I had never heard of the 'Captain's Table' before that day: having never been much of a drinker, even when I was in a pub or the like, I always seemed to be the odd one out of the group. But it was stronger than me: as long as I could - and, usually, I made sure I could - I was the one who avoided alcohol or synthalcohol intoxication.

I had taken command of the U.S.S. Excalibur (NCC-82603), a Vesta-class multi-mission starship, only a few months earlier, on the specific recommendation of Admiral Kathryn Janeway, under whom I had served a few years as XO aboard Voyager. Janeway had never relinquished command of the ship which, in seven years of wanderings in the Delta Quadrant, had managed to bring her crew of about 150 members to safety: once back on Earth and promoted to the rank of Admiral, she had not hesitated to exercise some of the prerogatives of her new rank in order to keep the Intrepid-class vessel as her flagship.

The Excalibur had been sent by Starfleet Command to do a reconnaissance in a remote space in the virtually unexplored Beta Quadrant, to allow other Starfleet vessels to continue the Federation's pivotal mission: to discover strange, new worlds and new civilisations, to go where no one had gone before. According to our reports, only later would additional starships have been sent to deepen and expand our knowledge of that sector: Captain William Riker, commanding officer of the Luna-class U.S.S. Titan, was rather resentful that his ship had not been sent instead of us, but it has to be said that his mission, at that time, was perhaps more important than he himself would admit.

Not that the last few years had been uneventful: after the end of the Dominion War in 2375, all the powers of the Alpha and Beta Quadrants couldn't help but breathe a sigh of relief and engage in reconstruction, with the Federation providing humanitarian support to the Cardassian Union - completely devastated by the Founders' interference. A few years later, in the early 2380s (shortly after becoming XO aboard Voyager) the Borg had decided to massively invade the Federation territories, wiping out anything in their way. I could understand Riker's need to entertain himself with such a mission: it must have seemed easier and more relaxing to him than facing the Borg. That was the main reason I had accepted it, regardless of the fact that the Excalibur was better equipped than his Titan to deal with the threats we found there - with all due respect to the Luna-class, which was one of the most technologically advanced class of ships that Starfleet and Federation had in those years.

I am digressing, sorry. I was on the holodeck training, using one of the programs passed to me, years earlier, by then-Lieutenant Commander Worf - today, if I'm not mistaken, he's supposed to be Captain Picard's XO, aboard the Enteprise-E - when I noticed, strangely enough, a door, a tavern sign and its tavern-like surroundings, with typical Klingon architecture on the outside.
In that moment of distraction, I risked the hologram of the Klingon I was training with being able to hit me, effectively killing me and ending the programme against me; just long enough to get rid of the unwanted subject, who proved rather difficult to take down, that I returned to study, even quite dumbfounded, the structure that had just appeared before me.

The first thing I thought of doing, when the dumbing down decided to give way to more complex brain functions, was to call the computer and ask for the program to be stopped, but I probably shouldn't have been surprised at the lack of response: at that moment I was not actually on board Excalibur, but completely elsewhere. To this day I couldn't say where, exactly. Perhaps it is for the best, all things considered: some things are better not to know.
To be on the safe side, however, I tried a couple more times, before giving up and trying more traditional approaches - or, at any rate, supposedly so. Only today I can state, with certainty, that I found myself walking through the entrance of the phantom 'Captain's Table' as if I were somehow drawn there, dragged in, without any possibility of alternative: I had to go in, so I went in.

The interior somehow clashed strongly with the exterior - which, as I said, was reminiscent in every way of Klingon architecture: now, I don't know if any of you have any idea what the interior of a medieval tavern looks like, but the impression I got was just that. A room with soft light, mainly coming from a large hearth at the back of the common room, a counter dominating the averagely crowded room and an individual, limp and of indefinite age, who bore little resemblance to the typical innkeeper established in the common imagination over the centuries.
Not particularly jarring with the place was the air inside, a mixture of cooked food, mostly stewed meat, and freshly tapped beer, served by swift waitresses wearing immaculate aprons over plain-cut dresses. Actually, the strangest thing was something else: the floor seemed to sway slightly, as if one were on board one of those ancient sailing ships that had characterised my planet around the 18th century, and an almost salty air seemed to waft through the smells coming from the kitchen. The place was full of patrons, of all kinds and, judging by their attire, from all periods of history and places (a kind way to say that they were aliens).

Sensing my reluctance, the innkeeper immediately approached me, greeting me and introducing himself simply as Cap, before explaining what the place was and why I was there: «Welcome to the Captain's Table! I guess you are wondering what this place is and why you have never heard of it before,» he added jovially, «so let me explain in a few words.» So it was that I was told where I was: the Captain's Table had existed for centuries, no one knew how it came to be or why; it existed outside of time, at some sort of crossroads, and all captains (or all those holding acting positions) had access to it; generally, new captains were introduced to it by friends or previous commanding officers - how this could happen was never clear to me: I have always had little appreciation for all the implications relating to temporal mechanics.
In some cases, such as mine, the mysterious bar would suddenly appear in front of the new 'client', without the need for him or her to be introduced there by anyone else, probably - and these are only idle speculations, considering that Cap has never spoken on the subject and I doubt he ever will - because in some cases it is not possible to go through intermediaries.

Speaking of temporal mechanics: at one point, but by pure chance, I noticed that Benjamin Sisko was among the customers there: it was strange to see him in civilian clothes, fashionable a few years earlier, all intent on sipping a Jibetian beer. When I had left Deep Space 9 to work on the Prometheus-class prototype project where I later served as second officer, I had not returned aboard the base station until shortly after the end of the Dominion War in 2375 - a few months after my departure. By that time, Captain Benjamin Sisko, Deep Space 9's commanding officer and Emissary of the Prophets of Bajor, had been rescued by the Prophets and made to ascend, an action which, in effect, had brought him into the Celestial Temple.
I shook my head, oblivious to Cap and the fact that he was still talking to me about his bar, but he didn't seem to be particularly upset that my attention had been drawn to anything else and, as if reading my mind, asked: «An old acquaintance?» I could not help but nod: after all, I had served under his command for some time before returning aboard a Starfleet vessel. After his 'disappearance', moreover, I had kept in touch not only with my old colleagues at the station, but also with his son, Jake Sisko, and his new wife, who had given birth to a bright-eyed and intelligent little girl shortly after the officer's ascension.
«You were telling me about your bar,» I said, turning to Cap in an apologetic tone, «I guess I missed the form of payment for drinks.» I thought he had said something about it, but I hadn't been paying particular attention, and now I had this thing buzzing around in my head about this talk that didn't quite add up. «Yes,» he said, «here you pay with a story.» I looked at him stunned for a moment: «What?»
He smiled at me: «Yes, a story. You see, the goal is to share something about ourselves with others, telling an event from our past or, at any rate, something that relates to each of us.» As he spoke, he motioned me to take a seat wherever I wished: «You may choose where to sit, Captain,» I merely arched an eyebrow, «and entertain whoever you wish with this tale of yours. I will bring you a drink.» With that, he limped away from me slightly, heading towards the bar, not even bothering to ask what I wanted. He probably already knew, considering that he seemed to know a lot about me without my uttering a word.

I looked around, perhaps a little puzzled. There was something that kept eluding me, all things considered: what I was doing there, for instance. Let me explain: technically, having been promoted to the rank of Captain and commanding a vessel, I had acquired the right to be there. But what was expected of me? More importantly, why was I there, at that very moment? A voice behind me jolted me - Cap had approached me again, holding a pewter mug filled with a dark liquid that I didn't immediately recognise: «Caught up in a thousand doubts again?»
Arching an eyebrow, I asked what he was referring to. He smiled slyly: «Time flows differently here than you are used to thinking. In a way,» and he nodded to Sisko, «he really is here. Or, at least, a version of him is here with us. Yes,» he nodded, as if he had read my mind, «I know what happened to Benjamin Sisko. No,» he continued, «even if I knew whether he would return or not, it would still not be possible for me to tell.» I nodded, no matter how much I had hoped for some clue from him: if there could be our versions of the past and future in that bar, there would be huge risks as far as the timeline was concerned.

I was about to look around again, when I noticed a Trill, whom I had not seen before, approaching me, asking: «You are not, by any chance, Eva Ferrari?» I nodded, puzzled, shaking the hand he held out to me in typical human greeting: «What can I do for you, Captain...?»
He introduced himself as Kobiss Vaal, after which he motioned towards the group of aliens, mostly Trill, he had left behind to come towards us: «My friends and I have heard a lot about you, Captain. There are many rumours circulating about you...»
«I think,» Cap observed with a sly smile, «that there's a good story to be told here after all. I'd almost be curious to hear it myself,» he added, as he pushed me towards the group of captains previously indicated by Vaal.
And so I was the subject of conversation. What had happened to me had made the rounds of half the galaxy without my even knowing it. Before rumours circulated too much unchecked, it was better to tell it like it was.