Chapter 9: In her Heart
"Yea, you can," insisted Val.
The two of them were at the top of Mount Vail, near Aspen. Val had decided to give all of his MARCOs a week to enjoy Evansworld. Several of the MARCOs joined Val on the slopes. In addition, Djeena's young cousins, Loomie and Neya cruised along on snowboards.
Djeena had previously demanded that Val take her somewhere fun so that she could enjoy some adventure prior to her coronation and being trapped in her palace all the time.
"No," Djeena insisted.
"Fine," said Val. "The cabin is up thataway." He pointed up the slope to the lodge where they first exited. It was roughly 300 feet away. On this particular ski resort, the main lodge was at the top of the mountain. Visitors fly in by hovercopter and landed near the lodge. The peak was pretty flat and was roughly 1 mile wide by one mile across. The parking lot was filled with luxury brand hovercopters.
"Why'd you take me here?" asked an angry Djeena.
"You're the one who said you wanted to come!" retorted an exasperated Val.
"I said somewhere fun. This is not fun!"
"You asked me what I would do for fun. I told you. Then you said you wanted to come along. I warned you that you might not like it."
"But… but…" the young princess was annoyed. "Why does this have to be so hard?"
"Things are often hard when you first learn them. Like tying your shoes or riding a bicycle."
"What? And.. What?"
"Just forget it. Things are hard, okay? Life is hard."
"But I can't do this!"
Val pointed to Djeena's young cousins, aged 5 and 7.
"They're doing it! Are they better than you?"
Djeena crossed her arms in front her chest and displayed clear annoyance.
"Fine, I'll walk up with you back to the lodge."
Val looked dejected. Djeena felt a little guilty.
Djeena unstrapped herself from her snowboard and Val unhooked himself from his snowblades. Val took the snowboard and helped Djeena trudge through the snow. They walked back up to the lodge together. Djeena relaxed in the lodge's lounge and sat down on a comfy sofa. Val headed back out for a short run.
Djeena felt cold, so she sat closer to the fireplace. Corporal Sam Logan approached her.
"Didn't quite take to snowboarding, huh?" she asked.
"No," said Djeena.
"Yea, it's tricky. Sorry. At least your caretakers will be happy," said Logan.
"They fought with Val about taking you here. Your caretakers were adamant about you staying safe. Val had said you insisted on having a little bit of adventure before living your life as Queen. Your advisers said no way. That this could be dangerous. Which is true. Val promised he would keep you safe. They argued for twenty minutes over this."
"Oh," said Djeena sheepishly. "But this isn't fun. It is dangerous," she insisted.
"Yea, I guess it's in the eye of the beholder. But… nothing's fun if it's safe, right?"
Corporal Kaitlyn Evans called out for Sam, and Logan excused herself to join her friend.
Val took his blades off and walked up to the express gondola. Those cable cars were much faster than the typical ski lifts. He sat down and put his blades down on the floor. Just two runs down and he was already starting to heat up a little bit. He unzipped his outer jacket and took his gloves off.
Once the doors slid closed, the gondola moved forward slowly. It ran over a few wheels, and then zoomed upward back to the top of the mountain.
He pulled a trail map out of his jacket pocket. He decided he would make one more run down the novice trail and then slowly move over to the more challenging trails.
A minute later, the cable car reached the peak.
"Wow, already," thought Val as he stuffed the trail map back into his pocket. He picked up his snowblades and his gloves, and prepared to get off the gondola.
Djeena trudged along in the snow. She was basically back to the spot where she had thrown a fit earlier and asked Val to walk with her back up to the lodge. She watched as everyone else seemed to be enjoying themselves. She saw two of her servants slowly skiing downhill. Even though it was clear that the two of them were barely balancing, it was also clear that the two of them were laughing and having a good time. For one of the few times in her life, Djeena was jealous of her servants.
She had tried to balance herself, and had slowly gotten better at it. But she fell a few times already. She was annoyed.
As she watched her servants ski out of sight, she caught a glimpse of Val slowly skiing down the slope. He seemed to be moving effortlessly, as if he were born in the snow with blades on his feet. He held both hands behind his back and slowly zigzagged down the mountain. Then, he stopped.
Val unstrapped his snowblades and slowly marched up the mountain to where Djeena was.
"Thought you wanted to stay in the lodge?" he asked.
"I'll try," said Djeena reluctantly.
"That's good. Trying is good," said Val, smiling. "Where is your instructor?"
"She was too bossy, I told her to leave."
Val chuckled. "How are you going to learn this?"
"The way I learn everything else, by watching others do it and duplicating."
"Who's going to tell you that you're duplicating it wrongly?"
Val chuckled lightly again. He jammed his two snowblades into the snow vertically and then said "Okay, miss. Show me what you've got."
Djeena attempted to slide slowly a little bit. She moved a couple of inches before she started to lose balance. She immediately stopped and stood still.
"That was good," said Val, trying some positive reinforcement. "Next time, don't stop so soon. Keep going with it."
"What?" said an annoyed Djeena. "And lose my balance and fall?"
"It's not that bad. People fall all the time. It's nothing."
Val then fell down on his right side into the snow. He got back up.
"See?" he asked. "It's snow. Soft."
"You did that on purpose!" said Djeena.
"Falling hurts more when it's by accident!"
"It's your first day. My first day on a ski slope, I was bruised all over that night."
Djeena was horrified.
"But, that doesn't have to happen to you," said Val. "Just don't go nuts."
"Don't plan to."
"Yea, but get a little adventurous, ya know? Try again."
Djeena tried, but once again, she almost lost balance and immediately brought herself to a stop.
"Okay, try not being so tense," said Val. "Bend your knees a little bit more, be flexible so that your muscles can adjust. You'll balance better."
She was able to slide a little bit farther this time. Almost twice as far. But as she lost her balance, she fell into the snow.
"That's okay, that's okay," said Val. He waded through the snow to where Djeena was and helped her up.
"You're okay, right?" said Val.
"Yes," said Djeena as she brushed some of the snow off of her arms.
"Okay," he said.
Djeena tried to smile back, but she did not like falling.
"Stay here for a second, I'll be right back," he said.
Val walked over to where he stuck his snowblades into the snow. He strapped them on and then glided to where Djeena was.
"Okay, here. Let's do this. Side by side. I'll steady you if necessary."
"No, no," said Djeena in a low voice. "I have to get this myself. I don't want to slow you down."
"You won't, don't worry. Everyone takes time learning."
"I saw you. You can go much faster than me," she said.
"That's okay. I brought you here, so you're my responsibility," Val said. He didn't say it as if it were a burden. It was more trying to convince her that he wanted to.
"You'll waste your entire day," she said.
"Nah. Let's make a deal. We have six hours left here. For three hours, I'll ski slowly with you, okay? Then I'll leave you on your own and go wherever."
"Oh-kay," said Djeena.
The two of them spent the next three hours slowly skiing down the bunny slope. Three times. Djeena was slowly getting better at it. The last trip down, she didn't fall a single time. Djeena even learned a little bit of science. After having switched to short skis when she followed Logan out of the lodge three hours ago, she was curious as to what the difference was between skiing and snowboarding. Val explained that the orientation of their bodies were basically the opposite. For both skis and snowboards, whenever you wanted to slow down or stop, the long edge should be facing the bottom of the mountain. If you wanted to go fast, the long edge should face the sides of the mountain. This made a difference because of the opposite ways a person's feet were strapped to the ski or snowboard. While skiing, a person would face towards the sides of the mountain if they wanted to slow down or stop. With snowboarding, it was the opposite and a person should either be facing the bottom of the mountain or the top of the mountain. This way, the board was brought parallel to the bottom.
Djeena also learned that with the short skis, she could face the bottom of the mountain if she simply wedged her skis into a "V" shape or a triangular shape. It would slow her down drastically. And if she wanted to turn left, she should put a little bit more pressure on her right ski. The opposite was true for turning right. If she wanted to speed up, she would put less pressure on the skis or bring her skis closer to being straight and parallel to each other. The last run down the bunny slope, she basically wedged down the whole way without having to turn to a full stop.
Val was happy that Djeena was able to enjoy her self a little bit more. It was just a little after 1300 hours and he was starting to get a little hungry.
"Lunchtime," said Val as he stepped out of his ski bindings and picked up his blades.
Djeena did the same and they walked together to the cable cars.
It had been a week since Zergol kidnapped Ensign Gilmore and brought her to the planet Yammja. Burke was getting impatient. The Emperor decided to send more ships to the system. Somehow, Yammja turned into one of the major fronts of the various rebellions against the Empire.
"Did you send a message to the Vetara?" Burke asked Riker.
"Yes, sir. Message was sent about an hour ago. She is preparing to leave Evansworld orbit and will soon jump out of the system. At her maximum speed, she'll be here within four days."
"Sir," interrupted the Solstice's sensor operator. "Three ships have dropped out of warp. Jang Heery requests permission to come aboard."
"Granted," said Riker.
After a light lunch, Val and Djeena walked out of the lodge together.
"Up for more skiing?" asked Val.
"Sure," said Djeena.
The two of them walked around to another side of the mountain. Djeena got excited and pointed to a trail she thought she would like.
"No, no," said Val. "That's a triple black diamond. You've got to be very experienced to do that."
"But, it says right on there 'No Fall Zone.' That would be perfect. I don't like falling."
"No, you don't understand. Well, I guess that's confusing. That term doesn't mean you won't fall. It means you shouldn't fall. See how steep it is?" asked Val.
Djeena walked over to the edge and it looked like the trail was at least 40 degrees down. In a No Fall Zone, if a person ever fell, he or she would basically fall all the way down to the bottom. There were very few features on the ground to slow or stop the fall.
"During lunch, you said you've done black diamonds," said Djeena.
"I have, but they're very hard. Let's save them for some other time, okay?"
Djeena nodded. Val had actually been peer pressured during a ski trip in his youth to do a double black diamond. It turned out he was able to handle it and had a lot of fun. He would not have tried it otherwise. He thought about how his uncle once said that peer pressure isn't always a bad thing. If it weren't for his peers, Val would probably not have tried various exotic foods or tried to learn to swim. Of course, peer pressure could also be a bad thing.
Val took out his trail map and opened it so that both he and Djeena could see. He pointed to a few trails on the map.
"We'll try this one first and then later we'll see if we want to do this one here."
The first trail Val pointed to was a double green circle, meaning the second level novice slope. The second trail was a single blue square, meaning it was an intermediate slope. The typical slope rankings were broken down into three categories: novice, intermediate, and expert. Those were symbolized by a green circle, a blue square, or a black diamond. Each of those three were then further subdivided into three levels.
Val and Djeena spent the rest of their afternoon on the west side of the mountain. They were joined by Sergeant Driver at the intermediate slope and a few other MARCOs.
In the middle of a trail, Djeena noticed an opening. There was a sign marked with a single black diamond in between two drawings of trees.
"What's that?" she asked.
"It's a glade trail," said Val. "Almost all of the trails have been cleared of trees. For the glade trail, there are trees in the midst of the trail."
Val could see that Djeena was curious and wanted to try.
"I promised your people I'd keep you alive," said Val. "Can't have you smashing into a tree."
Val remembered the first time he went through one of those trails. He and his friends went very very slowly. One time, he almost hit a tree but was able to stop about one foot before making contact. However, the girl behind him couldn't stop. She had slowed her speed dramatically, but was still slowly sliding toward Val. In slow motion, she ran into Val and pushed him into the tree. Val had time to put his hands out in front of him so that he was able to somewhat decrease the impact of being sandwiched between his friend and the tree. He kinda thought it was funny at the time.
"Wouldn't have thought you'd be interested in something like that," said Val to Djeena.
"Just curious," said Djeena. "But you are correct. I do not want to do that." She smiled and then followed Val continuing the blue trail.
"I am sorry, admiral," said Jang Heery. "Right now, you are not fit for command."
The First Fleet Lord believed that Burke was susceptible to allowing his personal feelings get in the way of carrying out his orders. Already, Burke had vastly scaled back the orbital bombardments in fear that he might strike Zergol or his compound.
Burke knew it was only a matter of time before someone was sent to replace him.
"I stand relieved," said Burke. He walked off the bridge and headed toward his quarters.
Djeena joined Kejal in a small room with about four rows of chairs. There were 25 chairs in total. This was the Vetara's private cinema. A place for the crew to watch a movie together.
Djeena didn't quite understand why anyone would watch a movie outside of their own quarters. But this was one of the times when it proved useful. Kejal didn't have her own quarters, and Djeena did not have holo-projectors in hers. Luckily, the cinema had projectors as part of its function.
"Intriguing," said Djeena as the two of them started watching the second movie. Val had given Kejal the day off. It meant nothing to her, as she never grew tired. But Val wanted her to continue to develop interests outside of her engineering work. Or, at the very least, Kejal could interact with other people. Typically, Kejal was left alone in engineering as nobody else was an engineer. There were a couple of MARCO guards stationed, and they would sometimes chat with Kejal. But Kejal never had anything to say. Djeena invited her to come see a movie with her since they both were new to interacting with humans. What was originally planned to be one movie eventually turned into a marathon of three movies when Djeena decided after the first that she would be interested in watching two others.
Djeena had asked Kejal to comb through the video libraries for movies involving human princesses. She was curious as to how human society used to look like. Kejal recalled that one of Val's favorite movies as a child was an animated feature called Disney's Beauty & the Beast. That was the first movie Djeena decided that they would watch. After seeing it, she was highly entertained and picked two other Disney animated movies involving princesses. Although Kejal had basically absorbed those movies into her digital memory already, she wanted to humor Djeena. Kejal had nothing better to do anyway. And it would be interesting to see Djeena's reactions.
After the third movie, Djeena was tired and wanted to grab something to eat. They had been snacking on popcorn and candy, but she wanted a meal. But before she went to dinner, she wanted to talk with Kejal for a little bit.
"I would never have pictured human society to have been like that," said Djeena.
"Well, those were cartoons," said Kejal. "They are less than accurate portrayals of real life."
"The princesses always seemed to be orphans, like me," said Djeena. "Or, at least they were motherless."
"Yes, I've read academic evaluations of the cartoons. The male protagonists seem to frequently be orphans as well. It's a contrived plot element to free the characters to run off into adventure. It also creates the situation for the characters to have to 'find themselves.' Other movies have similar structures."
"So the stories weren't real? Completely created?"
"Well, my understanding is that the movies were based on stories. Those stories were typically called 'fairytales' and were already exaggerated versions of reality, if not totally fiction themselves. Disney cartoonists took it up a knotch and added even more fantasy. I mean, mermaids, Beasts, and flying carpets were never real."
"WHAT?" said a surprised Djeena. She had thought those elements were based on reality.
Kejal could tell Djeena was disappointed.
"Well… Maybe they were real. Who knows?" said Kejal.
"Why would Val's favorite movie have no basis in reality?" asked Djeena.
"Well… these movies are intended for children. Val was a child when he first saw Beauty & the Beast. The fairytales typically teach children lessons in life. Things such as be comfortable with who you are, or don't judge people by how they look or how poor they are. Things like that. Adults tend to like it because it brings them memories of their childhood."
"I see…" said Djeena.
"Val also identifies most with the Beast out of all the possible Disney princes."
"Yes. I once asked him why. He said it was because he grew up in a castle and his main servants were a candlestick and a clock. I surmised that was a joke. However, I believe he was sincere when he said he identifies with the Beast over other the princes like Aladdin."
"I can see that."
"My theory is because the Beast was large and Val used to be as well. Although he is shorter than average as an adult, my understanding is that he grew to his height very young. He was always one of the tallest people in his elementary school classes. To the point where he hoped he wouldn't grow taller. Guess he shouldn't have hoped for that."
Djeena nodded. Although, in her heart, she knew it was probably because Val didn't consider himself an attractive male. Although Val looked like an average human to Djeena, it was her understanding that Val grew up amongst very attractive friends. And so, by comparison, Val probably wasn't too proud of the way he looked.
The two of them talked for another half an hour before Djeena left to eat. Kejal decided to return to engineering even though it was still technically her day off.
"Admiral, sir," said Petty Officer Marcus, the Soltice's communications tech. Marcus had called the admiral to the signals intel room to look over a mystery signal.
Maximus Burke sat down and reviewed the message. He could identify it as Ensign Gilmore. She and a few of her fellow prisoners had escaped and were on the run. They hoped to make it to a nearby loyalist village and hide out there while awaiting extraction. She would try to re-establish contact once she reached the village.
"Can you pinpoint the source of that?" asked the Admiral.
"Yes," said Marcus. He brought up a virtual map of the southern continent and then zoomed in six times. The signal came from somewhere deep in a forest. In the midst of that forest were three possible villages Gilmore may have been referring to. The true loyalties of the villages was unknown to both sides.
Val sat at his desk and looked over action reports. He was trying to bring himself up to speed on all the military maneuvers that had taken place at Yammja system while he was away at Evansworld. Several other ships at taken position near Yammja Prime, while some rebel gunboats had massed along the outer edge of the system, awaiting orders or reinforcements before pouncing. These rebel gunboats were from five other systems where the rebellion had been crushed thoroughly. As the rebels fled, the joined together for one last battle before they would be completely defeated.
At the same time, the Krowtonan High Guard was scheduled to pour in more ships as they steadfastly secured each former rebel planet.
"This is going to be a mess," thought Val.
His doorchime rang.
He got up from his seat and faced the door.
"Enter," he said.
The doors slid open and he saw Djeena on the other side. He swiped the screen on his EvansPadd and then dropped it gently on his desk.
"May I come in?" asked Djeena.
Val smiled. "I just said you could." He waved at her with his right hand to signal her to enter.
"Oh." She walked in and the doors slid closed behind her.
"What's on your mind?" asked Val.
"I wanted to talk to you about your diet," said Djeena.
Val laughed a little. Throughout his adult life, there was always one or two people who would bother him about his eating habits.
"I really don't want to nag, but I'm very concerned for you," said Djeena.
"That's okay. Other people have said similar things to me. I just think you're all overreacting."
"I think you eat too much meat."
Val laughed a little again. His parents had always told him that he ate too little meat. His body never really generated a lot of heat and he was always wearing layers of clothing to keep himself warm. His mom had incessantly told him to eat more meat. As it stood, he ate meat maybe one or two meals out of the day. There were definitely meals when he went meatless. However, in his outside demeanor, he always expressed to his friends that he loved meat. Perhaps to avoid them telling him he ate too little of it.
"I'm pretty sure I'm fine," said Val.
"You eat meat every day!" said Djeena.
"Uh, yea. That's normal. People eat meat three meals a day."
"Then they'll have heart attacks. I'd prefer it if you didn't."
"And plus, your men who eat tons of meat also eat fruits and vegetables. You don't."
Djeena got Val there. Ever since he was a child, he would spit out his vegetables. The only fruit he ate was in the form of apple pies. While he wouldn't eat vegetables, during his mid-twenties, another if his friends insisted he have some vegetable intake. Since then, he drank daily a concoction fusion mix of fruit and vegetable juice.
"You're malnourished," said Djeena.
"Wait. First I eat too much meat. Now I'm malnourished?"
"You can be both!" insisted Djeena.
"Okay. First of all, if I ate too much meat, I'd probably be obese. Look at me!"
Val rolled up his sleeves and showed her how skinny his arms were. Whenever he wore a wristwatch, it would always be the smallest size. Though, shirts were usually medium-sized as opposed to smalls.
"So you're malnourished then."
Val sighed again.
"I'm a Starfleet officer. I get physical check-ups two times a year. I've always passed!"
"Then your Starfleet doctors are derelict in their duties. You yourself admit you are skinny."
"Skinny doesn't mean malnourished. I bet I can drop down to the ground and outdo you in pushups."
"That's not the only indicator of health," said Djeena. "I don't care if you can wrestle a bear to the ground, your insides are still going to give up on you."
"May I ask what brought this on?" asked Val.
"Kejal and I were talking earlier today. She said you sometimes fight with insomnia. That's a sign of poor health."
"It's just stress. It'll go away."
"No, I understand that your position gives you great stress. But sleep is really important. Stress can be from the outside, and I'm sure you get a lot of it. But stress can also come from your inside. If your body is not taking in enough nutrients, it will be stressed."
"Okay, fine. What is it you want me to try eating?"
Historically, Val found that he could just show that he would attempt to eat a salad and his friends would usually stop pestering him. He genuinely couldn't stand salads though. And his friends almost always saw that and felt guilty for torturing the poor guy.
Djeena took a small plastic bag of tiny berries out of her purse. They were sundried.
"These are jeego berries from my planet," said Djeena. "They are superfruits. Promotes various hormones in your body. Boosts your immune system."
"Um… are you sure they are safe for me? I mean, people on your planet might need different nutrients than people from mine. Or, at the very least, we might be allergic to different stuff."
"I checked with Zet before I came here. He said your body could handle it and would likely benefit from it."
"You realize that immune systems are tricky things? An underactive one is bad. But an overactive one can be just as bad, as they start attacking healthy tissues."
"Would you please just try the berries?"
"Okay, okay," said Val with both of his hands up in a gesture as if he were giving up.
"Just try eating three," said Djeena.
He grabbed a glass of water from his desk.
"It's okay if I just swallow them, right? As opposed to having to chew them?"
"What, you mean as if I were asking you to eat an insect or something?" joked Djeena.
"Like a vitamin or a pill."
Val humored Djeena and swallowed three jeego berries.
"Are we cool?"
"Yes," said Djeena with a genuine smile. She left the small bag of jeego berries on his desk.
"Perhaps tomorrow you can try eating five?" she asked.
She looked excited. Val thought it was weird. Djeena then turned around to exit Val's quarters.
"Good night, Captain Shin."
"Good night, princess."
Ensign Noah Lester walked up to Captain Riker.
"Sir, we have a communication signal from BarCAP for you. On speaker."
Riker tapped a blinking light on his screen.
"Solstice actual. Go."
There was a little bit of static before Riker heard the response.
"Solstice actual, Badman Five. We've got what appears to be a sensor ghost on our screens. Unclassified bandit has crossed our checkpoints. Suspect hostile intent. Recommend alert. Recommend alert."
"Thank you. Out," said Riker.
"Yellow Alert," said Lieutenant Sito. She had been newly promoted.
The Barrier Combat Air Patrol had been flying near the edge of the system to keep a watch on the rebel gunboats.
Sito checked her long range sensors for what the pilots were talking about. She spotted the anomaly. It was heading toward the Krowtonan flotilla and Yammja.
"Possibly a small shuttlepod. Maybe just a probe," reported Sito.
"Launch TarCAP," said Riker
"Launch TarCAP, aye. Intercept in twenty."
While the Barrier Combat Air Patrol generally flew a specified route as a screen, the Target Combat Air Patrol was specifically tasked to intercept approaching craft.
"Commanding Officer, Vetara, arriving," announced Lieutenant Sito.
The bridge officers stood at attention as Val and his entourage beamed onto the Solstice's bridge.
"Cease bombardment immediately," ordered Val with urgency.
"Who are you to be giving orders?" demanded Jang Heery. "You are not a part of the Krowtonan High Guard. The Starfleet officers of the Solstice may have been absorbed, but you are not in our chain of command. You have no authority here."
Val was about to speak, but Princess Djeena interrupted.
"Val Shin, Baron Vetara, is a member of the Krowtonan noble ranks, as decreed by the Emperor himself. He was the on scene commander here prior to the arrival of the Admiral Maximus. And most importantly, he is my chief military advisor. As I am the First Princess of Yammja, it would be wise for you to heed his commands. In fact, you may presume that every military order he gives comes out of my mouth as well. Is that understood?"
Jang Heery growled in anger.
"Cease bombardment," he mumbled. The order was given fleet-wide and the other Krowtonan ships in orbit halted bombardment as well.
Val greeted Captain Riker and thanked him for the permission to board directly onto the bridge.
"May I use your conference room?" asked Val.
"Beeshar, Tex, Driver. On me, on me," said Val.
The three knew to follow him into the conference room.
"Captain Riker, if you would join us as well," requested Val.
Thomas Riker nodded and led the way to the Solstice's conference room.
Admiral Burke looked out into the horizon. The storms would not subside for many hours. But he knew the risks. He was glad that he was able to triangulate the position of Gilmore and her group. Together, they made it to a cave and huddled there awaiting rescue.
Burke fiddled a little bit with his communicator. He was trying to boost the signal to get through the various storms.
"Report," requested Val.
"Three hours ago, the Admiral took a shuttlecraft and went down to the planet's surface," said Riker.
"And you allowed this?" asked Val.
"He's an admiral. He does whatever he wants," said Riker defensively.
"We received a signal from Gilmore. She was still deep in the forest. Sensors had a group of rebels chasing her."
"Why didn't any craft get sent after him?" asked Val.
"Mutiple storm fronts were approaching the southern continent, making flight an impossibility. The Admiral's shuttle was able to soft crash, but by the time he made it to the ground, the storms rolled in. This included an ion storm in the atmosphere that is wreaking havoc with our transporters. We have intermittent communications. No shuttle would be able to fly into the atmosphere without being knocked down and crash landing. Last time the Admiral reported in, he did not yet find Gilmore. He was moving through the forest in an armed Argo. Not sure how well he could maneuver that thing in the middle of a forest."
The Argo was a dune buggy type vehicle that was designed for battles in the open desert. It probably would not be able to move much, or quickly, through forest. But the arms carried would be enough to defend against a squad of several attacking rebels.
"Nobody thought to accompany him?" said Val.
"Well, he had been relieved of his command by Heery," said Beeshar. "When the Admiral requested a rescue mission, Heery denied the request and specifically ordered that nobody travel down to the planet. That's when the Admiral went down himself."
Val looked annoyed.
"When is the next window for extracting him?"
"Six hours," said Riker.
"Six hours? This thing might be over in six minutes!"
Val wondered whether rebel forces would recognize the Admiral if they captured him.
Lieutenant Sito interrupted the meeting.
"Sir," she said to Riker. "Petty Officer Marcus says we are receiving a scrambled message from the planet. Appears to be the Admiral. Marcus is scrubbing it now."
"Please patch it through here," said Riker.
"Yes, sir. The Admiral took on the callsign Dallas," said Sito.
Val shook his head.
"The man's a jerk. But he's a funny jerk," said Sergeant Driver.
Riker wondered what that comment was about. Driver didn't explain. Dallas was Val's aviator callsign during flight training at the Academy. Prior to actual flight training, a pre-requisite for the cadets was remotely piloting drone aircraft. One of the first missions was piloting a surveillance drone. The missions paired aviators with sensor analysts. The aviator would fly the craft while the analyst read through the real-time sensor data.
However, during the exam, Val's analyst didn't show up. Unbeknownst to him, this was an intentional set-up by the flight instructors. Every cadet experienced the same "hiccup." It was a test to see how they would deal with a subordinate who failed to show up for duty. Would they be harsh? Would they be too lenient?
Val misread the test. He didn't know there was one. He was young and cocky, and thought he could fly the mission by himself. His drone took off in San Francisco. Halfway into the mission, Val turned his attention to the realtime surveillance feed. He finally spotted the ground target he was assigned to track. Unfortunately, he spent too much time monitoring the target and his drone lost significant altitude. Alarms rang and he was able to recover. The incident occurred over the city of Dallas, Texas. From then on, his nickname was Dallas.
"This is Dallas zero-one," said Burke. "Is anyone picking this up?"
Burke knew to use a secure channel, and he hoped that none of the rebels were picking up his signals. Even if they couldn't decipher the actual communication, they would be able to triangulate the signal to its source.
"Zero one, this is honcho. What is your situation?" said Val. He used the military slang term for the person in charge. He didn't want to waste time with creating another callsign and he was certain Burke could recognize his voice.
"My shuttlecraft is down and I am on the run. Requesting immediate extraction."
The meeting was interrupted by Lieutenant Sito once again.
"Sir, the other Krowtonan High Guard ships have re-commenced bombardment," she said.
"What?" said an outraged Val.
Jang Heery walked into the conference room, smiling.
"I'm sorry, Baron Vetara. The First Fleet Lord has asked me to relieve you of command as well. You're done. Cut the transmission to the Admiral Maximus."
"Belay that!" said Val.
Val and Heery watched each other to see who would back down first. Sito did not cut the channel.
Heery growled once more.
"I need extraction, now!" screamed Burke from the other end of the channel.
"Admiral Maximus," said Heery in a calm tone of voice. "You disobeyed my orders and I am not inclined to listen to anything you have to say. Extraction is impossible at this point because of the storms, but even if it were, I would do no such thing."
"The Jang is right," said Val reluctantly. "We can't extract. You need to hunker down and wait out the storm."
"Then at least send me reinforcements!" screamed Burke. "I'm being hunted down here!"
Jang Heery seemed pleased.
"Zero One!" said an exasperated Val. "You are down in enemy territory. Life is tough. I am very sorry. But pull yourself together. You are a Starfleet officer and you will get through this. Remember your training. Evade your pursuers. Keep your wits about you, and you will survive. You hear me? Six hours. We'll get you home."
Heery wouldn't have any more of it. He pushed the screen to cut off the channel.
"I'm going to break that finger, after I rearrange your ugly face," said Val calmly.
Riker stepped in between the two men. He grabbed Val's arm gently.
"Captain Shin, don't do this," he said in a whisper.
Val and Riker walked out of the conference room together. Heery remained pleased with himself.
Djeena was furious.
"Who is he to counteract my wishes?" she yelled.
"The First Fleet Lord believes that the Baron Vetara's judgment is clouded in this instance," said Shi Flin.
"Clouded? What does that mean?"
"That he has a close relationship with the admiral trapped on the planet."
"So if I were the one Val wanted to rescue, the Fleet Lord wouldn't allow Val to rescue me?" she hurumphed.
Flin wasn't exactly sure why Djeena cared so much. She and the Admiral Maximus were not close. Flin surmised that she simply did not like the fact that her wishes were being countermanded. Still, it was curious that she felt so strongly about Heery's course of action. Flin hoped that she didn't care simply because Val cared. He had seen signs that she and Val were growing too close. He prayed to the gods that he was only imagining it. Two months after her coronation, she was scheduled to marry to the Grand Duke of Bisco. The marriage would be essential to the stability to the realm. Flin couldn't tolerate the intrusion of a romantic rival.
Val sat in his tiny office, just off to the left side of the bridge. His doorchime rang.
Staff Sergeant Driver entered and then stood at attention in front of Val's desk.
"Sir, permission to speak?"
Val had a feeling he wasn't going to like this. But he nodded is assent.
"With all due respect," Driver started.
"Uh-oh," thought Val. Every time a sentence started with that phrase, he could be sure the words following would lack the due respect.
"We have a man down. What the hell are we doing?" continued Driver.
"We'll wait for the storms to subside. We can't do anything else."
"Send in reinforcements. Sensors show there are at least a hundred rebel troops combing the forest for the Admiral."
"It's a large forest. And anyway, they don't know they're looking for the Admiral. They just know there's an escaped prisoner."
"There's a mole in the Krowtonan ranks, I can feel it."
"If they knew the Admiral was down planetside, there wouldn't just be a hundred troops in the forest. The entire damn rebel army would be in there. And, by the way, that's also exactly what would happen if I send shuttles full of troops down to the forest. The rebels will see that, and they'll escalate their hunt as well. And this presumes that the shuttles make it down to the ground intact. Shuttles aren't built to crash land. To top it off, I've been relieved by Heery. Even if I wanted to send shuttles down, there's nothing I can do."
"Sorry, sir. That's right. I forgot. You have no power at all."
Driver said it saracastically. There must've been something Val could do. Driver snapped back to attention.
"Am I dismissed?" he asked.
"Thank you, sir."
Val chatted with Kejal in engineering. They were reviewing the specs of one of the Vetara's shuttlecraft. There was a Romulan shuttle and a Federation shuttle that were of particular interest. The Romulan shuttle was designed to fare better in the midst of ion storms. However, it was the case for spatial ion storms. Not atmospheric ones. While the shuttle would fare better, the avionics would still face interference and the shuttle would risk crash landing. The Federation shuttle wouldn't fare well in the storms at all, but had a unique feature. Designed by Section 31, it was a prototype holo-shuttle. With projectors emitting outward, the shuttle could disguise itself as another type of aircraft. Or even blend in with the atmosphere.
Five hours. Five hours until the first clearing from the storms. And that wasn't even smooth sailing. That was only when the storms would start to clear.
Val heard Djeena's voice yelling from the corridor. She ran towards engineering.
As she passed the entrance, Private Caitlyn Evans stood at attention.
Djeena stopped by the computer terminal where Kejal and Val were working. She bent over, trying to catch her breath. It appeared as if she ran through half the ship. Val was intrigued.
"You're not on blood thinners, are you?" she asked while gasping for air.
"What?" he asked confusingly.
Djeena tapped a blinking light on one of the terminal's screens, and Zet's hologram materialized in engineering.
"You see, princess. I told you he'd be fine," said Zet calmly.
Djeena was still catching her breath.
"Jeego berries have an adverse reaction when paired with blood thinners," explained Zet.
"Guess I could've died from a stroke or something a couple days ago," he joked.
Djeena's little health kick was going to cause him more stress than the wayward admiral.
Zet ran a medical tricorder to scan Val. Everything seemed normal.
"In good health," reported Zet.
"Thank you," said Val. "See?" he said to Djeena.
"Though, the princess is right. You do exhibit signs of stress. Try to calm down a little. You're a young man. Your hair shouldn't be thinning out already," said Zet.
Val sighed. He started to notice some of his hair thin out when he was 27. Back then, he had hoped that he wouldn't be bald by 30. Now that he was 30, he was hoping for 31.
"Though, that's probably more of a genetic thing," added Zet. "But my understanding is that historically, male humans feared their heads growing bald. It's not much fun when your head looks like an egg."
An egg. Val couldn't believe it, but Djeena's pestering with her berries and whatnot might actually be of use.
"What do you think?" asked Val. He had summoned Staff Sergeant Driver to engineering.
"I think Section 31 has a lot of interesting toys," he said.
He was examining the specs of a tiny vehicle that 31 nicknamed an "egg." A small pod about 8 feet wide and 13 feet tall, its official name was the Exoatmospheric Insertion Pod, or the XIP.
"Designed to crash land onto a planet," said Val. He had skimmed through the specs for the pod a week ago, but hadn't thought about it since.
Driver read the description out loud.
"Smaller profile makes it hard to detect on radar. Even when detected, the smaller profile makes it difficult for enemy ground fire to hit when compared with larger dropships. Braking rockets and the hardened shielded exterior allow for the single occupant to survive crash landing. Advanced internal shock absorbers also protect the single occupant from most ill effects of the jarring impact."
"Unfortunately, I only have three of these," said Val. "So pick three of your best."
"Sir, I'd like to go," said Driver.
"I appreciate your willingness, but I need you up here."
"To do what, sir?"
"Various… administrative things. You're the platoon sergeant. Can't have you on such a mission."
"With all due respect, sir."
"Here we go again," thought Val.
"MARCO protocols specifically state that leaders be willing to do anything their troopers are asked to do, and should expose themselves to the same dangers as their subordinates."
"If Major Douglas were here, you'd let him drop planetside?" asked Val.
"He'd insist on it. And he'd be right. Officers should lead rather than follow."
"You would prevent me from this though?" asked Val. He knew the sergeant would.
"You're not trained for this. Plus, the ship needs a captain."
"The MARCOs need a platoon sergeant."
"Sergeants Raines and Hall would be more than adequate replacements for me if the need arises."
"Why do this yourself?"
"It's my duty, sir."
"No, it's not."
"Sir. I am a Federation Marine Commando. I am sworn to defend the Federation. And I am sworn to protect Federation citizens who are too weak to protect themselves. This includes squid officers who absentmindedly land on hostile planets and then get hunted down by a battalion of enemy soldiers."
Val reluctantly agreed.
"Pick your other two and meet me in shuttle bay in 10 minutes."
Corporal Samantha Logan and Private First Class Hugh McCarter were strapped into their drop pods and the hatches were closed.
Sergeant Driver's pod was slightly larger and contained more gear. It also had a rudimentary onboard computer. After he stowed his phaser pulse rifle and other gear into the pod, he started strapping on his phaser pistol and his backup.
"Come back in one piece," said Val.
"I intend to."
"If you can't find the Admiral, do not engage the enemy. Do not create a distraction in the hopes of pulling the soldiers away from hunting him down. You are to hunker down and wait for reinforcements. Am I clear?"
Val knew the sergeant probably wouldn't obey the standing order. Or perhaps he'd obey its words, but somehow find a way to circumvent the spirit."
Before he stepped into his drop pod, Sergeant Driver faced Val, stood at attention, and then saluted his captain.
Val returned the salute.
"Go," he said.
Staff Sergeant Driver entered his drop pod. Two minutes later, the three MARCOs dropped out of the Vetara's shuttle bay and down toward the planet.
"It's going to be a bumpy ride," said Val.
"Why are you not moving?" asked Sergeant Driver, rainsoaked. In addition to the ion storms in the atmosphere, there appeared to be a tropical storm pouring buckets of rain into the forest.
"We're awaiting extraction," said Burke.
"I thought you were heading toward a loyalist village?" said Driver.
"Three clicks to the east," said Gilmore.
"Why are you not there now?" asked Driver. "You should be awaiting extraction while there."
"Don't you think that's the first place the rebel army would look for us?" said Burke.
"Are there rebels in the village?" asked Driver, addressing Corporal Logan.
Logan looked at her handheld screen device.
"Negative. All rebels are to our south. At least fifty of them now. Moving slowly in our direction."
"Christ," said Driver.
"Get off your butts," ordered Driver. "We're heading toward the village."
Driver led the group toward the village Shadzaar. Traveling with the three MARCOs and the three Starfleet officers were five royal soldiers who had been captured by the rebels.
Privately, Burke asked Driver how he could differentiate between a rebel and a villager. Driver admitted that there wasn't a perfect way to do so. His scanners could only differentiate people who were armed with charged laser rifles from people who were not.
"This is the Vetara, how are you, Captain Riker?" said Kejal.
"Where is your captain?" asked Riker.
"He's down in the shuttlebay," said Kejal.
Riker knew Val would try to pull a stunt like this.
"Patch me through to him, please," said Riker.
The signal was patched through to the shuttlebay.
"Captain Shin, may I ask what you are doing?"
"I'm working on a shuttle," said Val. "We have about four hours until the storms start to break. I want to be ready immediately when the window opens."
"We've detected several contacts traveling toward the planet. They came from your ship. May I inquire as to what they were?"
"Bombs," said Val. "We detected a squad of rebels approaching within a click of the Admiral. We dropped the bombs to neutralize them."
"Don't you think that would attract the attention of the rest of the rebel army?" asked Riker.
"No more than if those rebels actually found the Admiral."
Captain Thomas Riker was tired of this game. But he knew that if he were in Val's place, he would probably be scheming on a way to rescue the Admiral. As it was, he already had Lieutenant Sito try to figure out a way while he dealt with Jang Heery.
"I can only hope that I am not speaking with a hologram right this instant and that Val Shin has not foolishly flown down to the planet in a futile attempt to save his friend."
"Rest assured, Max is not a friend. Even if he were, I would have done no such thing," said Val.
The communications channel shut off and Val continued to work on the holo-shuttle.
Driver and his group reached the village easily. The villagers were friendly and offered shelter from the pouring rain.
Although the village elders had expressed solidarity with the rebellion's leaders, one of the captured Krowtonan loyalist soldiers knew the village had sympathies with the former King of Yammja. Djeena's father was very well liked in these parts of the forest. Although they knew nothing of Djeena herself, they were willing to give her a chance. They were leery of the military dictatorship the rebels were supporting.
"Still roughly seventy rebels to our southeast," said Corporal Logan. "Five clicks and closing."
"Okay," said Driver. "We don't have much time. Once they come within half a click of this village, we're leaving. No sense in getting these people mixed up in our fight."
Driver chatted with some of the village elders to figure out a spot closeby that would be easy to defend. Perhaps some type of hill. The elders identified one such location. However, they insisted that they wanted to help Driver against the rebels. As such, Driver agreed to hold his ground at the village itself. He wished he had extra weapons to arm the villagers. The elders told him not to worry. Although they did not have laser weapons, the villagers had rudimentary projectile weapons. Crossbows. They could be highly effective.
Sergeant Driver set up a perimeter defending the southeastern approach to the village. He also put a few snipers up in the trees. He wanted to hand them the MARCO phaser rifles, but since the villagers were more adept to using their crossbows, he thought that would be better.
He formed the rest of the villagers into two batteries. The village contained over eight hundred people. At least half of them were willing to fight. This could wind up being a major skirmish.
"Whatever comes our way, we stand a much better chance of repelling the advance if we stick together. Hold the line. Defend the perimeter. Do not chase after the rebels if they engage and then retreat. You stay where you are. If we hang together, we win. Do you understand?"
"Yes, sir!" came the reply of dozens of fighters. And these were only the squad leaders. Driver now had an army of hundreds.
"Clear them out of my sky!" ordered Val.
"Will do," replied Loco.
The village of Sharzaad all of a sudden became one of the biggest points on the map.
Other villagers from neighboring villages had poured into Sharzaad for their stand against the rebels. Once they won that confrontation, the loyalists were emboldened and continued their march. They took town after town.
The storms had cleared. But instead of evacuating the three MARCOs that Val sent to the surface, Val found himself sending more.
Val also commanded the various air forces now flying air superiority missions over the southern continent.
"You two must be the biggest failures in the history of military leaders," said Val disbelievingly.
Driver was still on the ground, helping direct the loyalist formations. They would reach the rebel capital within an hour. Storms subsided. Air cavalry units hovered over the ground troops to provide support while fast jets took out any rebel aircraft that attempted to take off.
"This was an intelligence screwup," said Burke as he tried to defend himself. He was finally extracted from the planet and returned to the Solstice. The First Fleet Lord placed him back in command, as he had rescued Ensign Gilmore. However, everyone in the room knew that Val Shin was now the de facto leader of the forces on Yammja. Burke occupied himself with fleet maneuvers and planned to wipe out the rebel gunboats at the edge of the system. Those minor annoyances would be gotten rid of once and for all.
"Your intel officers need to be court martialed. All of them," said Val.
Jang Heery was also vastly surprised by the lack of accuracy in the reports he read from the Krowtonan High Guard Intelligence Service. In the course of several hours, Val Shin was about to break the back of the rebel forces, something both Burke and Heery had failed to do for over a month.
Heery would recommend to the First Fleet Lord to vastly overhaul their insertion and infiltration doctrines. This was a massive intel failure.
"We comported our tactics with Krowtonan military doctrine," said Heery. "This case called for continuous orbital bombardment until the rebels surrendered. We weren't allowed to insert people on the ground for fear they might be captured or killed."
"So you wasted a month bombarding the bejeezus out of the southern continent without even bothering to assess the situation on the ground?" asked Val.
Unbeknownst to the Krowtonan High Guard, the southern continent was teeming with loyalist fighters who were itching to take down Pow Zergol and the other members of the military junta. Some of the loyalists were fine with the absolute monarchy which existed under Princess Djeena's father. Other loyalists believed that a Queen Djeena would be the one who could transition the planet to a more fair society and knew the military junta would simply be too oppressive. Either way, it turned out that the majority of the residents in the Southern Continent did not approve of the rebels.
The hundreds of thousands of loyalist fighters were simply waiting for the High Guard to lead them, organize them, or send them weapons. They were ready to fight.
A week later, the southern continent was quelled. The rebellion was over. There were far less casualties than imagined. Certainly less than during the month of orbital bombardment. The vast majority of the rebel army surrendered as the loyalists advanced. The loyalist forces suffered zero fatalities. Pow Zergol and Jang Masus, the former leader of the rebels, were nowhere to be found. Eventually, Burke would find them. And execute them.
The loyalists celebrated their princess' triumph. There were parades in her honor, on both the northern continent and the southern continent. Her coronation would be in a little over a week.
Princess Djeena's coronation went off without a problem. She was now Queen Djeena of Yammja.
As she ascended to power, she also started the process of loosening the central authority's grip over the outlying provinces. She was going to create a slightly more balanced ruling authority, with the help of Jarett Gronski, who agreed to travel to Yammja and help with the transition. It was agreed that every two years, there would be slightly more rights given to her people, culminating in a semi-constitutional monarchy in ten years time.
After routing the rebel space forces, most of the Krowtonan High Guard ships had left the Yammja system. The Vetara was scheduled to make a return trip to Evansworld and beef up some of their defenses in the event of another Kazon incursion.
Val had one last meeting with the Queen before he was to leave.
"Good luck with everything," said Val.
"You will come back to visit, right?" asked Djeena.
"Maybe. We might be away for a very long time. And… Earth is in the opposite direction from here."
Djeena wasn't sure whether Val and his crew had decided to settle down on Evansworld. The truth was, Val hadn't decided for himself either.
"Maybe you'll come back for my wedding?" she said.
"It will be autumn by then. I know you like autumn," said Djeena.
"Actually… I like the winter," said Val.
"Oh, right," she said. Why would she say autumn? She knew he liked winter.
"But autumn's good too. There's good stuff in autumn."
Djeena had wanted to Val to stay on as her chief military advisor.
They were silent for a minute, and both stared at the floor. Part of Djeena wished that things were different. That Val had been born a Krowtonan. Maybe the two of them were meant to be with each other. But she knew that wasn't their destiny. Val would return to his ship. She had to marry the Grand Duke and unite their lands.
"The first time I met the Grand Duke was on an autumn day. Chillier than I thought it would be," said Djeena.
"Oh yea? Chilly eh? Did you and your gentleman friend cuddle together in the cold?" he asked jokingly.
Djeena was surprised. "Of course not! It was the first time we met!"
"That's how we do it!" said Val. "It's a guy move. Chilly. Cuddle. Simple but effective."
"Not every person is as childish as you, Val."
"Hey, all guys do this. And haunted houses. Haunted houses are good dates. Girls get spooked. Hold on tight to your arms."
"Val Shin," said Djeena. "You should just be yourself. You do not need to resort to such shenanigans."
"Okay, okay," said Val. "I was only joking. Calm down."
The truth was, he was only half joking. There was nothing wrong with either of the things he mentioned.
Djeena was glad that the Grand Duke of Bisco was a significantly more serious person when compared with Val. That reminded her of her final gift to Val before he left. She grabbed a couple of pouches from a drawer in her table and handed them to Val.
"What is this?"
"I know you like hot chocolate. You should try some of this."
"With various organic vegetable powders mixed in. It's good for you. Also designed with some cocoa mixed in, so kids will drink it."
Val couldn't believe Djeena was still bothering him about this stuff.
"I already drink a mix of fruit and vegetable juices. I don't need to overdose on this stuff."
"Just do a pouch a week. You drink hot cocoa at least 5 times a week. So add that powder to it one time."
"Fine," said Val.
"You could probably replicate some on your ship. I hope you live to 300 Earth years old, like I plan to."
Val cringed at the thought. 300 years. Yikes. Although, it would make the journey to the Alpha Quadrant seem less of a trek.
Val grabbed something from his backpack. It was a small doll.
"For you," said Val. Instead of legs, the doll had a large fish tail. She was a mermaid. Djeena held it in her hands for a while.
"Kejal told me your favorite Disney movie was the Little Mermaid. Nice choice. It's a fun one."
"Thank you," said Djeena.
Before Val left, the both of them hugged for a second. It would probably be the last time they saw each other.
Captain Riker sat at his desk when his doorchime rang.
"Sir, you asked for me?" said Lieutenant Sito.
"Yes. I was just reviewing these reports. Did we ever identify the sensor glitch?" he asked.
"We ran full diagnostics. There were no problems with the sensors."
"So what do you make of this ghost shuttlepod or probe we encountered?"
"Not sure. It disappeared from sensor sweeps once TarCAP was launched. At its last known speed and trajectory, if it existed, we should have had visual contact with it prior to Captain Shin's MARCOs dropping on Yammja.
Lieutenant Sito scrolled through the sensor data logs to the time index for when Sergeant Driver and his troopers dropped planetside.
"That's weird," said Sito.
"What?" asked Riker.
"Captain Shin had stated that he sent three MARCO troopers down to planet during the storms to try to find the Admiral."
"Sensor data records show four contacts entering the atmosphere at that time."