Prologue – Once upon a time

 

The tables on the terrace of Zefram’s were only half filled with guests, but M’rroah was surprised by the large number of uniformed Starfleet personnel among the patrons. As far as she could see at least half of them were of flag rank and none below the rank of captain. “It seems we are not the only ones who thought it a good idea to enjoy ourselves while we can,” she remarked to Tarin.

“Yes, it appears that way,” Captain Veal said as she made her way to a table close by the railing that would provide an unobstructed view of the ocean. As she and M’rroah had left the strategy meeting only half an hour ago, both women too were still in uniform.

After taking a seat Tarin picked up a menu and she was glad she had asked her friend out to one of the best restaurants of Oreas. The range of choices included food from every corner of the Federation and the view from the seaside terrace was spectacular, especially now that the two primary suns of Tarin’s homeworld neared the horizon and basked both ocean and patio in warm shades of red and orange. Getting a table here on short notice was nearly impossible, but it seemed that for the captain of the Valkyrie exceptions could be made.

Looking up to see if her Caitian friend had already decided what she wanted to drink, Tarin was surprised to see M’rroah standing at the railing, looking out over the ocean. She was even more surprised as she noticed the Caitian’s posture. The raised tail and the ears folded back against the head clearly showed her how anxious her friend was. “What’s wrong, M?”

“What isn’t?” M’rroah replied, without turning away from the twin sunset. She sharply inhaled and added: “I am worried that the others may not get here in time, but I am even more worried about you.”

It took Tarin a moment to overcome her surprise. “You are worried about me? Why?”

“Well, we have known each other for something like what, almost twenty years?” M’rroah looked over her shoulder just in time to see Tarin nod. “And you know, in all that time I have never seen you so composed, so …detached, except maybe when working on some science project.”

The Caitian turned away from the railing and finally found a chair, carefully threading her tail between the backrest and seat. “I know you can be pretty cool under fire, but this is, I don't know," she made a helpless gesture, but didn't finish the sentence. "I always thought I knew you, that you had always stayed true to yourself.” The Caitian breathed deeply and looked at the sunsets again when she went on. “These days I am not sure I really know you anymore and that worries me.”

A smile slowly crept over Tarin’s face and she gently took her friend’s paw in her hand. She had had the same doubts and it had taken her some time to come to terms with who she had become. “Please don’t worry M. I know I have changed the last few years, but deep down inside I am still the woman you met at the Academy. The only thing different about me now is that I realized that I can’t avoid some decisions, however much I would want to. But even when necessity forces my hand I try my best to stay true to the person I always was.”

For almost a minute M’rroah just looked down at Tarin’s hand that still held her paw. When she spoke again her voice was soft and caring. “I guess I know what you mean. I learned that lesson a long time ago, but I never allowed myself to realize that you did so, too. Even after you saved the Perseus from the Romulans and everything afterwards, part of me wanted to believe that we were still the same people who met at the Academy. Pretty stupid of me, wasn’t it?”

“No, not at all.” Captain Veal sighed. “Part of me wants to go back there as much as you do, but once I realized I could never be that person again I tried to accept who and what I have become. Some of these days I am still surprised how easy that seemed to be.”

The Caitian looked at Tarin’s face, surprise at the sudden moodiness of her friend mixing with curiosity in her expression. “And when did you realize that?”

Tarin Veal turned her head towards the ocean, her eyes squinting against the light of the two suns nearing the horizon. “It didn’t happen over night, but I think one turning point came a few weeks after the Argolis affair. I have never told you much about it, have I?” When M’rroah replied with a simple “No”, Tarin withdrew her hand from her friend’s paw and reached for the menu again. As much as she wanted to talk with M, as much as she needed to explain herself to her friend, just as much did she want to enjoy herself while she had the chance. “All right, I’ll tell you a little story, but not on an empty stomach, if that’s okay with you?” 

M’rroah just picked up a menu herself and while both women made their choices Tarin could see how her Caitian friend slowly relaxed. After they had ordered their meals and drinks Captain Veal leaned back in her chair. ”Now, I could tell you just what happened to me and the Valkyrie, but if you don’t mind I’ll add a few things that I have learned only much later and some things that are only conjecture. I am not sure how much of a storyteller I am, but without those parts I believe the tale wouldn’t be complete.”

“I don’t mind,” M’rroah replied. “Just go ahead and tell me about it. I am sure it’s going to be quite interesting, with or without those extra parts.”

“Now there are a lot of things besides interesting I would call it, but you will find out about that soon enough.” Tarin looked down at the golden ring on her right hand and she smiled. It certainly hadn’t all been bad. “Anyway, after we had mapped the Argolis cluster as much as we could, Starfleet assigned us to convoy escort duty. It was not what I had expected them to do, but the Cardassians had become quite a menace to Federation commerce and something had to be done about it...”

* * * * *

„At our current speed we will reach Trill Prime in one hour, Ma’am.“

“Very good Moira. Contact Trill. Inform them that we are on schedule and request further instructions.” Tarin Veal turned her chair around and looked up to the tactical station. “Anything on the long-range sensors?”

Commander Enikal shook his head. “Not a thing. It looks like the Cardassians are not as bold as they were a few weeks ago.”

“Yes, it looks that way, doesn’t it.” Tarin smiled and swiveled her chair around again. Activating the holographic display she called up a display of known Cardassian ship movements between Betazed and the Trill homeworld. “They are certainly getting more cautious with their commerce-raiding operations. I am just glad Starfleet has finally managed to find us some reinforcements. Convoy escort is not what I expected when I took this command.”

“Two ships are hardly what I call reinforcements,” Commander Westmore snorted.

“Oh, don’t be so negative, Commander.” Tarin stifled a grin. More often than not it was still hard for Alexander Westmore to act like the part of the team he had, however reluctantly, become. “The USS Nebula can hold her own against two or three Cardassian cruisers, especially when equipped with a tactical pod, and the Chulatra may only be a heavy scout, but that’s just what we need to keep an eye on Cardassian activity in this region.”

“Whatever Starfleet Command thinks will work I won’t argue with them, as long as we get another assignment,” Dar Enikal remarked. “Three weeks of escort duty is more than enough for my taste.”

Alexander Westmore looked over his shoulder at the Bolian, who had his eyes glued to the tactical console. “On that, Commander, we can at least agree.”

Tarin rose and casually strolled up the ramp to the aft stations. “Any news on Cardassian movements or intentions in this sector, Commander Westmore?”

“Nothing much. As far as SI can tell the Maquis have stepped up their operations in the Bajor sector. With the Second Order still recovering from the beating it took at the Argolis, that should keep the Cardies’ resources occupied for a while.” He looked up at the Captain and his satisfied expression wasn’t lost on Tarin. Masking the Valkyrie’s warp signature had been his idea and it had done a lot to draw the Cardassians into ill-fated attacks on the convoys the Valkyrie had been guarding.

While Tarin had been hesitant to accept this plan, she had finally acknowledged it as a legitimate ruse de guerre. Despite her initial reluctance, she had to admit it had worked quite well to discourage the Cardassians from attacking Federation shipping around Betazed and Trill. Now they had to make sure the Cardassians stayed on their toes, before they decided to commit some major forces to their commerce raiding operations. She was certain Starfleet Command saw it the same way and whatever they decided, Captain Veal had a nagging suspicion it would once again involve her ship and her crew.

“Just keep at it, Commander. I would like to know what the Cardassians are up to, and this time before they stage another major operation like their Argolis invasion.” Tarin took a step towards the tactical station. “Dar, while we wait for new orders, we might as well give our crew some time to enjoy themselves. Please start working out a shore-leave rotation for the time we stay on Trill.”

“Already taken care of,” the Bolian stated matter-of-factly. “It’s in your files, under the header ‘how to keep the XO happy’.”

Tarin chuckled. “In that case I’d better check those files right away.” She headed for her ready-room. “Commander Enikal, you have the bridge.”

 

Prologue    Chapter 1    Chapter 2    Chapter 3    Chapter 4    Chapter 5

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