about her arrogance, or her attractiveness. "I just wanted to let you know," he said without preamble, handing her a PADD, "that we're about to have visitors."

She raised one eyebrow and read the information. "A Federation starship? That's a lot of guests to bring out the good china for. What's all the hubbub, anyway?"

Muldoon smiled thinly. "I think they might have gotten word that there was," he lowered his voice conspiratorially, his next words coming out in a stage whisper, "genetic engineering going on here." The woman covered her mouth in an oh-my gesture that was as heartfelt as her tender nature. "Speaking of guests," Muldoon continued casually, "how is our little friend?"

"Behaving herself." Stepping over to a nearby comscreen, the woman tapped in a code. A picture of a sparsely furnished room, no doubt from some sort of security scanner, sprang on the screen.

The young woman working at the desk on screen was a sharp contrast to Muldoon's companion. She appeared to be smaller, even slimmer, with a pleasant, pretty face framed by dark hair. Although the hair was pinned up, a few strands hung haphazardly around her face as she worked obsessively on a series of calculations.

Perhaps the remarkable thing about her work was that she was writing her arcane figures with an ink pen onto paper, which to almost any denizen of a warp-capable culture was horribly anachronistic.

"She just keeps writing all this crap down, over and over," Muldoon's assistant muttered. "I mean, who uses paper, anyway?"

"You think I'm going to allow her access to a computer? Don't be silly, my dear. This girl is quite brilliant, in spite of the effects of our, oh, how shall I put it, aggressive inquisitions..."

"Y'mean we gave her a roaring case of brain-fry," the blonde replied with no trace of sympathy.

"Mmm. Be that as it may, giving her computer access might be giving her the key to the door, the vault, and anything else we can imagine. Mind you, soon she won't be having to keep to herself so much. We might be able to use her talents towards our goal."

"No kidding?"

"Maybe. Even if she doesn't help us, she'll have some company anyway. Some members of the Hannibal's complement have attributes that it might be desirable to...incorporate, after a fashion. And of course, Starfleet personnel being as boringly noble as they are, it's rather unlikely that we'll be able to get what we want simply by asking." Muldoon smiled again, a grin that all but promised pain and damnation. "This is going to be fun."

Continue to Fearful Symmetry Chapter Three

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