Caleb Foster hit the mat with a loud “Ouch!”
“Too slow again.” Anna Althaus danced back two steps and grinned.
Cal hated her from the bottom of his heart for her self-confident grin, but at the same time noticed how good the Petty Officer looked when she felt on top of things. ‘Damn you!’
He jumped up and lunged forward, hoping to catch Anna off-guard while she still thought he was beaten. He feinted and saw a small opening. Drawing back his right Cal was ready to deliver an attack he knew would send his sparring partner to the mat.
Caleb’s hand hit Lieutenant Alvarez’s rock-hard palm in mid-air.
“That is enough for now, Lieutenant Foster.”
Trying to arrest his forward motion, Caleb stumbled to something approximation attention. From the corner of his eye he noticed that Anna Althaus was as surprised as he was. “Sir?”
Instead of answering the unspoken question the Valkyrie’s security chief turned to PO Althaus. “Do you think you did anything wrong?”
Anna stood to ramrod-stiff attention, her eyes fixed on the bulkhead above Alvarez’s shoulder. “No, Sir, I don’t think I did.”
The scalding remark drove shivers up Cal’s spine. He could only admire the stoic way Althaus took her superior’s reply. ‘She must know how furious he is and she doesn’t even flinch. Cool. Let’s hope he only has a gripe with her.’
“You got overconfident, Miss Althaus. If I hadn’t stepped in you would be on your butt by now and wondering what had hit you.
“And now for you, Lieutenant Foster.” Alvarez spun around and the smirk that had started to spread over Caleb’s face was wiped away like a snowball burning in the fires of hell. “Yes, you could have downed her with that attack, but do you know what would have happened next?”
Before Cal had a chance to reply Alvarez had dropped to the floor. One of his legs shot out and painfully connected with Cal’s kneecap. Before he could groan in pain another foot had hooked behind his legs and brought him down.
“What is the first lesson I tried to teach you?” Lieutenant Alvarez asked, suddenly standing above Cal Foster again.
“Very good.” Felix Alvarez extended his arm and helped Cal on his feet again. “You would have taken her down with that attack, I’ll grant you that, but you wouldn’t have ended the fight. All you would have done is allow your emotions to carry you in a position where you would have become vulnerable.”
“I see that now, Sir,” Cal grunted after he had figured out how to stand straight without hurting too much.
“You better do.” Felix Alvarez turned away, but before he started walking towards the door he stiffened, comfortable in the knowledge that neither Cal nor Anna could see his wide smile. “You both have a lot to learn, but so far I am satisfied with your progress.”
* * * * *
Captain Veal reached for the controls on the conference table and behind her a map of the Cardassian border vanished from the display.
“It will be two weeks before we reach the Bajor sector, so we have more than enough time to discuss the finer points of our next mission. Unless there are any questions I think we are done for now.”
“I do have a question,” Commander Westmore replied. “Any idea what other ships Starfleet will assign to the Bajor sector?”
“No, not really.“ Tarin Veal glanced out the conference room window. Somewhere out there, invisible to the naked eye, was the light frigate USS Alhambra. She was on her way to bolster Trill’s defensive screen, and for a while the Alhambra and the Valkyrie would be traveling together.
Tarin turned her attention back to her senior officers. “Part of it will depend on what intelligence will come up. If it looks like the Cardassians will concentrate on the former DMZ the Bajor sector won’t be high on the admiralty’s priority list. Trying to figure out what the Cardassians are up to will be part of our mission, so I suggest we concentrate on that.
“Yes, I have a suggestion to make,” Lieutenant Alvarez said with a boyish grin. “We have a while until we reach the Bajor sector and I have an idea that might help pass the time in a... productive way.”
* * * * *
When he left the dressing room Anna was already waiting for him. “Fancy meeting you here.”
“Spare me the spiel, Foster. Do you really think you could have taken me down?”
“No.” Caleb leaned against the corridor wall and ran his eyes over the security officer. Decked out in the drab brown current Earth fashion Anna looked nothing like the fighter he had come to know. “But it would have given me a chance. And let’s face it, you never expected it, did you?”
“Of course I did!”
A raised eyebrow from Cal was enough to make Anna frown. Her fist hit the corridor wall and she gritted her teeth. “Okay, maybe I didn’t expect it. You don’t know when to give up, I’ll grant you that.”
Cal tried his best to suppress his smile. He had no reason to feel superior to Anna Althaus – not when it came to unarmed combat. Training with her had been better than the pushups and rounds around the gym he had envisioned, but she was clearly a better fighter than he ever intended to become.
He started towards the nearest turbolift and Anna fell in step at his side. “So, being as overconfident as you are, are you going to enter the tournament?”
Anna stopped and gaped at Cal. “What tournament? You kidding me?”
“No.” Caleb was tempted to stop and ask what had surprised her so much, but if he didn’t head straight to his quarters he would get into trouble.
Recovering from her surprise Anna tried to catch up with Lieutenant Foster. “There will be a martial arts tournament the day after tomorrow. Everyone can sign up. Lieutenant Alvarez proposed it to spend the time while we are in transit.”
“Oh come one, you know I have no place going up against professionals like you or Lieutenant Alvarez. I may be overconfident sometimes, but I am not stupid.” Cal focused his attention on the door as he waited for the turbolift to arrive. “So, I take it you are gonna fight in that tournament?”
“Me?” Anna chuckled and shook her head. “I am not stupid. Most of those already signed up would wipe the floor with me.”
* * * * *
“Veal to Althaus. All right, you have half an hour. One minute more and you are both in trouble.”
“Understood, Ma’am.” Anna tapped her combadge off and nodded at the open door. “Now this is settled, why don’t you invite me in?”
Cal Foster made a sweeping gesture and grinned. “Be my guest.”
Anna Althaus took a few steps forward and looked around Lieutenant Foster’s quarters. “This is not what I expected.”
Cal followed her in. “And what did you expect? With my time just filled with duty and hand-to-hand lessons, I had more than enough time to get this place cleaned up.”
“No, that’s not it.” Anna slowly turned and took her time admiring the numerous pictures. She liked the realism and bright colors immediately, but only after she recognized ‘Nighthawks’ did she connect them all with Edward Hopper. “I had expected you to personalize your quarters... differently. You know, pictures of ships everywhere and stuff like that. Technical manuals of the latest warp drives...” Her voice trailed of as she realized that she was now more uncertain than ever what to expect from Lieutenant Foster.
“I have a few pictures of starships next door, but most of what you expected I keep up here.” Cal tapped a finger against his temple. “I like piloting fast ships, but what really matters to me is being at the helm, not the ship I fly. Speed is a nice bonus, but what matters to me is what I do - not where, or when, I do it.
“Why don’t you have a seat and fill me in on the tournament? We don’t have much time and it looks like I have some catching up to do.”
“Okay.” Anna stepped over to the replicator and helped herself to a large glass of water before she sat down on an easy chair. “Everyone can sign up, regardless of style or experience. First round pairings are assigned by lot and whoever wins moves on to the next round. You can win by knockout, submission of your opponent, or technical knockout. There will be three referees. As Lieutenant Alvarez came up with the idea tradition demands he will be one of them.”
She took a sip of water, which gave Cal Foster time to ask, “Who will be the other two?”
“No idea. Unless someone volunteers - and is accepted by a majority of participants - the other two will be drawn by lot from those who hold the equivalent of a black belt in their martial art.”
“Well, that could eliminate the captain.”
“What makes you think that?” PO Althaus asked.
“It’s just a guess, but I have heard that she regularly trains in some Centauran martial art and I know the captain doesn’t do things halfway. I bet she holds a black belt, or whatever the Centaurans call it.”
“You are right, but there is something you don’t know.” Anna took another sip, for the moment content to let Foster alone with the quizzical thoughts spread all over his face. When she had drawn the silence out just long enough she went on. “Once in a while the captain comes down to our training area, perhaps when all the holodecks are booked. I looked up a few things and the captain is still rated a beginner. Shu’Mar grades are only awarded for fights against real people, and only under certain conditions. As far as I can tell the Captain is officially rated as low as you are.”
* * * * *
“I am not allowed to have visitors,” Caleb Foster answered the door buzzer.
When a familiar voice answered, “then I’d better not tell myself I was here,” Cal hurried to his feet and straightened his uniform. “Open.”
“May I come in?”
“Yes, of course, Captain.” Tarin noticed Caleb’s posture – stiff, shoulders squared, almost snapping to attention before he realized that with her out off uniform such formality wasn’t called for. Just one week under Lieutenant Alvarez’s guidance had drilled a lot of discipline into Foster, but Tarin was certain it wouldn’t make a lasting difference. ‘But that’s okay,’ she thought as she took the chair Foster offered.
“There are a few things I have to tell you. First of all we have received confirmation of your official status from Starfleet. You are indeed the senior conn officer of the Hawk, which makes you the senior officer in a one person department, Lieutenant. Technically the Hawk actually lacks a permanent CO, but your duty station is still aboard that ship.”
Tarin watched Foster’s face go from intense concentration to utter disbelief, but before he could start to protest she cut him off. “Yes, I know. That would mean your duty station is on board the Hawk and that you should spend eight hours each and every day sitting in a lone cockpit, staring at a dead control panel, until we need the Hawk for a mission. Rest assured I won’t let that happen.”
Caleb breathed sigh of relief. “You really got me worried there for a minute, Ma’am.” He studied Tarin Veal’s face closely and thought he caught a glint of amusement in her eyes. “Than what will my duties be?”
“I was thinking of making you the beta watch’s helm officer. “
“Umm... does it have to be beta, Captain? I may not be in a position to make requests, but if it’s all the same to you I’d rather go with gamma, if you can’t fit me into the alpha shift.”
Tarin perfectly understood. That Foster wasn’t keen to go on duty when all his friends went off duty was only natural. “I’ll see if we can make it happen, but I won’t promise you anything.”
“Understood. Thank you, Captain.”
“Which leads me directly to my next point. Now that I have decided to bring you into the Valkyrie duty roster permanently, we can’t count on you always being available as pilot of the Hawk. I’d like you to come up with a training schedule to familiarize our shuttle pilots and helm officers with the Tultrak-class.”
“I am not sure if that is necessary, Ma’am,” Foster hesitantly replied. “The controls aren’t all that different from a shuttle or runabout. Even someone with basic piloting skills should be able to handle the Hawk.”
Tarin crossed her legs and reclined in her chair. “I am no expert, but as I understand it the capabilities of the Tultrak-class are quite different from other small craft?”
“True. She’s got stronger shields than a runabout, but only minimal weapons. On the other hand she is faster and more maneuverable than any shuttle or runabout... So you want me to teach my colleagues not just how to fly her, but how to make the most of what she can do?”
“Yes. I know you don’t have that much practical experience with the Hawk yourself, but you know small craft better than anyone else on board. Go over the manual for the Tultrak-class and find everything that may need clarification. Then find a way to clarify it. Once that is done come up with some simulations that will teach your colleagues the capabilities and limitations of this class. Do you think you can do that?”
Tarin studied Foster’s face as he mulled over the question. She could almost see the thoughts racing through his mind, but when he finally looked at her Foster held her eyes with quiet confidence. “Yes, Ma’am, I think I can do it.”
“Good. Now that we got business out off the way, how do you like your hand-to-hand training?”
Cal Foster rolled his head around and flexed his shoulders. Tarin heard some cracking no human body was supposed to make, but Foster apparently didn’t noticed it. “Permission to speak freely?”
“Go right ahead,” Tarin replied with a dimpled smile.
“Truth be told – it hurts like hell. Lieutenant Alvarez is driving me so hard I doubt I’ll get anything from it but a life-time’s worth of bruises.” Tarin could see the beginning of a smile on his face that told her he wasn’t quite finished yet.
“Then again I think Lieutenant Alvarez is trying to teach me something I never wanted to learn in a pretty short time, so I can’t blame him.”
“So, let me ask you again, how do you like it?”
Cal Foster noisily exhaled and rubbed his chin before he finally answered: “I think I like the challenge.” He cocked his head, a quizzical face staring at Tarin. “I take it that’s why you put me through it? To teach me a lesson about discipline in a way I would accept as a challenge?”
“Yes and no. I was hoping that Lieutenant Alvarez would teach you a few things besides hand-to-hand skills – the most important being discipline. But what you have to understand is that discipline may work to your advantage. You can either be a lone wolf or you can be part of the team, but I think by now you know very well what would be best for you.”
Tarin Veal got ready to leave, but before she did she added, “I will suspend your sentence for the duration of the tournament, if you are interested in watching it. Perhaps that will teach you a few more things.”
* * * * *
“I am never going to make it through the next round.”
“Relax, Catherine.” Tarin gently placed a hand on the Counselor’s shoulder and smiled. “You did fine during your first match.”
“But have you seen my next opponent? He’s so big and strong, how will I deal with him? How can I deal with him?”
“Hey, have a little faith in yourself. Mutako may be big and strong, but he doesn’t have a lot of experience. All he does is throw his weight around.”
“I am more worried about him throwing my weight around.”
Tarin chuckled and she felt Catherine Lee relax a little. “I know you haven’t been in a serious match for ten years, but you have the training. You know your Tai Chi. Just focus on your own skills and training and don’t think too much about your opponent. Trust me, you will do just fine.”
After a few seconds Catherine Lee started to flex her shoulders without shaking off the captain’s hand. “Maybe you are right. Is that part of your Shu’Mar, focusing on yourself instead of the opponent?”
“No, it is not. Shu’Mar has a few things in common with Tai Chi, but the focus is not on yourself - it is on studying your opponent and finding a way to deal with the problem at hand. That’s why I know Mutako is just a big bruiser and that you can beat him.”
Tarin broke into a wide grin and winked at Catherine. “It is also why I am looking forward to our match in round four.”
She gave the Counselor a gentle push towards the mat and added: “Now go and get him.”
* * * * *
Every muscle in Caleb’s body still hurt from Lieutenant Alvarez’s last lesson, but watching Counselor Lee fight through her second bout had pushed his physical pain aside.
How the petite Asian could have dispatched her opponent with such ease was still beyond Caleb’s comprehension. And this was only a martial arts tournament. In a real fight Cal would never stand a chance against a well-trained opponent and he was painfully aware of it. He was a consummate pilot and that was all that had ever mattered to him. But Counselor Lee was just as much a professional in her field and only that – or so Cal had thought.
But before Caleb could think about it any more Captain Veal stepped on the mat and faced her Vulcan opponent.
Cal expected an interesting fight, but the conversation he overheard from some security officers nearby gave him pause. The Vulcan, Nurak, apparently was a student of kareel-ifla – Vulcan karate. Caleb Foster was no expert in the martial arts, but he knew that Nurak would pull out all the stops.
Ending a fight as fast as possible was what kareel-ifla fighters considered logical. Better to fight savagely than prolong a fight unnecessarily. Other Vulcan’s considered them ruthless and sometimes even brutal, but anyone trained in the ancient Vulcan art dismissed those notions and waded into a fight to strike as fast and as hard as he could.
* * * * *
Caleb tried to replay the fight in his mind and analyze all the details, all the subtle motions, but he still couldn’t wrap his mind around what had happened.
The first few seconds he had told himself that Tarin Veal was really good at what she was doing. She had danced around Nurak as if the fight had been a ballet with her as the choreographer.
And yet Cal knew that all Nurak needed was one good hit. One solid strike and he would win the fight. But it had not happened.
Cal had leaned forward, his face a mask of intense concentration. “I can’t believe it!” he had sputtered out after Tarin Veal had evaded her opponent’s attack for the tenth time.
“You better believe it,” Anna Althaus had said, turning her attention briefly from a bout she knew could only end in the Vulcan’s defeat. “She is just waiting for her opportunity to strike.”
Cal had stayed focused on the fight, but Anna’s undertone hadn’t been entirely lost on him as she tried to lock eyes with him. ”But she can’t win the fight by just avoiding his attacks.”
“She can’t, but she is only biding her time, waiting for him to let his defense down.”
Anna’s soft voice had drawn Cal’s eyes to her face for a second and in that second the fight had ended.
* * * * *
Cal spit out the curse every time his fist hit the sandbag, until his momentum was suddenly arrested by two hands placed against his obstacle.
“What’s wrong with you?”
“What’s wrong with me?” *Thud* “How about you and me? How’s that for starters, Althaus?”
* * * * *
“I am glad you agreed to meet me for a rematch,” Tarin finally said after finishing her warming-up routine.
“So am I,” Desmond Patrick replied. “A fight against you outside the restrictions of a tournament should be interesting. Who knows, you may even beat me this time.”
“I am curious,” Tarin asked as she dropped into the defensive stance she had always favored, “how is it a human knows so much about Shu’Mar?”
“My grandfather was Centauran and a master of the art. Everything I know about Shu’Mar I learned from him,” the Alhambra’s senior enlisted replied. “But let me ask a question too.”
Master Chief Patrick fell into a defensive stance of his own. “How did you receive your training without ever grading beyond beginner?”
“I only trained with a simulation of Master Torell. I take it you have heard of him?”
Desmond Patrick’s surprise showed only as long as it took Tarin to shift into a more aggressive posture. “There are less than twenty copies of that program. That you got your hands on one is... surprising.”
“It was a birthday present from a friend.” Tarin blinked away a tear as Joaquin Amaya’s face flashed through her mind. “Like Master Torell he is long gone.
* * * * *
“You see..." *thud*
“...I like you..." *thud*
“...but it’s not gonna happen." *thud*
“Any other time, sure..." *thud*
“...but I missed a chance once..." *thud*
“...and if I have to fight for what I want..." *thud*
“...I’m gonna fight for it now.” *thud*
The sandbag swung up and nearly hit Cal on the downswing, as Anna pushed all her weight behind it.
Anna Althaus dropped into an offensive stance and grinned at Cal, while trying to blink away a tear. “All right, Foster. You want to work something out, here’s your chance.”