I wrote this quite a while ago, and I'm still not certain where it fits in the Valkyrie chronology, but I think somewhere between "Thief" and "Politics" is a pretty good place for it, even if it could fit in at some later date. And then again it may not matter all that much. In the end you'll have to be the judge of that. :-)



The morning mists still clung to the ground between the tall trees, turning the underbrush into an indistinct haze of shapes and shadows that bore little semblance to the bright green foliage and colorful blossoms that Tarin knew grew to both sides of the small path.

The first rays of sunlight filtered through the trees and tried to disperse the mist, painting bright white streaks on the gray haziness. Tarin stopped her ascend up the low mountain and filled her lungs with the fresh morning air. She never tired of visiting this place so early in the day. The air was still cool and refreshing, carrying with it all the smells of the woods - a rich earthy aroma that spoke of the darkness of night and yet held the promise of warmth, of growth, that the day would bring. Nature had fallen asleep, but now all around her it awoke to a new day, ready to begin the cycle of growth and decay and new growth once again.

After another deep breath Tarin resumed her walk up the mountain. Without noticing she brushed a strand of hair from her face, hair that was already stuck to her head by the humidity that still fought its losing battle against the strength of two suns.

A few minutes later she had left the forest behind and only grass and a few brushes lined her path. Here the suns had already started to warm the air, but enough dew remained that the sunrays turned every blade of grass into a line of shimmering pearls.

Tarin stopped at the last bend of the path and squatted down. She ran her hand through the grass, felt the tingling of green tips brushing against her palm. Bringing her hand close to her face she marveled at the single drop of dew on her fingertip, looked at it from all angles, raised it into the sunlight to watch it glisten in the morning light.

Slowly she raised her finger to her lips and picked up that single drop on the tip of her tongue. There was no taste, just moisture touching her tongue, but that was what made it so marvelous to her - the way nature always grew and died and yet could be so clear and clean at the same time. A bright smile spread on Tarin's features.

She looked out at the forest spreading below her on the mountainside and her eyes followed the wisps of mist rising from the trees into the clear morning sky. The fog would soon join the small white clouds that stood out from the light blue, becoming just another speck of white that only served to accentuate the blue around it. Tarin craned her neck and her smile widened as she took a look at the rings encircling her homeworld.

Perhaps it had been for the best that she had been raised on ships and space-stations, living most of her youth surrounded by bulkheads, monitors and viewscreens. Could she have appreciated the beauty of Velestus - or Alpha Centauri as she had become used to have her birthplace referred to - if she had become accustomed to it, if it wasn't such a surprise to her?

"Yes," Tarin softly murmured, "yes I could."

It would be another fine day - warm, beautiful, bright, filled with sights to be seen and sounds to be heard. Wind rustling though the leaves, birds merrily chirping, and at noon the warmth seeping out of tree barks, that had absorbed the light all morning, would add its own wonderful smell to the sensations of the forest.

It was the best birthday present Tarin had ever received, one of the most realistic holograms she had ever seen, but if this illusion could capture her so strongly, how would reality feel?

'One day I will return home and then I will walk up this mountain for real. Then we will see how it feels, but I won't be taking that walk alone.'

It was her program, her retreat, but she wanted to share the real thing with Ben.

They would walk up this path hand in hand and the thought filled Tarin's heart with more joy than all the sensations of an awakening nature could.

* * * * *

Tarin stepped on the rocky plateau and drew a few slow deep breaths. She could have arrived here when she entered the program, but the walk through the forest and up the mountainside always cleared her mind, helped her to focus on her training.

She ran both hands through her hair and from the back of her neck slowly forward to her collarbones. The moisture she had brushed out of her hair evaporated and left a cool sensation on her neck that seeped into her head and her shoulders.

She straightened and her hands clenched and unclenched as she took in the building sitting in the middle of the plateau. Constructed from stones taken from this very mountain, the flattened windowless cone seemed an integral part of its surroundings and the mountaintop behind it.

In a way the simple, featureless building was indeed very much part of this world and the people who inhabited it. It had been here that martial artists from all the warring nations had met after the Plague Years, to design a fighting style that encompassed all their different ideas, but - unlike anything in their past - was devoted to defense, to a way of fighting that was never intended to do permanent harm.

To many Centaurans the cities of Oreas and Caladan, or the Emergency Medical Council building, symbolized the unity a decade of rampant death and destruction had brought about, but to Tarin Veal the plain building in front of her spoke more about that unity than any other monument on Velestus.

Slowly, reverently, she approached the single door of a building no one had ever deemed necessary to name. For those who had assembled here five hundred years ago it had all been about ideas and ideals, things that could not truly be named, but only lived and experienced. They had all agreed that attaching a name to whatever they came up with would only diminish what they were about to do, create an image of it that constrained the essence of their efforts.

It had taken the people of Velestus almost fifty years to come up with a name for the fighting style developed on this solitary mountain edge, on the brink between teeming life and barren rocks.

Shu'Mar they had called it, a term not easily translated into Federation standard. Someone had once jokingly called it the art of "how no to be hit" and the name had stuck in some minds, while others just called it Centauran Aikido.

Tarin stopped a meter from the wooden door and thought about it for the hundredth time. Shur - a river cutting through rocks. Ma - bending, being flexible, weathering a storm. The notion of a river seeking the way of least resistance and yet being capable of cutting its path through the hardest stone, that was a concept difficult to translate to most languages, especially Standard. Most languages lacked a single word that could encompass both flexibility and perseverance, yet that was everything Shu'Mar was about.

For years she had tried to learn being both - flexible and persistent. It would take her a long time to master that concept, integrate those opposites into her being, but as Tarin pushed open the door she knew she was getting close to it. Perhaps not yet in her Shu'Mar training, but maybe in her duties as a Starfleet officer.

Compared to that, all her martial prowess came only as an afterthought - an afterthought she would enjoy working on.

* * * * *

The central courtyard shielded Tarin from the rays of the suns still clinging to the horizon and she was glad she could determine when the fight would take place. Having to contend with both her opponent and the morning sun shining into her face would have been too much today.

She could have set the difficulty of the program to compensate for any adverse factors, but today she had come not just for one of her regular training sessions. Today she wanted to test her limits, push beyond them.

Today she would run the program at level twelve. She had never tried it, but she was confident she could handle it. Before the Valkyrie mission the best Tarin had ever managed was an occasional victory at level ten, but since the Argolis she had trained almost every day and now she could hold her own at level eleven, but taking the next step would still be a major challenge.

Shu'Mar had none of the elaborate belt or ranking systems of other martial arts. There were four grades: Beginner, Advanced, Expert, and Master. Some schools left it at that, some added up to four ranks in each grade, but none of them really mattered. What mattered to those who trained in Shu'Mar and cared about these things were the four grades. Tarin's training program had sixteen levels, each corresponding to a four by four pattern of ranks and grades. If she could master level twelve she was one step away from becoming a Master.

Officially she was still a beginner. Until she found an opportunity to compete in an official tournament or get a grading from a recognized Expert she would have to wear the plain gray armbands of a Beginner. It made no difference to her. It was not about combat prowess or the recognition of her skills by others. What mattered to her was the constant progress she had made. Each day and every lesson brought a small advance, another step along the road. It was something so very different from her duties, where all too often it was an all or nothing deal. Success or failure were an integral part of her Starfleet duties, each success carrying with it the satisfaction of a job well done, but never in the constant measured doses her training provided.

Tarin ignored the old wiry man in the plain white Gi with blue armbands, woven in an intricate design of interlaced triangles and squares, as she went through her warm-up exercises. When she had finished she breathed deeply and commanded the hologram to life.

"Good morning, Captain," her instructor said as she turned in his direction, "what level will it be today?"

Tarin dropped into the low defensive stance she almost always started from. "Let's start at level nine. Begin."

* * * * *

Twenty minutes later Tarin was breathing heavily, not sure if she had asked too much of herself or not. She knew her body wanted to rest, wanted her to stop now, but she felt none of it. Adrenalin kept her going and her mind had shut down, her body reacting on training and reflexes alone. Her brain had disappeared and her senses had taken control of her muscles, reacting, spotting an opening, taking advantage of it, blocking and dodging, all without conscious thought.

Tarin tried to catch her breath, bending forward, resting her hands on her thighs. 'No. Must not stop. Have to go with the flow, keep going while I can.'

The thought hit her with a unique clarity that brought everything into focus. For years she had thought she knew what Shu'Mar meant; watching, reacting, biding her time being flexible enough to adapt to changing situations. That was not it. Only now, at the brink of exhaustion - her body turned into a machine ruled by reflex and instinct - was she truly going with the flow.

Suddenly she felt alive - her fatigue falling away like a wave that had briefly reached up a rock and now receded back into the ocean, leaving little trace of its passing behind.

She could trust her training, her reflexes, her numbed, yet still working, body. All that was the flow that could carry her through the next bout. Not her mind willing her to do it, but the realization that there was no trying, only doing.

Tarin took an aggressive stance, her left arm outstretched, a claw-shaped hand at shoulder-height, her right hand close to her right shoulder, the elbow drawn behind her shoulder and close to her side, her body's weight resting on a slightly bent right leg.

"Level twelve. Begin."

* * * * *

Tarin shot forward, feinted, ducked under her opponent's riposte.

A foot shot forward, hit her legs, spun her around. She had anticipated it, but the kick still hit her hard, unbalanced her.

She rolled with it, trying to ignore the sudden pain. Her arm shot outward, reaching for an ankle that was just within her reach.

Her opponent jumped out of the way and that was all Tarin wanted. She came up in a swift spinning motion, crouching in the defensive stance she always favored. Now she knew how fast her adversary was.

He had judged her own speed too, and his stance mirrored Tarin's. 'No.' His weight was on his right leg not his left. Hands relaxed, ready to grasp, not block.

Tarin knew how he would react. She wanted to grin. No time.

She advanced - swift and low, rising close in. His hand came up fast, grabbed her arm. She shifted her weight, closed the distance before he could pull her in the direction he chose.

She hooked a leg behind his and slammed into him, bringing him down. In a second he was on his back and she was past him, spinning around.

Her opponent came to his feet and his eyes narrowed as he took two steps back. Now the real fight was about to commence. The music had started to play and the dance could begin.

* * * * *

Tarin collapsed on the cold hard ground, her labored breath greedily sucking air into her lungs. Every breath hurt, but the pain did not register on her mind yet. She had won - barely, but she had won. 

There would be a long way to go before she could do it again. She would not always be able to call upon the raw determination that had carried her to a narrow victory, but even if she could, it would not be enough to advance her skill. It would be enough for another win, but that wasn't everything.

"Computer, delete instructor." It was one of the most realistic simulations Tarin had ever seen, but whoever had designed it had failed to program the wiry old tutor to show any fatigue, or sweat even after a long hard fight. Right now Tarin knew she couldn't stand those calm features, a mix of approving mentor and detached lecturer.

She wanted no lecture, no analysis, only rest. Tired, so very tired. She knew there would be hell to pay in the morning if she gave in to that feeling, if she didn't cool down slowly, but it was only a fleeting thought, everything still out of control. The aching and exhaustion crept out of every bone, filled her body, hinted at pain that was already part of her but had not yet reached her mind.

"Computer, bring me back to the forest where I started."

Like a mirage the training court vanished in a brief shimmer and cold hard stone was replaced by warm sandy earth. Above her the wind rustled through the leaves, flecks of blue and white visible here and there.

Tarin's lids fluttered, briefly closed. If she let her fatigue get to her she would fall asleep, but it was so very tempting just to doze off, to ignore all her duties that waited beyond this holographic illusion. She could not allow that to happen, but she could take the time to lie here for a little longer, take in the sights and sounds and smells.

Tarin ran her hand over the ground, scooped up some sand, let it trickle through her fingers, watched the wind take hold of the grains and carry them away. It was shaping up to be a fine day. A very fine day indeed.


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