Transport ship S.S. Van Gelder
The old man continued his meditations, journeying through the lands of memory...
The first day that Shikiku had actually undertaken teaching him the self-defense regimen of the House of Onada, she had taken him into one of the private chambers of her part of the house. She directed him silently to sit across from her on the hardwood floor. Then...
"Whaddaya mean, 'breathe'?"
"Breathe," she repeated, with barely any emphasis. Inwardly shrugging, he started taking deeper and deeper breaths, faster and faster, hyperventilating until she stopped him with a sharp "Ie!"
"I did not tell you to gulp air like a landed fish!" she added sharply. "Breathe!"
"Okay, okay," he muttered. He was irritated that she was making him jump through hoops like this.
He had expressed interest in the martial-arts training taking place in the courtyard, the jujitsu-like and kendo-like practicing. While he had never had much interest in Japanese martial arts (or any, for that matter), the intensity of the training had fascinated him, for reasons he could not quite articulate.
Stifling his pique, he closed his eyes and started to take deep breaths again, in through the nose, out through the mouth. He imagined the individual molecules spiraling through his bronchia, his lungs expanding bellows-like, contained only by his rib cage. He began to feel both more relaxed...and more aware.
His blood began to hum as the increased oxygen charged the red cells, fueling every part of his body. He felt the floor underneath him; the discomfort giving way to the sensation of feeling every individual board, the slight shift as someone walked over the floor several rooms away. He could even feel his grandmother across from him, her body causing infinitesimal tremors in the floor as she breathed.
He could hear...everything. Not just the shouts and the clash of students and weapons outside. He could hear the air itself as it swirled through the room. He could hear his heart pump blood, the stretch of muscles across his bones, the tensing of ligaments.
He opened his eyes, and faced another shock. Where it had been early afternoon when she had first bade him to sit, now the twilight of early evening bled through the windows.
Apparently sensing that his dismay, his grandmother opened her eyes as well. "What troubles you, Anjin-san?"
"Mr. Pilot." Years later, he would find out that she found that name, her nickname for him, in an old novel about Japan, written by a Westerner.
"Obuchan," he replied, bewildered, "what's....how did I...I felt...I heard..."
"Yes." She looked at him as if for the first time...or maybe as if he had grown a third eye. "Now you understand. It all starts with proper breathing. Still..." Again the penetrating look. "Practice this every day. We will talk again soon."
Actually, it was several days later that she again summoned him. This time, she led him across the homestead, past the buildings housing the other members of the household, the outbuildings and workshops and armories. Finally, near the edge of the woods, there was a small building, which to his untrained eye looked older than any other on the property, even the main house.
Unlocking the doors, she led him inside. It was dark, because the place had no windows. There was no furniture, no adornments on the walls...nothing.
"What is this place?" he asked.
"The Shrine of Onada," his grandmother replied. "It was here, on this spot, that our first ancestor, Masamune, saw a star fall from the sky and strike the ground, in the year five hundred ninety-three BCE," Pause for an audible sniff. "as measured in the Western calendar." She led him in, then shut the doors. A sliver of light leaked from between the doors and the frame, but hardly enough to see by.
She sat down near the center of the room on a woven mat laid on the bare dirt, and indicated that he sit on the other mat opposite her. He folded his legs under himself, and concentrated on his breathing. He could feel the ancient stonework around him...and something else. It was like the charged feeling that one could feel on a day after a thunderstorm, but this was different.
"So, our ancestor, he saw a meteorite, and?"
Even in the dark, he could see the disapproving look on her face at his flippancy. "Masamune was a master craftsman. The fallen star was composed of molten metal. He brought his tools and molds out here by oxcart, and before the metal cooled, he forged a sword." She brought out a wooden stick from behind her. The boy was somewhat mystified at this; he would have sworn she had not carried it into the shrine, and he did not recall seeing it on the floor...well, ground. She pulled the handle, revealing the blade inside, before sheathing it again and placing it before her, between them.
"After finishing his work, Masamune was exhausted, and fell into a doze. He then saw visions, of a future time, when men would walk the stars, and of great battles between good and evil, and of a great warrior, his descendant...the Destroyer."
The boy blinked, somewhat overwhelmed. It sounded like a great story, but he was something of a natural skeptic, and given the historical record of debunked myths on Earth and many other planets... Still, his grandmother was obviously telling him this for a reason.
He was about to ask a question, when the air itself seemed to thicken around him. Trying to peer through the gloom, he saw, or thought he saw...
...the shadows detaching themselves from the wall.
He looked back to his grandmother, about to say something brilliant, on the order of "Whadahelzgownon?" when he saw...really saw her. In spite of the lack of light, he could clearly see her, as if she glowed with her own light.
The shadows moved, grew, multiplied, until it seemed there were dozens of figures milling around the two of them. From one throat, then another, then a multitude more, came a song, lilting in an ancient dialect, echoing throughout the shrine, echoing within his head. He forced himself not to gasp in terror, tasting the ancient dust as the figures trod upon it, without disturbing a single speck.
He turned back to her, this time determined to ask her a question, but she cut him off. "Hush, Anjin-san. Let them sing to you."
The shadows sang to him...and claimed him as their own.
"Captain's Log: Stardate 50275.3. The Hannibal has dropped out of warp temporarily, briefly delaying our arrival at Adigeon Prime. I am preparing to discuss certain aspects of our mission with a couple of my junior officers."
Willow and Tara sat in the captain's ready room and accepted the mugs Murdock handed them. The hominess of their commanding officer's sanctum sanctorum never ceased to amaze the two of them. Usually, captains would have kept items, such as the original pressing of 'Hey, Jude', in their quarters.
Tara tried to keep from blushing as she felt Murdock scrutinize them; she felt as if last night's activities were written all over her face. She was grateful for the coffee; the two of them had been up rather late, and had reported for duty on time only by skipping their morning exercises.
"Um, sir, not that I not appreciating the beverage, sir," Willow began, feeling similarly nervous and slightly guilty at her and Tara's "decadent" behavior, "but caffeine and I...kind of, um, unmixy things."
"It's only a half-caff, Willow," Murdock said, settling down to his fragrant mug of Jamaican Blue Mountain, heavy on the cream and sugar. "Something tells me your brain might need the jumpstart."
Willow opened her mouth to retort, but a glance from Tara was enough to decide to quit while she was ahead. "Thank you, Captain!" she said, too-brightly.
"So, you wanted we...us, here to discuss something about our mission?" Tara inquired, all business.
"Yes, I did, and do. However, we have to wait for one more arrival before we can begin." As if on cue, the door-chime chirped. "Speak of the devil," Murdock said with a grin. "Come in!"
The doors hissed open, admitting Chief Petty Officer Gunn. He strode in smartly, slowing slightly when he saw the female officers. "Reporting as ordered, sir," he said after a brief pause. "Did I come too early, sir?" he added uncertainly.
"Not at all, Chief. Have a seat on the couch, if you don't mind; I should have brought in another chair. Can I get you a coffee?" Murdock was halfway to the replicator as he asked.
"Ah, no, sir, thank you. Mmm, maybe some water," Gunn conceded. The captain beamed like a happy waiter and got the drink.
"Okay," Murdock announced, sitting back down behind his desk. "This is my somewhat crazy idea. I have the feeling that if we just go to Adigeon Prime and ask them, one, are they performing genetic engineering, and two, if so, would they please stop, they are not going to be very forthcoming. However, if, while we are doing the aforementioned, we have a covert team, inserted as civilians, making some subtle inquiries here and there, we might come up with some useful information."
Tara blinked a couple of times, absorbing the captain's words. "So who do you have - Oh. You want..." She glanced over at Willow, and then at Gunn. "Us?"
Gunn looked interested, his eyebrows shooting halfway up his shaven skull. Willow beamed. "You mean we get to be spies? Neat! Oh, we get special spy equipment? Oh, wait a minute, this isn't a suicide mission, is it?"
"Oy vey," Gunn mumbled.
Murdock laughed. "I certainly hope not! I've just got you two broken in!" Making a visible effort to sober himself, he continued. "I'm not asking you to break into secure facilities or underground lairs. I just want some discreet sleuthing. Willow, you should be able to find any equipment and materials that would be used for the purpose of genetic engineering.
"Tara, your job will be evaluating the responses and mannerisms of those individuals whom the three of you will be making inquiries. You should be able to determine who truly does not know of any such activity, and who might be hiding something."
"Am I going to be the good cop or the bad cop, sir?" Tara asked somewhat cheekily.
"That will depend on how the three of you will decide in situ, Counselor. But you've got the right idea; a good psychologist is a good rule-of-thumb detective.
"Mr. Gunn, I think your presence on this mission will be self-explanatory. But, if you have any questions..."
"Yes, sir, I do. If we start 'discreetly sleuthing' at the same time the Hannibal arrives at the planet, I think the opposition is going to make us pretty quick."
"What are they going to make us do?" Tara asked, confused.
"No, make us, as in 'see through our cover..."
"That's a valid point, Mr. Gunn," the captain replied, "which is why I dropped the ship out of warp. And, which also brings me to the second part of this briefing." Murdock tapped his combadge. "Murdock to Commander DaKar."
"DaKar here. I've been expecting your call, sir."
"Are you about done?"
"Just putting the fuzzy dice on now. Come down and see, at your discretion."
"I'm on my way. Murdock, out." Standing up, he waved his subordinates to their feet. "C'mon, kids. We're going on a little field trip."
"You gotta be kidding me," Gunn muttered under his breath. He, along with Willow, Tara and Captain Murdock, were inspecting Chief Engineer DaKar's handiwork in the cavernous Main Shuttlebay.
"It's, um, very interesting," averred the ever-tactful Tara. Willow did not offer her opinion, at least not verbally; however, she seemed to be having trouble getting her eyebrows down from her hairline. She repeatedly walked around the object that DaKar had presented to the captain, as if a detailed examination would prove that this aerospatial monstrosity was an illusion of some kind.
The craft had started out in life as a Type-9 cargo shuttle, one of the larger one's in the Hannibal's complement, though not as big as the captain's yacht or even a runabout. However, the shuttle had been fitted with additional bulkheads and auxiliary modules, extending the overall size of the craft - and making it really ugly. Far from their usual seamless work, DaKar's engineering team had gone out of their way to make the modifications look as if they had been fitted by chimpanzees afflicted with rheumatoid arthritis. Naked gamma-welds sprouted from the shuttle's flanks, unconcealed conduits snaked around the exterior, and the whole thing just cried out for several good coats of paint.
The identifying insignia of the shuttlecraft had been removed - by phaser, judging from some of the burn marks - and a new name had been added to one side: LED ZEPPELIN.
"What's a 'Led Zeppelin?'"
Murdock straightened up, from peering at the underside of the ungainly vessel, in response to Gunn's question. "Well, a zeppelin is an old type of airship - invented, I believe, by a German named Zeppelin, in the nineteenth century - that flew by inflating huge collapsible tanks with hydrogen gas, to carry the airship aloft."
Gunn nodded, then frowned as a thought struck him. "Isn't hydrogen flammable?" he asked, already knowing the answer
Willow answered anyway. "Very. I think you hit upon the flaw in the whole idea. One good spark in the wrong place...
"...and that takes the fun out of your whole day," Murdock finished.
Tara had been listening and nodded politely. "So, um, what has all that to do with...?" she asked, indicated the scrawled name on the shuttlecraft.
DaKar grinned. "Actually, that was my choice, given that this whole idea of sending you out in this contraption could go over like the galaxy's biggest lead balloon..."
"...which would be, of course," Murdock intoned slowly, "a...lead...
"...zeppelin," the three younger crewmembers chorused with him.
"'kay, sir, I'll buy that," Gunn conceded, shrugging, "but somebody misspelled 'lead', there."
"Oh, that was intentional," DaKar answered. "There was this musical group back on Earth around the turn of the millennium -"
"I'm sure Mr. Gunn would love to hear about all this later," Murdock tried to interject.
"Oh, yeah! Kinda like those 'Beatles', with the misspelled disc in your ready room, sir!" Willow added.
"Yeah. A lot of musicians back then were really bad spellers. It's kinda depressing," Tara put in.
"Enough, already!" Murdock rolled his eyes, wondering for the hundred thousandth time if he was really the captain of this ship or just the babysitter. He glanced briefly at DaKar, but the look the Trill shot back didn't register on the Subspace Sympathy Detector. "The basic idea is, the three of you take this ship to Adigeon Prime. You'll pose as independent traders and scouts; any number of those stop off at the planet to barter and refuel their craft, so you shouldn't attract any attention. You'll go in mufti-" The captain broke off as Tara and Willow both giggled. "I say something funny?"
"'Mufti'," Willow muttered, having trouble with the corners of her mouth Tara deliberately looked away from her, chewing the insides of her cheeks to keep a straight face.
"Meaning you'll be going in civilian dress," Murdock elaborated, trying not to let his exasperation show. He glowered at the two smirking women, forcing them to pull themselves back to attention. He had never liked pulling on his Captain Face, but sometimes... "You'll be carrying your standard combadges, but kept hidden on your persons. You'll also be issued phasers and a tricorder, as well as some 'cover' documentation for your new identities. Actually, Dr. Devereux is handling that-"
"Devereux?" Gunn looked confused. "I mean, no disrespect to the guy, but what does he know about making fake ID's?"
"Charlie has some experience with this stuff," the captain answered, deliberately not elaborating.
"He'd tell you, but then he'd have to kill you," Tara added, smiling slightly. Gunn blinked, then decided not to pursue the matter.
"Anyway, we've got some cargo for you to take to Adigeon Prime: kevas, trillium, borite, that sort of thing," DaKar continued, "all packed away in some non-descript cases with some Planet 10 Shipping labels."
"The quartermaster will have some appropriate clothes for you all, and then you can see Lt. Thelvran and Dr. Devereux. Then, you'll all report to me back here for a final briefing. Dismissed."
"This is the Type-1 phaser," Thelvran lectured, holding the small energy weapon in his blue palm. "It is only capable of the first eight standard settings of the type-2; however, these should be more than enough to utilize on this mission. This weapon is much easier to conceal on your person, as it fits neatly into a convenient pocket."
Tara and Willow stood with Thelvran, Gunn and Dr. Devereux in the security armory, which also incorporated a small firing range. The small phaser was about the size of a small bar of soap, the kind provided by hotels since the beginning of time.
"That is small," Tara remarked, bemused.
"It's so cute!" Willow added. She had seen the type-1 phasers that had been standard ordnance back in the twenty-third century, though they had fallen somewhat out of favor by the time she had served in Starfleet. Those, however, were not nearly as small as these. "How come they don't use these anymore? This is the first time anybody's mentioned them to me?" She glanced at Tara for confirmation; the blonde counselor shook her head, indicating that she had never seen one either.
"They don't issue these much, anymore," Devereux averred noncommittally. "I think that's 'cause they're so small, people tend to lose 'em."
"Are these safe to put in a pocket?" Tara asked. "I-I don't want to, y'know, shoot myself in the foot or something..."
"I'm going to give you a full-course checkout on these weapons, Lieutenant," Thelvran replied. "I will not be satisfied until you both have achieved pinprick accuracy with these phasers."
The four humans looked around at one another, silently asking via facial expression: Do you want to tell him it's "pinpoint"? By mutual silent agreement, they decided to let the malaprop pass. Thelvran then subjected the two young women to a quick and dirty course on settings and safety interlocks, followed by phaser drills, shooting at holographic floating targets.
Tara in particular proved to be a pretty good shot. "My, um, dad...t-taught me to use a mag-rifle. He and I and m-my...Donnie, used to go hunting."
Thelvran and Gunn glanced at one another, taking note of Tara's reticence to talking about her family. Willow, knowing something of Tara's relationship to her father and brother, broke in to change the subject. "I'm having trouble with the whole image of you, y'know, being Big Game Hunter."
"Not that much big game on Norpin V. And I absolutely refused to have anything to do with shooting bunny rabbits."
Gunn chuckled, stifling it quickly. Thelvran turned to him. "Are you checked out on these, Chief?"
"Uh, yes, sir, but I'm going to carry my regular piece," Gunn replied. He reached into a small carrycase and brought up a soft plastic web belt with an attached phaser holster. "I can wear this under my coat...nobody'll notice I'm packing any heat." He smiled at his use of antique slang. Tara caught his eye and grinned. Willow noted the look exchanged between the two, then mentally shrugged.
Devereux stepped forward and handed Tara and Willow each a small case. "Here are the identifications I cooked up for the two of you. I've got yours here, too, Mr. Gunn." Both girls opened the IDs and peered inside, then inspected each others'. "How do they look?"
"Terrible. Mine looks like her and hers looks like me!" Willow exclaimed. Exasperated, Devereux yanked the IDs and switched them to the appropriate party.
A quick trip to the quartermaster netted Willow and Tara the civilian clothes they would need for the mission. Willow got a green turtleneck pullover, with beige-orange synthleather trousers that hugged her shape, and a blue frock coat with a fleecy inner lining. Tara got a V-neck red top and dark blue cotton "cargo" slacks (which were not quite as form-fitting as Willow's pants but she got rave reviews for them anyway) and a dark-red synthleather duster. The general look was "tough but femme," as Willow put it, causing Tara to raise an eyebrow.
There was another set of clothes, for each of them, that truly gave Tara pause. "What are these for?"
"Plan B," Willow replied, refusing to elaborate.
A pair of well-worn (purposefully so) tote bags completed the plunder. The two carried the new clothes back to Tara's quarters to change. The blonde counselor had divested herself of her Starfleet uniform (detaching her combadge to take with her on the mission, albeit covertly) and was contemplating exchanging her standard-issue undergarments for some of the lacier undies and bra that she had garnered on her travels....when she felt a slim pair of arms encircle her waist from behind, and a soft pair of lips kiss her neck and shoulder.
Tara squirmed with pleasure, but her sense of duty intervened. "Willow...we don't have tiiiiiiiimmme," she squealed suddenly as hands moved to Naughty Places. She somehow managed to turn and keep her balance, regardless of the lights exploding behind her eyes and her nerves jangling like piano wire during a concerto of the mad. Tara faced her friend and lover, who had a mischievous grin on her face and nothing else on her body.
"Then we make the time," the redhead growled, gently shoving Tara towards the bed. Busy fingers unclasped and pulled and divested her of the last of her clothes, leaving her helpless to repell the Invasion of the Pleasure Tentacles of Death...
By their usual standards, this intimate session was lightning quick, with none of the usual light conversation and breaks for mutual declarations of love. They were barbarians at a banquet, grabbing with hands and mouths, unmindful of inflicting bruises or bitemarks on their partners. The empathic link between them flared, usually to convey the emotional bonds the two of them shared; now it heightened the animalistic hunger each had for the other. This was a frenzied, frantic encounter, sweat and sharp cries punctuating their movements, the constant threat of a call over the intercom adding spice to the proceedings...
With an explosive shout, the two were done; Willow collapsing on top of Tara, her head pillowed by Tara's full breasts. Tara huffed slightly at the weight atop her abdomen, but hardly had the energy to protest. A full minute went by before either of them had recovered the power of speech. The silence, broken only by the rapid breaths from the two of them, seemed to hang in the room like a dark fog, much less companionable than the quiet time they would usually share after lovemaking.
As pleasurable as the session had just been (and Tara had always thought she would never go for "quickies"), she was disturbed, for reasons she had trouble articulating even to herself. While Willow was hardly unknown for being the aggressor, this time she seemed almost manic in her desire...possessive even. Do I feel...violated? Tara wondered, then unconsciously shivered at the thought, clamping down on the implications.
Willow stirred, either feeling Tara's sudden frisson or experiencing guilt. Or possibly, she realized that time was running out for the two of them... "Baby, we have to get up."
"Oh, really? You weren't worried about that two minutes ago," Tara muttered. It came out a bit more sharply than she had intended...she thought. She felt Willow tense, and knew she had said the wrong thing. Before Willow could move off of her completely, she grabbed the slim hand. "Sweetie, it was okay. It was fun." Tara flashed her trademark crooked smile, and there was enough genuine feeling behind to make it work.
Willow's sickle-sharp grin answered. It faded as she got up and looked over at the "civvies" they needed to put on. "We need to move it. Get dressed, get to the shuttlebay..."
"Willow, we're stinky and gross. We need to shower first. Alone!" she added as Willow raised a seductive eyebrow.
In the head, Tara programmed the sonic shower for one-minute cycles. She chivvied Willow in, asking "Don't use all the body wash, please."
Willow stood in the sonic shower area, performing the fastest ablutions of her life, lathering and then quickly rinsing the suds (and hopefully the sweat) from her body. Then, the sonic field briefly cut off, carrying away the water that streamed around her. Knowing what was coming next, Willow spread her feet apart slightly, then raised her arms away from her body. The brief sonic burst that followed dried her quickly. "All yours, baby," she said, passing Tara on the way back to the bedroom.
Tara dived in, soaped and lathered herself, wishing she had time for a more proper shower. A slight irritation as she washed her left breast caused her to look down to find... "Teethmarks!?! Oh, you are so going to get it..." The skin was not really broken, but still...
The shower cut off, and Tara positioned herself for the drying cycle. The burst usually left her skin feeling very tingly, filling her with a zest for life...among other things...but this time she was feeling a little tender in certain places. She winced at the mild discomfort, then decided that it wasn't anything she could not deal with for the immediate future.
Willow had nearly finished dressing. Tara hurriedly followed her example; meanwhile, Willow helpfully packed the rest of Tara's personal items into her tote bag.
Just as Tara was pulling on her boots, the intercom chimed. "Murdock to Lt. Maclay."
Tara hissed in breath, then answered in as calm as tone as she could manage, "Maclay here, sir," thankful that her usual stammer had taken the day off.
"Commander DaKar is putting the finishing touches on the, uh, Led Zeppelin now. So if you and Lt. Rosenberg could possibly deign to make an appearance..." The captain's casual manner belied the fact that he was a little impatient to see them before they left on their mission.
"Yes, sir, we're com-- We're on our way!" Willow corrected herself, cringing.
Tara could have happily brained her with any handy statuary, which fortunately for Willow she did not possess. She settled for a harsh glare, adding "We'll just be a minute, Captain. Maclay out." She huffed in exasperation. "'We're coming'? Oh my God, Willow...!"
"Not good, huh?" the science officer asked, picking up her tote bag and putting on her coat.
"No! And you know Commander DaKar heard that, too..."
"...and Doctor Devereaux...Gunn...the rest of the engineering staff..."
"Digging yourself a hole here, Willow."
"You're in command of this mission, Lieutenant," Murdock told Willow again, having separated her from the others in the Main Shuttlebay. "That means you're responsible for Lt. Maclay and Chief Gunn's safety. Clear? That also means, no unnecessary risks."
"Yes, sir," Willow answered, as seriously as she could given how gleeful she was at being asked to lead her very own mission.
Murdock smiled at her, knowing pretty much what was going through her head. "I know how, um, heady it is, your first command out, in the field and all that. But as I said before, this is strictly an information-gathering exercise. Recon, some surveillance as necessary, but you are not to engage any, oh, hostile assets. Those phasers are supposed to be for self-defense."
"Yes, sir," Willow said again.
"Now, Chief Gunn has had quite a bit of combat experience. While you are in command of this mission, any recommendations he may have about..." The captain hesitated for a moment, wondering how to phrase his thought diplomatically. Then he decided, to hell with diplomacy... "...keeping you and Tara from getting your asses shot off, I would give such recommendations considerable weight. Understood?"
"Absolutely, sir!" Can we, for the love of cheese, get on with it? Willow raged behind her respectful expression.
Gunn had spent the time during Willow and Tara's absence becoming familiar with the Led Zeppelin's many eccentricities. The controls were of a much older configuration than currently in use by Starfleet; there were, in fact, a few buttons and switches (something Gunn had only seen in the Fleet Museum once, on leave) on the helm and ops consoles. Fortunately, he was a full pilot's rating about eight hundred hours of flight time; ten minutes under DaKar's tutelage gave him an easy familiarity for the hybrid shuttle.
The chief petty officer had kitted himself out in rather baggy trousers, tucked into battered boots, and an equally loose pullover, topped by a long duster. A colorful bandanna was wrapped around his shaven pate. He gave the two female officers a critical look as they came into the Shuttlebay in their respective outfits, finally giving a quick appreciative nod. Tara in particular was both bemused and fascinated by his costume; she had a feeling he had dug it out of his closet. Gunn had been something of a mystery to her, having never really opened up to her in the one counseling session she had scheduled for him.
The captain had forbore remarking on their lateness, or the probable reason for it, although Tara thought she saw a thoughtful expression cross Dr. Devereux's face. Willow, on the other hand, noted the almost-leer on Jodell DaKar, and mentally dared him to say anything. The centuries-old Trill, not the least bit intimidated, gave a last sidelong glance and moved off, ostensibly to give the shuttle a final checkout.
Devereux, meanwhile, took Tara to one side for a pep talk. "So, how're you doin'? Nervous?"
She thought to demur on that, then decided there was no percentage in trying to kid a kidder. "A little. B-but that's good, right? I mean, being overconfident doesn't help. I think."
"Mmmm. That's hard to say. Back at the Academy, we had that last Parisees Squares game against Minsk. We were definitely the underdogs, but we managed to pull it off. There've been a couple of missions I had, where being convinced you were invincible was a definite asset." He smiled, then abruptly sobered. "You probably shouldn't need that. This is relatively low-risk, I'm thinking. It's not like we're beaming you naked onto Romulus..."
"I'm happy about that."
"Just give Willow whatever advice and evaluations you come up with, and go from there. This is all stuff you've trained and prepared for."
"Thanks. And don't worry." She lowered her voice, stepping a little closer to the older man. "You gonna be good while I'm gone?" Tara worried that his depression and feelings of guilt might overwhelm him, causing him to overindulge in his favorite alcoholic beverages.
He gave her grin of the young man he had once been. "Yes, dear." She chuckled in reply.
Near the Led Zeppelin, Thelvran was giving Gunn last-minute instructions. "Charles," he said, surprising the young chief petty officer, as the Andorian was usually a stickler for protocol, "it is your responsibility to keep them safe. They do not have very much combat experience. You do."
"I got their backs, sir. Where else would I be?" Gunn answered matter-of-factly. Thelvran nodded and smiled, then held up his right hand between himself and Gunn, who met it with his own. The two then performed a complex handshake, the kind perfected by urban youths of centuries past, ending with the pair miming shooting a phaser at an imaginary target over their heads. They grinned at one another. "Be cool, boss," Gunn said.
"Hang loosely," Thelvran answered, prompting a slight smile from his subordinate, who decided he'd correct his superior when he got back.
"Let's get this show on the road," Murdock announced, drawing everyone together. To the three junior officers, he said, "After you take off from here, proceed straight to Adigeon Prime. The Hannibal is going to undergo a course correction; we'll be arriving about thirty hours after you do, from a completely different vector. With all the commercial traffic the planet gets, it should allay any suspicions of collusion between us.
"Communication is extreme need only. You can set your combadges on silent warning; if by some chance we need to contact you, the badge will oscillate silently, so if you not in a secure location, just give the badge a quick double-tap. Contact us when you can do so discreetly. Any more questions?"
"About how long are we going to be snooping about down there before we or you decide, um, we need to ratchet things up? Or not?" Tara asked.
Murdock considered this. "Only a couple of days. Mind you, anything truly hot, I expect you to let me know as soon as you can; again, try not to blow your cover unless it's an extreme emergency. I don't expect you all to keep quiet with bamboo shoots under your fingernails. Yes, Maclay, I'm kidding," he added in response to Tara's silent (but rather wide-eyed) question.
"And awaaay we go," Gunn muttered as he coaxed the converted shuttle out the enormous doorway (and through the atmosphere-restraining force-field) of the Main Shuttlebay. Then he had to bear to starboard in order to miss hitting the central pylon that supported the Ordnance Pod. "Who designed this damn starship anyway...I mean, putting something like that right in front of your shuttlebay..." He trailed off as he precessed the Led Zeppelin around 180 degrees.
Through the main viewport, Willow and Tara could see the Nebula-class starship begun to pull away as it changed course. Willow had never seen the outside of the ship before, although she knew the general design of it. Tara remembered arriving with the captain and DaKar in the Leonardo da Vinci, the captain's yacht. She did a mental double take as she realized that that was less than four months ago. Time flies when you have a whole new life...and love... She looked over at Willow and smiled. Enraptured by the sight of the Hannibal, she did not notice.
"We'll see you on Adigeon Prime," came Murdock's voice over the com. "And do not pick up hitchhikers!" Gunn snickered at that, while he punched the controls.
Moving swiftly and surely, for a warp-dynamic absurdity, the Led Zeppelin surged to faster-than-light speed.
Hours later, Murdock sat in his ready room, trying not to berate himself for sending the three on their solo mission. It was not as if he was unsure about trusting them to do the right thing. This was more what Charlie would call "the mother hen syndrome."
Devereux had stopped by, coming off-shift with his usual minibar set-up. Murdock had politely declined both the drink and the accompanying advice. The counselor took this in stride and departed with only the barest hint of pique.
And, of course, an afterthought of advice: "If you're gonna brood in here half the night, Sam, for God's sake, catch up on some paperwork." Murdock had responded with a genial obscenity and a friendly grin of thanks.
He had managed to reduce the piles of administrivia down a considerable level, though the effort had not been enough to entirely occupy his mind. He mulled over some things that had been brewing in his subconscious for many weeks now, about Willow Rosenberg and Tara Maclay, how and more importantly why they intrigued him so much.
The second part of that question still eluded him. Murdock recalled the day he had met Tara, picking her up at Aldebaran after he and DaKar had finished their leave on Casperia Prime. She had already been assigned to the Hannibal as the new assistant ship's counselor, only to have a bout of food poisoning (actually an allergic reaction to Aldebaran shellmouth, a delicacy in many restaurants on that world) interrupt her original itinerary. Starfleet had informed Murdock of this while on route back the ship in the Leonardo, so it was merely a matter of a quick course correction.
He was struck by how quickly he was taken with her. (Not the same way that Jodell DaKar had been, of course; the Trill was a bit of a rake, but after several lifetimes one tended to shed the externally-imposed social mores and get right to business, as he would often put it. As it turned out, Tara proved less than interested in becoming another notch on DaKar's sidearm. Fortunately, he was highly adept at avoiding making unpleasant situations and took it in stride.) While Murdock had never entirely mastered the reservation that most Starfleet captains held between themselves and their crews, he found Tara very pleasant company for the trip back to the Hannibal. At first he chalked that up to her training as a counselor. Then, after Charlie had (after swearing him to secrecy) told him about her empathic abilities, he wondered if that might give her an advantage in dealing with people in the most pleasant, easy-going manner possible. Certainly her own somewhat diffident aspect made her choose the path of least volatility.
As it turned out, he was still getting to know Tara when another new arrival literally dropped in their collective lap: Willow Rosenberg, freshly arrived from the twenty-third century and needing a place in the universe. Like many other people on the ship, Murdock felt his heart go out to this poor girl, who had lost the life she had had, the friends... He admired the fortitude she displayed in adjusting herself to her new situation, forcing her formidable intellect to absorb all the information she needed for her new job, in an incredibly short time as it turned out... Murdock wondered if he himself could have done so well, even given the many times he had to do adapt to new situations under dangerous circumstances.
Even as he had welcomed the two new arrivals and oversaw their taking their places in the traveling family circus that was the U.S.S. Hannibal, he found himself amazed at how much his new science officer and assistant counselor occupied his thoughts. The fact that the two of them had begun a romantic relationship in the last couple of months pleased him, inordinately so. As a captain, he wasn't really supposed to care about that stuff. Still, he could not deny the sense of aptness about their relationship, the sense that he knew on some level before they that...
It was at that point, on a night some weeks ago as he prepared for bed, that the notion truly struck him. He knew Willow and Tara were going to hook up. Before they did.
How? I'm not empathic. Charlie's told me enough times I barely know what's going on in my head, let alone anybody else's. And precognition would be a handy tool to have in this job, but no...
Not precognition. Memory.
I've met them before.
That thought had caused him to sit up in the middle of his bed in the middle of ship's "night." It was impossible, but there it was. Somehow, he had encountered the two of them - together - sometime in his past. Unfortunately, intense perusal of his personal logs and hours of brain-cudgeling had failed to produce a viable answer. He knew instinctively that it would be useless to question the two of them. Somehow, Murdock knew that the circumstances of their meeting would have eluded them as well.
Now, working in his ready room on his paperwork and woolgathering about his favorite twosome, Murdock had at last fatigued himself enough to go have dinner and go to bed. He was straightening up his desk when the com chimed. "Bridge to Captain Murdock."
Always when you want to just lie down and go to sleep... he thought ruefully, even as he acknowledged the page. Then his curiosity peaked somewhat, as the caller was not the bridge duty officer, who would have paged him in response to a crisis or an important announcement. This was the Beta Shift ops manager, Lt. al-Jahara. She wouldn't have called him just to let him know that the wastewater lines on Deck Twelve were backed up, but...
"A personal message has just arrived for you, sir. It was routed through the Federation civil communications network."
That caused him to raise his eyebrows. He didn't get many personal messages these days. "Pipe it in here to my desk screen. Murdock, out."
The header of the message indicated that it originated outside Federation space, from a small commercial transport, then routed halfway to the core worlds before it was transferred to the Starfleet communications network and sent to him. All this caused a delay of two or three days to reach him. He rolled his eyes at this, then proceeded to read further.
It was from Yoshikiro Onada. That alone caused him to draw in a breath, painfully. He had never met Kiro, but he knew who he was, and the fact that Kiro was contacting him could only mean that something had happened to his old friend. Murdock felt his throat turn to ice, and advanced the text further, knowing in his heart that his old friend was gone, and that Murdock had once again been left behind...
Wait a sec... Murdock's eyes finally caught up to his brain, and actually read what was displayed on his screen. Those eyes widened as the brain registered the import of what Kiro was telling him. Far from being dead...
"Oh, no, no no no no no NO!" Murdock leaned back in his chair, scarcely able to believe his eyes. Of all the crazy... And what was worse, he could not alter the timetable he had already set with Willow, Tara and Gunn. Contacting them was out of the question. Even though Willow would be... He quenched the thought. This mission was too important to jeopardize, despite what the old man was attempting to do. And, actually, according to some of the information Kiro was providing, certain aspects of the problem on Adigeon Prime now made a certain sense.
But still... He reread the message, hoping against hope that the message really said something else entirely. No such luck. The heartfelt groan escaped him unbidden, as did the rhetorical question, "What is that senile delinquent trying to do this time?"