"Um, Guardian, not to be a knudge or anything, but, like, can we speed this up a little?" As fascinating as the montage of centuries of human history was to Willow, after several minutes the time portal was still stuck in the Second Common Era Millennium. At the rate the centuries were passing... "Or, actually, I kinda had a specific date in mind..." She had read the reports from the Starfleet personnel who had first found the Guardian, about how they had used a tricorder to record images from the time-stream and then used that to calibrate their trip through time to correct a disruption in history. Unfortunately, Willow didn't have a tricorder, nor did she think it prudent to call the ship (I don't even have a combadge, so much for that idea!) to request one.
"I was made to offer the past in this manner; I cannot change."
Willow rolled her eyes. "Not the most user-friendly time portal, are ya?" Still, it was amazing what you could learn from this display. For example, she had never guessed how much Alexander the Great (at least, that's who she thought the fair-haired general leading ancient Greek legions was) looked like Leonardo da Vinci. Meanwhile, she was trying to figure out, using the computer in her skull, a formula to calculate when she should jump through the portal, based on the progression before her.
She was nearly done, basing her answer on Pell Underhill's quantum equations, when she noticed a scene set aboard a sailing ship, somewhere in the eighteenth century by her estimation, and populated by somewhat unsavory characters. Oh, cool, a pirate ship! Yo-ho-ho and all that. Some of those guys look pretty scummy, except that guy, could be the... captain... what the frilly heck...
The figure that Willow saw in the Guardian's timestream image turned around to show his face. The man's hair curled down past the collar of his frock coat, and he wore a full beard...
...otherwise, he was a dead ringer for Captain Ulysses Murdock.
"I'm going back out there," Murdock told Thelvran. The security chief had already informed him that one of the base's transport inhibitors was still online, covering the area where he had found him and the two women. Murdock still had not told the Andorian about what really reposed on this planet; the less people who knew about the Guardian - and what Willow might be attempting to do - the better. "Get the Maquis up to the ship and secure them in the brig. See if you can get the last inhibitor offline. Assuming you do, I should be beaming back to the ship in a few minutes."
"Captain, request permission to accompany..." Thelvran began.
"Denied," Murdock retorted. "I'll take care of this myself, thanks anyway."
Thelvran's blue features twisted enough to betray his displeasure at his commanding officer's decision to put himself at risk, though he was too much the professional to argue out loud. He did, however, draw his phaser from its holster and offer it to Murdock. "You might need this, sir." The captain, after a second's thought, took the weapon, nodding his gratitude.
"Captain!" Tara exclaimed sharply, looking at the phaser in his hand. Her unspoken objection hung in the air between them.
"Maclay..." Murdock said, his expression tight. Tara steeled herself to be ordered back to the ship with the others, or at least to be admonished into silence. She was therefore mildly, but pleasantly surprised when he continued, "... you're with me." He turned on his heel towards the exit, expecting her to follow in his wake.
"Captain, Lieutenant," Thelvran called after them. He offered their combadges, retrieved from the Hannibal's bridge. With mumbled thanks, the captain and the counselor, after checking to make sure each had the right badge, affixed them to their tunics and left the building.
Willow had barely recovered from the shock of seeing a virtual double of Murdock living in the eighteenth century, when it happened again... this time in a dark, gaslit London street, dressed in an Inverness cape and a suit like something out of those old Sherlock Holmes vids that her grandfather had collected. This time the guy was clean-shaven, though his sideburns came down nearly to his neckline. But again, he could have been Captain's Murdock's twin.
What is this? Did the captain travel back to the past? In two different eras? Or... what? After a brief montage of rifle-and-bayonet-carrying troops rushing across battlefields, politicians waving newspaper headlines, Lindbergh landing in Paris, millions of out-of-work people trudging through city streets, troops marching on European cities, she saw another virtual Murdock: standing with a group of men, some wearing the timeless labcoat of the professional scientist, outside a factory, while a large sign was being hoisted into position.
Willow recognized the familiar triangle-and-ellipse symbol from a history of space exploration. Yoyodyne, she automatically identified, Grover's Mill, New Jersey, North America... uh, November 1938. Okay, what the hell would he be doing there?
"Y'know, if you want to view a historical retrospective, Willow, there are some excellent holodeck programs on the menu."
The tone of his voice was so casual that it took Willow a second to realize that she'd been busted. Grimacing, she took a half-turn from the Guardian.
She had expected to see Captain Murdock standing there, most likely with a passel of security guards to drag one errant science officer back to the ship. What she hadn't predicted that the captain would be accompanied by...
"Tara!" Willow's voice reflected the odd mix of joy and chagrin she felt at the moment.
"Willow, what the hell are you doing?" The young counselor, too, carried a mixture of emotions: concern for Willow's safety, and an urge to knock her block off for deceiving her. Murdock glanced at Tara, slightly piqued that (as it seemed to be standard procedure where these two women were concerned) matters seemed to be spiraling out of his control. Tara either did not notice or chose not to notice Murdock's look. "For God's sake-"
"Tara," Willow began.
"I think-" Murdock tried to interject.
"-think about what you're doing!" Tara thundered.
"Maclay, back off!" Murdock waited a second as she pulled herself to attention, then turned back to Willow. Adopting as conciliatory a countenance as he was capable at that moment, he extended a hand towards Willow... not the hand holding the phaser at his side. "Why don't we just go back to the ship, okay? No harm done. I can understand the call of temptation, but... it ends here. Now."
For a second, the young woman seemed to waver, to want to walk over to her captain and ask his forgiveness and just take up the threads of her life. Then the moment passed as her resolve reconstituted itself. "I'm sorry, Captain, I can't."
Murdock rolled his eyes. "Oh, let's not have this conversation again..."
"Willow," Tara started again, this time having regained a little professional equanimity, although it hardly took a professional therapist to recognize the emotional undercurrent in her voice. "You can't just go back to the twenty-third century and pick up where you left off. You are not the person you are when you... left. You have to live the life you have now, with m... the p-people in your life now."
Willow had kept glancing at the Guardian throughout Murdock's and Tara's speeches, watching the images from the Eugenics Wars through Cochrane's warpship breaking the light barrier. At Tara's final words she turned fully towards her friend... and more. "I know all that. Don't you think I want to live here, in this time? Life here is so good... and you're a big part of that." She glanced at Murdock. "I mean, you are, too, sir, don't get me wrong, I mean, who else is going to serenade me at dinner?"
"Glad I'm in there somewhere..." Murdock observed laconically.
"It's just... there's something I have to do, back there," Willow finished, glancing around to see the twenty-second century. The clock in her was counting down all the while, telling her she had little time left. She hoped to be able to get within a loud shout of her goal.
"What is so important that you-" Tara cut off as she realized the one piece of unfinished business that Willow would find so critical that she would risk everything. "Buffy."
"Buffy? Who the hell... you mean Elizabeth Summers? Lt. Elizabeth Summers, from the old Hannibal?"
Tara nodded. "She's going back to prevent Buffy from getting killed by Romulans. Willow, don't you know how dangerous that is?"
"Even if by some miracle you get there in time, the changes in the timestream could be catastrophic," Murdock added. "You could be re-writing ninety years of history... all to save one woman who's been dead for most a century." His phaser, held at his side, now came up to point, albeit vaguely, in Willow's direction. "I'm sorry, but I can't let you take the chance."
Willow took a tentative half-step... towards the Guardian of Forever. Tara stepped forward in response, prudently keeping to one side in case Murdock felt the need to use the phaser on Willow, much as she hoped otherwise. "Willow, don't do this. Don't you think that you... oh, my God..." she trailed off, looking past Willow to the Guardian of Forever.
Willow turned back to the time portal, and at first was merely shocked to see a man in an old-style Starfleet uniform. She recognized it as the uniform style in vogue several years before she had graduated from the Academy: gold command-grade tunic over black trousers, with individual ship insignia over the left breast. She was further shocked, as well as nostalgic, to see that the man was Francisco Cumberland, looking several years younger than when she had known him (although he still had the beard), standing next a young woman also in command-gold (albeit in the truncated tunic/mini-skirt) and another man in civilian clothing who had turned away briefly...
...who then turned back to reveal himself as yet another Captain Murdock lookalike.
Tara glanced at Murdock, whose facial (and empathic) expression was not so much surprise or shock, but rather that of resigned embarrassment. He deflated slightly as he mumbled, "Hoo boy."
Willow took advantage of that moment of distraction. As she sprinted for the Guardian, she saw the last major battle of the Swift War and Vejur descending on Earth and then she herself Buffy and Xander on Iotia and there was the shuttlepod being swallowed up by the temporal anomaly...
Murdock shook himself back to the present. "Willow, stop!" He brought the phaser up, confident that at this range he couldn't miss, that he could tag Willow with a stun blast before she could reach the time portal...
And then, unbidden, faces from his past came alive. Jean-Paul. Nathaniel. Sophie. Tetsuo. Ratbag. Lynette. Harry. Mrs. Dugan. Emilio. Danny. Kiera. All taken from him, by time.
The moment, his opportunity to stop Willow, passed. The scene shifted from the shuttlepod disappearing through time, just as she leaped through the images.
"No!" Murdock cried, damning himself for being a complete idiot.
"Willow!" Tara shrieked, the cry of the abandoned. "Don't leave me!"
New Quito, Gault (Psi Arridon V)
Lt. Buffy Summers was able to stun the Romulan over by the reactor's master control station before the second Romulan, whom she hadn't seen when she came through the door, kicked her arm and caused her phaser to fly from her grasp.
The Romulan agent figured he had plenty of time, and the advantage of surprise, to draw his disruptor on this small female human. What he did not expect was her immediate counterattack, a whirling spinkick that caught him on the side of his head. Buffy followed that up with a punch to the gut and a snap-kick to the jaw as he doubled over. The Romulan fell back to the floor.
Buffy prudently leaned over and removed the disruptor from his belt. Like his female counterpart, the Romulan was in civilian clothing, apparently trying to pass for Vulcan colonists on this recently-established Federation outpost. Buffy, along with Captain Cumberland and several members of the Hannibal's complement, was on a mission to investigate several incidents of sabotage in New Quito's power grid and utility systems. They had found that some of the "Vulcan colonists" were in fact Romulan deep-cover agents. "Just our luck," Cumberland had mumbled at one point, "one of the Federation's oldest enemies happens to look just like one of our founding member races."
"Really," Buffy had replied, nettled. "Aren't they supposed to be wearing those very identifiable, and horribly unfashionable, uniforms, that just scream 'Major Bad Guys Who Have No Taste'?"
Cumberland had grinned at that. "You have an uncanny knack for boiling everything down to the basics, Lieutenant."
The investigation had gone on for several days, as the Hannibal officers checked security protocols, investigated sites of sabotage, and interviewed some of the colony's administrative and enforcement personnel. Buffy had participated in this, with some unexpected but very pleasurable side benefits, in the form of a certain young man who worked for the civil security bureau, with whom Buffy had spent several very nice evenings on the planet. He had proven to be extremely competent, very cooperative and great in... other areas.
Unfortunately, during a very nice evening meal, the Romulan "moles", apparently spurred on by the Hannibal's investigation, had moved up their timetable, which included an attempted infiltration and takeover over the civil administration center as well as attempting to take Captain Cumberland and the other Starfleet personnel prisoner. The latter had lasted all of ten minutes, as Cumberland, Buffy and the other Hannibal crewmen (assisted ably by Buffy's new friend) had broken free and disarmed their captors. Buffy herself had disabled three of her attackers, coming in second place to Captain Cumberland, who had taken out five. Once again, she allowed herself to be impressed by his hand-to-hand prowess. For a self-described "glorified helm jockey," he's got some nice moves...
After securing their one-time captors, Cumberland had led Buffy and the others to the administration complex, there to meet some more Romulans. They had set up a crossfire on the complex's upper gallery to trade disruptor shots for the Starfleet phaser fire. A small group had managed to break away and head for the engineering section, which housed the small colony's main fusion reactor. Cumberland had wanted to after them himself, but Buffy had objected, saying that he should stay to lead the others in securing the main part of the building; she volunteered to chase after the second group.
"All right, but watch your back," Cumberland had growled in reluctant reply. "I'll be five minutes behind you!"
"See you there, sir!" she said. After Cumberland and the others had laid down covering fire, she ran hell-for-leather down the corridor where the second Romulan team had gone. Buffy had managed to track them down to the reactor control room...
She retrieved her phaser from where it had fallen from her hand, giving it a quick check for any damage, which there was none. Her sparring partner was attempting to get back up; when he saw that she had her phaser, he decided that perhaps discretion was the better part of getting one's ass kicked, and relaxed.
Buffy looked at the female she had stunned, then back to the male. "I thought there was another one," she wondered aloud. The man said nothing, keeping his expression neutral. Buffy was about to inquire further when a beep from the control console, where the Romulan female had been entering commands just as Buffy entered, made her glance over at the readouts. What she saw there did not look good. She turned back to the man, shrugged in a not-very-sincere apology, and stunned him, ensuring that he would not distract or attack her.
Holstering her phaser, Buffy crossed over to the control station. The Romulan woman had evidently set the reactor's control to cause an overload, which would be, not to put too fine a point on it, bad.
"Poop!" Buffy muttered as she set about stopping the overload, forcing her brain to dig up what she knew about fusion reactors. Trouble was, this really wasn't her field, and what little information she had was mostly second-hand... I've seen Willow do this kinda stuff a million times, but do I pay any attention? Nooo, I'm too busy looking at all the pretty lights! Even so, after a half-minute of re-routing and re-initializing, Buffy was getting encouraging results. So intent was she on her work, trying to keep the reactor from blowing up (and taking most of the colony with it), that she did not hear the third Romulan, the one who had doubled back and come up behind her, creep through the doorway and silently take aim at her back with his disruptor.
Something else, however, grabbed her attention. A section of the wall to her right was suddenly shimmering like hot desert air, a weird rippling effect that made Buffy sit up and blink rapidly. Then something really weird happened: a figure suddenly melted its way through the liquefied wall... a figure bearing a startling resemblence to...
"Willow?!?" Buffy cried out in amazement.
The apparition, clad in some kind of (jumpsuit? uniform?) came to a halt, stumbling slightly, and grinned a familiar grin. "Hey, cutie, I-" Willow's eyes widened. "Buffy, behind you!"
The Romulan mole had been preparing to shoot the Starfleet female in the back when this other human had appeared out of nowhere, and certainly not by any sort of transporter beam he had ever seen. The stranger's shouted warning galvanized him back to the moment, and he leveled his disruptor and fired.
Most people would have been paralyzed by indecision and confusion under these circumstances. However, this time, as on several other occasions, Buffy Summers proved that she was not "most people." Whirling and crouching down to one knee, she drew her phaser even as she felt the disruptor bolt pass over her head; hours later she would be checking her hair for scorch marks. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Willow dive for cover. Hand and eyes coordinated instinctively as she blasted the Romulan into unconsciousness, the phaser beam knocking him back two meters. Only a slight tremor as she re-holstered her phaser betrayed her outward veneer of calm.
Willow got up from the floor where she had dived out of the way. "Hey, uh, are you - okay? Sorry I cut it so close... although, talk about hitting the target under extreme conditions, kinda like hitting a puppy with a bee-"
"Will-" Understandably, Buffy was dealing with a number of things at once. "How d'you- Um. Wait. The reactor!" She lunged over to the console. "I tried to stop the overload, don't really know if... little help, here?"
Willow strode over and examined the readouts. Funny, how all this stuff seems real antique now..., she mused. "I think you got most of the job done," she said after a few seconds. Tapping in a few commands, she added, "I've re-engaged the safety systems. That should do it."
"Good. Fusion explosions give me really bad hair," Buffy quipped. Her eyes shining, she turned and pulled Willow into a fierce embrace. "I can't believe it! God, I thought you were-" She couldn't quite finish the sentence and just let herself bask in the renewed warmth of her friend's arms.
Willow returned the hug, with equal passion if not force. "It's good to see you, Buff. It seems like a hundred years..." Close enough for government work. As Buffy inadvertently increased the pressure of the hug, Willow felt her ribs start to creak. "Uh, oxygen becoming an issue..." she gasped, only slightly exaggerating.
"Sorry!" Releasing Willow's torso, Buffy stepped back, taking her friend's hands in her own. "You look good. Like the new outfit. Tell me, does the dirt come with, or is that extra?"
Snorting laughter, Willow answered, "Ahh, kind of a long story. And, uh, hate to save your life and run," she added, glancing back at the wall she had magically appeared through, which was still rippling like firm gelatin, "but I have to go back."
Buffy's eyes widened, like a child who had been told she would have to give all her Christmas presents back on December 26th. "'Go back'? No! You can't just... God, Will, I thought I'd lost... you can't do this to me! And Xander... he left Starfleet because of you! You know how much it would mean to him that..."
"Buffy," Willow countered quietly, her patented Resolve Face set at maximum. "I have to go back. This isn't my life anymore. And... there's someone there, waiting for me."
Buffy's expression changed from heartbreak to glee in record time. "Really? No kidding!" She playfully punched Willow's shoulder. "Go, Wills!"
"Thanks. And, ow," she added, rubbing her shoulder. "Oh! I know! Come with me! Oh, Buffy, you'd love it there, it's so great, and I'd love for you to meet... What? That's your sad face. Why am I seeing Sad Face?"
"No, Will, it's just... Captain Cumberland once said to me... I have to let you go sometime. I guess that begins here." Buffy raised her eyes again and stared into Willow's. "But that doesn't mean here," pointed towards her heart, "right?" Willow nodded, indicating her own heart as well. Buffy then shrugged diffidently. "'Sides, I... kinda... met a guy here, while we were on this assignment... "
"Do tell, do tell," Willow said mischievously.
"What's there to tell... basic Nice Guy, white teeth, handles himself great in a fight, and makes me feel great about myself. I know, I know, 'run away as fast as I can.' I think just maybe I'm over my whole Bad Boy phase. 'Course, this guy actually had the gall to ask me to stay with him here on Farm World-"
"You should," Willow said, cutting her off. "Stay here with him, leave Starfleet, make a life here, at least, y'know, take the chance, carpe diem and all that. Life's too short." She glanced over her shoulder at the still-rippling wall. "Look, I gotta-"
"I know. C'mere," Buffy said, drawing Willow close again. The two girls wrapped their arms around one another again, trying to imprint the feel and the smell of one another deep within, knowing that this was good-bye, knowing the tears and the sobs would have to substitute for words they could not express in the time they had left.
After a timeless moment, eternal and infinitesimal, they parted, wiping checks dry with palms of hands. Buffy nodded, finding her voice somehow. "Alright, get the hell going, before I... change my mind and render you unconscious." Willow's laugh prompted her to respond in kind. A sudden thought made her grab Willow again, one hand on the back of her head, and press their lips together.
The kiss was firm, chaste but with a passion that caught Willow totally off-guard. Oh, God, if she tells me she's been gay all along I'll kill her, she thought as Buffy released her. Willow felt her eyes nearly popping out of their sockets.
"Your 'someone'... Give 'im that, from me," Buffy said, smiling. "Tell him he better take good care of you, because if he doesn't, I'll track him down and kick his ass."
Willow chuckled as she walked over to the shimmering wall. "Um, okay, I'll do that," she said, looking back at Buffy, "but only because I was going to kiss her anyway."
The casual manner in which Willow had dropped that particular bombshell resulted in several seconds before the clue-by-four hit Buffy upside the head. "Wha-wait a minute! 'Her?' What do you mean-"
"Bye, Buffy, I love you," Willow said as she stepped through the wall.
"Wait, you can't just-" She fell silent as the wall abruptly became solid again. She strode over to it and hammered on it with an iron fist. "You bitch!"
"Yelling at walls gets you talked about," came the voice behind her that caused her to spin and point her phaser at... Captain Cumberland. "So does shooting your superior officer," he added, putting his hands up for comic effect.
Buffy rolled her eyes as she put away her phaser. God! "Where did you come from, sir?" she asked, barely able to keep from gritting her teeth.
"McMurdo Sound, Antarctica, originally," Cumberland replied casually, "but if you mean more recently, Lieutenant, the main administration complex. We're just mopping up over there, but I came to see if you needed a hand." His breezy manner masked his relief at seeing his junior officer alive and well. All during his mad dash to the reactor control room, he had been filled with the horrid certainty that he would arrive too late. The fact that his instinct had been wrong, as joyous as it was, confused him. He felt as if a subtle shift of some kind had taken place, but he could not figure out why this was so. And there was another feeling, almost like a near-forgotten odor that he could almost place...
"Did I miss something here, Lieutenant?"
Buffy smiled wanly. "I'm not sure you're going to believe this one, Captain."
"No!" Murdock cried.
"Willow!" Tara shrieked. "Don't-"
Barely a second after they saw her jump through the images at the Guardian's center, Murdock and Tara were shocked to see Willow step calmly back to where she had been standing moments ago.
Murdock lowered the phaser he had been pointing. Now he strode forward a couple of steps, a shocked expression on his face. "What have you done?" he asked Willow with an awful calm. Tara crossed her arms, her blue eyes blazing in the dim light.
Before Willow could answer, the stentorian tones of the Guardian rang out. "Time has resumed its shape."
Tara stepped towards Murdock. "Wh-what does that mean?"
Murdock shook his head in answer. Tapping his combadge, he intoned, "Murdock to Hannibal."
A seeming eternity went by before an answer came back. "Hannibal; Faraday here, sir."
Breathing a sigh of relief, Murdock asked, "What's the status, Number One?"
"Thelvran managed to get the last transport inhibitor offline. Right now he's bringing the Yamamoto and the Huxley back aboard. Kolrami's squaring away the Trieste."
"Very well." A sudden thought made him ask, "Where are DaKar and Dr. Govarr?"
"In... Engineering and Sickbay, I assume. Do you-"
"No, no. Where's Dr. Devereaux?"
"Right here, sir. Captain, is everything-"
"I'm not sure yet. Stand by." Tapping the comline closed, Murdock strode over to Willow. "Lt. Rosenberg, you are confined to quarters until further notice." Willow nodded miserably, noting how Tara would not meet her eyes, keeping a stony expression on her face. "Lt. Maclay, beam the two of you up to the ship, and escort her to her quarters." In answer to her unspoken question, he added, "I'll be right behind you. Go on."
Tara nodded. Watching Murdock step back, not trusting herself to look at Willow, she tapped her combadge. "Maclay to Hannibal. Two to beam up."
Murdock watched the transporter beam sweep them away, then took a deep breath. "Guardian of Forever." By no sense he could name, he felt the great stone monolith's attention on him. "You know what the future holds for me, don't you." It was not a question. Swallowing his anxiety, he continued, "Has Willow done anything to change that?"
"All is as it was before," the time portal replied, then added as Murdock was able to ask for clarification, "Ozymandias."
Murdock flinched as if struck. Regaining as much composure as he could, he called the ship again. "One to beam up."
The captain vanished in a column of light, leaving behind the somber stone arch and the lonely keening of the wind.